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Snow and fired: Week 16 in the NFL had a little bit of everything

ICE STATION ZEBRA -- On Sunday, in the warmth of the NBC Studios, I found it absurd the NFL called the Eagles-Vikings game because of snow and wind in Philadelphia. You play football in snow and wind. I've seen fabled, unforgettable games (The Tuck Rule Game, Michael Vick beating Brett Favre at Lambeau) in snow and wind. Part of NFL lore. And I agreed with Cris Collinsworth, who said last night on NBC that postponing the Minnesota-Philadelphia game until Tuesday night is a dangerous precedent, because, as he said, it opens the door to more weather-related postponements for whatever reason. This can't have been the first time a municipality declared a weather emergency on the day of an NFL game.

Then, at about the time it would have been in the middle of the second quarter of the Eagles game, I stepped outside. It was a four-block walk to my hotel in a city, New York, 90 miles northeast of Philadelphia, in the throes of the same storm Vickville was getting.

And on an eight-minute trudge to my hotel, I began to change my mind.

Maybe it was the way the snow was wind-turbining sideways, either at my back or in my face. Snow feels like tiny glass shards when it's blown at 40 mph into your face. Maybe it was the taxi letting a passenger out in the middle of a barren Fifth Avenue because he feared going down an untouched 52nd Street, or maybe it was the city bus stuck on the side of Fifth Avenue a block away, its wheels spinning helplessly. Maybe it was the lightning (don't ask me how that happens) that lit up the sky menacingly like it was a stormy July night. It looked like the end of the world out there. Funny, but I don't mind players playing in that. Hazard pay. But I mind fans getting there and going home in it. A friend of mine called from a cell phone on Route 3 in New Jersey, stuck in a logjam of stopped cars, around 10 last night. "We're not moving,'' he said. "I just hope I don't run out of gas.''

So as much as it pains me to say it, no, I don't mind that the game was called. For the 20 million of you longing for a game to watch last night, I'm sorry. For the 65,000 who might have tried to get to the game (I think maybe 20,000 would have made it), it wouldn't have been worth it. Yes, I have the same concern Collinsworth has, and I still think the New Jersey Super Bowl is a harebrained idea, but precedent or not, it made no sense to play the game in conditions like last night's.

Storylines of the day:

The Vikings are on the best travel roller coaster in NFL history. "We thought the Metrodome roof collapsing was the cherry on top of the sundae for our season. Perfect,'' kicker Ryan Longwell told me last night. "And then it's just never stopped.'' Moving the Giants game to Detroit. Moving the Bears game to the University of Minnesota on a night fit for neither man nor polar bear. And then having one more meaningless game (for them) pushed to Tuesday in Philadelphia because of the nor'easter that hit the East. Look on the bright side, Vikes! The team has given each player two free in-room movies to watch for the three days in Philly. (I'm serious about this.) Catch up on Hollywood's best! "'Sex in the City 2' is available,'' said punter Chris Kluwe. "And 'The Last Exorcism.' ''

Seattle dies, goes to heaven. Sort of. The Seahawks have lost by 19, 16 and 23 in the past 16 days. They're 6-9. And they'll be playing at home for a division title Sunday night. Is this a great country or what?

Mike Singletary gets put out of his misery, and someone named Jim Tomsula gets his one moment of glory Sunday at Candlestick. Imagine how bad the 49ers are, and how disgraced the Yorks, the owners, feel. And they open up their USA Today this morning to see Tomsula will coach his one game as a seven-point favorite Sunday against Arizona. Singletary had to go. He's a wonderful man, but he'd become a caricature of himself, yo-yoing quarterbacks and his one final sideline argument, with Troy Smith in St. Louis Sunday, seemed fitting. Last day, last reaming.

It was a very bad day for head coaches, speaking of Singletary. He becomes the fourth coach to get fired in-season this year, a startlingly high number. I expect at least four more, and as many as seven, next week.

--John Fox is gone in Carolina, obviously.

--Miami's Tony Sparano has gone from secure to endangered after losing to Cleveland, Detroit and Buffalo at home in the span of 22 days; I don't see how he survives that, plus a 1-7 home record for an owner trying to make Dolphins Stadium the South Hamptons.

--Houston's Gary Kubiak picked a bad time to go on a four-game losing streak -- and to blow a 17-0 lead at woeful Denver. Beat man John McClain of the Houston Chronicle tweeted last night he'd be "shocked'' if Kubiak and his staff survive.

--Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis will see his contract expire after next week, he's been lobbying hard for an indoor practice facility (which owner Mike Brown doesn't want to hear), and it's probably time for a change there.

--Cleveland's Eric Mangini had to be great this year to survive the shotgun marriage with Mike Holmgren, but a three-game losing streak puts him on the firing line -- if Holmgren can get one of his type of guys (Jon Gruden, maybe Marty Mornhinweg) to coach.

--Jeff Fisher has a Dead Team Walking. Will owner Bud Adams either pay him off or hope he gets a job to eat up some of the $6.5-million Fisher would be owed by the Tennessee owner in the last year of his contract?

--And Tom Coughlin. I don't buy it. Yet. Not even a loss to Washington this week will convince me Coughlin's a goner. But you can't have had two worse weeks if you're Coughlin and the Giants, and it could be that John Mara and Steve Tisch, who I'm sure are two very unhappy co-owners today, might do what they absolutely, positively do not want to do, and that's change coaches.

The Giants, if you can believe this, still are breathing. Despite the historic 38-31 collapse to the Eagles and the 45-17 loss in Green Bay, the Giants are in with a win over Washington and a (conceivable but hardly likely) Green Bay loss to Chicago Sunday.

Tebowmania. Given a chance to see what he could do, Tim Tebow made his first home start, came back from a 17-0 deficit and beat the Texans 24-23. He threw for 309 yards, tossed only one terrible throw (an end-zone interception), played confidently, and took the Broncos out of the running for the first pick in the draft. "I haven't thought it that,'' he said. More about Andrew Luck later in this column, Tim, but what it means is you won't have Luck breathing down your neck. For at least a year.

The Colts, 6-6 with no margin of error just 16 days ago, are on the verge of pulling the AFC South out. They've scored in the thirties three weeks in a row to beat Tennessee, Jacksonville and Oakland, and now, all they have to do is beat the lifeless Titans to be playing at home in the wild-card round.

The Patriots look like the '27 Yankees. New England's a steamroller; seven weeks in a row they've scored between 31 and 45 points, and they've done it in domes and in Antarctica. What a coach, what a quarterback, what a system.

Nobody seems to love the Bears, but they've scored 78 points in two weeks and I don't think you want to be playing them right now. Who knows? Jay Cutler is throwing and Matt Forte running like men possessed. They'll be a very tough out, particularly at Soldier Field.

Missouri Football Fever: Catch it.

Kansas City, 2007-2009: 10-38. Kansas City this year: 10-5.

St Louis, 2007-2009: 6-42. St. Louis this year: 7-8.

The Chiefs clinched the AFC West with a 34-14 win over the Titans, while the Chargers lost in Cincinnati. The Rams moved within a win of the NFC West title, as expected, by beating the Niners. More about both in Tuesday's column. But they're tremendous stories, stories that every one of these owners about to make coaching changes would do very, very well to study.

***

I don't know who Coach of the Year is.

One week from turning in my ballot for the Associated Press' all-everything NFL awards, and I'm confused about the coach more than anything else. Perhaps you can help me. Send me your thoughts, and I'll run the smartest few in Tuesday column. But here are the logical candidates, in no order other than alphabetical:

Bill Belichick, New England. Remade his offensive skill positions in one offseason, and the Patriots were the most explosive team in football. Getting the most late in the season out of a young defense. One of the best coaching jobs by the coach of his generation.

Todd Haley, Kansas City. Wisely handed off play-calling to Charlie Weis in the offseason and become the kind of overlord a head coach should be. "He changed our culture,'' says Tamba Hali. And the Chiefs won division after winning 10 games in three years.

Mike McCarthy, Packers. There are stats for this somewhere, I'm sure. But I'd bet the Packers edge Indianapolis for the team with the most games missed by starters due to injury. McCarthy and his staff do a great job of cultivating the next wave of good players to win.

Raheem Morris, Bucs. I picked the Bucs to win two games, and I remember one outraged emailer who said to me: "You're crazy! They're going to win five, easy!'' Try nine. Morris has been a bright Pied Piper to one of the youngest teams in Buc history. His way works.

Andy Reid, Philadelphia. Takes a lot of guts to, first, jettison the quarterback you've had since you walked in the door and who still is an OK player; and two, to bench the guy you traded the starter for -- with the hope that your quarterback project can be The Man. We see how Michael Vick has responded.

Rex Ryan, Jets. A late-season slide probably removes him from serious contention, but he's the type of coach players flock to play for -- and respond to. And the Jets are going to the playoffs for the second straight year under Ryan.

Lovie Smith, Chicago. A no-panic guy in the mold of his mentor, Tony Dungy. The whole city knew Smith was on trial for his job, yet you never know it. A good leader who empowers others to work well together.

Mike Smith, Atlanta. One of the new thinkers in the game. I've written a lot about how he's done bright things like limit John Abraham's snaps and get more out of him than any coach has. And the Falcons are in position to win not only the division but homefield through the NFC playoffs.

Steve Spagnuolo, Rams. St. Louis has come the farthest of any team in the league, even though it hasn't won anything yet. His rebuilt D has allowed 21 points less than the Giants, 27 less than Philadelphia.

Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh. Thought he handled the Ben Roethlisberger thing very intelligently. He basically said we're going to win, and I don't care if Dick LeBeau's quarterbacking us. He wouldn't let his players even consider an excuse, and they took his lead.

Tough call. For me, it's probably going to come down to Belichick, Morris, Reid or Spagnuolo. I've got some thinking to do.

***

Carolina's not feeling Lucky this morning.

I heard reliably earlier in the week that Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the unquestioned top prospect in the draft should he choose to bypass his final two years of eligibility, was thinking about staying in school rather than being this year's Sam Bradford. As I said on NBC last night, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh told me he thought Luck, a redshirt sophomore, was leaning toward staying for a fourth year.

I said to Harbaugh Sunday that I'd heard the Luck family (his dad, Oliver Luck, is a former NFL quarterback) was concerned with the fact that drafted players, because of the prospect of a protracted work stoppage, might not even see their playbook or start practice 'til Labor Day -- or later. If that's the case, why wouldn't Luck stay for his fourth year at Stanford and play, whether Harbaugh (who is rumored to be a candidate for both pro and college head-coaching jobs after turning around the Cardinal) is there to coach him or not?

"I don't think that's the correct logic,'' Harbaugh told me from his home in northern California. "But I do think it's more likely he'd come back. If I had to bet one way or the other, I'd bet he's coming back. He loves college. He loves the college life. He's such a good kid -- and so smart. He's got a 3.5 GPA in Architectural Engineering, and all along his plan has been to go to college for four years, get his degree, then figure out what to do with his life. This is a kid who has a plan. And he's a kid who's not the big-man-on-campus type. He just fits in.''

So it's not rock solid Luck stays. Stanford plays Virginia Tech in the Something Or Other Orange Bowl (who can keep straight all these sponsors?) next Monday, and maybe the kid figures he's done everything he could in college football and wants to move on. But it doesn't sound like it. That'd be terrible news for the Panthers, obviously. Carolina will be choosing first when the draft begins April 28.

Carolinians will be even more disappointed if he stays after hearing Harbaugh's assessment of him. "I'm absolutely convinced he'll make it in the NFL,'' Harbaugh said. "He's got no negatives. He's athletic -- he'll run the 40 in the high 4.5s. He's instinctive. He's accurate. He's got great touch on the ball. He throws lasers when he wants to. I think he's got a photographic memory, though he doesn't think so. And he's the anti-celebrity quarterback. He'll be perfect for the NFL.''

So we'll see what Luck does. But it sounds like another underclassman, Clemson pass-rusher Da'Quan Bowers, might be moving into the first-pick-in-the-draft neighborhood if Luck stays at Stanford.

***

Why a game with two losing teams Sunday night? Come on now.

Obvious disclaimer: I work for NBC, so if you think that's going to so color my opinion on the game that's being aired in Week 17 Football Night in America, move along. Your call.

For those who stay, a couple of points. One: No teams are excluded from consideration for the final Sunday night game of the year. Networks cannot exercise veto power, as they can in Weeks 11 through 16, on some of their team's games. Two: The NFL has the juice to select the week 17 game. It's not something NBC strongarm. I said all along that the league would pick the game with the biggest playoff implications.

That game, clearly, is St. Louis (7-8) at Seattle (6-9) for the NFC West title Sunday night at Qwest Field in Seattle. It's the only game that you can look at, six days out, and say with certainty that it's a winner-take-all pre-playoff playoff game. And it's the only game, in my mind, that the league could have chosen to remain true to its word of putting the most playoff-significant game on TV in Week 17.

During Weeks 11 through 16, when NBC flexes games, there's no question that viewership has something to do with it. This weekend's choice of Philadelphia-Minnesota was obviously influenced by the raging success of Michael Vick as a TV draw, with the possibility that Brett Favre might play in the game. But in Week 17, all ratings concerns take a back seat to the game that mean the most to the playoff picture.

Overnight, I had scores of Twitter queries asking about three other games. Let's go through them and discuss why they weren't flexed into the Sunday night slot while the Rams-Seahawks was:

Chicago at Green Bay. It's a playoff game for Green Bay, but not for Chicago, which has already clinched the NFC North title -- and which could enter a Sunday night game having clinched the second seed in the playoffs. The NFL could not wait until Wednesday morning to flex out the game, and even if the league did, it would still risk the Bears entering a Sunday night game with nothing to play for because Philadelphia would have finished its game with Dallas before the Sunday-nighter started.

Tampa Bay at New Orleans. An intriguing game -- if the Saints lose tonight. (A Saints win at Atlanta tonight clinches a playoff spot for New Orleans.) But let's say the Saints lose tonight, and we enter next weekend with the scenario that the Saints would have to beat Tampa Bay to be assured of making the playoffs. The only way the Bucs can make the playoffs is if they win in Week 17 and either New York or Green Bay lose. If the Bucs-Saints is the Sunday-nighter, and the Giants or Packers both win earlier in the day, the Bucs would have nothing to play for.

Tennessee at Indianapolis. Other than the fact that the Titans look like your classic mail-it-in team with bags packed for the offseason, the AFC South race has one fatal flaw: If Houston beats Jacksonville earlier in the day, the Colts would be the division champs and have nothing to play for. And when the Colts have nothing to play for, it's Curtis Painter time. And nobody's watching that outside of the state of Indiana. And, come to think of it, probably inside the state too.

One side note: Looks like the league's plan to play all division games in Week 17 has panned out to give us at least one division title game in the last week of the season. Even though it's a title game in the worst division in NFL history, it's still a game where the winner goes on and the loser goes home.

This is a cyclical league. Bad teams get competent. New stars get cycled into the mix every year. Will Sam Bradford ever be a Manning? Who knows? But I think it's good to see new teams get exposure. You're going to be watching Sam Bradford play for a long time (and, from the looks of it, play big games for a long time). This is his first really big one, and it's the one most deserving of a national airing Sunday night -- even though, and I understand why, a lot of you will use the time to catch up on the Food Network episodes you've been DVRing all fall.

***

Hey Mike: I think President Barack Obama has a crush on you.

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie was surprised to hear the president's voice on the phone. Barack Obama had two things to discuss with Lurie: the redemption of Michael Vick and the alternative-energy plans Lurie unveiled this fall for Lincoln Financial Field. I talked about the Vick story on NBC last night.

"The president wanted to talk about two things, but the first was Michael,'' Lurie told me. "He said, 'So many people who serve time never get a fair second chance. He was ... passionate about it. He said it's never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail. And he was happy that we did something on such a national stage that showed our faith in giving someone a second chance after such a major downfall.''

Lurie said Obama and he talked football. "He's a real football fan,'' Lurie said. "He loves his Bears. He really follows it. He knew how Michael was doing. It was really interesting to hear.''

The Eagles announced last month they would run the first self-sufficient alternative-energy sports stadium in the country. They'll install 80 spiral wind turbines to the stadium and mount 2,500 solar panels. Together, those devices will power about 30 percent of the stadium's energy needs. In addition, a biodiesel plant will be built nearby and that alternative energy source will help power (along with natural gas) the remaining 70 percent of the stadium's power needs. In addition, the project to install all the devices will employ 200 people for a year in, obviously, a down economy.

Over the course of the stadium's life, the team believes it can save $60 million in energy costs. That was big to Lurie, who's aggressively conservation-minded. He told Obama he was happy to put a plan like this in place, but he wouldn't have done it unless it made some financial sense. "It's good business for us, which is the point,'' Lurie said. "We talked about policy and what he hopes can happen with alternative energy, and he raved about us being the first to put a plan like this in place.''

***

Punters have their say.

The other day, I got into a Twitter spat with Minnesota punter Chris Kluwe (@ChrisWarcraft on Twitter). Kluwe defended Giants punter Matt Dodge for not being able to punt the ball out of bounds; Dodge's inbounds punt eight days ago against Philadelphia resulted in DeSean Jackson returning it for the winning touchdown in the Giants' stunning loss. I criticized Dodge for not being able to do something so elementary, and I defended Tom Coughlin's right to ream the kid out immediately, which he did in full view of the FOX cameras. My points: Punters ought to be able to punt a ball out of bounds 99 out of 100 times, and coaches ought to be able to yell at players who screw up. Anyway, Kluwe and I went at it, and I ended up calling him and offering him a chance to rebut me in MMQB. Not in a name-calling way, but in a way where he'd be able to explain why, in his mind, it's harder to punt it out of bounds than it looks. Here what Kluwe wrote:

------

Monday night against the Chicago Bears I faced a challenging returner, someone most people consider the best returner ever to play in the NFL, Devin Hester. Just like Matt Dodge the day before, I too was told to punt the ball out of bounds, a game plan we would implement all four quarters. In the first half I was able to execute the plan to perfection with out of bounds punts of 36, 25, 30, and 37 yards. In the second half, even though we were still following the same plan, I mis-hit a punt off the side of my foot. The result: a ball in the field of play and Hester returning it for a touchdown, making NFL history for the most kick or punt returns for touchdown (14) in a career. Allow me to give you a glimpse into the (admittedly very specialized) world of directional punting, and why sometimes even though we do everything we can to get the ball out of bounds it just doesn't make it there.

You have two seconds to catch the snap, take a proper line, position your drop, and then make the ball hit a precise spot 48 yards down the field. Quarterbacks practice like this throwing the ball into a trash can. You have to use your foot. Sound easy? According to many fans and pundits, yes. They would have you believe that punting the football out of bounds, while still maintaining a halfway decent average, is so easy that any one of them could do it given the opportunity.

I have some experience with kicking out of bounds. To get more input, I enlisted the aid of Brad Maynard (the best directional punter currently playing), Jeff Feagles (the best directional punter to ever play), Darren Bennett (all-decade punter for the 1990's) and Adam Podlesh (punter for the Jaguars). Whereas the average NFL punter kicks the ball out of bounds about 10 percent of the time, Feagles and Maynard are outliers, both above 15 percent. Those four men have more 60 years of combined punting knowledge. According to my panel, there are factors to keep in mind, all of which must be executed properly for a successful kick:

1. Body alignment, or where your hips are aimed down field.

2. The drop from your hands to your foot.

3. Weather conditions.

Body alignment begins before the snap. Most punters will set their feet and hips where they want the ball to go, which for an out of bounds kick is about 30 yards down the field to the sideline (since the ball MUST go out of bounds), and then swivel their torso to face the long-snapper. Any discrepancy in the snap requires an adjustment to the ball (which means moving your feet), negating prior aiming. At that point we utilize a fundamental punting technique called "winging it'' and all bets are off regarding where the ball will go.

The drop has to be absolutely consistent every time; any sort of variation in the forward tilt or sideways angle of the ball will cause a corresponding change in where the ball goes once kicked. The split second the ball leaves your hand and before it hits your foot you have absolutely no control over what happens to it, which leads to our third factor.

The weather. Wind is the punter's worst enemy. An inopportune gust can make a mockery of the best plans (just ask Sean Landeta). Good punters will compensate for this by holding the ball as long as possible in windy situations but you'll always have that moment of vulnerability as the ball free falls towards your foot. Also don't forget that you'll have to take the wind into account when you're aiming downfield. Do you aim a little further to avoid a 10-yard punt from a wind gust and risk leaving it in play? Or do you keep your aim the same and hope you get lucky?

Let's say you've successfully negotiated these three hurdles, and actually kicked the ball where you wanted. Congratulations! You just hit a 30-yard punt. If something went wrong (which it so easily can) and the ball happened to go off the side of your foot you've either hit an 18-yard punt or put it into the field of play. Failure.

No team has ever seriously considered kicking the ball out of bounds consistently as a viable punting strategy. If you could kick it 40 yards out of bounds every time, you would make the Pro Bowl every year. So if no team has ever had a punter it's asked to kick the ball consistently out of bounds in almost 30 years, it must be extraordinarily difficult to consistently kick the ball out of bounds where you want it to go. No high school teams practice it, no college teams practice it, and yet somehow once you make it to the NFL you're supposed to have mastered this extremely difficult skill set.

So the next time you yell at the punter, "Kick it out of bounds!'' remember this: It's not quite as easy as it looks.

-----

Opinions on Kluwe's piece are welcome. I've given mine. Tuesday I'll run a couple of yours.

1. New England (13-2). Cinched homefield through the AFC playoffs by erasing Buffalo. I keep waiting for the running game to be shown as the Pats' weakness. It never will, at least not this year. By halftime yesterday, Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis had outgained Tom Brady, 138 rushing yards to 75 passing yards. Amazing combo platter of two undrafted free agents excelling for the best team in football.

2. Atlanta (12-2). The Falcons clinch home field through the NFC playoffs by winning one of their final two -- versus New Orleans and Carolina, both at home. Be not afraid, Falcons fans.

3. Philadelphia (10-4). Fun Fact: Eagles and Vikes will play the first Tuesday NFL game since 1946.

4. Baltimore (11-4). Northeastern Football Alert: Ravens are still alive for the AFC North title (and a first-round playoff bye) by virtue of rushing 28 times in the Cleveland muck for 161 clock-eating yards.

5. Pittsburgh (11-4). They got out healthy. That's the best thing you can say about the Thursday night snoozefest win over Carolina.

6. New Orleans (10-4). Needs to win one game in the next seven days to clinch, at worst, the fifth seed.

7. (tie) Chicago (11-4). Terrific defensive effort in the second half by the Bears, spurred by Mr. Twitter, Chris Harris, with a last-minute interception to seal a 38-34 win over the Jets.

7. (tie) Green Bay (9-6). The Packer team that throttled the Giants 45-17 is the one I expected to see a lot more than the four or five times it has played that way this year.

9. Kansas City (10-5). Think of the Chiefs winning the AFC West title. That's amazing to me. Just amazing.

10. Indianapolis (9-6). Through backup running backs and backup wideouts and a backup tight end and backup offensive linemen, the Colts are starting to look like a team you don't want to play in the playoffs.

11. New York Jets (10-5). Rex Ryan has had better halves of coaching. I hated the fake punt early in the second half with a lead -- and with Mark Sanchez as a very obvious upback throwing a pass that was dropped by Brad Smith. There are times to take chances, and being ahead on the road in the second half with your quarterback in an obvious position to throw a pass for all the world to see ... well, that's not one of them.

12. Tampa Bay (9-6). If you're a Bucs fan, you've got to be very happy this morning -- even though your team's probably not going to make the playoffs. Josh Freeman, your 22-year-old quarterback, just threw five touchdown passes to shred Seattle. LeGarrette Blount, your rookie running back, picked up when the Titans cut him last summer, just ran for 164 yards, including scampers of 48 and 53 yards.

13. New York Giants (9-6). A bitterly disappointing last five quarters leave the Giants needing a Packer loss to Chicago and a New York win over Washington to make the playoffs.

14. San Diego (8-7). Enough with this underachieving thing. When it's put-up-or-shut-up time, the Chargers don't deliver. Simple.

15. Jacksonville (8-7). Boring pick, but probably the fair one.

1. Tom Brady, QB, New England. Twenty-four touchdown passes since his last interception. Imagine going two-thirds of a season without throwing a pick -- even though he's had three or four of them dropped.

2. Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia. On Tuesday against the Vikings, he'll have a huge audience -- only the West Virginia-North Carolina State bowl game will be competition -- to make one final argument to beat out Brady for the award.

3. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta. In the six games against the winningest teams on Atlanta's schedule (Tampa Bay twice, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Green Bay), Ryan's 5-1 with 65-percent completions. He rarely makes the big mistake.

4. Matt Cassel, QB, Kansas City. Since October began, Cassel's thrown 23 touchdowns with two interceptions. He's made an amazing transformation into top 10 quarterback.

5. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville. Demonstrated his value by missing the first game of his NFL career. In his place, Rashad Jennings rushed 15 times for a grand total of 32 yards in a dispiriting home loss to the Washington Redskins. Jacksonville had lived by the run before Sunday, and its playoff hopes are on life support because it didn't have Jones-Drew against the 'Skins.

"You can't always expect to dig yourselves out of a hole.''

-- San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers, after losing to Cincinnati and being eliminated from the playoffs. This is the first time in five seasons as a starting quarterback that Rivers quarterbacked a non-playoff team. And no wonder: The Chargers began the season 2-5, then began their usual climb to what they thought would be a playoff berth. But a couple of bad games like Sunday's in Cincinnati, coupled with the Chiefs' meteoric rise, helped to give the Chargers much to think about this offseason.

"I'm mad as hell. To be sitting here with only five wins is really beyond anything I could have imagined.''-- Dallas owner Jerry Jones, after the Cowboys fell to 5-10 with a 27-26 loss to Arizona on Saturday night.

"Is there?''-- Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre, asked after what could have been his last appearance in an NFL game last Monday what he would do with his life after football.

Offensive Players of the Week

With apologies to the great -- and I mean great -- performances of Carson Palmer and Josh Freeman, I have two quarterbacks who deserve to be honored:

Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay.

He's the poster boy for quarterback concussions, having suffered two this year and missing time because of them. But he returned from his Dec. 12 concussion to shred the Giants' defense and eliminate the G-Men from serious playoff contention with a 25-of-37 passing day, for 404 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and an other-worldly 139.9 passer rating. Not to look in the rearview mirror or anything, especially with Matt Flynn having played so well last week in Foxboro, but imagine if Rodgers had been healthy enough to duel with Tom Brady last week. It's a shame for the American football fan, not to be dramatic. But these two guys won't face each other for another four years, unless they meet in a Super Bowl, and they're the kind of inter-conference matchup we see too seldom.

Matt Cassel, QB, Kansas City.

Hard to have a better first half than Cassel did in helping put the upstart Chiefs in position to win the AFC West. With touchdown passes of 14 yards (to Jamaal Charles), five yards (Charles) and 75 yards (Dwayne Bowe), Cassel completed 16 of 23 throws for 233 yards, those three touchdowns and no interceptions. In two months, Cassel's gone from a question mark to a guy who, in many Brady- and Vick-less years, would be a legitimate MVP candidate.

Defensive Players of the Week

Ed Reed, S, Baltimore.

The Ravens held the Browns to 280 total yards, and Reed was his old self in undressing rookie Colt McCoy (27.0 quarterback rating, no touchdowns, three interceptions). Reed had two interceptions, increasing his career interception figure to 52, tying the fabled Larry Wilson for 24th on the all-time list. Tied for 22nd: Deion Sanders, Ty Law.

Chris Harris, S, Chicago.

Hard to imagine a player from a team surrendering 34 points getting this prestigious award players strive weekly to earn. But Harris did it all as the Jets were trying to win through the air, making 11 tackles, picking off Mark Sanchez on a desperate final New York drive late in the fourth quarter, and recovering a fumble in the Bears' win that kept them alive for the second seed in the NFC playoffs.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Ted Ginn, PR, San Francisco.

The 49ers were their usual stumblebum selves midway through the second quarter at St. Louis: down 9-0, already having had Troy Smith trapped for a safety, five total passing yards. Ginn took a punt and weaved through traffic for 78 yards and a touchdown. That was all but eight points of the feeble 49ers offense for the day.

Coach of the Week

Todd Haley, head coach, Kansas City.

Haley took a four-win team with a questionable quarterback, new offensive and defensive bosses and play-callers, and shoddy offensive and defensive lines ... and turned the Chiefs into a division champion. He'll be a contender for coach of the year, but whether he wins it or not, he deserves credit for changing the structure of the team and for changing players' mindsets.

Goat of the Week

David Buehler, K, Dallas.

Loved Jason Garrett's line about his kicker postgame: "He's been a fairly consistent kicker at times.'' Mr. Fairly Consistent At Times hit a 53-yard field goal earlier in the Saturday night game at Arizona, then hit the left upright on an extra point with 1:41 to play, keeping the score at Dallas 26, Arizona 24. Ninety-one seconds later, Jay Feely's 48-yard field goal gave the Cardinals a 27-26 win. Buehler's job has been kept safe by Jerry Jones all season because of his big leg. There are lots of big legs in NFL camps, but Buehler might not have the big head for this job, considering he also missed game-altering kicks against Minnesota, Chicago and Washington.

Kansas City's Jamaal Charles is trying to become the most dangerous back, per carry, of the past 50 years in the NFL. I looked at the best backs (minimum 10 carries per game, on average) for a single season since 1960, and Charles, with one game left, is right there with them:

Amazing company for a player who turns 24 today -- and who shares the rushing job on the Chiefs with banger Thomas Jones.

Incredible. It's happening again, barring a Week 17 Colt loss (against the moribund Titans) and Jag win (against Houston). The New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts will meet for the ninth straight regular-season -- no non-division foes have a streak this long -- in 2011 if each team finishes first in its division this season. The Patriots have first locked in the AFC East, and the Colts' magic number is one to win the AFC South.

Every season, I get the question from fans about why the Patriots and Colts meet ever year, and it must be some fix job by the league to make sure Tom Brady and Peyton Manning meet every year so the networks have such an attractive game. Not true. Scheduling formulas are set years in advance, most often pairing teams from other divisions in the same conference against teams finishing in the same slot. The Patriots and Colts have met every year since 2003. So go back to 2002, and look at their places in the standings. Both finished second in their divisions 2002, then first in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007, then second in 2008, then first in 2009, and then -- if the Colts win or Jags lose next week -- they'll both finish first in 2010. No gerrymandering there, just very, very odd that two teams finish in the same spot in the standings nine years running.

Preamble to the Travel Note: Bob Papa's travels got some props last week, when I explained the long and winding road he had to take to get from Newark to Pittsburgh to Phoenix to Green Bay to Newark to do three football games in four days. But the weather on the Eastern Seaboard caused Papa, in the booth to do the NFL Network game Saturday between Dallas and Arizona, to get nervous about flying through Atlanta on the redeye to Milwaukee. So he and Alex Flanagan, also bound for Wisconsin and the Giants-Packers game for NBC, were graciously invited to take the Dallas charter back to Texas, where they got on an early Sunday flight to Milwaukee, and a car to Green Bay. John Mara, I'm sure, will love the GMen's play-by-play man hitching a ride on Jerry Jones' plane.

***

Sunday night, 9:30, in my midtown Manhattan hotel room. The phone rings. It's Mike Florio, Mr. Profootballtalk.com and my Sunday NBC partner in crime.

"You OK?'' he said. "I'm just checking in on you. Wanted to make sure you got back OK.''

I thought: What are you? My mother?

But this was one of those "you had to be there'' things. It's a four-block walk from NBC studios to my hotel. Florio stays at a different hotel, about five blocks from the studio; he walked to his hotel with Rodney Harrison and Tony Dungy. I walked to my hotel alone. Now, I grew up in northern Connecticut, and I've walked in/sledded in/shoveled my share of snow. This storm, the same one pounding Philly 90 miles south, was a sideways job blowing snowbursts at 40 mph. I had a wool hat and gloves on, and jeans. By the time I'd walked the six or eight minutes to the hotel, my clothes were soaked through and my face bright red from the whipping wind and snow.

That is one heck of a storm, even without the accumulations. As I write this column, I'm staring out the window onto my midtown street. No cars. No people. Just a storm blowing from west to east with no end in sight.

"If someone tries to schedule the Second Coming for a Monday night, NFL will have it postponed until Tuesday to protect ESPN's exclusivity.''--@sportswatch, media columnist Neil Best of Newsday, after the NFL moved the Vikings-Eagles game to Tuesday, leaving the crucial Monday night Saints-Falcons telecast on ESPN in an exclusive window.

"Did anyone get the license plate to the bus I was just threw under?"--@OGOchoCinco, Cincinnati wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, after Bengals coach Marvin Lewis called him "mopey'' and said, "When things don't go Chad's way, that's kind of how it happens.''

1. I think this is what I liked about Week 16:

a. John Skelton, on fourth-and-15 Saturday night from his own 19 with 77 seconds to play and down 26-24, finding Larry Fitzgerald up the right sideline for 26 yards and a game-saving first down.

b. Great factoid by Jim Nantz and Phil Simms on CBS on the fumble by Santonio Holmes that turned into seven points for the Bears in the first quarter. They noted that Holmes said last week he hated wearing sleeves on his bare arms, and when he wore sleeves, they caused him to fumble. And so what happened in the first quarter in frigid Chicago, with Holmes wearing white long sleeves? He had the ball punched out, and the Bears took it the other way for a Matt Forte touchdown.

c. Rob Ninkovich has to be in the top 10 in the NFL this year in quarterback pressures. He's this decade's Mike Vrabel, the underused journeyman linebacker who plays a role Bill Belichick needs to make his defense work.

d. Good heads-up by Bears special-teamer and wide receiver Rashied Davis, tailing a Jets receiver on a fake punt in the third quarter -- what a dumb call by the Jets. The ball was dropped, but Davis didn't get sucked in by the fake.

e. Devin Hester's 38-yard runback in the third quarter. The guy just makes you hold your breath every time he touches it.

f. Redskins, playing very hard.

g. Ravens run defense on Peyton Hills (12 carries, 35 yards).

h. Thirty-nine minutes of possession time by the dominant Chiefs.

i. Speaking of the Chiefs, how about this prescient piece in Football Outsiders: ... And I quote: "The Chiefs have a power running game that can stand up to anyone in football, one that should be buoyed by the arrival of veteran free-agent linemen Casey Wiegmann and Ryan Lilja this offseason. This will help the Chiefs close out games if they have the lead in 2010.''

j. Chris Long, who is looking more and more like a smart top pick, with a huge strip-sack of Alex Smith.

k. Tom Brady, for breaking Bernie Kosar's generation-old record of 309 passes without an interception.

2. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 16:

a. The Panthers.

b. Michael Jenkins. A year ago, he was an up-and-coming fearless corner. Saturday night, he was downright awful, including embarrassing matador coverage of Arizona wideout Andre Roberts on a way-too-easy 74-yard touchdown bomb from John Skelton.

c. What, you Cowboys didn't know on fourth-and-15 in the last minute that a rookie quarterback might be looking for Larry Fitzgerald?

d. Typical Jacksonville.

e. Tackling, or the lack thereof, by the Jets.

f. Throw it away, Jay Cutler! Come on.

g. Show up, Tennessee! Come on.

h. Keep running, Braylon Edwards! Come on. Ten minutes left in the fourth quarter, and Brad Smith unleashes a bomb for him in close coverage, and Edwards slows up with the ball heading toward his hands.

i. Didn't like the upheld replay review on the Derek Cox interception in the Jags-'Skins game at Jacksonville

j. NFL scouts and GMs. How is it possible that Danny Woodhead was not drafted?

k. Troy Smith. Not sure he's made a case to be the third quarterback on the Niners, never mind competing for the starting job at any point -- for any team.

l. Robbie Gould, who missed a 35-yard field goal that would have put the Bears up by seven midway through the fourth quarter. "He made 64 straight inside the 40!'' marveled Nantz, digging the dagger in deeper.

m. David Garrard, with a feeble overtime interception. Under pressure by Washington linebacker Rocky McIntosh, he made a soft throw that was picked off and cost the Jags any realistic shot at the playoffs.

n. Eli Manning, who now has five more interceptions than any other quarterback in football. Four picks in a game with major playoff implications ... not good. Some of the throws he makes, it's almost like he's too confident.

3. I think we have to ask this question, and wonder about it seriously: Are the 13-2 Patriots of 2010 hotter entering the playoffs than the 16-0 Patriots of 2007?

4. I think if I'm the Bengals, there's got to be a moral to the story of Carson Palmer having his best game of the year, by far, with Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco on the bench. Go ahead and howl, all you T.Ocho fans. But football's played best when it isn't a sideshow, when the quarterback can go back from center without having to worry about placating any receivers.

We saw it with Tony Romo when Owens was jettisoned from Dallas two years ago. Romo was a better player without him. And when Palmer has his most accurate day (76.2 percent) with his highest rating (157.2) and throws four touchdowns and no interceptions ... I mean, it's right on Mike Brown's doorstep now. The only fair thing for the Bengals to do for their future this week against Baltimore is to see if they can do it again, against a defense (Baltimore's) that's as much of a challenge or a bigger one than San Diego's was.

5. I think Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell might have kissed his head-coaching hopes goodbye in the past two weeks. Actually, in New York's last 68 minutes. Less than five quarters ago, the Giants were in the driver's seat for the NFC East title. A win against Philadelphia -- the Eagles trailed 31-10 with eight minutes to play -- and the Giants could skate home to the NFC East title and possibly the second seed in the NFC playoffs. The Giants have allowed 73 points since.

6. I think the Rams had better win the NFC West, for playoff competition's sake. Watching the Seahawks give up 112 points the past three weeks, I think the Saints, if they're the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs, as it appears will be the case, would beat the Seahawks about 45-10 right now, even at Qwest Field. Think the Saints would take Seattle lightly? You don't know Drew Brees.

7. I think I don't mean to rub it in on the Steal of the Year, but here are the total yards through 15 games for the two men traded for each other: Peyton Hillis 1,638 rushing-receiving yards, Brady Quinn zero passing yards. And the Broncos still owe Cleveland two low-round draft picks.

8. I think, from my time in Minnesota last Monday, I got the feeling that the locals very much want an outdoor stadium (and it's not only the semi-louts in the men's room who chanted "No more dome! No more dome!'' when I was in there). Owner Zygi Wilf wants an outdoor stadium. But the majority of politicians and business leaders seem like they're dome fans -- or at least retractable-roof fans. Stay tuned for a showdown. But at least the climate seems right to get a stadium deal done now, which wasn't the case very often in the past.

9. I think, from what Brett Favre told Andrea Kremer at the Vikings hotel in Philly over the weekend, it sounds like he's finished and won't play either of the last two games.

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. I think for the scores of you who have asked for Paul Zimmerman updates, here's one: Zim, the former SI and SI.com ace football scribe, had a series of three strokes 25 months ago, and he has been working diligently to rehab to get to his stated goal of being able to write again. Well, the going has been slow, but steady. He's now scheduled to undergo a back operation to improve the feeling in his right leg, and it's hoped that if gets that procedure done, he'll have a better shot to be more aggressive in his physical rehab.

When I find out a little more about the status of that surgery, I'm going to ask for your cards and well-wishes to be sent to him, and I'll give you an address here. But for now, know that Linda, his wife, and Paul are exceedingly grateful to have as many caring friends as he does. Thanks. He still has a fervent desire to get back to what he loves doing, but that's a ways off for now.

b. Wishing both King girls very good luck as they start new jobs on the West Coast today. Go get 'em.

c. Finally saw Invictus, on Christmas night. A tad disappointing, though Morgan Freeman couldn't have been a better Mandela. Disappointing because it dragged in spots, and the rugby scenes weren't as dramatic to a heathen audience (me) as I'm sure they were to the rest of the world..

d. As did the 85-minute HBO Springsteen documentary on Darkness On the Edge of Town. Yow. We don't need 10 minutes on some lawsuit that kept Bruce out of the studios for some period of time after Born to Run. A sentence or two wouldn't have been fine. But a novella?

e. Such a sad New York Times story on cancer-stricken Yale hockey player and Saskatchewan native Mandi Schwartz: Such an inspiring woman, such an awful story ... The family requests that you do the easy thing -- it's basically taking a cotton swab to the inside of your cheek -- and register in the national Bone Marrow "Be The Match Registry'' program: http://www.marrow.org/ ... If the spirit moves you, drop a card to Mandi at Box 308, Wilcox SK, S0G 5E0, Canada.

f. Never was much of an NBA fan, as most of you know. But in moving to Boston, I've gained an appreciation for the Celtics because of how hard they play. The NBA that I know has a lot of teams that play hard the last few minutes and not in the first few. The Celtics seem different. I don't see the team a lot, but I was in attendance last Wednesday against Philly, and even Shaq was getting up and down the floor. (Shaq is listed at 345 but has to be more. Just a massive man.) Love Shaq. Hey, someone else once said that. Or sang that.

g. How can the Devils be the worst team in hockey? Amazing and precipitous.

h. Coffeenerdness: You know you're getting hooked on the eggnog latte when twice in the last week you hear, "We're out of eggnog, sir,'' and you immediately think of who you can scold for having such a dastardly thing happen.

i. Beernerdness: Winter's the time for some heavy beers. Tried two this week -- St. Botolph's Town Rustic Dark Ale (Pretty Things brewery, Somerville, Mass.), recommended by my buddy Steve Gilarde, the bartender at the Butcher Shop in Boston's South End. Thick and very dark, like a British ale, with a copper head that lasts. Very good. And then Saranac's Vanilla Stout. I'm not normally a Stout guy, but Christmas Eve does funny things for your taste buds, and the vanilla isn't overpowering. Just a hint. Nice job. Oh, and good labels on your winter brews, Saranac.

Falcons 24, Saints 20.

What a great game, in retrospect, the Falcons' Week 3 27-24 overtime win at the Superdome was ... and what clues it holds for this game tonight. The clues:

• Expect some derring-do. The two teams went for it on fourth down five times in the game. Atlanta coach Mike Smith twice called for his offense to convert on one second-quarter series. On fourth-and-two from the 26, Matt Ryan hit Roddy White for seven, and two minutes later, on another fourth-and-two, he hit Tony Gonzalez for nine.

• The Falcons will try to grind it out. Atlanta had a 19-play, 72-yard drive that took 10:39. Get the feeling they want to keep it away from Drew Brees?

• Atlanta will try to use power. In the September game, Michael Turner burst over right guard for a 32-yard gain. That was no ordinary formation. There were seven men on the line, and not your ordinary extra men just chipping defenders. These were men who stayed in to block. So look for the Falcons to employ a power running game again until the Saints stop it regularly.

• The Saints, even with a healthy backfield, will trust Brees to try to win. The last three times they've met, Brees has completed more than 75 percent of his throws in every game. His yards-per-attempt in each game: 9.33, 7.40, 9.61. Let me ask you a question: If you're Sean Payton, and every time your quarterback drops back to throw you're getting nine yards, on average, wouldn't you throw it all night? Thought so.

Give me the Falcons, with Turner -- and Atlanta's offensive line -- being the game's MVPs.

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