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Two unheralded players are quickly becoming vital to their teams; mail

Detroit 24, Chicago 13: I don't remember seeing a game that featured the rising-star aspects of one team and exposed the faults of another so decisively.

The Lions: Defensive tackle Nick Fairley, making his NFL debut in the Detroit win, didn't have much of an impact Monday night, and in the grand scheme of storylines for the biggest game in Detroit in years, he was a non-story. But his significance to the whole of what Jim Schwartz wants to do began to emerge on one three-technique rush of Jay Cutler in which he forced Cutler out of the pocket, dove for his feet and nearly had a weirdly athletic sack. Another brick in a formidable wall -- that's Fairley. As long as the Lions can be good enough on offense -- and I don't think you should look for style points after putting up 24 points and 395 yards -- they will be a force to be reckoned with.

The Bears: Nine false starts. Nine! And 14 accepted penalties. Give a loud crowd of 67,861 credit for some of that. But nine times in 56 snaps (one in about every six plays). Are players that undisciplined? An offensive line that had Jay Cutler (who was as good as I've ever seen him) uncomfortable all night and running for his life part of it. A defense that allowed 395 yards, including an 88-yard rush by Jahvid Best. A cheap-hitting safety, Brandon Meriweather, that now Smith is going to have to police and change the way the Patriots tried, and failed, to do.

A lot of times you'll hear coaches say, "We're going to go back and clean a few things up, and we'll be fine.'' Lovie Smith needs to do more than cleaning when the Bears gather in Lake Forest Wednesday to begin preparations for the Minnesota game Sunday night. Reconstructive surgery would be more apt this week. I worry about Cutler's future, and whether he'll still be healthy enough to be a top-10 quarterback by the time the Bears get the offensive line fixed, more than anything right now.

***

Now for a couple of players who starred Sunday, and have become indispensable pieces of their teams.

Jimmy Graham, tight end, New Orleans: In the category of unlikeliest stories of the 2011 season, New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham's journey to premier player status has to be in the top 10. Graham realizes he has no business being an NFL star right now. But after the last three games -- all Saints victories, all 100-yard receiving games for him -- that's certainly what he is. The proof:

It's not just the production -- it's the significance of Graham to an explosive offense. In those three New Orleans wins, Drew Brees has looked for Graham 34 times, 11 more than any other receiver in his stable. Graham's 32 catches and 496 yards through five weeks lead all NFL tight ends.

"I've been incredibly blessed,'' Graham told me the other day. "To go from being a college basketball player for four years to playing one season of college football, to the Senior Bowl, the Scouting Combine, and then to one of the most electric offenses in the NFL, with the greatest leader I've ever been around.''

Graham played four years of college basketball at the University of Miami and was a marginal NBA prospect. He might have got invited to an NBA camp after his final basketball season but instead chose to take the advice of Miami football coach Randy Shannon and retired Hurricane and Cleveland quarterback Bernie Kosar, both of whom told him he should use a fifth year of college to try his hands at football.

"I always wanted to come out of the smoke," said Graham, referring to the pyrotechnic display that greets Hurricane football players when they run onto the field for home games. "I also really admired the camaraderie of all the football players who played at Miami. It's such a unique thing."

So he played tight end for the Hurricanes in 2009 and had some modest success: 17 catches. Then came the invitations to the Senior Bowl and to the Scouting Combine. Graham's size (6-foot-6, 260 pounds) and startlingly fast 4.5-second time in the 40 gave the Saints reason to pick him in the third round. After being schooled at the position by another former Hurricane, Jeremy Shockey, for a season, Graham had the training wheels taken off this year by New Orleans coach Sean Payton. The Saints didn't bring the oft-injured Shockey back, and trusted the inexperienced Graham enough to hand him the starting job. Great decision. Brees' faith in him shows through at the biggest times, as in a close game at Carolina Sunday. On one third-quarter series, Brees went to Graham three times, even though Graham had either a safety or cornerback on him.

"It is surprising," Graham said of his ascension to favored receiver status with an offensive juggernaut. "Drew is easily the smartest football player I've ever played with. Each week, our offense evolves and is different ... That's the biggest thing I've had to get used to. We do so many different things each week, and you know on any pass play that Drew can come to you.''

I'll be writing about Graham more in the coming weeks, because his story is an inspirational one about not giving up despite some ridiculously long odds in his adolescence. The Saints wouldn't be where they are right now without him.

Doug Baldwin, WR, Seattle. Hard to ignore a free agent who, according to the Seattle Times' Danny O'Neill, came to training camp with just three changes of clothes, unsure how long he'd stay. Especially after his eight-catch, 136-yard performance at the Meadowlands Sunday, capped by his winning 27-yard touchdown catch from Charlie Whitehurst.

Two months ago, no one in Seattle had heard of Doug Baldwin. Where exactly did this guy come from, and how is it that he's leading a team that's not as bad as we thought in catches and receiving yards?

"This isn't a story about me,'' Baldwin told me after his game Sunday. "It's a story about this team. We don't quit.''

Valiant words, but let's go selfish on Baldwin for a bit. When he graduated Stanford last year, he went undrafted, but after scoring nine touchdowns (on throws from Andrew Luck last year), the 5-10 Baldwin was a candidate for NFL rosters in free agency. It seemed likely he'd follow Jim Harbaugh from Stanford to the 49ers. But the Niners took a late-round receiver in the draft -- USC's Ronald Johnson, in the sixth round -- and the Seahawks were very interested when the free agent signing period began. "In the grand scheme of things, Seattle's opportunity was better, and Seattle gave me the best chance to make the team,'' Baldwin said.

Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell knew they needed a slot receiver, and Baldwin fit the bill perfectly after playing in such a sophisticated pro-style offense at Stanford. So the fit has been perfect. He's caught 20 balls in five weeks -- and only the far more famous Julio Jones and A.J. Green have caught more among rookies so far this season. He's a little acrobatic, a little slippery, and exceedingly sure-handed. Seattle quarterbacks have told coaches that he catches anything in the same zip code. He reminds some who watch him of Brandon Stokley -- an undersized tough guy who can ping-pong off defenders over the middle and never drop a ball.

"It's still surreal to me,'' he said. "That I'm able to live my dream here so quickly has been amazing. I knew I'd have an opportunity somewhere to prove myself at the highest level of football, and I know what I could do if I had the chance. But I needed the chance -- and Seattle gave it to me.''

***

Now for your mail:

APPARENTLY MY SARCASM WAS LOST ON A FEW PEOPLE -- MORE THAN A FEW. "I've been reading your column every Monday since 1996 and most times I get something out of it; a tidbit of information about the game, a cool insight I wouldn't have known otherwise, or something of that order. Agree or disagree with you, I've come to respect your journalism, so I'm somewhat perplexed by number 5 of your Ten Things, where you say, "The NFL would fall apart without me.'' I'm assuming that was written with tongue planted firmly in your cheek. If you could explain a bit more, I'd appreciate it. How and/or why would the NFL fall apart without you?''-- Andrew Snyder

Google "NFL fall apart'' and you'll see. But yes, it was sarcastic. And thank you for being a loyal reader. I wouldn't be where I am right now, or have the forum I do, without readers like you. I really mean that.

THE EAGLES FLOP. "Love your column. First, I know the Eagles secondary has lots of big names, I really don't think all of those players lost their abilities over night, but they look atrocious. Do you think the safeties are the biggest problem when it comes to the Eagles struggle against the pass? From watching games it looks more often than not the cornerbacks are expecting help over the top or on the inside routes but it comes late or isn't there at all.''-- Chris Ballard; Devon, Pa.

What I think is that, first and foremost, Nnamdi Asomugha should be head-up, man to man, on the best wide receiver the opposition has every week that they play. If you sign a $12 million corner and then don't use him to do what he does best, that's your fault, not his. I think the biggest problem is the corners aren't being used to play the way they'd play best.

STATS ARE STATS. THEY DON'T TELL THE WHOLE STORY."In the game between the Patriots and Jets, Tom Brady threw a very catchable ball to Aaron Hernandez that bounced off his hands and was picked off by Cromartie. Yet Brady was charged with an interception. Interceptions also happen when receivers run poor routes or run to the wrong spot on timing patterns because they failed to correctly read the defense. Why doesn't the NFL recognize that some interceptions are simply not the fault of the QB? Why should the QB pay when a receiver makes the mistake?''-- Rick Kovar, of Prague, Czech Republic

Wow -- you watched the Pats in Prague! Good for you. Rick, all I can say is that stats don't perfectly illustrate anything. They tell a good bit of the story but not everything. And if tipped interceptions shouldn't count, should balls that are tipped and end up as touchdowns count? How would we ever be able to place blame on an interception if we started factoring in receivers running the wrong way? I understand your point, but those things usually even out over time.

OKAY. "How about passing on your love affair with Wes Welker for one week and talking about the other great receiver story this year -- Jimmy Graham. In only his second year in the NFL and his third overall playing football, he is third in the league in receiving and has become Drew Brees' go to guy. Yesterday was his third straight 100+ yard receiving game, yet no mention of him at all in your column again.''-- Gerard Kaiser, of Northport, N.Y.

Your wish is my command.

ON TRADES THAT NEVER HAPPEN. "From MMQB: 'Accorsi was determined to draft Dan Marino if he couldn't get Elway. The Raiders, not Denver, with Elway. The Colts, not Miami, with Marino. The Colts, presumably, still would have moved to Indianapolis a year later ... and would they have been in position in 1998 to take Peyton Manning? Would Marino have been so broken-down in 1997 and played so poorly to ensure the Colts the first pick in the '98 draft? Probably not. If Davis had pushed a little harder in 1983, who knows how the landscape of the game would have been altered.' ... While it is sometimes interesting to think about these "What ifs," they always assume the players involved would have the same career they did in their original places. That is not really true. Different teammates, environment, series of opponents, etc, would all combine to make some sort of difference.''-- Gregg Andrews, of Oakville, Ontario

Sure. But do you think Elway would have been a very good player for Oakland? And do you think Marino would have been a very good player for the Colts? I do. And do you think Denver and Miami would have been historically night-and-day to what we've thought of them over the last 30 years with Elway and Marino? I do.

THIS IS AN INTERESTING THOUGHT. "With all the on-screen graphics on a football field now, all the replays, why are announcers still watching field goals and saying, 'That probably would have been good from 60 yards.' I would love to see an actual graphic measurement on long field goal replays showing, 'This field goal would have been good from 67.2 yards.' The technology is there, the interest is there, kickers like Janikowski make this stat quite exciting. Can you get this done?''-- Michael Abernethy, of Austin, Texas

Personally, I can't. But all you TV execs out there: Can you?

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