Before we get to the teams still playing for something, I bring you the most disappointing team of recent years, the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles. In the span of seven days at home, the Eagles blew their season by doing what they've done all year: disappear down the stretch. The 3-6 Eagles have been to fourth quarters what John Lackey is to baseball free agency. Their two-month history of fine fourth-quarter play:
Week 2: Up 31-21 at Atlanta with 14 minutes left. The Matt Ryan-led Falcons twice drive 80 yards to touchdowns. Eagles lose, 35-31.
Week 3: Up 16-14 over the Giants at home with 10 minutes left. Eli Manning takes the Giants on 54- and 56-yard touchdown drives. Philadelphia offense snoozes again. Eagles lose, 29-16.
Week 4: Up 23-17 over San Francisco at home with six minutes left. Alex Smith drives the 49ers 77 yards to a touchdown. Jeremy Maclin fumbles with the Eagles on the doorstep to win late. Eagles lose, 24-23.
Week 9: Up 24-20 over Chicago at home with 14 minutes left. Jay Cutler drives the Bears 51 yards to a touchdown and 54 yards to a field goal. Eagles lose 30-24.
Week 10 (Sunday): Up 17-14 over Arizona at home with five minutes to go. Arizona's third-string quarterback last year (behind Derek Anderson and Max Hall) and its second-stringer this year, Fordham Ram John Skelton, drives the Cards 87 yards in 11 plays. On third-and-10 from the Eagle 38, rookie safety Jaiquawn Jarrett, making his first career start, is left alone in coverage on Larry Fitzgerald, and Skelton rainbows a pass to Fitzgerald to the one-yard line. The Cards score three plays later. Skelton throws for 166 yards in the fourth quarter. Eagles lose 21-17.
That, folks, is how to blow a season right there.
The stories of week 10:
1. Tim Tebow came, he saw, he ran the Veer, he conquered. On a gorgeous 67-degree day in Kansas City with weather being no factor, the Denver Broncos completed two passes, never trailed and forged a three-way tie for second place in the mighty AFC West. Denver 17, Kansas City 10. Victories since Oct. 23: Tebow 3, Tom Brady/Michael Vick/Philip Rivers (combined) 2.
2.Mike Smith makes a curious call, and the Saints take command of the NFC South. The Falcons coach channeled his inner Belichick, went for it on fourth-and-inches from his 29 in overtime, didn't make it, and the Saints kicked a field goal a couple of minutes later to win 26-23. "First we were going to punt the football,'' Smith said, "then we had a change of heart and I wanted to go for it.''
Don't read the papers today, coach.
3.The 49ers might never lose again, but don't you dare call them good. "The longer we can keep the players from knowing they're good, the better,'' Jim Harbaugh told me over the din of the Niner locker room after San Francisco held off the Giants 27-20 at Candlestick. Interesting little turnaround the 8-1 Niners have coming up: home with Arizona Sunday, then at Baltimore four days and three time zones later.
4.The Bears are eating teams alive, and the Texans cannot lose without two of the best players in football. Chicago pulverized the reeling Lions. The Bears have gotten back in the playoff race by winning four in a row by 65 points. The Texans have also won four straight -- by 90 points. Wasn't supposed to be this easy without Andre Johnson and Mario Williams, but it sure looks it.
5.Get the ticker-tape ready, Indy: The 2012 Draft is 23 weeks away, and you can't lose Andrew Luck now. The Colts are one of the worst offensive teams the league has seen in years. Proof: They went to Dan Orlovsky Sunday for a spark. More proof: They've been outscored 137-27 over the last four weeks. But as I said on NBC last night, Indy's all but clinched the first pick in the April draft. The Colts have 10 losses, with games at New England, Baltimore and home with Houston remaining. No other team in football has more than seven losses. It's almost inconceivable that the Colts could lose the first pick now.
6. And more: New England all but wins the East (is this some tape loop?), the Steelers make it a very bad day in Cincinnati (what else is new?), and Dallas creeps to within a game of the Giants (have you looked at their schedules?).
How do you not love what the Broncos are doing?
We media geniuses have had our fun in the last few weeks. Tebow will never make it. Tebow can't transition to the NFL. Tebow's game is a college game. The Broncos are playing the guy just to show the fans it can't work, and then they'll move on to a real quarterback.
"After a while,'' coach John Fox said from the Broncos locker room Sunday, "you come to the realization that Ernie Els' golf swing is different than Lee Trevino's, but it's what they're comfortable with, they both work, and they both win.''
When Tebow took over as quarterback four games ago in Miami, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy tailored a few things to him, but the Broncos basically ran their regular offense, the one Kyle Orton used to go 1-4. They lucked out in that win at Miami, then tried their luck against Detroit, with McCoy calling 46 pass plays and 30 runs in the 45-10 loss to the Lions. "We got shellacked,'' Fox told me. "We were so one-dimensional, and we were banging our heads against the wall. I remember back in '06 in Carolina, we had a bunch of injuries, we were losing and we had to go play a really good Atlanta team. We basically invented the Wildcat for Chris Weinke that week and went into Atlanta and won the game. So here, we just figured let's try to do what Tim's comfortable with. It's just coaching. Doesn't matter if you coach JV, high school, college or the pros -- when you've got different kids, you need to do different things. Figure what your players can do, and adjust to them.''
So in the last couple of weeks, practices have been different for the Broncos. "Lot of dive options, pitches, play action, trying to get Eddie Royal the ball wide,'' Fox said. "Practicing what Tim does well, and oh yeah, I'd say that part [of the gameplan the last two weeks] has grown.''
In Oakland eight days ago, the Broncos ran it 39 times (for 299 yards) and called 22 passes; Denver won 38-24. In Kansas City Sunday, the ratio was out of control: 55 runs, eight passes ... and that was after losing the top two backs, Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno, to injury, and running a third-stringer, Lance Ball, 30 times. The offense is not necessarily designed to get Tebow running; of their 94 runs in the last two weeks, Tebow's had only 22. The offense uses Tebow the same as at Florida, as an option pilot. As Tebow said after the game Sunday, he doesn't care how often he throws or passes or hands off -- his job is to survey the defense and make a judgment how to attack as the play, millisecond by millisecond, develops.
Can it work long-term? Doubtful, but who knows? Who'd have ever figured, in the Aerial Era, a team going 2-0 running it 76 percent of the time? That's what Denver's done the last two weeks. Tim Tebow hasn't completed 50 percent of his throws in any of the five games he's played this year ... and he's lost only once.
I expected to hear the "yeah but'' at some point from Fox -- like, This is great, but it can't last long-term. Instead, I heard in Fox's voice, Why can't we win this way?
"The division has come back to us,'' Fox said. "We've got a great opportunity here, and that's what I've told the players.''
"So,'' I said to Fox, "is Tebow your quarterback the rest of the way?''
"At this rate,'' he said, "I would say yes. Now, who knows? But he's running the offense well, and he's not turning it over.''
The Broncos are a game behind Oakland, the team they clobbered last week. The battered Jets come to town for a Thursday-nighter this week, and the advantage for Denver is simple: The Jets have a short practice week to figure out a new offense and have to travel. Who knows? Ride the wave.
One of my favorite statheads loved what Mike Smith did in the New Orleans-Atlanta game at the Georgia Dome. As did his players, apparently. "All of the talking-head dummies and Monday morning quarterbacks will second-guess but I still think it was the right call,'' tackle Tyson Clabo told Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. (I think I am both.)
The situation: Overtime, 23-23, Falcons ball, fourth-and-a-foot at the Atlanta 29. Smith sent out the punt team. Then he changed his mind and decided to go for it. He had a 245-pound back, Michael Turner, and an interior line he trusted to get a foot. Smith knew, of course, that if the Falcons failed, the game was over. If they gained nothing in the next three plays, the Saints would send out John Kasay to win it with a 46-yard dome kick; just a few yards would put him in the lock zone. Kasay was 15 of 15 from inside the 40- this year. So Smith knew the consequences of a miss. Miss equals loss, basically. Which is exactly what happened. It was reminiscent of two years ago, when Bill Belichick went for it, with a lead, on fourth-and-two from his 37- at Indianapolis, failed, and watched Peyton Manning march down the short field to beat New England. That's where we first got to know Brian Burke, a former Navy fighter pilot and huge football fan. He runs a website called AdvancedNFLStats.com, and he was the first to say Belichick actually made the right call based on the performance of teams in similar down-and-distance-and-game situations over the previous decade. So I called him to ask what he thought of Smith's move.
"I thought it was smart,'' Burke said. "It just didn't work.''
According to Burke, judging Smith's call by using data of all similar game situations over the past 11 years found:
• If Atlanta punted the ball, the numbers say New Orleans would start its drive on its own 33-yard line, and the Falcons would have a 42 percent chance of winning the game. If they went for it on fourth down, they had a 47 percent chance of winning.
• If Atlanta went for it on fourth down, they had a 74 percent chance of making it. But, as Burke pointed out, that includes all fourth-and-one calls, including fourth-and-inches and fourth-and-a-yard-and-a-half.
• If Atlanta went for it and got the first down, they had a 57 percent chance of winning. If they went for it and failed, an 18 percent chance of winning.
I guess where I fall on this is simple. I'd rather make Drew Brees drive the ball 45 yards into comfortable field goal range, with all the risks that entails, instead of taking the 26 percent risk that I wouldn't make the first down. Making the first down, by the way, would mean exactly this: a little better than 50-50 chance the Falcons could drive the ball for a touchdown or into field goal range.
Quick hits around the league:
You don't want to play the Bears right now. The defensive front is voracious, and even though they gained only 216 yards, the Bears scored in typical Bear fashion: three field goals, a Devin Hester punt return, two interception returns (by Charles Tillman and Major Wright), one Matt Forte run. The offensive line got hit again Sunday with the loss of left guard Chris Williams, but you just figure they'll plug-and-play Lance Louis there when Gabe Carimi comes back from his knee injury in a couple of weeks, and they'll muddle through.
"The way we're playing now is what we're capable of,'' Brian Urlacher told me last night. "We're playing fast, the way our defense needs to play. One of the reasons we've turned it around is our coaches wouldn't put up with mistakes; they held us accountable and we cleaned them up.'' Chicago, 6-3, is tied for second with Detroit now, 2.5 games behind Green Bay. I asked Urlacher if the Packers could be caught. "I don't see anyone beating them twice,'' he said, meaning he didn't see them losing two games. "It looks like a fight for the Wild Card for us, but that's fine. We just want to get in.''
The 49ers are suffocating people. San Francisco's very quietly putting together a Pittsburgh-type of run-defense season. Through nine games, the Niners haven't allowed a rushing touchdown. Think of that. Tampa Bay allowed three -- yesterday. Foes have gained 64, 45, 79, 108, 86, 66, 66, 52 and 93 yards rushing in the Niners' nine games. "It's all about our front, and about our two inside linebackers [Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman] being very active but very physical too,'' said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. "Our stoutness up front has been a big part of what we do.'' Imagine some of the playoff matchups. Niners against Matt Forte. Niners against Michael Turner ... or the Niners shutting down Green Bay's run and making Aaron Rodgers throw it 45 times. I might pay to see that one.
Belichick catches Parcells
The Patriots' victory over the Jets Sunday meant Bill Belichick tied his old New York (Giants and Jets) boss, Bill Parcells, for ninth place on the all-time coaching victories list (including playoffs) with 183. It'll be tough to catch No. 8 this year -- Chuck Knox, with 193. How Belichick and Parcells compare historically:
Brady/Belichick pass Marino/Shula
Fitting that in the Year of the Pass, one of the new legends passes one of the old ones. Tom Brady and Belichick became the winningest quarterback-coach combination of all-time, beating a familiar couple of faces.
GALLERY: NFL's WINNINGEST COACH-QUARTERBACK TANDEMS
How much should you be worried about that defense, Packer fans?
Let's ask the guru, Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers, heading into the Monday-nighter against the Vikings.
"I don't like the way we're playing,'' Capers told me the other day. "I like the way we're taking it away, but I don't like all the big plays we're giving up, and we need to communicate a lot better going forward if we're going to fix this. But the one thing I remember about last year was it was just about this time when we started playing well on defense. We went to New York and shut out the Jets, we held the Cowboys to seven points and the Vikings to three. Then we won our last six [including postseason] and played pretty well on defense using a lot of people. We found our niche. Now we've got to do that this season.''
So it's been done. But not since mid-2009 have the Packers given up this many points (65) in consecutive games. According to ProFootballFocus, the trio of corners who helped the Packers win the Super Bowl last year (Tramon Williams, Charles Woodson, Sam Shields) allowed nine touchdown passes all of last season; they've allowed eight this year through eight games.
I watched the tape of the Packers-Chargers game, and two or three times one defensive back would turn around after a play and yap to another. Williams, on one play, lit into a couple of his mates, presumably for not providing the safety help he thought should have been there. From talking to Capers, that's what he meant by the communication problems. I saw a defense bothering the quarterback enough but breaking down badly in the back end. "Not up to our standards, but that's sort of been the pattern this season,'' Capers said. "Their long run of the game was nine yards, which is good. But they had seven pass plays of 20 yards or more. That we can't allow.''
Capers, in piloting two expansion teams, said the plan for great NFL teams hasn't changed. Build a defense, find a quarterback. In Carolina, he did it with Kerry Collins and a stingy defense built through the draft and free agency. In Houston, he tried to do it with David Carr and defense, but both weren't up to NFL averages. He looks at the Packers now and sees a team with a great quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, and what should be a good defense. And he knows it's foolish to expect Rodgers to put up 40 points every week, because sometimes great offenses (see: New England, Super Bowl, 2008) have an off day. He understands the impression fans have: If the Packers are going to stay unbeaten, they're going to have to have Rodgers win shootouts.
"I understand why people would think that,'' Capers said. "We just have to stress communication with the guys, everybody being where they're supposed to be, because when they are, we definitely should make the plays. But we've done it before. Last year, Tramon and Sam covered as well as any two corners in the league. We can get back to that level. I've seen it.''
You'll get an excellent indicator tonight, with rookie Christian Ponder coming to Lambeau Field with all the distractions and noise attendant to that experience for a visiting quarterback. If the Packers struggle holding the Vikings down, you'll know it's going to be pretty tough to keep this undefeated streak alive in the coming weeks.
Retired players not pleased with Legacy Fund
The NFL and the NFL Players Association announced Thursday a plan, pursuant to the July labor agreement, to distribute $620 million over 10 years to the men who played before 1993, the players who had been getting pittances for their pensions. "Nothing the league can do can ever full express our appreciation to the players who helped build our league,'' commissioner Roger Goodell said in the league's release. "However, the Legacy Fund is a significant step, especially as the benefits apply to the older players.''
I put pen to paper over the weekend to figure out the increases for long-retired players. Hall of Fame running back Leroy Kelly, for instance, played 10 seasons, retiring in 1973. He is 69. Kelly had been receiving a monthly check for $176. (So low because he'd chosen to take his monthly pension at 45 instead of waiting 10 or 15 years for it to mushroom.) Under the Legacy formula, a 10-year vet who retired before 1975 will now get $1,840 per month. That's a 945 percent increase. Now, instead of getting $2,112 a year in pension, Kelly will receive $22,080 annually.
So I expected Kelly to be pretty pleased when I reached him at his home in Willingboro, N.J., Saturday.
"No comment,'' he growled. "I really have nothing to say.''
A minute later, Kelly finally said: "Anything is better than nothing, I guess. I think the [retired] guys are happy to get something more, but it's just not enough. The NFL takes in, what, $4 billion more than baseball in a year? Baseball players have a great pension. I can't understand why we can't get at least $60,000 a year for the work we've done in making this sport what it is.''
Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure, who has become a spokesman for retired players, said he's heard from 12 players since the announcement, and the retirees felt the same as Kelly.
"We still have sub-poverty pensions in the NFL, and I don't just blame the league -- I blame the union too,'' DeLamielleure said. "You talk about $22,000, but that's before taxes. I emailed Roger Friday and said, 'I'm very disappointed to say the least. You told me you'd make this better. Why do you continue to punish the pre-'93 guys?' ''
DeLamielleure said the players he's spoken to are "disillusioned, angry and totally depressed'' that the pension isn't more generous. "There are days I could cry, listening to their stories,'' he said. "And now it's worse, because they were waiting for some hope, and even though this is more than they were getting, it's still nothing compared to what other sports do.''
I spoke with a baseball union lawyer, Rick Shapiro, on Sunday, and he told me a 10-year veteran baseball player who retired any season in the '70s would be getting a pension of between $112,000 and $200,000, depending on the prevailing rate of return on the pension plan's investments. Let's use $112,000. That's still $90,000 more per year than a similar NFL player would get.
An NFL spokesman emailed me Sunday and called the Fund "an unprecedented and substantial increase'' for the retirees, which it certainly is. But it still pales in comparison with baseball, and that's something that will always irk football players because football is a much more popular sport today. And I should also reiterate that DeLamielleure is as angry with the union as he is with the NFL; he believes both should be more generous with the retired players.
A few words about Penn State from a student I know well
I asked Emily Kaplan, a friend of mine from New Jersey, a Penn State junior, and a writer for the campus paper the Daily Collegian, to write something about how the campus was dealing with the Sandusky/Paterno crisis. Her report, filed Sunday night from State College, Pa.:
The origin of the iconic "We Are ... Penn State" chant, the school's signature slogan on and off the football field, is believed to have occurred the same year Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. In the pre-Paterno year of 1947, SMU didn't want to play Penn State because of PSU's two African-American players and wanted to negotiate a compromise. "We are Penn State," said captain Steve Suhey. "There will be no meetings."
So began the battle cry of unity, as all Penn Staters, to this day, consider ourselves part of a special family. Suhey's son Matt starred at Penn State in the 1970s, and Matt's son Joe played fullback for the Lions Saturday against Nebraska. Walk into a crowded room and shout, "We are ... " and any Penn Stater would know how to respond. The chant represents pride, respect and tradition.
Today, we are Penn State ... but we are ashamed. We are ashamed that our leaders who preach doing the right thing and "success with honor" dishonored all of us with their inaction over an alleged child-abuse scandal. We are embarrassed by the way we are being portrayed, as a football-centric school that would let a child molester walk if that meant our name would stay clean. We read the grand jury report and we are just as disgusted as anyone -- if not more. We are praying for the victims and hopeful they will find justice. We are heartbroken that this could happen here.
But as a Penn State junior, I can tell you this: We are going to be OK. We are not going to let an assistant football coach, apparently a very sick one, or a few university suits define us. For a moment, we lost our identity. We felt sorry for ourselves. We sulked that we were the victims of media scrutiny and that this scandal tarnished our school. But we are not the victims. The children are. So we will move on, working on repairing our school, while honoring those kids along the way.
Already the scandal's ramifications are swirling around campus. Four students apparently lost their spring internships because companies didn't want to be associated with Penn State. Corporate sponsors are supposedly pulling out of THON, Penn State's annual dance marathon, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, which has raised more than $78 million for pediatric cancer. If all true, it's sad. If people don't want to wear their Penn State garb anymore, it's their decision. But this I know: We are a school with a glorious tradition, a school dedicated to doing things the right way. Our longtime father figure, Joe Paterno, taught us that.
Look, I'm no Penn State apologist. I can't condone the stupid tantrum some of my classmates threw Wednesday night after Paterno's dismissal. Nobody condones the arrogant decisions some of our leaders made. I've also heard the criticism against my school. Happy Valley is in a bubble. Penn State is too image-conscious. JoePa is too deified. The riots give some credence to that. So did the presence of 100 students at Joe Pa's modest off-campus home, many teary-eyed, waiting for him to come out Wednesday night so they could say goodbye and thank him. On the surface it seemed ridiculous. How could students still support this man who didn't do enough to help abused children?
Truth is, if not for Paterno's philanthropy and moral code (until his fatal lapse of judgment), I and thousands of others wouldn't be here right now. If not for Paterno and his grand experiment -- creating a national powerhouse football program with high academic standards -- Pennsylvania State might still be an agriculture school and State College might be lucky if there were a Wal-Mart within a 30-mile radius. Paterno made a huge mistake, but that doesn't mean he's not a good man. When he emerged from his house Wednesday night, I was there when he addressed the gathering. One of the first things he said was, "Go study."
So we will study at Paterno Library, a place Joe and his wife made happen, we will eat Peachy Paterno ice cream and we will remember the lessons he taught us about integrity and honor. We will also remember his mistake, and make sure we never repeat it.
We will fund raise harder than ever for THON, we will work harder than ever in the classroom. Our president, our athletic director, our football coach, will not be around anymore. But we will be, and we will start to rebuild our university's shattered image. Whoever our next football coach may be next season, we will stand behind him and our players. Because we are Penn State. And like the hundreds of thousands of alumni around the country, we always will be.
1. Green Bay (8-0). Minnesota comes to Lambeau Field tonight. Remember when Vikes-Pack was a game of the year? John Randle-Brett Favre ... Randy Moss-LeRoy Butler ... Dennis Green-Mike Holmgren ... Brett Favre-Aaron Rodgers. And now? It's an interesting game because of the color of the uniforms. But Christian Ponder versus Rodgers at Lambeau has the feel of Idaho versus Alabama at Tuscaloosa.
2. San Francisco (8-1). Faithful column reader Doug Kelly point out how amazing it is that Jim Harbaugh is 20-2 in his last 22 games coached -- 12-1 at Stanford, 8-1 with the Niners. The guy might be able to coach.
3. Houston (7-3). I underrated the Texans too long. They lead the NFL in point differential at +107 entering Monday night.
4. New Orleans (7-3). Sean Payton being on the field didn't happen just because he felt antsy and hated being upstairs. It happened because Drew Brees needs him there. They need to be talking and seeing each other after plays and after series. They have the best head coach-quarterback relationship in football.
5. Baltimore (6-3). I give up. Wins over the Steelers, Jets, Texans and Steelers. Losses to the Titans, Jags, Seahawks (combined 11-16). You figure out where to put the Ravens. I can't. But I can't put them behind a team they've beaten twice.
6. Pittsburgh (7-3). They won one of the biggest tests of their season -- beating a 6-2 team on the road after a disheartening loss to the archrival Ravens. The Steelers might not be able to protect Ben Roethlisberger well enough to get to the Super Bowl, but they'll be a tough out if they make the playoffs.
7. New York Giants (6-3). Two losses in the last two months. Nothing to be concerned about, losing a close game to the Niners.
8. New England (6-3). This was really the hardest week to do this list. The way the Patriots played Sunday night, I could make a case they should be third, or that the Bears could be just as high. The fact is, the consistency with teams like New England and Pittsburgh is what I wonder about now.
9. Chicago (6-3). Looking dangerous, winning four in a row by an average of 16 points. That's a fierce pass rush, even if the Bears don't get the sacks. They get plenty of pressure, and that led to four Matthew Stafford interceptions Sunday in Chicago.
10. New York Jets (5-4). I don't intend to make Rex Ryan choke on his Pop Tarts this morning, but the Jets and Patriots have met three times in the regular season in the last calendar year. Pats 3, Jets 0. Score: Pats 112, Jets 40.
11. Detroit (6-3). Starting to get worried about one of my NFC wild cards. The Lions have lost three of four and really got pummeled at Soldier Field.
12. Cincinnati (6-3). Not sure the Bengals can survive the loss of Leon Hall. They've lost both starting corners from a season ago -- Johnathan Joseph in free agency to Houston and now Hall to an Achilles injury.
13. Atlanta (5-4). I wouldn't worry about that fourth loss too much. I still think the Falcons are going to make the playoffs. Next five games: Tennessee, Minnesota, at Houston, at Carolina, Jacksonville.
14. Dallas (5-4). The Cowboys are a game behind the Giants in the NFC East. They haven't played the Giants yet, but Dallas has one advantage right now -- a 4-2 conference record; Giants are 3-3.
15. Oakland (5-4). Up one week, down the next. But the way Carson Palmer threw, the way Michael Bush mashed the Charger run defense and the way they tormented Philip Rivers, the Raiders played like the best in the West in beating San Diego for the third straight time.
Offensive Players of the Week
Dallas QB Tony Romo. Doubtful that many quarterbacks have had an hour like Romo had in a game the Cowboys had to have. He started 11 of 11 for 179 yards and three touchdowns, two to backup Laurent Robinson, and finished 23 of 26 for 270 yards. Romo did it without Miles Austin, and he looked like he'd been throwing to Robinson for years, not weeks.
Houston RB Arian Foster. With a 21-touch, 186-yard day in the shredding of the Bucs in Tampa, Foster continued to show he's not just a runner. In the six games missed by wideout Andre Johnson with the bad hamstring, Foster has 26 catches for 427 yards and a pair of 78-yard touchdowns, one Sunday in Tampa.
Oakland C Stefen Wisniewski. This easily could have gone to Michael Bush or Denarius Moore for outstanding performances in the Raiders' 24-17 win at San Diego Thursday night. But the rookie Wisniewski was superb in his first NFL start at center for the Raiders, keeping underrated nose man Antonio Garay off Palmer most of the night and blocking at the second and third levels very well. Third level? On Palmer's 22-yard screen to Bush late in the second quarter, Wisniewski sold the screen, sprinted downfield and was there to clear Eric Weddle from Bush's path. Great effort.
Defensive Players of the Week
New England DE Andre Carter. Carter knows the sporting media (me, mostly) has been all over coach Belichick for not making major pass-rush investments in the draft in the last few years. On Sunday night, Carter dragged that critique through the mud in the thoroughly convincing 37-16 Patriots rout of the Jets. Carter sacked Mark Sanchez four times, assisted on another sack, and either leveled or hit Sanchez three other times. The 4.5 sacks is a team record.
Oakland LB Kamerion Wimbley. Yes, he took advantage of the chaos on the San Diego line, but Wimbley's four sacks, constant pressure of Rivers, one more tackle for loss and a pass defensed wrecked San Diego's chance to win the Thursday nighter.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Chicago PR/WR Devin Hester. Here's what Hester said on the NFL Network's GameDay Morning show Sunday: "I don't know what it's going to take for a returner to get voted in the Hall of Fame, but I'm going to make sure that it'll be a hard decision to pass me up. There's a first for everything: I want to be the first." Hester's 82-yard, sideline-tiptoe punt return for touchdown in one of the late games gave the Bears a commanding 20-0 lead and put them in the Wild-Card driver's seat at 6-3.
Coaches of the Week
Denver coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. I love coaches who tailor their teams to their talent, and not the other way around. Fox and McCoy saw the holes in Tebow's passing game and began practicing options and pitches in the last three weeks in practice. On Sunday, they won a game with 55 of their 63 plays runs. Fantastic.
Goats of the Week
Baltimore KR David Reed. The Ravens lost by five points at Seattle. Reed fumbled on two kick returns in the first half, both leading to field goals. So he handed the Seahawks six points. That's what I call directly contributing to a loss with really bad plays.
Atlanta coach Mike Smith. I can't criticize Smith quite as much as I did Bill Belichick a couple of years ago, because the Falcons had to make about eight inches against the Saints with a good short-yardage back in Michael Turner, and the Patriots had to make two yards against the Colts. But Smith erred here. He had to know if he didn't make it, the game was all but over; the Saints would take possession and already be in position to kick a 47-yard field goal to win. The options are all well and good, but I don't like knowing if I don't gain half a yard, I've lost the game. I'll take my chances punting it, thanks.
1. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay. His MVP to lose with seven games to play.
2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. No quarterback through 10 games of an NFL season has thrown for more yards than Brees' 3,326 this year.
3. Tom Brady, QB, New England. Pats haven't lost three straight since the first year Brady was a full-time starter. Doubt it's a coincidence.
4. Justin Smith, DL, San Francisco. In Week 4, he sprinted, caught Jeremy Maclin from behind as the Eagles were going in for the winning score, stripped the ball and ended the game. On Sunday, with the Niners clinging to a 27-20 lead and the Giants at the Niner 10 threatening for overtime, Smith stopped running back D.J. Ware on third-and-two for no gain, then forced an incompletion from Eli Manning to Jake Ballard on the last New York snap of the night. If any defender in the league deserves to be on this list after 10 weeks, it's either he or Darrelle Revis, and today, with the Niners 8-1, I'm picking Smith.
5. Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants. Almost brought the Giants back from way down for the second weekend in a row against a good team on the road.
"I think that's as good a game as we've played against a team that's credible. I think overall ... I haven't felt like that since Jason has been head coach.''
-- Dallas owner Jerry Jones, after the Cowboys beat Buffalo 44-7, their most decisive win in 11 years. He referred to Jason Garrett, his coach.
"I was supposed to be studying, but I went rioting instead."
-- A female Penn State student, overheard at the State College Starbucks by NFL.com's Jeff Darlington on the morning after the campus upheaval last week.
"No, I would not go. And no, I would not want my child to go ... The black eye of this alleged cover up certainly would play a major part in my decision or that of my child.''
-- LaVar Arrington, one of the most celebrated Penn State football players in recent history, writing on his blog -- "Hard Hits,'' on washingtonpost.com -- about whether he would choose to attend Penn State if he had to make that choice today, and whether he would want his child to attend the school.
The Patriots have made 13 transactions involving safety Ross Ventrone in the last three months. They are:
Aug. 10: Waived from roster.Aug. 29: Signed to roster.Sept. 3: Waived from roster.Sept. 5: Signed to eight-man practice squad.Sept. 23: Signed to active roster. Played Sept. 25 at Buffalo.Oct. 1: Waived from roster.Oct. 4: Signed to practice squad.Oct. 8: Signed to active roster. Played Oct. 9 (Jets) and Oct. 16 (Dallas).Oct. 17: Waived from roster.Oct. 19: Signed to active roster. Played Oct. 20 (Pittsburgh).Nov. 4: Waived from roster.Nov. 9: Signed to practice squad.Nov. 12: Signed to active roster. Played Nov. 13 (Jets).
Totals: Ventrone has been signed to the roster five times, waived five times, and signed to practice squad three times.
For his troubles, Ventrone, an undrafted free agent out of Villanova, has one career tackle -- a third-quarter stop of Jeremy Kerley of the Jets after a seven-yard punt return in Week 5.
In April 2005, Centre County (Pa.) district attorney Ray Gricar, who decided not to bring child-assault charges against Jerry Sandusky after an incident with a young boy in 1998, disappeared without a trace in Pennsylvania and has never been heard from since. His car was found in Lewisburg, Pa., near the Susquehanna River, and his laptop computer was found in the river.
In May 1996, Gricar's brother Roy, who lived in southwest Ohio, disappeared not long after being fired from his job in Dayton. His body was found days later in the Great Miami River. His car was found parked near the Great Miami River, and authorities ruled his death a suicide.
I don't know what that means. I just find it a horribly bizarre coincidence -- I think.
Walking down Second Avenue in Manhattan about 11:30 Sunday morning, I noticed three 25ish people walked toward me. A woman was flanked by a man in a black Maurkice Pouncey Steelers jersey and a man in a black Hines Ward Steelers jersey. They seemed to be in search of a Steelers bar to watch the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati game. The guy in the Ward jersey was singing, "Here we go, here we go, Pittsburgh's goin' to the Super Bowl.''
If you've been in Pittsburgh to see the Steelers, you know exactly what that song is.
Only in New York, kids. Only in New York.
(In the immortal words of Cindy Adams.)
"Team coverage of Eagles' collapse on local NBC affiliate is hilarious ... News reporters at different locations, covering it like a murder.''
-- @AlbertBreer, the NFL Network reporter, apparently in his hotel room in Philly this morning.
"Shame on PSU riotters. The only message they are sending is we are becoming a morally bankrupt society.''
-- @daryljohnston, the former Dallas running back and current FOX analyst.
"FORTY THOUSAND DOLLARS!!!!!!!!"
-- @RealRClark25, upon learning he was fined $40,000 for a hit the NFL deemed excessive in the Baltimore-Pittsburgh game.
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 10:
a. Aaron Curry looks reborn rushing the passer in Oakland. He's playing much faster and freer than he did in Seattle.
b. Carson Palmer. Great touch on the ball in San Diego. He will make Hue Jackson look like a genius if he plays that way every week.
c. The Raiders overall. They'd lost 13 straight to San Diego before last season. Now they've beaten the cool guys down south three straight. There's good depth on the offensive line with Stephon Heyer playing well at guard after Wisniewski had to move over to center to replace the injured Samson Satele.
d. Stat of the TV Weekend, from the NFL Matchup show: In the two Patriots-Jets games before Sunday, the Jets played seven defensive backs on 38 percent of the New England offensive snaps. Think about that. There are teams that don't play seven defensive backs on any snaps. Jets did it on almost four of 10 over eight quarters.
e. Might not go down as a catch of the day, but Heath Miller's reception, with Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson taking a flying shot at him half-a-second after the catch, and the ball never budging in Miller's grasp.
f. Nice job on James Harrison, Andrew Whitworth.
g. Mister Alexander's in the game!
h. Rashard Mendenhall, for the best effort run of the day Sunday, capping an 11-play drive to give the Steelers a 24-17 lead late in the third quarter.
i. FOX had a good stat about Drew Brees in the second half: He's completed at least 20 passes in 30 straight games. All I could think when I saw that is that Tim Tebow has a long way to go.
j. Brilliant play call by Cam Cameron, the pitch to Ray Rice, and lefty touchdown pass by Rice to Ed Dickson.
k. Players ending in "kowski'' for the Patriots. Rob Gronkowski and Steven Gostkowski combined for 23 points, enough to outscore the Jets Sunday night.
l. The Bears, who back down from no one.
m. Marshawn Lynch, Sunday's definition of workhorse. Thirty-two carries, 109 hard yards in the win over Baltimore.
n. Good find, Niners, in Carlos Rogers.
o. I don't remember ever seeing Karlos Dansby not playing hard. Ten tackles, a sack and an interception in the game against Washington.
2. I think this is what I didn't like about week 10:
a. San Diego's depth. Both lines got abused by the Raiders.
b. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark: How do you not break up that touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to A.J. Green? I mean. Polamalu seemed to just watch it happen. Weirdly irresponsible.
c. Two drops in the first 16 minutes by Jimmy Graham. Rare.
d. It will go down as a Roethlisberger pick, but it should go down as Heath Miller handing a simple catch, bobbled, to a Bengal.
e. I don't like struggling all through the half, being down 16-0, having fourth-and-goal at the five ... and going for the touchdown. If you miss, you're demoralized. You kick the field goal, and you're on the board, two possessions away from the lead. Raheem Morris did it just before halftime -- and failed -- and went into halftime down 16-0.
f. Oct. 9, road: Bucs lost to Niners 48-3. Nov. 13, home: Bucs lost to Texans, 37-9. Has any team ever lost two games by 28 or more and won a playoff game that same season?
g. Thomas DeCoud gets beat for a touchdown and a couple of minutes later makes an easy tackle and celebrates like he just won the Super Bowl. Emote, fine. Be professional, better.
h. Why passer rating is overrated (and maybe this should be the final straw for me to stop using it so much): When Tebow threw his fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Eric Decker, he was 2 of 8 for 69 yards, with one touchdown and no interceptions. His rating: 102.6. Brady's rating for the season: 102.0.
i. Dumb rule of the week: Giving an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to a coach (as in Gary Kubiak at Tampa) for throwing the challenge flag on a questionable play ruled a touchdown. Come on. That's not a 15-yard penalty. It's just not.
j. Bad loss for the Bears: Left guard Chris Williams gone, likely for the year, with a dislocated wrist. He had surgery Sunday.
k. The Ravens. Don't give me any excuse about a cross-country trip. Stupid. That is a ridiculous loss.
l. Pats cornerback Devin McCourty. Looked like he hurt his shoulder in a collision late in the game, and before that, he was awful. Mark Sanchez picked on McCourty early and often, and the Patriots really have to be wondering when he's going back to shutdown corner mode, which is what he was most often as a rookie last year.
3. I think, 10 minutes into the Cards-Eagles game, you could just feel the bright Philadelphia season slipping away. DeSean Jackson was banned from the team Sunday, benched for missing a Saturday meeting. (And as Mike Florio reported on Sunday night on NBC, Jackson is starting to be seen by his teammates as a self-preservationist, perhaps saving himself for his next contract after his rancorous summer demands to get a new deal.) Jeremy Maclin went off with a hamstring injury early and never returned.
The other thing that's wrong with the Eagles, I sense, is that not enough guys in that locker room are bleeding with these losses. There's no Brian Dawkins, no Jeremiah Trotter, just a bunch of new guys playing together for the first time.
4. I think the best you can say about the Bills right now is: Fun while it lasted.
5. I think, as I said Sunday night on TV, you'll see John Skelton start his third straight game for Arizona next Sunday against the Niners. No one's saying Skelton's a good quarterback, but Kevin Kolb was 1-6, he's hobbled with a turf toe, and now Skelton, though he hasn't played much better than average, is 2-0. I don't see any way coach Ken Whisenhunt benches the guy with the hot hand.
6. I think the injury that hurt the Jets Sunday night was one some of you probably didn't see because you'd have been in bed. This one might really hurt. Late in the fourth quarter, trying to score three touchdowns in the last few minutes, the Jets sent LaDainian Tomlinson running left. The Patriots had an unlikely guy, wideout/return man Julian Edelman, covering the slot receiver late in the game, and he upended Tomlinson with a hard shot to the thigh. Tomlinson limped off. Since there's a Thursday night game nearly 2,000 miles away in Denver, the Jets are going to wake up this morning praying their best back can go in this very short week.
7. I think you probably shouldn't ask the coaches in these Thursday night games how they like them. Imagine you're the Jets. The NFL schedules you to play Sunday night at home and then Thursday night, two-thirds of the way across the country. You don't even leave the stadium until 1 a.m. Monday. And you practice Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, cramming a week's worth of prep time -- for the defense, prepping for the strangest offense in the NFL, the Denver veer (hey, let's call it the "Denveer'') -- into three days, then you fly 1,617 miles and get into the hotel in Denver Wednesday night. And Thursday, it's showtime.
8. I think I found it interesting in the wake of the Penn State scandal to note that lots of NFL scouts and personnel people do not like Penn State and hate going there. I was told by more than one front-office official of a team how hard it was to scout Penn State players. As one said to me, whereas a school like Iowa will allow scouts on campus every Monday through Thursday during the football season to watch tape, talk to coaches, watch practice and talk with players, Penn State normally has one week in the fall, maybe two or three days, when scouts are allowed on campus. Sometimes it's the team's off week, so when scouts come in, they don't see the players or their practice if the coaches have given the players a day or two off.
I wondered whether that might have made any difference on draft day. It's impossible to draw any significant conclusions, but it's interesting. In the last eight years, Penn State has won eight more games than Iowa, but Iowa has had three more players drafted (29-26) by NFL teams.
9. I think these are my Penn State thoughts. If you've read or listened to me expressing an outsider's view on Paterno over the years (I don't know him at all), you know I thought it absurd that an 84-year-old man, particularly one who has had health problems, was coaching a major-college football team. Hanging on the way Paterno did was not gallant; it was selfish. I admire his giving and his devotion to the university, and I believe he deserved better than to be fired on the phone Wednesday night, particularly because there's so much we don't know about the case that caused him (justifiably) to be terminated. But he'd hung on way too long. The New York Times had a telling photo the other day of Paterno at practice last week, sitting on his golf cart -- and appearing to be asleep. My thoughts on the week:
a. There will never be any doubt in my mind that this whole story could have, and should have, been exposed in 1998, when the district attorney of Centre County, Pa., where the university is located, failed to take solid evidence of Jerry Sandusky's relationship with a young boy to a grand jury. That DA, Ray Gricar, never said why -- even though Sandusky was confronted by the mother and tacitly admitted something had happened and said, "I wish I were dead,'' which was overheard by two eavesdropping officers. (Gricar disappeared in 2005 and hasn't been heard from since.) Even if Sandusky had been tried and found innocent, the trial would have cast a spotlight on Sandusky . Who knows how much of the other alleged abuses could have been prevented if Sandusky knew after 1998 the world was watching him?
b. There is a weight of supposition that Paterno should have done something more than he did when his grad assistant, Mike McQueary, told him he witnessed Sandusky with a young boy in a shower at Penn State in 2002. McQueary told Paterno about it the next day -- though what precisely he told Paterno is not crystal clear. McQueary told the grand jury he witnessed Sandusky raping the boy. Paterno told the grand jury that McQueary told him of Sandusky "fondling or doing something of a sexual nature.''
Paterno waited until the day after that to notify his superiors of McQueary's report. Paterno said the other day, "I wish I had done more.'' The weight of evidence is piling up that Paterno should have done more, and he's going to have to bring some compelling reasons why he should not be found exceedingly morally negligent in the case, at the least.
The reason I refuse to bury him yet is there is no need to. There's a need to know more first. What precisely did McQueary tell Paterno? I mean, precisely. That's unclear. I've had football people tell me in the last few days just what Barry Switzer said the other day: Paterno had to know what was going on with Sandusky over the years, and the same with members of the staff. They had to know. I think there's a good chance that is true. But do we know Paterno knew? No.
And what of the evidence that Paterno and Penn State buried the truth about Sandusky after the 2002 incident, enabling more years of the alleged abuse to happen? Certainly the university's sanction of Sandusky -- reporting him to his children's charity and taking away his keys to the locker room and telling him not to bring children on campus -- is laughably light if they believed what McQueary told them. But does this fall on Paterno? There will be time to sift through everything at trial, and to see what blame lies with Paterno.
c. I don't think this should be a country of guilty until proven innocent, and I'm having a little problem with the angry national supposition that Sandusky is suspect 1 and Paterno 1a.
d. I do think Paterno should have been fired, as I said, because the university had to draw a line in the sand and (though it hasn't done so yet) say a new football program will have to be built from scratch.
e. Should Sandusky be found guilty of these horrific crimes, there will be scores of people with scarred reputations for eternity, including one presumed-dead prosecuting attorney.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. St. John's starts a JuCo transfer named God's gift Achiuwa. He is from Nigeria. His father is a minister, and God's gift was named for the family's devotion to God.
b. I worry about the NHL. Last week, on the same night, all starting at 7 p.m., three teams within 35 miles -- the Islanders, Rangers and Devils -- all dropped the puck. And 97 miles south of the Devils' rink in Newark, the Flyers played. Also at 7.
c. And Quebec City can't get a team?
d. I Rick-Perried on Friday night on our NBC SportsTalk NFL preview show on Versus, stammering until I remembered Tampa Bay GM Mark Dominik's name. Thing is, I remembered.
e. Had fun Friday night at the Rawlings Gold Glove awards in Manhattan. Three observations: Mark Buehrle looks like a bowler from the Midwest, which he is ... The guy who got the loudest ovation of the night would surprise you. Yadier Molina ... I could not stop howling at Jerry Seinfeld's 50-minute set. Never saw him do standup live. Big mistake. "One thing I got out of the 2011 season as a Mets fan: Found out there are three Gatorades,'' he said, and revved into how, for years, the "green bilge water'' (his words) sufficed, and now we have to drink something before, during and after our workouts to survive. You had to be there.
f. Weirder casting job: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe? Or Leonardo (I Was Just The Kid in Titanic) DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover?
g. Coffeenerdness: Too many baristas in Manhattan get Starbucks drinks wrong. Some of these stores are so overrun with customers that the assembly-line-ness of it all must get to them. They hurry, they err, and all you want to do is get out of there so you don't make a big deal that the barista has screwed up the drink.
h. Beernerdness: Not a big beer week for me. Don't you just hate when work intrudes on life? But any bar/restaurant that has Allegash White from Portland, Maine (the best white beer I've tasted) is OK with me ... and there are two of them within 10 blocks of me on the east side of Manhattan. Lucky me.
i. Saw The Mountaintop, the Broadway play about the last night of Martin Luther King's life, featuring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. Acting was brilliant. The story? Not memorable. I knew how good Jackson was before this, but I hadn't seen Bassett often, and she was really good.
j. Long live Wilson Ramos. Glad you're still alive.
k. Jonathan Papelbon? I'll miss him. But at some point, I'm glad to see some slight fiscal responsibility for a guy who was pretty adventurous a quarter of the time, maybe more.
Green Bay 37, Minnesota 19. In games like this one, which I don't expect to be competitive for four quarters, I like watching matchups. Jared Allen chasing Rodgers is one, and it will be an excellent one. But it's going to be interesting to see how much the Vikings get from Antoine Winfield, the small but physical and clinging cover man who has missed six weeks with a neck injury and returns at a vital time. But the Packers will romp, because Winfield cannot clone himself.