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NFL playoff field, draft order set; coaching carousel begins to spin

NEW YORK -- On the day Brett Favre said goodbye (again, and this time he won't be coming back), it was such a back-burner story. That's because we realize how good the National Football League is at creating new stories. Maybe that's why we never get sick of the NFL. It's never boring. This is what was created, and the people you have to know now, in the final week of the NFL's 91st season:

• A coach who was living in his car 13 years ago, winning the only NFL game he may ever head-coach.

• A running back who wins the rushing title 20 months after every team in the league passed on him for seven rounds of the 2009 draft.

• A long-snapper who played three quarters with a torn ACL and torn MCL and says, "If my leg wasn't dangling off, I wasn't coming out of the game.''

• A disgraced runner who we were sure would never get a second chance at making a first impression, rushing for 1,000 yards so soon after the sucker punch seen 'round the world.

• The next franchise quarterback, who might be more mature than Tony Dungy.

• The strange story of the first sub-.500 division winner, led by the quarterback Annabelle Hasselbeck confused with her savior.

• And the hot young coach, who is also the household name and former first-round draft choice coaching the future top pick in the draft tonight in the Orange Bowl.

This is when I thought of the circle of NFL life: Watching the early games Sunday at NBC, on a day that could be the last full schedule of pro football for a very long time, FOX on one screen was showing Brett Favre looking very old on the sideline of the Detroit-Minnesota game, and then the games started in earnest, and things started happening, as they do every Sunday.

At 1:04 p.m. ET, Troy Polamalu picks off Colt McCoy in Cleveland.

At 1:05 p.m. ET, Ed Reed picks off Carson Palmer in Baltimore.

At 1:06 p.m. ET: Devin McCourty picks off Chad Henne in Foxboro.

Favre was leaving, and veterans were making plays, and the new great defensive back made one too, as if to say, "When you guys are gone, I'll be taking over.''

***

Before the men who made Week 17, here's the news:

It's really over this time, I'm told.

Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier told me before the Vikings left Detroit that there won't be any more comebacks for Brett Favre. "We won't see him don another uniform, ever. Anywhere,'' he said. "No doubt in my mind whatsoever.'' Kicker Ryan Longwell, Favre's best friend on the Vikings, told me the same thing. Longwell also said he was sure that Favre would have come back this year, even if he knew the personal and professional messes that would have ensued. "I'm 100 percent sure that's the case,'' said Longwell. "Outsiders who don't know him will look at this year and say he wouldn't have come back, but the life lessons he's learned this year, on and off the field, are about so much more than football. The direction he's going in now in his life, I know he's looking forward to being a full-time husband and dad. He's been at peace all week. He's looking forward to the rest of his life.''

The vague references to lessons learned in the Jenn Sterger case were unavoidable, though no one was talking about it in specifics. I tried to speak with Favre Sunday, but he declined to talk except in a postgame news conference. The most interesting thing he said, I thought, was this: "I can sit here and thank over and over again so many different people, but I'd be remiss if I didn't thank the Green Bay Packers and their fans. It's kind of tough to say that and Vikings fans at the same time but ... it was special, so, you know, such a wonderful experience. Wouldn't change it for anything."

My last word on Favre is lower in this column, and after you read that, you'll be convinced that if he comes back again, he truly is a hopeless knucklehead.

***

Coaching news, which won't be news in about 12 hours.

The news cycle on this stuff is so here-and-gone, but what I know this morning is this:

San Francisco: As I said on NBC last night, the Niners have targeted Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, and I believe by Wednesday Harbaugh will choose between the University of Michigan and the 49ers; Stanford, I suppose, could get back in the mix if he gets emotional about leaving a place he loves. Logic says Michigan is in the lead, but his brother, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, told me Sunday Jim doesn't know what he'll do. I also said if the Niners are spurned on Harbaugh, I expect them to monitor the Jeff Fisher situation in Tennessee closely, and if Fisher and the Titans divorce, San Francisco will jump in aggressively.

Minnesota: Sounds very much like Frazier will have the job full-time by the end of the day today.

*4:05 p.m. update: Vikings remove interim tag

Dallas: Ditto Jason Garrett.

Cincinnati: Marvin Lewis told me the Bengals need to figure out if they still want him. "I don't know that I've made up my mind about staying, either,'' he said. "Everyone needs a little time.'' I expect a divorce there, but you can never tell what club owner Mike Brown's going to do, because he's so good at keeping his own counsel. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer would be a convenient replacement.

Cleveland: I've heard for a couple of months Mike Holmgren wants his offense run in Cleveland, and the incumbents aren't doing so. The season-ending four-game losing streak will likely do in Eric Mangini, as early as today, and I expect Holmgren to strongly consider Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg as the next coach. Holmgren, as a high school head coach 30 years ago, coached quarterback Mornhinweg at a San Jose school. John Fox is also interested, a friend of Holmgren's, and may have the man to coordinate the West Coast offense the way Holmgren wants it in Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. I think Fox could bring McCoy with him.

*10:22 a.m. update:The Browns have fired Mangini.

Carolina: I've thought the profile here is low-cost coordinator (owner Jerry Richardson won't ever pay a coach $6-million a year, which Fox made this year, again), with the preference being a strong defensive guy. Rob Ryan makes sense, and the Panthers should jump to interview Zimmer.

Miami: I thought Tony Sparano would skate through because owner Stephen Ross wanted to give him another year. But then the Dolphins lost to Buffalo and Detroit at home, then no-showed in a 38-7 loss at Foxboro Sunday. Now I think he'll be gone. Who comes in, I have no clue ...

Denver: After hiring John Elway, the Broncos will try to convince Jim Harbaugh to consider their gig. Highly unlikely. I think they want a guy who can coach Tim Tebow ...

Tennessee: As Jay Glazer reported, there's a big meeting today in Houston, where owner Bud Adams will try to figure out if Jeff Fisher and Vince Young can coexist. Common sense says they can't. But Fisher's been there 16 years. He's been to the edge of a cliff with Adams a couple of times before and worked it out. I think there's a chance that'll happen this time too -- and if it doesn't, he'll have a soft landing spot in San Francisco.

Oakland: Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times actually tweeted Saturday that he thought Tom Cable would be out, and Adam Schefter followed that up with a similar report Sunday. Which figures, doesn't it? Just when they've got some momentum (6-0 AFC West record), they think of whacking the Cable guy in favor of the offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson. Jackson, if he doesn't get the Raider job, could be a strong candidate in Denver or Cincinnati too.

The playoffs cometh.

On Saturday, the Saints are at Seattle, followed by the Jets and Colts in Indy. A tough break for the Saints, if you believe that a short week plus a 2,100-mile trip plus a major loud venue is hazardous to winning. I do not expect Drew Brees to be fazed. At night, the Jets and Colts play a rematch of the AFC title game. The Colts have won four in a row and are settling in to life with backups.

Sunday: Baltimore-Kansas City early, Green Bay-Philadelphia late. Major, major break for the Ravens, drawing the Chiefs in Kansas City instead of the Colts in Indianapolis. Indy has an eight-game win streak over the Ravens. Baltimore is 2-0 versus K.C. since 2005. "No matter who we play,'' Ravens coach John Harbaugh told me, "we're going to have to win on the road, which doesn't bother us.''

Baltimore has won three road playoff games in the past two years, which is the reason for Harbaugh's confidence. That plus he has Ray Rice revved up and playing well. "We've got Ray going, and we've got different ways of playing on offense now,'' Harbaugh said. The Chiefs will try to not be distracted by the questions about the Charlie Weis distraction.

In the late game, the Eagles have gone from steamroller to vulnerable in six days. Will Mike Vick be healthy? Will he be able to beat blitzing Packers defensive backs? That will tell the tale of this game.

***

You're on the clock, Marty Hurney. And you're on deck, John Elway.

Top 10 draft order for the last NFL event (April 28-30, 2011) in a while:

1. Carolina2. Denver3. Buffalo4. Cincinnati5. Arizona6. Cleveland7. San Francisco8. Tennessee9. Dallas10. Washington11. Houston12. Minnesota13. Detroit14. St. Louis15. Miami16. Jacksonville17. New England from Oakland18. San Diego19. New York Giants20. Tampa Bay

Without Andrew Luck, there won't be the same excitement at the top. But we don't know for sure whether the Stanford quarterback will come out or not, though Jim Harbaugh told me last week he thought Luck would stay. We'll see after the bowl game tonight, perhaps.

***

The 2011 schedule is out, sort of, assuming there is a 2011 season.

New England has Indy at home for the 629th straight year, and the Patriots also have a starry home slate: Peyton and Eli, Matt Cassel's return, Tony Romo and Philip Rivers come to Foxboro. Giants at Jets. Matt Ryan at Peyton. Peyton at Josh Freeman. Those are some of the highlights.

***

Jim Tomsula gets the W.

If you weren't rooting for the interim San Francisco coach against Arizona in the meaningless game of the weekend, you should have been. He was the defensive line coach of the Niners when Mike Singletary got fired last week, and when the Niners picked him to finish out the final game of the season, all of the Bay Area asked, "Who's he?'' A football junkie, that's who, who never took no for an answer to a career he just had to have.

Looking for a coaching job when an assistant strength coach job at Charleston Southern dried up in 1995, he moved home to Pittsburgh. No football team was hiring. He cleaned floors at a department store, then worked as a sales rep for a food distributor. Hired as a lowly volunteer assistant at Catawba (N.C.) in 1997, he sold carpeting to get by and lived in his car because he couldn't afford housing. Hs reputation as a defensive line technician got him a gig in NFL Europe, which he held 'til 2006. The Niners hired him for Mike Nolan's staff in 2007. "I'm a football coach,'' he said last week. "I'm Jim Nobody from Nowhere. I keep my spoon in my soup. I don't eat anybody else's soup. I just do my job.''

West Coast scribes heard a collection of those gems last week. The Niners consider him a long-termer, and they hope the next coach hires him to stay on. It was fun to watch him Sunday. The FOX cameras caught him smiling more than the rest of the coaches in the league smiled all season, collectively. And his team-for-a-game rewarded him with a 38-7 rout of the Cards, many players hugging him afterward, thrilled for him. "At least they didn't throw me in the trash can,'' he said.

Pressed to talk about how he felt and what was going through the mind of a guy who lived in his car for weeks so that he could VOLUNTEER to coach football, he said, "It was just -- that was just football, and you see those guys with smiles on their faces, and that's -- pure football, and just playing football and having fun and going through, you know ... One football game is like an entire life. The ups, the downs, the turns, the curves, you know, you go through all of these things through a whole game and the team has to do it together and stay together, you know. So, I'd really just like to talk about what these guys accomplished today."

Arian Foster gets the rushing title.

Adrian Peterson. LaDainian Tomlinson. Emmitt Smith. Barry Sanders. Eric Dickerson. O.J. Simpson. Walter Payton. Jim Brown. And now, Arian Foster. With 1,616 yards, Foster, of the formerly pass-happy Texans, accomplished two things. He set the NFL record for rushing yards in a season by an undrafted player. And he joined the group of illustrious rushing champions, something that was only a silly dream two years ago, when his career was dissolving. "I ain't gonna lie,'' he told me from Houston after his 31-carry, 180-yard performance decimated the Jags. "It feels pretty good. After what I've been through, it's amazing.''

Rewind to the end of a declining career at Tennessee, when he tore his hamstring prepping for the 2009 draft. He couldn't get it healthy enough before the draft to run a good 40 time for any team. In 12 months, he'd gone from being a top-50 prospect to a tarnished one. He went undrafted. "I was distraught,'' Foster said. "My mom was crying, and I had my little pouting fest for two or three hours. My dad came in at one point and said, 'Well, there's always the Canadian league.' I told him to get out of my face.''

The Texans signed him as a free agent, but he didn't make the team in camp. Houston signed him to the practice squad, which Foster assumed meant was like a college redshirt year. Bad assumption. Foster was activated to play special teams in November, and after Steve Slaton suffered a neck injury, Foster began to see time in the backfield. In the last two games of the year, he ran for 216 yards. The Texans were 30th in the NFL in rushing last year. GM Rick Smith leveled with Foster after the season and told him Houston would take a running back in the draft, but he'd still have a chance to win the starting job in 2010.

True to Smith's word, the Texans drafted a better version of Foster -- at least in scouts' eyes -- in Auburn's 5-foot-11, 220-pound tackle-breaking Ben Tate. But the Texans left the door open for Foster. He got a letter from Kubiak, a form letter with the offseason schedule, with these words handwritten by the coach on the bottom: "The biggest jump for a player in the NFL comes between year one and year two.''

He kept the letter in plain sight in his bedroom through the offseason and, under the watchful eyes of his brother and personal trainer Abdul Foster, worked like a madman -- track workout early in the morning, weights in the afternoon, track workout in the evening -- when he didn't have Texan practice obligations. "I had a goal,'' Foster said. "I had a plan. And I executed it.''

Then Tate got hurt in training camp. Foster outplayed Slaton. He won the job. And his running style -- one-cut, get upfield, run with power in traffic -- fit Kubiak's style. On Sunday, after he won the title, I asked him what he'd do for his linemen. "I guess I need to do something, because they've been everything to me,'' he said, laughing. "But they all make more money than me. A lot more. I'll figure something out.''

***

There's something to admire about Morgan Cox.

A lot, actually. And he's not the only one to admire in this story. Cox is the Ravens' long-snapper. Was. Last week, early in the second quarter, he got hurt in a pileup on a Baltimore field-goal try. Hurt would be putting it mildly. Actually, 700 pounds of lineman -- Cleveland defensive tackle Shaun Rogers and Baltimore guard Marshall Yanda -- fell on his left leg after he'd snapped the ball for the field goal, and the knee concaved to the right. Cox screamed so loud, Rogers said, that he knew he was hurt severely. Somehow, Cox limped to the sideline, where he collapsed and started rolling around in pain. "An extreme amount of pain,'' he said.

At first, docs thought it was an MCL tear, but that he could return to the game and gut it out. At halftime, upon further review in the locker room, he said he was diagnosed with grade-three (severe, that is) ACL and MCL tears. "But I knew I could get the job done,'' he said. "There's lot of different ways of snapping. Some guys use their legs for power. I pretty much do it all with my arms. And I don't think it fully registered with me how serious it was. It was a big game, and I said, I'm fine to play. I went up to the guys on the line, and said, 'I'm gonna need some help. I'm gonna get the snap off, but you gotta help me after that.' So when we went back out there, I heard Michael Oher say to the Browns, 'Stay off the snapper, stay off the snapper.' ''

There's a fine line here between playing hard and being sympathetic to a wounded competitor, and Rogers did a gallant job straddling it in the second half. Rogers knew Cox was injured; he'd heard him scream in agony after the injury. On an extra point try, after the ball was over the line, Rogers saw Cox falling back awkwardly. He reached over and grabbed Cox's jersey to prevent him from falling and perhaps hurting the leg further. "Unbelievable,'' Cox said. "I felt this hand hold me up and just figured it was one of our guys, but it was Shaun Rogers. I'll never forget him for that.''

I called the Browns and asked to speak to Rogers, but he declined. He said the play was over, and he knew the kid was hurt, and it was something even major rivals would do for each other. No big deal.

I think it is a big deal. As was the game ball Cox got in the locker room. "Very courageous thing you did, Morgan,'' Harbaugh told him. "That was a thrill,'' Cox said. "An unbelievable honor. Probably the thing I'll always remember is Terrell Suggs coming up to me, surprised, during the game and saying, 'He's still snapping! He's still in the game!' But he did remind me I was still a rookie.'' After that game, I'd call Cox an honorary veteran.

Cox will be in the office of noted orthopedist James Andrews on Tuesday, with a plan for surgery to repair the ligaments.

***

The LeGarrette Blount story shows you can make second chances count.

Lost in the Week 17 scrum is this stat line for the NFL's 17th-leading rusher in 2010:

L.Blount, TB 201 carries 1,007 yards, 5.01 yards per carry

Crazy. This is the former Oregon running back who, in a postgame skirmish, decked a Boise State player after they'd exchanged words following a game early in the 2009 season. National TV. Big game. Iso camera on the fight, with slo-mo shots of the punch running all weekend, and for days after. "It destroyed my image,'' Blount said. "That must have been shown a hundred times on TV. I did wrong. Definitely. But I thought it was way overblown by the media.''

He thinks he "definitely, no question,'' would have been a first-round draft choice, and his preseason grade showed he likely would have been a top-25 pick. But the punch caused him to fall out of the draft altogether. Blount got signed by the Titans as a free agent and didn't make the team out of training camp because he was not a great special-teams player. Needing running back insurance, and already having shown Tampa to be a place for wayward players other teams ding because of character issues, the Bucs picked up Blount. They haven't regretted it.

Last week, he had one of the running-back highlights of the year, and showed why, if he stays on the right path, he'll be one of the best backs in the league. With Seattle safety Lawyer Milloy coming in low to take his legs out in the open field, Blount leapt over the top of Milloy and continued downfield. "There's no question in my mind I can be a really good back in this league for a long time, and that's my goal. All the other stuff, I've put in the past. It's not going to come up again.'' If it doesn't, Tampa Bay may have a contender for a rushing title.

***

Tomorrow, I'll have more about Charlie Whitehurst, and his magical night at Qwest Field.

But for now, here's the Seattle quarterback's take on being the first losing team to make the playoffs in NFL history. "Getting to the goal was important for us, and the goal was winning our division and making the playoffs,'' he told me, driving home after Seattle's NFC West-winning 16-6 victory over the Rams. "I understand what you're asking, but what we take away from this is we won the division, not what our record is. Would we have liked to play better, be 10-6, have won a few more of these games? Of course. But there're no records now. We're 0-0. New Orleans is 0-0.'' Whitehurst and his journey to the playoffs in his second NFL start will top my Tuesday column -- barring, of course, the kinds of things that happen this time of year in the coach-go-round.

1. New England (14-2). Sure, we all saw 14-2 coming.

2. Atlanta (13-3). That too. The Falcons are the top seed in the NFC for the first time since 1980.

3. Pittsburgh (12-4). The Steelers' weakness is their offensive line, which has really been, ahem, evident in the last eight quarters. Pittsburgh has 68 points in the last two weeks.

4. Baltimore (12-4). Sunday's results push the Ravens west to Kansas City instead of to Indy, and to a Sunday game instead of Saturday night. Since Baltimore's last two trips to Indianapolis resulted in losses by a combined 51-6, John Harbaugh and his men have to be quite pleased.

5. Green Bay (10-6). That's the Black and Blue Division you saw in the 10-3 Sunday win over the archrival Bears. Neither team gained 300 yards. Three drives of 40 yards or more in four quarters. I loved both teams' D.

6. Chicago (11-5). Tremendous effort by the Bears in a game they didn't need. I can't remember when the Bears-Packers rivalry was as hard-fought and even.

7. New Orleans (11-5). Let's step back for a minute. Think back to March 2006. The Saints might not have been long for New Orleans. They were in shambles, coming off Katrina and a makeshift home in San Antonio, and they signed Drew Brees to a six-year contract even though he was rehabbing from about as bad a shoulder injury as Dr. James Andrews had ever seen on a quarterback.

Brees has played five regular seasons now. Despite the loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday, that's five years, 49 regular-season wins, three playoff appearances, one Super Bowl win. Brees has had plenty of help, of course -- from Mickey Loomis, who got the players, and Sean Payton, who so ably has coached them. But 10 wins a year with that formerly motley crew? That, to me, with where the Saints were five years ago, is remarkable.

8. Philadelphia (10-6). Interesting nugget on the Sal Paolantonio/Ron Jaworski/Merrill Hoge NFL Matchup show Sunday morning that says much about the Eagles' playoff chances: Mike Vick, through 15 games, led all NFC quarterbacks taking sacks in the shotgun formation, with 20. We all saw the Minnesota game Tuesday night. Leslie Frazier had a brilliant game plan, rushing corners and safeties from all over the map; the biggest play of the game was a strip-sack by Antoine Winfield on a corner blitz, which Winfield returned for a touchdown.

Hoge's point was a valid one: Winfield was the rusher the blocking scheme didn't account for. There are those kinds of rushers that come on many pass plays, and those are the plays Vick is struggling to master. That's what you should expect to see out of Green Bay in the playoffs. And Vick, and the Eagles, had better get better at recognizing and evading the outside secondary blitzers. "If they can't handle it, they'll be one and done,'' Hoge said. Excellent, prescient analysis.

9. Tampa Bay (10-6). There are a few coaches who are glad they don't have to face the Bucs in the playoffs. What a handful. And let's put it out there right now: I love Josh Freeman. What a treat it'll be to watch him play over the next 10 years.

10. New York Jets (11-5). There's not one thing they do great except maybe on special teams. But they were nine points stingier than New England on defense, and 6-2 on the road during the regular season, where they'll have to make hay if they're to back up the very strong words of Rex Ryan.

11. Indianapolis (10-6). When the Colts were 6-6 last month we thought it was curtains. No way would they advance to the playoffs for a modern record-tying ninth straight year. But they edged four straight foes -- by 2, 10, 5 and 3 points -- and left the division in the dust, as usual.

12. San Diego (9-7). Out of mothballs, eh, Ryan Mathews? Lots of fantasy players could have used that three-touchdown, 120-yard rushing performance earlier this season.

13. New York Giants (10-6). The first thing I'm doing if I'm John Mara and Jerry Reese is ask Tom Coughlin what he plans to do to cut Eli Manning's mistakes down next season. Eli's gone from 10 interceptions in 2008 to 14 last year to 24 this year. Not acceptable.

14. Kansas City (10-6). I don't want to dump all over the Chiefs, but they got swept by Oakland, went 2-4 in the division and have a potential distraction with this Charlie Weis-to-Florida thing. Nice timing on that one, by the way, Chiefs.

15. Detroit (6-10). In the last five weeks of the season, they scared the Bears in a 24-20 loss, then beat Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Miami and Minnesota in succession. The cruelest thing about a job action in 2011? It could deprive Lions fans of seeing a playoff-contending season.

We have a winner. When I send my Associated Press ballot in this week, there won't be much mystery about the Most Valuable Player. Tom Brady should win it handily for the second time in his career.

1. Tom Brady, QB, New England. Brady threw four interceptions all year. In 47 minutes of the Colts' Nov. 28 game against San Diego, Peyton Manning threw four of his 17 interceptions for the season.

2. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta. Just wins, baby. In case you haven't heard it enough, the Falcons are 20-2 at home in games Ryan started.

3. Troy Polamalu, S, Pittsburgh. It's not just some games that he makes a big play to help his team win. It's the vast majority of them. An interception in the first minute Sunday at Cleveland was the latest example. An amazing nose for the ball, and tremendous sense of knowing when a play needs to be made.

4. Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia. A stunning presence, a threat unlike any other in the NFL, and one of the great comebacks in the history of the league. So you think this is too low? Several reasons. He missed five starts and 21 of the Eagles' 64 quarters overall. The Eagles won the same number of games as they won a year ago. And one of the signature wins of the season, 31-17 over Atlanta, was quarterbacked by Kevin Kolb. The name of the award is most valuable player, not most exciting player or best story of the year.

5. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. Not one of his best years, but he did pilot a beat-up team to a 4-0 record and 30 points a game in the last month. But if you wanted to put Matt Cassel or someone else here, I'd understand.

"In this society, everybody wants to fire the coach all the time. We don't do that here.''-- Giants owner John Mara, announcing after the Giants won their 10th game of the year Sunday in Washington that coach Tom Coughlin would return to coach the team in 2011.

"Daddy, we didn't have to say grace. We just ate with Jesus.''-- Annabelle Hasselbeck, last spring (but worth repeating this week in light of Seattle's playoff berth), when new Seahawk quarterback Charlie Whitehurst -- who had a thick beard and long brown hair, making him look like the pictures of Jesus Christ -- came to dinner at the Hasselbeck house and the family began dinner without saying the traditional grace.

"I'm a football coach. I'm Jim Nobody from Nowhere.''-- San Francisco interim coach Jim Tomsula, who won what will be the only game of his current tenure Sunday as the Niners routed Arizona.

Offensive Players of the Week

Charlie Whitehurst, QB, Seattle

Not a statistical gem (22 of 36, 192 yards, no sacks, one TD, no interceptions, 84.5 rating), but in the second start of his career, Whitehurst won a playoff game to qualify for the playoffs. He led Seattle on a six-play, 87-yard touchdown drive to open the game and had no negative plays that set the Seahawks back. Terrific job under the pressure of the biggest game Seattle's played in three years.

Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego

Better late than never, I guess. Mathews, the rookie runner the Chargers drafted after trading two high draft picks last April, had his first franchise-back performance, rushing 26 times for those 120 yards, with touchdowns of 27, 12 and 31 yards. If only he'd been healthy for the season instead of nursing ankle injuries most of the year, we'd probably have seen this more than once.

Defensive Players of the WeekErik Walden, LB, Green Bay

Starting at right outside linebacker because of a knee injury to incumbent Frank Zombo, Walden, an itinerant 2008 sixth-round pick of the Cowboys, led the Packers with 11 tackles and two sacks in their playoff-clinching 10-3 win over the Bears. Green Bay has had outstanding front-seven depth this year, and Walden was the cherry on top of that Sunday.

Raheem Brock, DE, Seattle

The 'Hawks have relied on defensive end Chris Clemons for most of their pass-rush threat this year, but Brock, a longtime Colt, did his best Dwight Freeney imitation Sunday night in Seattle's 16-6 NFC West-clinching win over St. Louis. His 2.5-sack effort included the finishing touches on St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford on the Rams' desperate last drive.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Eric Weems, PR/WR, Atlanta

The players and coaches got one thing right in Pro Bowl voting, putting a superior special-teams player like Weems in the game. He responded by running a punt back 55 yards for a touchdown in the Falcons' rout of the Panthers.

Julian Edelman, PR/WR, New England

He set the franchise record with a 94-yard punt return for a touchdown in the Patriots' rout of the Dolphins. The Patriots keep rolling out depth that wins games, and Edelman, who emerged last season with New England after being a college quarterback at Kent State, was having a quiet year this season until breaking a tackle just after receiving the ball, then weave-sprinting through the crowd for his touchdown.

Coach of the Week

Raheem Morris, head coach, Tampa Bay

To win 10 games in a tough division in what appeared clearly to be a rebuilding year ... amazing. As was the 23-13 upset of the Saints in New Orleans. The Bucs had lost their previous major tests this year, but not Sunday. The impressive thing about watching Tampa play now is its young players in vital roles and not shrinking from them. Thirteen of the Bucs' 45 dressed players last week against Seattle were rookies; on Sunday, 12 were. Merging that many young guys into the game is a great accomplishment for a coach.

This Is When You Know It's Time To Retire Dept.:

Brett Favre, 41, whose daughter Brittany turns 22 next month, got hurt twice this year.

The first came when, after looking downfield for 24-year-old Sidney Rice, Favre got creamed from behind by 22-year-old Buffalo linebacker Arthur Moats. That resulted in a damaged shoulder.

The second came when Favre targeted 23-year-old running back Toby Gerhart against Chicago, and the quarterback had his head drilled into the turf by 23-year-old defensive lineman Corey Wootton of the Bears.

Favre's career stat line, compared to that of Peyton Manning, who will chase Favre's numbers for the next six or seven years:

The most interesting thing to me? Manning turns 35 in March. He'd need to average 4,319 passing yards and 28 touchdowns a season over the next four years to own the two most significant quarterback records in history -- yards and touchdowns. If uninjured, he's likely to break both. But that's a big if. (Of course, Manning could get a big assist from the NFL if it goes to an 18-game season in 2012, as expected.)

The Washington Redskins holiday card plays "Hail to the Redskins'' when you open it.

JetBlue, which is as humane an airline as there is (well, maybe except for Virgin), had this interesting come-on for its in-flight food on the back-of-seat video screen Friday when I flew to Pittsburgh: "EAT UP: Try our selection of tasty hand-selected boxed meals.''

How do you "hand-select'' a "boxed meal,'' exactly?

***

Thanks to the swell generosity of my employers at NBC, I took nephews Vince and Luke Ranalli to the Winter Classic on Saturday night. We had seats about halfway up on one of the blue lines. They are college students in the Pittsburgh area and they, in turn, took me to their friends' tailgate, where I learned several things I didn't know about tailgating, the Pittsburgh-Washington rivalry, and hockey youth in Pittsburgh:

1. There is this strange custom called a "Keg Stand'' that all kids evidently do now. You stand next to the keg, put both hands on the side of the keg, have two others lift your legs so that you're upside down, and, at that point, a third person takes the beer nozzle from the keg and puts it in your mouth while you drink it. A fourth person pumps the keg. And everyone counts the seconds you can last. (Dumb me, I didn't even know what this thing was, and it's apparently the most common of drinking games.) I didn't do it, thankfully. But congrats to Brittany, the biggest Sidney Crosby fan there is (who must be all of 102 pounds), who was able to last 24 seconds. Drinking upside-down. What a country.

2. I'd been to last year's Winter Classic at Fenway. This year was totally different. Last year was a fun game with two NHL teams. This year was a class war between two teams that hate each other and two fan bases that do too. Luke, who got all emotional when he sat down for the game ("This is the best night of my life!'') compared Caps fans to communists in America in the fifties. Hey, at least he's learning something over there at Robert Morris.

3. Sign leading into Heinz Field, from a panhandler shaking a cup: "Even the homeless hate the Caps.''

4. Everyone in this tailgate -- and I mean every one of the 12 to 15 college-age kids -- is watching the 24/7 Caps-Penguins show on HBO. They recite the lines and scenes the way they recite heavy-metal lyrics. Amazing. I've seen a couple of the shows. They're ridiculously good, shining a light on a cultish sport that can only do one thing: make a sport that should be a lot more popular, more popular.

Best moment so far: Two Penguin rookies returning from a meal on the road the night before a game in Buffalo to find all of their furniture in the hallway. All of it -- beds, lamps, desk, everything. One of the kids says: "We're going to find out who did this! And then probably do nothing about it.''

One final note about this event: I'll go every year I am able. It's the Super Bowl of hockey. NBC's Jon Miller and his partners in this game at the NHL had a brilliant idea a few years ago, and it only gets better every year, even with the vagaries of the weather.

"Rob Ryan probably shouldn't show Sunday's reel during his head-coaching interviews.''--@greggrosenthal, Rotoworld Managing Editor Gregg Rosenthal, after Ryan's Cleveland defense collapsed in the first half Sunday and fell behind Pittsburgh 31-3.

Reviewing my preseason forecast, this much is clear: If I were a meteorologist, I'd have called for sun and light winds on the day last week's blizzard hit the northeast. The best and the worst from my summer predictions (see them here and here) for the 2010 season:

The Best

I said:

1. The Steelers and Packers would go a combined 22-10 in the regular season and reach the Super Bowl. They went a combined 22-10 and are alive for it.

2. I picked the correct record for Philadelphia (10-6), Washington (6-10), Cleveland (5-11) and San Diego (9-7). For eight other teams -- Oakland, Tennessee, Pittsburgh, the Jets, the Giants, Green Bay, New Orleans and Seattle -- I was one victory off. So on 12 of 32 teams I was on target or pretty close.

3. Justin Tuck would be the defensive player of the year. He's in the ballpark, but he won't win.

4. Pick Arian Foster high in your fantasy draft. A good piece of advice considering he led the NFL with 1,616 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns.

The Worst (uh, it's a longer list)

I said:

1. John Fox would be coach of the year and Carolina would make the playoffs. The Panthers were the worst team in football, and Fox (which was not unexpected, regardless of how he coached this year) won't be back.

2. Dallas, San Francisco, Carolina and New York would be the four NFC teams playing on wild-card weekend. None made the playoffs.

3. Ryan Mathews and Dexter McCluster split my vote for offensive rookie of the year. Not a mention of Sam Bradford or Maurkice Pouncey.

4. The Falcons would go 9-7 and not make the playoffs, while the Patriots would go 10-6 and be an AFC wild card. Atlanta and New England have home-field advantage through the playoffs.

5. The Chiefs would finish last in the AFC West at 6-10. Kansas City won its division.

6. In my worst display of prognosticating since, well, since John Fox, I said the Bucs would finish with the worst record in the league (2-14). Tampa Bay won 10 and was in playoff contention until Sunday afternoon.

And that, dear readers, is why they pay me the big bucks.

Regarding the Panthers: As Fox told me late last night, "I never thought you were very far off on your predictions. But unfortunately you were.''

1. I think this is what I liked about Week 17:

a. Ed Werder finally gets his life back. The ESPN reporter and good friend of mine covered 11 Vikings games because of the Favre factor, and deferred coverage of the rest of the National Football League because he was one of the very few (the only?) reporters Favre communicates with regularly.

b. Think there's a chemistry between Drew Brees and Reggie Bush? Last four games: Brees threw 19 passes to Bush. Nineteen completions.

c. Tom Brady, the sixth player in history to throw a touchdown pass in every game of the season since the NFL went to 16 games in 1978.

d. "I guess the Patriots are really trying to solidify their position at the top of the BCS?'' AOL Fanhouse's Dan Graziano wrote as the Pats played Tom Brady into the third quarter of a 31-0 game, a game with no playoff significance for the Pats. Good line.

e. Great miking of Tim Tebow on Showtime's Inside the NFL the other day, from Tebow's touchdown run against Houston. "There's only one person that carries the ball right here!'' he said to the sidelines. "One person that carries the ball!'' And he did, and he scored.

f. Twelve catches for Jerome Simpson of the Bengals, more fodder for the anti-T.O.-and-Chad faction.

g. Ed Reed. Two straight two-interception games now. The ball just finds him.

h. The touchback man, Billy Cundiff. He finished the season with 40. Quite a weapon when two and a half times every game you don't let the kick-returner touch the ball.

i. New England's won six in a row by 21, 42, 29, 4, 31 and 31 points.

j. Brandon LaFell, giving Carolina its only highlight of the day at Atlanta with a 60-yard run on a reverse.

k. The maddening Chargers.

l. The interesting Raiders, who became the first team since the AFL-NFL merger to be undefeated in division games and not make the playoffs.

m. Jamaal Charles, who finished the year with 1,467 yards.

n. The Raider pass-rush, which tormented Matt Cassel and sacked him seven times.

o. Not even sure what the 158-yard performance by rookie Joe McKnight means for the Jets, but congrats, kid.

p. Rob Gronkowski, with his 10th touchdown as a rookie. No rookie tight end since Mike Ditka scored as many touchdowns.

q. DeMarcus Ware winning the NFL sack title for the second time in his career. He had three against the Eagles Sunday to boost his total to 15½. He had a league-high 20 in 2008.

2. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 17:

a. You don't get carries in the playoffs by fumbling at the goal line, Julius Jones.

b. Nor you in midfield in a 20-20 game, Dominic Rhodes.

c. Rumors about Mike Holmgren appointing himself head coach. Bad choice, Mike. You need a 15-hour-a-day grinder for this job. You don't want to do that, and you know it.

d. A loss to the Patriots, even by 31 points, I get. Losses to Cleveland, Buffalo and Detroit in 22 days, now there something I don't get. Tony Sparano's got some explaining to do.

e. Chad Henne. Miami's got to find another answer at quarterback.

f. Tim Tebow's inaccuracy.

g. Way to tune up for the playoffs, Chiefs. KC had 201 yards.

h. Jahvid Best sure ended the season on a dud note, being hurt and ineffective.

3. I think this is my take on the Favre/Sterger story: In the end, Brett Favre stonewalled and got penalized by the league, and Jenn Sterger got betrayed by an acquaintance who turned incriminating photos, allegedly of Favre, over to Deadspin. She was certain the league had enough evidence to suspend Favre for sending her the photos, but the same forensic crew that investigated Favre for her also investigated the case for the league -- Charlie Casserly reported that for CBS Sunday, and he's right -- and the crew couldn't say with 100 percent certainty that the pictures were of Favre and sent by Favre.

At the end, the league didn't buy that Sterger was sexually harassed by Favre, in part because the league's investigation of the case didn't find a trail of Sterger complaining about Favre.

I'm sure we all have our opinions of what Favre did, and how much exactly the league could prove in the case, but what the league could prove was a couple of awkward wooing-type phone calls from Favre to Sterger, and in the absence of more solid documentation that Favre harassed her, the league felt it couldn't go further.

My problem is the size of the fine. If Goodell felt Favre either lied or obstructed the investigation, it's a wrist-slap to have Favre pay one third of one percent of his salary as the sanction.

4. I think this is the first time you could say this since Barry Sanders played: It must be fun to be a Lions fan.

5. I think the saddest thing to realize this morning is that this might be the last day we can dissect a 16-game slate of NFL games for 10 or 11 months. Or 20.

6. I think this is everything that's wrong with the Pro Bowl, and the reason I pay it hardly any attention: Rodney Harrison played 15 years in the NFL as an enforcer safety. He and Ray Lewis are the only defensive players in NFL history with 30 career sacks and 30 interceptions. Brandon Meriweather has played four seasons in the NFL. He was benched twice this year for performance reasons. Still, Meriweather made the Pro Bowl this year, his second Pro Bowl berth. Harrison made two Pro Bowls in his career.

7. I think the Philadelphia Eagles shouldn't consider trading Kevin Kolb for anything short of three first-round picks. Ridiculous, of course. But think about it. Kolb's salary is manageable next year at $1.4 million. We haven't seen Mike Vick play a full season in forever. And if Vick goes down in September, do you want your season resting on the right arm of Mike Kafka? Kolb has more value by far than a normal top backup would have, because there's such a real chance of the starter getting hurt. So don't be tempted, Andy Reid. (Not that this offseason is going to business as usual anyway.)

8. I think the story of this season that will be quickly forgotten but shouldn't be is how Randy Moss disappeared faster than the Coors Light at a Penguins-Caps outdoor hockey game. Think of this: The Patriots shocked the football world in October by dealing Moss to the Vikings for a third-round pick. Since then, for the Vikings and the Titans, Moss was as invisible as a former megastar could be. His Minnesota/Tennessee stats: 18 catches, 236 yards, two touchdowns. That is one meaningless acquisition ... by two teams.

9. I think Andrew Luck should get a copy of the interview Sam Bradford did with Bob Costas last night on NBC ... if part of Luck's thought process on coming out includes worrying about going to the Carolina Panther because they're so far down. The St. Louis Rams -- now, that was far down last winter, with a 6-42 record in their previous three years. And Bradford did as much as he could to turn that team around, and almost took it to the playoffs in his rookie year. Not to write a script for NFL.com or anything, but all things are possible, Andrew Luck. Anywhere in the league.

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

a. Jeanette Pohlen, how does it feel to have played the best game of your life in the biggest game of your life? Stanford's Pohlen scored 31 to key the Cardinal's 71-59 upset of UConn's record-breaking women's team. A bummer for all Nutmeggers -- like me -- but very good for the sport to see a good team stand up to Goliath. If the NCAA is smart, it'll find a way to put Stanford, Baylor and UConn in different brackets come March, to give those three a chance to meet in the Final Four again.

b. Classy reaction from Geno Auriemma on Stanford's gallant team and superb defensive effort: "They made us play bad. They're really good.''

c. Dumbest officiating decision of the new millennium: The "excessive-celebration'' call on Kansas State wide receiver Adrian Hilburn after he scored in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium Thursday to narrow Syracuse's lead to 36-34. Hilburn ran into the end zone, got to the back of the end zone, stopped, quickly saluted the crowd in the end zone, and ran to his bench. Two officials flagged him for the excessive celebration that to any witness other than a zebra would not have seemed excessive.

A 1.5-second stop, salute and run to the bench? In the House that Steinbrenner Built? George Steinbrenner, arguably the most patriotic of all Americans until his death last summer, is rolling over in his grave that a simple salute -- whatever its intent -- would cost a team 15 yards. The officials ruled the celebration was, in their words, "delayed, excessive and choreographed.'' I have three words for the officials' explanation: "dumb, dumber and criminal.''

So Kansas State, needing a two-point conversion, had to attempt it from 18 yards out and failed. Just a terrible abuse of power by the officials, and more so by the NCAA for making rules that micromanage what a team can do in the end zone after a score. They want these guys to be monks. Absolutely stupid.

Then, in the other bowl game that day, the Tennessee quarterback, Tyler Bray, threw a touchdown pass and gave the crowd a double throat-slash ... and got nothing. Nice rules you've got, NCAA.

d. Good luck in the new marriage, Jim Nantz. You deserve it.

e. You're telling me the best job you could get out there is Maryland, Randy Edsall?

f. I mean, I know Maryland might be a sleeping giant in the eyes of some, but is that the one job you leave a Fiesta Bowl team for?

g. Hey Geico: You can retire the lizard. We want Maxwell the pig, who cries "Wee wee wee'' all the way home.

h. Coffeenerdness: Said it before and I'll say it again: The dark-roast coffee at Pittsburgh convenience store Sheetz is worth passing by Starbucks for. Almost

i. Beernerdness: Had a bunch of different beers in the run-up to New Year's Eve, from far-flung breweries. My pick: Victory Pima Pils, from the Victory Brewing Company in Downingtown, Pa. Bordering on the bitter, but tremendously smooth with a taste of a German pilsner. Never had it before, but I liked it a lot. I did have one beer on a very wimpy New Year's Eve in Pittsburgh -- a highly recommended Arrogant Bastard, from California.

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