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Epic wild-card weekend sets up two classic rubber matches in AFC

NEW YORK -- What a weekend. What a Saturday -- the best wild-card day ever, in my opinion. What a run by Marshawn Lynch. What resilience by Matt Hasselbeck. What a way to enter the twilight for Peyton Manning. What incredible roster depth by Green Bay on Sunday; that's what beat the Eagles and sent the magical Mike Vick home. And what a setup in the AFC for this weekend: Steelers-Ravens, Pats-Jets. "Come on,'' Terrell Suggs told me after he and the Ravens throttled the Chiefs to get to the NFL's final eight. "This is the game America wanted to see, us and Pittsburgh. And the Patriots and Jets too. That's going to be some great football right there.''

The AFC is quite sane this weekend, with those East and North rivalry matchups. But Green Bay-Atlanta and Seattle-Chicago in the NFC? Just another reason why it never pays to pick the chalk in the NFL. This is the fifth straight season the defending Super Bowl champ didn't win a playoff game. That's the biggest upshot of the weekend -- New Orleans was a very surprising one and done. Check out the sad, recent Super Bowl hangover story:

2005 Pittsburgh Went 8-8, didn't make playoffs

2006 Indianapolis Lost to San Diego in divisional round

2007 New York Giants Lost to Philadelphia in divisional round

2008 Pittsburgh Went 9-7, didn't make playoffs

Five other nuggets of the weekend that fascinate me. One: How the Bengals helped Seattle pull it off. Two: How the ghost of Bill Walsh is going to help Jim Harbaugh do his job. Three: The inexplicable Jim Caldwell timeout. Four: The 2011 Hall of Fame dreams that live, and the 11 Hall dreams that ended Sunday. Five: How Brett Favre's favorite general manager had a very, very good weekend. Plus some other observations.

We'll start in the Pacific Northwest, where I think the Seahawks have to be wondering, Did that really happen?

***

Give the Bengals -- yes, the 4-12 Bengals -- credit for doing something right.

I learned a lot about 35-year-old Matt Hasselbeck Saturday. He can still play and can still throw the beautiful deep ball that attracted Mike Holmgren to him a decade ago. One of the things that makes a player good is that he doesn't get overwhelmed by the moment. And against so many odds, Hasselbeck didn't shrink from the moment in the 41-36 upset of the Saints -- he grabbed it and choked the damn thing.

"I think you're probably overstating what happened here,'' he told me 90 minutes after Seattle, a 10-point 'dog, sent the Saints home early. "Ed Werder asked me the same thing -- like, how did it feel to be a part of one of the big upsets of all time. I just don't see it that way. We all thought we were going to win.''

Well, they're delusional. They must be. Either that or Pete Carroll hypnotized them into thinking that. I credit Hasselbeck. Haven't we all retired him already? This was supposed to be his last game in Seattle. I'd already started wondering which broadcast booth he'd end up in next fall, or which young quarterback he'd be signed to tutor as a backup. But he scorched the Saints early and often, abusing a secondary I was sure would handle him and his weak group of wideouts. He ended up with the four touchdown passes.

Hasselbeck showed how a smart quarterback who's been diligently prepared by a good staff, and who knows exactly how much air to put under the deep ball (attention Mike Vick), is dangerous -- and will be a threat in Chicago Sunday if the Bears aren't careful.

Last week, quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, who should take a bow alongside Hasselbeck for the offensive explosion, installed a play they'd seen the Bengals run against New Orleans five weeks ago. In it, Cincinnati had the tight end dive to cut block a rushing linebacker, then wait a moment, get up and look for an opening in the Saints' D -- while Carson Palmer and the rest of the offense seemed to be going the other way.

The misdirection play confounded the Saints, and the Seahawks stole it for the game plan Saturday. "We just did a good job of scheming them, and that play's a perfect example,'' Hasselbeck said. "It's the kind of play where you've got two or three guys throwing cut blocks, and you sell run, and it looks terrible, but if you run it right, the tight end ought to be able to get free.''

The Saints were up 17-7 early in the second quarter, but Seattle was driving and at the New Orleans' seven-yard line. Tight end John Carlson flailed away at the feet of safety Roman Harper at the snap of the ball and stayed down to "finish'' the block as Harper watched Hasselbeck fade to the right in the pocket. As Hasselbeck got set to throw, up popped Carlson and he ran left from the line. Harper froze in the middle of the field. With Carlson alone at the goal line, Hasselbeck found him for a touchdown pass the quarterback's 5-year-old son Henry could have thrown. Well, with a Nerf football maybe.

"That could have happened to anybody,'' Hasselbeck said. "It didn't have to be Roman Harper. He's a good player, he just happened to be the guy John blocked.''

(Be careful, Matt. Don't do something silly like defend Roman Harper, but more about that in Goat of the Week.)

The other throw I loved from Hasselbeck came in the third quarter, when one of the best cover guys in the league, Jabari Greer, with safety help over the top, appeared to have Mike Williams blanketed up the right seam. There's no way any quarterback could look at that coverage and say, "Hmmmm. Let's go to Mike Williams here.'' But Hasselbeck did. His arcing rainbow -- with terrific protection, by the way -- found Williams' outstretched hands near the goal line. The 38-yard touchdown throw, Hasselbeck's fourth, was the dagger that made it 31-20.

"I was trying to hit [running back Justin] Forsett and let him do something with it in the open field,'' said Hasselbeck, "but he had two guys on him ...''

Well, so did Williams.

"I double-hitched and looked down for Mike, who was just running a clear-out route. He's so big. I just figured I'd throw it up for him with a lot of air underneath it and hope he'd be able to catch up to it.''

A more beautiful, in-stride deep ball Hasselbeck's never thrown. Greer was left to flail away at Williams as he gathered it in for the touchdown.

Hasselbeck credited Pete Carroll for creating an atmosphere of "care about it like I care about it, or you're gone." He said he wasn't thinking that, as a free-agent, this could have been his last game in Seattle, "because we've got like 29 guys in the last year of their contract -- it could be all of our last game.''

And he had just one other thought: how incredible would it be if 8-9 Seattle, the first losing team to make the playoffs, could be back in front of the home crowd at Qwest Field to play the NFC Championship Game. Seattle, the fourth seed in the NFC (and don't think this dramatic win changes my opinion that playoff seeding should be based on record and not by handing home games to undeserving division champs. But that's a diatribe for another day), could host the title game if it's a Seattle-Green Bay matchup, since the Packers are the sixth seed.

"I can't imagine it,'' Hasselbeck said Saturday night. "But we gotta win one, and Green Bay's gotta win two.''

Not anymore: Green Bay's one win away, just like the Seahawks. Talk about your basic story of the year in the NFL.

***

"F-O-L-K! Folk, Folk, Folk!''

All over New York, scenes like the one I'm about to describe must have been playing out. You see, the Football Night in America studio crew was dismissed after halftime of the Jets-Colts game, and so Rodney Harrison, Dan Patrick and I adjourned to a midtown Manhattan bar for the wrap party a little early and watched the last 10 minutes of the game on TV. Big Jet crowd at the bar, obviously, and Harrison had fun with a few guys who I believe were into their 11th Goose Island IPA when we arrived. And with 2:45 left in the game, the Jets punted to the Colts, who started a drive at their 20, down 14-13. Adam Vinatieri calmly practiced kicking a ball into a net on the Indy sideline.

"Your season's over!'' Harrison said, and the Jet fans knew what he meant. Peyton Manning, 80 yards to go and two-plus minutes left? Uh-oh.

"Watch Peyton,'' Harrison said to me. "This'll be a work of art. I played against this guy seven times, and if he doesn't score right here, I'll jump off the Sears Tower. And if he can't get the touchdown, Adam will win it with eight seconds to go. I've got two Super Bowl rings because of Adam. Amazing guy. Never worries about anything. Never saw him nervous.''

And it played out just like that -- with one unforeseen problem. With 62 seconds left and at the Jet 32, Manning had a third-and-six. He rolled right and picked out Blair White (the wrong guy, I thought), who was closely covered just beyond the first-down marker. Manning threw it anyway. The Jets had two timeouts left. A perfect throw would have converted the first down and allowed the Colts to run the clock down to the single digits and call their final timeout so Vinatieri could do what he was famous for -- make a winning kick in one of the biggest games of the year. But just like everything in this Indianapolis season, the throw was a little off. A little low. White tried to scoop it in, but it hit the ground. Incomplete.

Now the clock was stopped. Fifty-seven seconds to go. Vinatieri drilled the 50-yard kick, making it 16-14 Colts. "Rex,'' Dan Patrick said to me plaintively, "beaten by a foot.''

But even though people in these parts trust Nick Folk to make a field goal the same way they trust Mayor Bloomberg to clear snow, this thing wasn't over. And when Antonio Cromartie, in the underrated big play of the weekend, returned the ensuing kickoff to the Jets' 46, throats got very dry in Colt-land.

Harrison stood up and looked over at the Jets fans. "Your season's not over!'' he yelled, and those guys sent over beers for us.

Mark Sanchez got the Jets to the Colt 34, just in Folk's range (Folk's long enough from 55, but you have no idea if he'll make it) for the winner. And for some reason we still can't figure out, Jim Caldwell used Indy's last timeout here. Incredible call -- New York had but one timeout left, and would have had to burn it to stop the clock before Folk's field goal try. But here came Caldwell, throwing the Jets a lifeline and giving them time to talk it over.

On the sidelines, Sanchez told offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer that instead of playing it safe with a LaDainian Tomlinson run up the gut or a short, safe curl to Dustin Keller, he wanted to throw it up the right side to Braylon Edwards. Either he'd hit Edwards or he'd throw it so the corner couldn't pick it off. "The kid made the call,'' Rex Ryan said. And a perfect throw -- 18 yards to the Colt 14. Folk's 32-yard winner was a little close for comfort, inside the right upright, but the Jets went home happy. As did the guys at the other end of the bar.

"Hey, Darren,'' one of them said to Harrison. "Could you pose for a picture with my wife?''

"He thinks I'm Darren Woodson!'' Harrison said. He laughed, obliged the guy, and we all lifted a glass to Rex. Say what you want about the guy, and we've all said plenty, but in two years he's led the Jets to two playoff appearances. He's gone on the road four times in the playoffs and won three. I know, I know -- the fifth time will be the toughest, Sunday at New England. But he'll remember the most embarrassing day of his coaching career, the 45-3 loss at Foxboro five weeks ago. Some way, somehow, it's going to be a ballgame Sunday.

***

A few words about the Colts.

What sticks out to me more about the late game Saturday was the Colts losing, not the Jets winning, because the reverberations will be felt for a while. Maybe a long while. The Colts, of course, had a lot of injuries this year, but they entered the playoffs on a four-game winning streak, and Peyton Manning had bonded with some new receivers like Jacob Tamme (who had been targeted 93 times in the 10 weeks since Dallas Clark went down for the season). Besides, lots of teams enter the playoffs beat up. Look at Green Bay. Anyway, the three things Indy takes into the offseason:

• Peyton Manning, who played great Sunday, will be 35 in March. He now has played 13 years in the NFL and won one championship. The championship window, obviously, is starting to close for Manning. When his career's done, we won't be able to call him the eighth-best player of all time, which NFL Films did this fall, at least compared to the others on the list, unless he wins more titles. I'm not among those who think you have to win four or five championships to be considered the best ever at the most important position in the game, but I can't put Manning, today, over Otto Graham, Joe Montana and Tom Brady. I know that's not why he's feeling devastated today, and I know he is. But the impact on his legacy if he doesn't win another championship or two will be a big hit.

• The Colts may have to worry about Reggie Wayne, who sounds very much like he doesn't want anything to do with Manning for a while. It would have been pretty frosty between them if the Colts advanced this week. One attempted pass to Wayne, the team's best receiver? The guy who led the AFC in targets? The guy who had 111 catches this season? Ridiculous. I know Darrelle Revis is superb when healthy, but Manning just has to look for Wayne more than once in four quarters. "I shouldn't have even suited up,'' Wayne told Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star. "It's bull, man. I was irrelevant.'' Manning will say he's often done that when playing great corners over the years, like against Ty Law and Champ Bailey, but I don't think that's going to soothe Wayne.

• Jim Caldwell needs to go to clock management school. In a 28-28 game at Jacksonville in Week 4, the Jags had one timeout left and started a drive at their 23-yard line inside the final minute. They ran Maurice Jones-Drew on first down and didn't call time. They seemed content to play for overtime. But the Colts called time with 36 seconds left. Jacksonville then went aggressively downfield and got in position for a 59-yard Josh Scobee field goal to win it at the gun.

Now it's Saturday night, 29 seconds left, and the Jets have one timeout left, and they're at the Colt 32 on second-and-eight. Caldwell called time. It appeared on replays like Peyton Manning was waving his arms as if to say: "Are you kidding me?'' Caldwell gave an explanation afterward that raised more questions than it answered. Quite frankly, it was bizarre.

"I was going to make sure they couldn't take the clock down,'' he said. "Make them snap the ball. They were in field goal range. So we wanted to make them snap the ball as many times as they could." What possible merit does making sure they couldn't take the clock down --which, of course, they could anyway, seeing that it was second down and this was Indy's last timeout and the game had 29 seconds left? Very strange.

***

The Ravens are one of the best road teams I've ever seen.

Six playoff games in the past three years, all on the road. Four wins, three by double digits. Baltimore's success is more than hit-or-miss. "I think a lot of it is just being on a good team that doesn't take any plays off,'' quarterback Joe Flacco told me after the 30-7 rout of the Chiefs in Kansas City. "We like coming into hostile territory knowing if we play the way we know we can we can take the crowd out of the game. There's something about that, as a player, that is really motivating.''

There was more than that Sunday. "Ed Reed,'' Suggs said.

Reed's brother Brian, trying to escape from police, jumped into the Mississippi River in Louisiana Friday, was unaccounted for and Ed Reed played the game Sunday not knowing for sure if his brother was alive or dead, though authorities called off the search for him Saturday after finding Brian's jacket and shoes but no traces of him.

"[Ed] has the heart of a warrior, and we had to have his back today," Suggs said. "For three hours, he didn't have to worry about that other stuff. All we had to worry about was football. We wanted to make sure we played the way we know we can play, as a tribute to Ed.''

Not that Suggs was crowing after the Ravens throttled Kansas City with a classic Baltimore defensive game. The Chiefs turned it over five times and gained just 161 yards.

"Was this your best defensive day as a team?'' I asked Suggs.

"No, not even close,'' he said. "We can be more dominant. We can't just wait for the second half to shut teams down. That doesn't work in the playoffs. We've got to play better this week.''

I reminded Suggs of his great T-shirt, the one he wore often at training camp in 2009, the one with "You bet your sweet a-- I hate the Steelers'' on the back.

"Oh yeah,'' he said. "Awesome rivalry. Can't wait.''

He won't have long. Baltimore-Pittsburgh's the first game of the weekend, Saturday at 4:30 at Heinz Field.

***

Right. You thought James Starks would be a bigger factor in Philadelphia than Michael Vick.

What an odd formation we saw six or eight times from the Packers: John Kuhn, a 250-pound fullback, and 262-pound fullback Quinn Johnson lined up behind the Green Bay tackles, in front of 222-pound running back James Starks. Imagine the Packer playoff fate, for one day, being in the hands of John Kuhn, Quinn Johnson and James Starks -- free-agent from Shippensburg, fifth-rounder from LSU and sixth-rounder from the University of Buffalo, respectively -- and Starks, with all of 101 career rushing yards, running 23 times for 123 clock-eating yards.

"You know when your last 100-yard game was?'' I asked Starks last night.

"No ... well, I guess in my junior year at Buffalo,'' he said.

"Nov. 28, 2008, against Kent State -- 136 yards,'' I said.

"Wow,'' he said. "I am just blessed. This is all a shock to me.''

You have to credit GM Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy for their work this year. Green Bay has 15 players on injured-reserve, including running back stalwart Ryan Grant, and it averaged just 3.8 yards per rush in the regular season. The touchdown-scorers Sunday for the Packers were Tom Crabtree (exiled by Kansas City last year), James Jones (the player the Pack drafted to play receiver instead of signing Randy Moss, a burr in the saddle of Brett Favre in 2007) and Brandon Jackson (a mostly disappointing second-rounder in that 2007 draft).

And the hero of the day was Starks. Thompson and his staff looked past the fact Starks missed his senior year at Buffalo with reconstructive shoulder surgery and picked him late in April's draft. McCarthy looked past the fact he twice hurt his hamstring and landed on PUP at the start of the season and was virtually no factor all year; and he looked past some poor work habits late in the year that caused Starks to be inactive for two games. Last week, the Pack put a package of plays in the game plan for Starks, and McCarthy said it was simply a case of going with production. "He had the hot hand, and I rode it,'' McCarthy said.

Starks has some power, runs hard, and runs to contact; that's what I saw Sunday against Philadelphia. "He did a good job running after the first hit,'' said McCarthy.

He would have been just a good sidebar without an assist from cornerback Tramon Williams. On the last Eagles' play of Mike Vick's redeeming season, Vick threw for rookie receiver Riley Cooper in the end zone. Not a bad decision, but it was slightly underthrown. "Our attitude on defense is someone will make a play,'' Williams said. "We've all taken turns this year. When I saw the ball in the air, I knew I could make that play. I had to make it. We have this thing we say: Just do your job. That's what I did.'' He leapt high and caught it clean. Ballgame.

Starks takes on increasing importance for the Packers now. Their running backs were a weak point for much of the season, and his explosion Sunday is mindful of the Ryan Grant explosion late in 2007 and in the playoffs. In Green Bay's 20-17 loss to Atlanta five weeks ago, Packers backs rushed for 26 yards. Imagine Starks being The Man Saturday night against the top seed in the NFC. This time he wouldn't be a mystery.

***

Elsewhere:

In Jobville: I said Saturday on NBC that 45-year-old St. Louis offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was the hot name in Cleveland, and probably the leader in the clubhouse for the Browns job. That could change, but I hear they want to make a decision quickly, and Shurmur was very impressive when he interviewed with Mike Holmgren on Friday.

Shurmur points of interest: He knows Holmgren from his days hanging around the Packers occasionally when Uncle Fritz was Holmgren's defensive coordinator. He has an MBA. He coached under Nick Saban at Michigan State and Andy Reid in Philadelphia. He's tight with Browns GM Tom Heckert; they worked together for eight years under Reid in Philadelphia. He'd run the exact West Coast offense Holmgren wants run, the one Holmgren taught Reid, and the one Reid taught Shurmur. So the connections are good. We'll see this week if they're good enough

• In Oakland, where a change never should have been made, Al Davis is bound to hire Hue Jackson, who impressed the 49ers in an interview Friday, hours before they hired Jim Harbaugh

• In Denver, they're starting at Ground Zero, with Pat Bowlen handing John Elway football authority. "I definitely want someone with head-coaching experience,'' Denver vice president of football operations Elway told me Friday night. "Either in college or pro football. I want a great competitor. I want someone who is smart, very smart. And I want someone who can work well within a good football system. With Josh [McDaniels], we went out on a limb [in terms of giving the coach lots of powers] and not only did it not work, it turned out to be sort of a disaster.''

No Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden czar type as coach, then.

"No,'' Elway said. "Mr. Bowlen's been down that road already.''

Brian Xanders remains the GM, and Elway will have the final say on football matters.

In Tebowland: Also said Saturday on NBC, in one of the most widely misunderstood segments in Peter King TV history, the following: Elway told me, "I don't think Tim Tebow is a good NFL quarterback at this time.'' ... And that Josh McDaniels, were he to get an offensive coordinator or quarterback coaching job where there was a quarterback need, could well urge that team to trade for Tebow because he still believes in him strongly. And that in the event of a lockout in the spring by owners, until there is a new collective-bargaining agreement, no players can be traded, so Tebow would not be able to be dealt until a new CBA is reached.

That is all I said. But do I expect the Vikings or Dolphins or some such team to call Denver if McDaniels gets hired, to try to get Tebow? I do. Attention all assorted Rocky Mountain conspiracy-theorists: I never said, or implied, that John Elway was thinking or looking to trade Tim Tebow. And there you go.

Nnamdi Asomugha has the last year of his contract voided, runs from Raiders: This could be a bit of a moot point anyway. Now, don't all you free-agents-to-be panic out there. But one of the things the NFL is discussing in the event of a work stoppage that lasts 'til late in the preseason (or into the season) is the possibility of no free agency this season, and giving each free agent a premium to return to his team this year and delaying their entry into the free market 'til 2012.

I doubt this will happen -- let me make that clear -- because agents will scream bloody murder if, say, Vincent Jackson has to go back to San Diego after not being able to test the market this year, and being forced back to San Diego. But the logistics of free agency if a deal between players and owners were reached, say, on Sept. 1, with the first game set for Sept. 15, would be harrowing. How would 500 players fairly find new homes if something so grab-bag would open and (presumably) close after a few days? Assuming free agency does work somehow this year, keep one thing in mind: There's likely to be a salary cap with any new CBA. So the team that might be able to afford Asomugha is the team light on the salaries right now. Not Washington. Not the Jets. Not Dallas.

Jim Harbaugh is going to the videotape: I told Harbaugh there were old videotapes (maybe DVDs by now) in the 49ers training facility in Santa Clara of Bill Walsh explaining the West Coast Offense -- the same scheme, down to the terminology, that Harbaugh coached at Stanford. "Really?'' he said. "I didn't know that. I gotta go find those and dust 'em off. I'll definitely watch those.'' Harbaugh was a good hire, and at the right price, for 29-year-old Niners president Jed York.

Here's why York did a good job. He and GM Trent Baalke knew during the course of the year that they might be in the market for a new coach. (Might, I emphasize. They backed Mike Singletary until the end. But every team in the league researches its options while current players and coaches are in-house. Don't compare what I'm about to say to the Miami situation with Stephen Ross interviewing a coach while he had one, because it's not the same.)

So Baalke scouted Stanford a few times, which he would do normally, and got to know Harbaugh well. And York went to a couple of Stanford home games, watching the Cardinal shuffle its offensive lineup on every play and watching Stanford out-scheme USC.

After the Niners fired Singletary, they called Harbaugh and told him they didn't want to interrupt his preparation for the Orange Bowl, but wanted to tell him they'd want to speak to him about the coaching job right after that game. When the meeting finally took place, San Francisco offered Harbaugh five years and $24 million.

When there was noise about the Dolphins blowing him away with $7 million or $8 million a year, York called David Dunn, the agent for Harbaugh, and offered five years and $25 million and said that was it. Smart, because the last thing you want to do in a case like this is give an unproven coach Bill Belichick money, especially since there's a recent history of college coaches failing in the NFL. The first time you'd have a three-game losing streak, the genius millionaire coach would be ridiculed, putting unnecessary pressure on a job that's already hard enough.

In the end, the Niners paid Harbaugh very well, but didn't pay him so much that it would be a negative. Good hire. The 49ers are going to be a fun team to watch.

***

A few words on the shootings in Tucson.

Many of you say you don't read me for my politics, which is fine. Though I'm not about to go on any political rant here, I'll understand if you skip this section about the killing of six people and the wounding of 20 others outside a grocery store in Tucson Saturday. For the rest of you, I just ask you to do one thing today: think.

Think about our country and what kind of place it's become when a 22-year-old man can freely walk up to a congresswoman and shoot her in the head, and then kill six others, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl born on 9/11, whose parents said she wanted to have a job one day to help the less fortunate, and who, according to the Arizona Daily Star, was fond of telling her mother: "We are so blessed. We have the best life.''

The words of Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik should resonate for us all:

"The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on this country is getting to be outrageous. The vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business ... This has not become the nice United States that most of us grew up in. It's not unusual for all public officials to get threats constantly, myself included. That's the sad thing about what's going on in America: Pretty soon we're not going to be able to find reasonable decent people willing to subject themselves to serve in public office.''

Think.

I'm not blaming guns, I'm not blaming the right or the left. Time will sort out all of the issues about why Jared Loughner apparently targeted Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords for death. Whatever the reason for Loughner's actions, I don't know how we can continue to listen to the incredible public fury we hear in politics and the political media without it having serious consequences for society.

Godspeed, Congresswoman Giffords, and to the 13 other victims trying to recover. My heart goes out to the families of the six who died. I hope the rest of us can just think about Dupnik's words and bring a little civility back to civilization.

1. New England (14-2). Just so you all know, the announcement of Tom Brady winning his second Most Valuable Player award is due to come on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 6, sometime in the NFL Network's 67-hour pregame show.

2. Atlanta (13-3). I had three Falcons make my AP All-Pro team, and you might be surprised at one of them. Defender. One clue: He is from Jimmy Johnson's hometown. Answer in Tuesday's column.

3. Pittsburgh (12-4). One more week for Aaron Smith to heal. But I don't hear positive signs about him being ready for Saturday's divisional round playoff game.

4. Baltimore (13-4). Amazing start to Joe Flacco's career. He's won at least one road playoff game in each of his three seasons -- by 18 at Miami (2008), by 3 at Tennessee (2008), by 19 at New England (2009) and now by 23 at Kansas City. I can't think of another quarterback in the NFL who started his career by winning playoff games on the road in each of his first three years, never mind winning the four by an average of 14 points.

5. Green Bay (11-6). Nov. 28 at Georgia Dome: Atlanta 20, Green Bay 17. Pack, uncharacteristically, gives up 80- and 85-yard touchdown drives, and Matt Ryan throws only four incompletions all day. Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers will be in Ryan confusion mode this week. They meet again in Atlanta on Saturday.

6. Chicago (11-5). Oct. 17 at Soldier Field: Seattle 23, Chicago 20. Jay Cutler was sacked six times and completed 17 of 39 with no touchdowns. Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Martz will be in max-protect mode this week. They meet again in Chicago on Sunday.

7. New York Jets (12-5). Eighty-two yards and two touchdowns on the ground for LaDainian Tomlinson in the 17-16 edging of the Colts. That's not something I expected, and I didn't expect the 5.1 yards per rush either. He's turned out to be a much better addition than I thought he'd be.

8. New Orleans (11-6). You're tired of hearing me say this, but I'm not stopping. The Saints had five running backs on injured-reserve entering the game. Two more, Reggie Bush and Julius Jones, got hurt during the playoff game at Seattle. On the last drive of the game, New Orleans was down to fullback Heath Evans and DeShawn Wynn, signed Monday, with its season on the line. So on the biggest drive of the year, the Saints have their eighth running back and a fullback. That's it. My point: And the league wants to go to 18 games? Who'd the Saints have signed for the playoffs then? Hokie Gajan?

9. Philadelphia (10-7). Doesn't it feel like a tale of two seasons? Season one: The Mike Vick Miracle. Season two: Mike Vick Falls to Earth.

10. Indianapolis (10-7). I can't think of an offseason the Colts have entered with more questions. Bill and Chris Polian had better fix that offensive line. A franchise receiver wouldn't hurt either, because so many of the Colts' wideouts get hurt.

11. Tampa Bay (10-6). Bucs had to be sick watching that game Saturday in Seattle. In the last two weeks of the season, they beat the Seahawks by 23 and the Saints by 10.

12. Kansas City (10-7). That was certainly a nice sendoff for Charlie Weis.

13. Seattle (8-9). Welcome to the Fine Fifteen, Pete Carroll. This didn't exist when you coached the Jets or Pats. It's my pick of the top 15 teams in the league every week. You're one of them now. "I don't know where we're going, but I can't wait to get there,'' Pete Carroll said after the 41-36 shocker over New Orleans. To Chicago, coach, where you had your biggest win of the year (well, at least until the last eight days). One prediction: You're going to have a good time there.

14. San Diego (9-7). Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera is the leader in the clubhouse for the head-coaching job in Carolina.

15. New York Giants (10-6). Well, I guess we know what Tom Coughlin thinks about his critics now.

"I've been underestimated. I always find that to be a wonderful competitive advantage.''-- New San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh, after being named to the job on Friday.

"I hope John does better than I did, because I stunk at it.''-- TV analyst Matt Millen, to the Denver Post, on John Elway being handed the Broncos' top football executive position. Millen had a grim eight-year run in Detroit that left the franchise in shambles.

"There's nobody like this guy in the league. Nobody studies like him. I know [Tom] Brady thinks he does. I think there's probably a little more help with [Bill] Belichick with Brady than there is with Peyton Manning."-- Jets coach Rex Ryan, who, in praising Peyton Manning the other day, dissed Tom Brady, uttering yet another quote that those above him in the Jets' offices wish he'd never said. That one just might be featured in the New England press this week. Endlessly.

"All we need is this Luck to be drafted by Carolina.''-- Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff, to New Orleans coach Sean Payton on the field before their Dec. 27 game in Atlanta, referring to Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.

Luck, luckily for the rest of the teams in the NFC South, announced Thursday he was staying at Stanford. What a super-division of quarterbacks he would have joined, with Drew Brees (New Orleans), Matt Ryan (Atlanta) and rising star Josh Freeman (Tampa Bay) in-house. Jimmy Clausen (Carolina) just breathed a pretty big sigh of relief.

Offensive Players of the Week

Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Seattle.

In the unlikeliest performance of a distinguished career (in a game he knew might have been his last of 10 years as a Seahawk), Hasselbeck threw four touchdown passes in the first 35 minutes of the 41-36 stunner over the Saints in an all-timer Saturday at Qwest Field. Playing with a hip injury that kept him out of action the previous week, Hasselbeck completed 22 of 35 throws for 272 yards, those four touchdowns and one (tipped) interception. A vintage performance for one of the game's truly good people.

Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle.

There's no debating his 67-yard touchdown run was one of the best in NFL history. I know that covers a lot of ground, but think back to all the great runs you've seen. Marcus Allen's field-crosser in the Super Bowl, the gallops you saw from Gale Sayers on NFL Films (unless you're 55-plus and saw them with your own eyes), the scores of terrific ones by Barry Sanders that took your breath away. This one had it all. Breaking three tackles at the line of scrimmage, the speed to break away from the pack, the violent and punishing straight-arm of Tracy Porter, and the eight Saints total who had chances (some good, some vague) to tackle him. Oh, and he rushed 19 times for 131 yards in one of the upsets of the year.

Defensive Players of the Week

Tramon Williams, CB, Green Bay.

America held its breath when Michael Vick, from the Packer 27 with 44 seconds left, down 21-16, sent four receivers downfield and for some reason targeted the one playing against Green Bay's top 2010 cover corner, Williams. Intended for Riley Cooper in the back left corner of the end zone, Vick left it a yard short, and Williams leapt high to pick it off. Ballgame. Biggest play of young Williams' career. "He's played incredible one-on-one coverage all year, and I'm not surprised he made the play,'' Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.

Terrell Suggs, OLB, Baltimore.

This recognition is as much for an overall Baltimore defensive smothering of Matt Cassel as anything; the Ravens held the Chiefs quarterback to 53 net yards. But Suggs had two sacks and two more pressures of Cassel, and he must have been in his line of sight another three or four times. A great game by a great pass rusher.

Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets.

In the worst stat line in MMQB Defensive Player of the Week history, Revis had one tackle, no sacks, no forced fumbles, no recovered fumbles, no interceptions, no passes defensed. That's because Peyton Manning threw only one pass at Revis all night, and it was a one-yard completion to Reggie Wayne. I had problems with Manning targeting Wayne once (as did Wayne), but it's a measure of respect, obviously, for the clinging coverage Revis had.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Adam Vinatieri, K, Indianapolis.

In the last 20 minutes of the 17-16 loss to the Jets, the best clutch kicker of this era (and probably any era) kicked field goals of 47, 32 and 50 yards. The 50-yarder, with 53 seconds left to play, would have been enough for the Colts to win a 16-14 game, but the Jets refused to fold.

Coaches of the Week

Rex Ryan/Mike Pettine, coach/defensive coordinator, New York Jets.

Saturday's Stat of the Night: The Jets had one sack and zero additional recorded pressures of Peyton Manning ... and held the Colts to 16 points and won the game. We kept waiting for the blitzes to come Saturday night -- I'm sure Peyton Manning did too -- and they rarely did. Ryan, in his days running the Ravens and Jets on defense, had such scant success playing Manning with all his different blitzes and sub packages. So Saturday night, the Jets had 10 defensive backs active and only four defensive linemen (that should have been clue number one) and Pettine had his defenders lay back in coverage, flooding the intermediate zones especially and leaving Darrelle Revis to blanket Reggie Wayne. Pretty good result.

Goat of the Week

David Akers, you're lucky this man was so bad Saturday.

Roman Harper, S, New Orleans.

Harper picked a bad day to have the worst day, by far, of his career. The mainstay in the New Orleans secondary was badly duped on two of the first three Matt Hasselbeck touchdown passes. It was so odd to see a Gregg Williams secondary get beat up like that, and Harper was at the head of the class of dunces. Harper at least was honest with the New Orleans Times Picayune on the play that he let John Carlson flop around on the ground like a dying fish, then watched him get up and run to an open spot for a touchdown throw. "He hit me with the 'oh, crap!' screen, you know, where the guy's on the ground and everything's going the other way and all of a sudden he gets up off the ground and goes the other way," Harper said. That's your man, Roman.

This is not a convoluted stat, but then again, Baltimore-Pittsburgh is not a convoluted rivalry. When the Ravens and Steelers meet Saturday in the AFC divisional playoff round, it will be their eighth meeting in 28 months.

Think about that for a second: three games in 2008, two in 2009, three in 2010.

In inverse order, here are the scores. Amazing: last four each decided by a field goal.

2010 Steelers, 13-10Ravens, 17-14

2009 Steelers, 23-20Ravens, 20-17

2008 Steelers, 23-14Steelers, 13-9Steelers, 23-20

Baltimore by 3 and 3. Pittsburgh by 3, 3, 9, 4 and 3.

One more reason to root for labor peace in 2011 before it wrecks the regular-season schedule: There will be a Harbaugh Bowl. San Francisco (Jim) plays at Baltimore (John) in 2011.

Sunday, 9:18 a.m., Fifth Avenue and 51st Street, Manhattan:

I'm walking to get a coffee at Starbucks and just as I'm about to cross Fifth, a young guy, maybe 23, almost walks past me when he sees my Seattle Mariners sweatshirt. "SEAHAWKS BABY! How 'bout Matty Ice!!!'' he yells, and puts his hand up to give me a high-five. I give him one, and he says, "It's our year, baby. Super Bowl!''

Only in New York, kids, only in New York.

"Jets should send Sanchez to Iran so he can overthrow Ahmedinejad.''-- @BigYankeeMike, a fan named Mike Brusco, Saturday night, at halftime of a game the Jets trailed 7-0, with Mark Sanchez having missed four open receivers with throws that would have been six feet over 7-foot-6 Yao Ming's head.

"A main point of college is to figure out professional aspirations. No 1 ever begrudged zuckerberg. I hate the double standard.''-- @gcomella, former NFL running back Greg Comella, a Stanford graduate, on Andrew Luck deciding to stay in school.

Preach it.

"So if the Dolphins were your girlfriend, they'd go from breaking up with you to agreeing to go to Vegas and bringing her twin sister.''-- @PeteAbe, Pete Abraham, baseball writer for the Boston Globe, in a fine crossover move to the gridiron, after Miami went from wooing Jim Harbaugh when they still had a coach to reaffirming that the coach was still the coach and giving the coach, Tony Sparano, a two-year contract extension.

What a country.

1. I think this is what I liked about wild-card weekend:

a. There was time for a little bit of news. I hear the new AEG football stadium project in Los Angeles is very close to a stadium naming rights deal with Farmers Insurance, and the insurance company will pay at least $400 million over 20 years if the deal is consummated. Which I expect to happen.

b. That led to this good line from Mike Florio of profootballtalk.com: "So, basically, it means that, at some point, Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times will be reporting from Farmers Insurance stadium.''

c. Earl Thomas. Way to separate Lance Moore and the ball on a vital third-quarter play at Qwest.

d. Colin Cole, Brandon Mebane of the Seahawks. Big stops for four quarters.

e. Brodney Pool, the accidental safety, stopping the Colts on their first two third-down conversion tries.

f. Adam Vinatieri. I look forward to debating his candidacy for Canton one day.

g. Rex Ryan not backing down. Hey, the basic thing you realize with Ryan is he's not going to change, and if you don't like his schtick, he doesn't care.

h. Braylon Edwards' terrific catch of Mark Sanchez's high throw (surprise!) on the sidelines in the final minute at Indy. We give him endless crap for bad hands, so he should get props for making a great catch at a crucial time.

i. The nugget from Phil Simms on the Chiefs-Ravens game about seeing Ray Lewis flinch across the line from Matt Cassel, as though he might be blitzing, causing Cassel to call timeout. Good catch.

j. The Branden Albert block on Ray Lewis on the Jamaal Charles touchdown run in the first half at Kansas City. That's the kind of lock-on erasure of a great linebacker that, were I Albert, I'd make sure I got a photo of and blow up to the size of my house.

k. Great play on the third-quarter, fourth-and-a-foot stop at K.C., Kelly Gregg.

l. Shawne Merriman's second-half tweet while watching Ravens-Chiefs: "I think I just saw Flacco read a chapter in a book back there.''

m. Tamba Hali. Welcome to national prominence, dude.

n. The throw by Joe Flacco to Todd Heap on the late-third-quarter drive inside the five. Perfectly executed.

o. Great nugget by Jay Glazer on FOX, saying the hero of the weekend, Marshawn Lynch, could have been dealt to New Orleans instead of Seattle had the Bills done their due diligence. Glazer reported the Saints would have given the Bills a third-round pick at least, and Seattle ended up dealing fourth- and sixth-round picks for him.

p. All those Packers no one's ever heard of.

q. Ted Thompson, building depth.

r. Mike McCarthy, coaching 'em up.

2. I think this is what I didn't like about wild-card weekend:

a. David Akers, first and foremost.

b. Everything about the New Orleans secondary.

c. Reggie Bush.

d. Terrible play-call, giving the ball to Julius Jones on fourth-and-three-inches midway through the third quarter on a conversion the Saints absolutely had to have. Sean Payton will regret that one for a long time. That play was made for a Drew Brees sneak.

e. Delay of game on a 53-yard field goal attempt? That's one that should have haunted the Seahawks, but they overcame it.

f. Dumb play by Haruki Nakamura, trying to lateral the ball in heavy traffic after picking off Matt Cassel. You never pitch the ball in traffic.

g. The big plays, or lack thereof, by the Colts.

h. The Colts leaving too much time on the clock for the Jets to come back.

i. The Peyton Manning Sony commercial shown between the first and second quarters of Baltimore-Kansas City. Nothing against it, and I understand the way the commercial world works, with these things put together months ago, but I can imagine being a Colts fan Sunday, looking at the TV, seeing Manning.

j. Mike Vick being exposed far, far too much to injury. The Eagles had better do something about that offensive line or Kevin Kolb will play more games than Vick next year.

k. Vick's touch. That last throw wasn't awful, it just needed a little air underneath it.

3. I think I was happy to see Ed Sabol make the list of 15 modern-era finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was the most notable name in the final 15, who will have their cases heard in front of the 44 Hall of Fame selectors Feb. 5 in Dallas (Sabol for the first time).

The favorites for election are Deion Sanders and Marshall Faulk, both in their first year of eligibility. I'll have more to say in the coming weeks about the possible class of 2011, but let me touch on those 11 who didn't make the cut.

Former Giants GM George Young is a long shot now; he's probably been passed by Ron Wolf and Bill Polian in the architect class. I think Eddie DeBartolo will get to the final 15 some day as an owner of a five-time Super Bowl winner, but his accomplishments will have to be separated from Bill Walsh's to make a great case. I fear for Art Modell fans that his time has passed, and I get no sense his campaign has much traction. Paul Tagliabue, a former finalist, probably won't have a chance until a few years after this new labor deal is reached.

I was surprised Don Coryell didn't make the final 15, but I think winning 111 games and going 3-6 in the playoffs is hard to overcome, though he's such a brilliant mind who contributed so much to offensive football. Cornerbacks Lester Hayes and Aeneas Williams might be destined for Hall of Very Good; there doesn't seem to be much momentum for them. I think Kevin Greene and his sacks will one day get a deserved airing before the committee. Having the 73rd-leading punting average of all time damages Ray Guy. Playing just four full seasons hurts Terrell Davis' cause. Roger Craig didn't make it out of the first round of the finalist voting last year, and this year didn't make it to the finals. Bad sign.

4. I think Scott Pioli's biggest job in the draft process this year, by far, will be to upgrade the offensive line, particularly at right tackle. Big problem Sunday, with Matt Cassel rarely being able to set up and throw without the Ravens buzzing around his head.

5. I think this occurred to me watching the Chiefs-Ravens game: Ozzie Newsome's a pretty valuable guy. Remember when two-thirds of the league was down on Terrence Cody, the defensive tackle from Alabama, because he weighed 375, or whatever, and they were worried he'd eat himself out of the league? Newsome is an Alabama guy, obviously, and has great contacts there, and sought out the truth -- that, in the Alabama staff's opinion, the weight thing could be managed.

He used the 57th pick in the draft last April on Cody. Not a big risk for the 57th pick. On Sunday, Cody forced a Jamaal Charles fumble and brought his full 365 pounds to rest on Charles on the same play. Not saying one play should be so significant. Just saying the 57th pick is a very good time to take a guy with top 20 talent who needs to be managed ... if you've got the inside sources who tell you the guy's worth it, which Newsome has.

6. I think the NFL is littered with highly drafted safety busts over the years, but from watching football this weekend, Eric Berry and Earl Thomas will not be two of them.

7. I think it's understandable that Stephen Ross wants to do as much fact-finding as he can to be sure he has the best coach available. But this isn't a business in which you can sneak around and there aren't people waiting for your private plane when it returns to the hangar after midnight (which happened last Friday morning in south Florida, when Dolphins beat men Jeff Darlington and Ben Volin were waiting for Ross to return from the West Coast). This is football, and people are going to care if you have a coach and behind his back you go looking to see if you can hire another one to replace him.

I do give Ross this bit of credit: He did apologize for chasing Jim Harbaugh when Tony Sparano was still the coach. "Not until after I read the newspapers did I realize the anguish I'd put Tony through,'' Ross said Saturday. "I'm not familiar with going through this process, but I never thought it would be national news. I was a little naive. Looking back, I can tell you I shouldn't be talking to any coaches, seeking a replacement, until I've decided that I needed to make a change.''

Glad that won't happen again. Assuming it won't.

8. I think Mike Mayock did his future employment opportunities a very good turn Saturday in the Seattle-New Orleans game on NBC. He just always seemed to say the right thing at the right time (with the exception of saying Sean Payton shouldn't have gone for it on fourth-and-three-inches, down 14 with 19 minutes left). Would love to see him, and hear him, do more games.

9. I think if I had one football-related request for ESPN, it would be this: Please, please, please stop all these meaningless bowl games that even the fans of the teams don't care about. You know Middle Tennessee State-Miami of Ohio and Pitt-Kentucky happen because ESPN wants them for programming. Kentucky was 2-6 in the SEC this year, and the reward was a bowl game in front of friends and family, the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, at 11 a.m. local time Saturday. What do I want on instead? Anything. Bowling from Topeka. Lacrosse from Regina.

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

a. Hey Geico. This is my weekly note about your commercials. The lizard's got to be history. Abe Lincoln? Good. The woodchucks? Very good. The pig who thanks Mrs. A after screaming Wee Wee Wee all the way home? The best.

b. Thank you, Daniel Hernandez -- and to the Arizona Republicfor writing about the intern who might have saved Gabrielle Giffords' life.

c. Tremendous job by ESPN's Amy K. Nelson on Outside the Lines Sunday, in showing the effect of the blown perfect-game call on ump Jim Joyce. Excellent reporting showing the impact on a very conscientious man. "I don't want to be known as Jim Joyce, the guy that blew the perfect game. But I think that's inevitable,'' Joyce told Nelson.

d. Congress: I know you've got more pressing things on your plate, but that law you passed about commercials not being played at a higher volume than regular programming? In the Ravens-Chiefs game, unless my ears were playing tricks on me, it was happening big-time.

e. Beernerdness: Goose Island IPA was the draft of choice at the NBC wrap party Saturday night at the Playwright in midtown Manhattan, I think because the tap was a goosehead. Kept expecting it to say "AFLAC!'' The reviews were positive.

f. Coffeenerdness: I gave the Amtrak coffee one more try Friday, sucker that I am for caffeine in the morning. First sip. OK, hot enough. Second sip ... why'd I try this again? Weakest coffee on the planet. And there it sat for three hours. I guess I shouldn't complain that there's only one thing wrong with the Acela.

g. Apologies to all who bought tickets for the "Inside the Game'' events I was going to be a part of with Joe Buck and a group of retired players in Philadelphia, New York and Providence Jan. 18-20. The events got cancelled last week; I'm not a part of that decision-making process. They're fine-tuning the event and getting it ready for a 2011 rollout later in the year. Will keep you posted. Sorry for the confusion.

h. I'll be on the way to Pittsburgh for Ravens-Steelers later in the week. May see some of you out somewhere in the area Friday night.