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Leinart injury takes air out of Texans' lofty playoff hopes

Gary Kubiak's voice sounded defeated, deflated on the phone from Jacksonville, where his team had just defeated the Jaguars with a heavy heart. For the final 31 minutes of the 20-13 victory, the Texans' quarterback was rookie T.J. Yates, playing his first NFL game. The backup quarterback: tight end Owen Daniels. Nine years ago, Daniels had thrown six passes as a redshirt freshman at Wisconsin, but now this was the Houston backup plan if Yates, suddenly the most important player on the franchise, went down.

"Our first job was to settle T.J. down and get him going,'' Kubiak said, "and to make sure he was OK. We don't want Owen Daniels to have to play quarterback. So we had to manage things there.''

Imagine you're Kubiak. You've lost defensive cornerstone Mario Williams for the year, and offensive key Andre Johnson for six weeks, already this season; and in the last game, you lost your rock at quarterback, Matt Schaub, for the season. You get the ship steadied by spending two weeks (including your bye) getting Matt Leinart ready to play quarterback for his first meaningful snaps in four years. And 28 minutes into his first game, Leinart gets dumped on his throwing shoulder and, apparently, cracks his collarbone.

For Kubiak, and for the franchise, this is the best chance they've had in a decade of mostly bad football. And now, a freaky foot injury and a that's-football shoulder injury have left the team with a rookie trying to nurse the team with the best defense in franchise history (that really wouldn't be hard, though this defense really looks special) and a great running back and great receiver into the playoffs. A bye in the first round? Heck, the Texans will take hanging onto their two-game lead in the AFC South and just making the playoffs now.

"I feel terrible for Matt Leinart,'' Kubiak said, sounding crushed. "When he came here from Arizona, he was at the bottom. The absolute bottom. And he worked and he worked, and he's become a good professional quarterback. He goes out today and is 10 of 13 and throws a beautiful touchdown pass, and now this. You don't know what to say to him. I just said, 'Bud, I know how much this hurts you. I feel for you. But I am so proud of you.' Good things happen to good people, and good things will happen to Matt.''

Just not this year.

So Houston will take an Atlanta kid, Yates, who played amid the rubble of the North Carolina program, and try to beat his hometown Falcons and then the Bengals in the next two weeks. They'll get backup Kellen Clemens ready (he was signed after Schaub went down), and sign another backup, possibly Brodie Croyle. The savior won't be Brett Favre, barring a major change of heart from GM Rick Smith and Kubiak. "I don't think so,'' Smith told me about Favre postgame. "I don't want to bring the circus to town.''

The Texans have been the high-flying Texans in the last couple of years, having to outscore teams to win. Now they'll try to win with defense and a running game. After a seven-sack show in Jacksonville, it's amazing to think the Texans are now as reliant on Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed to win as they are on Arian Foster and Andre Johnson. What a story to watch down the stretch.

In other news from week 12:

***

Brady climbs Mount Montana. I remember a few years ago Tom Brady's father telling me how significant it was that his son had won the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award. Young Tom, he said, would come home from school on Thursdays in the fall and look for SI to read about his 49ers and his quarterback, Joe Montana.

On Sunday, Brady caught his ex-idol, winning his 133rd game (regular-season and playoffs), matching Montana's career number. Brady did it at 34. Montana won his 133rd at 38. So there's time to stretch the record off into the distance. Doesn't that seem ... premature? Or strange that Brady's caught him with so much time left to play? I suspected, even four and five years ago, that Brady might one day catch Montana on the wins and stats list. Just seems odd to be here already, but here we are.

Measuring the two all-time greats:

***

I thought Devin Hester was a once-in-a-generation return man. You mean there's another? Amazing thing about Arizona rookie Patrick Peterson's history as a return man at LSU: He didn't have one. "I really wanted to do it," Peterson said by phone from St. Louis, where he'd wrecked another team's punting unit. "I always asked my coaches if I could do it, and they said, 'You have to wait your turn.' I'd say, 'Coach, I can make things happen.' But I only got to return 26, in my junior year."

Maybe the LSU coaches should have listened to Peterson. Sunday was Peterson's 11th game in the NFL, and his 80-yard punt return for a touchdown was not only his fourth score on a punt return in his short career -- it was the fourth of at least 80 yards this year. Peterson's made a contest of the all-pro return specialist this year. Hester's been superb this year too, but Peterson leads him in return TDs 4-3. The last five games of the season will be an interesting contest. "I loved watching him going back to his Miami days. It's a huge accomplishment to be doing what he does." His secret? Don't run east-west; only north-south. And don't be timid. Ever. "You gotta run hard, with power, and not just make people miss -- but be physical when you have to." Peterson hasn't had to be physical yet. He's making too many people miss.

***

Stop saying Denver's fluky, because it's a lie. The recipe for the Broncos winning five of six is not Tebow, Tebow and more Tebow. It's defense and the running game keeping things close. It's Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil rushing the passer and keeping him uncomfortable, and a reborn Willis McGahee (4.8 yards per carry at age 31) pounding defenses with the changeup ability of Tebow thrown in. And Eric Decker making circus catches. That about covers it.

"If it ain't broken, and it ain't, then don't fix it," McGahee told me from San Diego Sunday night. It was a 23-carry, 117-yard day by McGahee, with his 24-yard run in overtime setting up the winning field goal that led to the 16-13 overtime win. Afterward, McGahee said the game had the feel of another close one, and he said to Tebow in the middle of the second half, "Me and you gotta win this game." And the two men combined to do it, helped by a third-and-11 conversion catch by Decker that was upheld by review on the game-tying drive at the end of the fourth quarter. You know, when Tebow takes over. "It's cool everybody doubts us," McGahee said. "Don't respect us. All we know is, if it's close at the end, we're gonna win."

***

And the special teams shall lead them. Remember draft weekend 2000? (Of course you don't remember something that happened 11 and a half years ago. But play along.) That was the weekend when 31 teams kept passing on a gangly Michigan quarterback named Tom Brady. It was also the weekend Al Davis, unbeknown to any of us at the time, had the best special teams draft in NFL history. That day, Davis was more derided than praised for choosing a kicker in the first round -- Florida State's Sebastian Janikowski. In the fifth round, Davis chose Texas A&M punter Shane Lechler. On Sunday, Janikowski and Lechler were the gifts that kept giving in the 25-20 win over Chicago, a game the Raiders had to have to stay a game ahead of the ridiculously compelling Broncos. Seabass, as he is known in the Black Hole, kicked six field goals, making him 22 of 24 for the season. Lechler, the leading punter in NFL history (47.5 yards per boot) boomed an 80-yard boot, the longest of his career, on a day in which he averaged 54.6 yards per kick. Somewhere, Al Davis is having the last laugh about the most impactful draft anyone west of New England had in 2000.

The case against Ndamukong Suh. Sometime today, discipline czars Merton Hanks and Ray Anderson of the NFL will begin to consider the disciplinary case against Suh from the stomping incident Thursday -- on the heels of a pretty good rap sheet in his first two seasons.

With 25 minutes left in Thursday's game against Green Bay, Suh and Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith wrestled on the ground, and Suh three times appeared to forcefully press the lineman's head into the turf. When Suh got up, he stomped his cleat into the arm of Dietrich-Smith and was ejected. After the game, Suh blamed everyone but himself and didn't acknowledge doing anything wrong. On Friday night, after a long conversation between Suh and coach Jim Schwartz, the Lions called the stomping incident "unacceptable'' and Suh issued a similar statement on his Facebook page.

I'm just like you. I'm skeptical of Suh's sincerity. But his apology may give Hanks and Anderson something to think about, because I'm told he wasn't winning any points inside the walls of the league office by his consistent refusal postgame to accept any blame for the incident.

The entire atmosphere around the Lions had led to the popular theory in league circles that the club has been enabling Suh by not being tougher on him after a string of league violations in the first 15 months of his NFL career. Maybe that's changing now. If Schwartz wasn't tougher on Suh Friday when they spoke, then he's one of the enablers. But I have a feeling he finally told Suh to erase his violent streak, and soon, or his career's going to be a string of strong football punctuated far too often by fines and suspensions.

The Lions should very quietly arrange for Suh to get anger-management counseling, because the way he plays, and the way he goes over the edge at times, he looks like a guy who needs behavior modification.

I believe, despite Suh finally admitting he did something wrong, the league will suspend him this week. My gut tells me two games, though the NFL could make it one game plus time already served -- nearly half a game for the 25 minutes missed against Green Bay.

As I said on NBC Sunday night, I think it's likely if Suh appeals his suspension and is suited up next Sunday at New Orleans, the Lions will sit him for the first quarter to show they're serious about reining him in.

One more thing: Suh's history will be weighed heavily by Hanks and Anderson when they make their ruling. The four incidents that have caused him to go under the NFL microscope:

Aug. 28, 2010: Browns QB Jake Delhomme slammed to the ground by his head, resulting in a $7,500 fine.

Dec. 5, 2010: Bears QB Jay Cutler gets a forearm to the back of the head, leading to a $15,000 fine.

Aug. 12, 2011: Bengals QB Andy Dalton slammed to the ground by his head -- $20,000 fine.

Nov. 24, 2011: Packers G Evan Dietrich-Smith stomped on arm; Suh ejected, fine to be determined.

Seasons: 2. Ejections: 1. Total fines: $42,500.

One other note: This is the sixth season for Roger Goodell as commissioner. For on-field incidents (not including things like the Vick or Roethlisberger suspensions) only one player in the Goodell era has been suspended for longer than one game, and that was Albert Haynesworth, who got five games for the Andre Gurode helmet-ripping-off and head-stomping. Gurode was injured by that. Dietrich-Smith, apparently, was not hurt by the Suh stomp.

***

Goodell sounds as if he wants the trade deadline moved, which is a good thing. I did my NFL podcast last week with Roger Goodell, and the most interesting thing I heard was that he's open to pushing the trade deadline back. It currently is the day after the end of Week 6, roughly one-third of the way into the season ... way sooner than baseball's trade deadline, which occurs two-thirds of the way into the season.

My biggest problem with the deadline was perfectly illustrated by what happened with Kyle Orton last week. The Broncos cut him, getting nothing in return when at last one team -- Chicago -- and maybe Kansas City, Houston and Dallas would have traded a draft choice for him. Kansas City's thrilled to get him for nothing except his salary the rest of the year, but Denver's out of luck because they get nothing when they certainly would have gotten a fifth-round pick, minimum, had the trade deadline been after Week 12.

Said Goodell: "I think our game is a little different from other sports in that teams aren't as reliant on trades, they build more through the draft. But it's exciting when you have a trade. It creates controversy; it creates a discussion among fans. I think the trading deadline is important in other sports. And I think the more we can put that kind of focus in football it's good.''

The NFL saw how interesting the concentrated free-agency period was in late July and early August. But whenever free agency is, it's going to create a buzz. The NFL could have had that last week.

The problem with the early deadline is no team (well, maybe one or two would be 0-6 in some years) is out of it by then, so no team wants to trade for the future. Putting it in Week 11 or 12 would create a mini-frenzy in the couple of weeks leading up to the deadline, with the have-nots dealing players for mid- and late-round picks in the next draft.

"Obviously, free agency was modified this year because of our offseason," said Goodell. "We've talked about how do we create that same kind of enthusiasm around free agency. That was great. It created tremendous interest in the game. It, obviously, was terrific for fans to re-engage with the game that way. And the same could be said for trading. Fans love to see the trades.''

And it's not Herculean to push the deadline back. It'd take a three-quarters vote of club owners next March to do it. Goodell should be the one to push it to fruition. "The game evolves, and we have to evolve with it,'' he said. "And we have to drive that evolution ... If the positives outweigh [the negatives], and we think it's going to make the game better or safer, we're going to pursue that. We will look at anything that's going to make the game more exciting. And I think trades are a positive thing.''

***

Not every story has a happy ending, but it doesn't mean the ending is sad either. We've just passed the three-year anniversary of longtime SI pro football writer Paul Zimmerman suffering a series of three strokes that left him unable to speak and almost totally unable to communicate. So many of you have asked about Dr. Z over the years -- it never ends, which is heartwarming and, believe me, appreciated by Paul and his wife, Linda, who live in New Jersey.

I've tried to stay in semi-regular touch with them. I was really uplifted by Linda the other day when we spoke. She said she still finds it amazing that even though Paul can't read, write or speak, he's up on the news, exercises every day and has a good outlook on life. "We're not depressed,'' she said. "I think it's because we have each other.''

What a statement.

Zim watches football, though it's hard to know exactly what he comprehends from it because he can't say, "Hey, what a dumb throw that was.'' They watch movies. They follow the news. And he rehabs in the hope that he might be able to regain some of what was lost. But they're both realistic about it. It's been three years, and if this is what it is, then so be it.

They went to Gettysburg in September and got a guide to get in the car with them and drive them around all the war sites. Tremendous fun for three hours. She figures they'll do some more history things because he loves that -- and she does too. In December, I'll gather some of his friends -- Matt Millen, Dick Vermeil, and one or two others -- and we'll have lunch with Paul and Linda in New Jersey. Zim loves that. Millen's fantastic with him, telling him stories about the old Raiders, and Zim can't get enough of them. He can't give back, but he loves to hear and be involved and be in the middle of things.

And the wine -- he still loves the wine. Vermeil will bring a couple of bottles from his vineyard, and we'll drink those. Good thing the stroke didn't take away his taste buds. The man can still eat -- and drink.

So there's an update. I'll be sure to pass along your good wishes if you tweet them to me or send them my way via email at si.peterking@gmail.com.

1. Green Bay (11-0). "I still don't think there's a specific recipe to beat us,'' said Aaron Rodgers after the Pack manhandled Detroit. Baltimore's a good model, but I question the Ravens being able to get into a scoring contest -- if need be -- with the great Rodgers.

2. Baltimore (8-3). Holding Alex Smith to 96 net yards passing ... priceless.

3. New England (8-3). A tour de force performance that Tom Brady should put in his personal time capsule: 361 yards passing, three touchdowns, no picks. Two wideouts with 100-yard games. Two tight ends combine for 121. Looked pretty unstoppable in Philadelphia in a 466-yard offensive show.

4. San Francisco (9-2). The Niners play sub-.500 teams in four of their last five games, so they'll probably not blow the second seed in the NFC playoffs. But I can't wait for Dec. 19, the Monday-nighter against Pittsburgh. If the Steelers are healthy, they'll draw a bull's-eye on the right side of the San Francisco offensive line, which was abused by the Ravens.

5. New Orleans (7-3). For the first time all season -- since training camp, actually -- the Saints will roll out four healthy backs tonight: Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, Darren Sproles. Hard to be better than that in the backfield.

6. Pittsburgh (8-3). I know the win at Kansas City was too close for comfort, but Ben Roethlisberger's such a special player. His lofted first-half touchdown toss to backup tight end Weslye Saunders at the back of the end zone was gorgeous, and I'm glad Cris Collinsworth fawned over it.

7. Atlanta (7-4). There is no way you're retiring, Tony Gonzalez (nine catches, 69 yards in the 24-14 win over Minnesota). Not now. And not after this season. You're only 421 catches behind Jerry Rice. You can do it.

8. Dallas (7-4). No contender has been as helped by the schedule as Dallas, which has won the first four of a five-game underbelly of a slate (Seattle, Buffalo, at Washington, Miami, at Arizona). Many ways to look at the Cowboys' four-game streak. I'm not a total buyer yet, not after the 'Boys needed OT to beat Washington and a botched center snap to nip Miami.

9. Oakland (7-4). Hard to lose when your quarterback throws for 300, your kicker makes six field goals out of six tries, and your punter averages 55 a kick. That's what the Raiders had Sunday.

10. Houston (8-3). I hate downgrading the Texans here, because what they did with a third-string quarterback was admirable in Jacksonville. But until I see "C" quarterback play out of T.J. Yates or whoever the quarterback's going to be, I'm not going to trust them to win in January.

11. New York Giants (6-4). Tom Coughlin put David Diehl back where he belongs, at left tackle, after the Thursday surgery of Will Beatty for a detached retina.

12. Chicago (7-4). The Bears will be endangered species if Caleb Hanie duplicates that performance a couple more times.

13. Cincinnati (7-4). "Andy Dalton amazes me every day I see him,'' coach Marvin Lewis said after win number seven, and after Dalton had led a touchdown drive and two field goal drives in the last 18 minutes to erase a 10-point Cleveland lead.

14. Detroit (7-4). The Lions have enough problems without throwing another log onto the fire, given that they've lost four of six and might not make the playoffs after their 5-0 start. But Matthew Stafford has thrown seven interceptions in his last eight quarters, and he's got the raucous Superdome next week, Jared Allen the week after that, and the Raiders rush the week after that.

15. (tie) Denver (6-5). I don't want to be a Doubter. At some point, when a team wins five out of six, and the quarterback is money in the fourth quarter every single week of that stretch, you've got to say, "Who cares how it's happening. It's happening.''

15. (tie) New York Jets (6-5). Four of their last five are against teams with losing records. They'll have no one to blame but themselves if they don't salvage the season and make the playoffs. Or no one except Andy Dalton, if I'm reading the AFC playoff picture right.

Offensive Players of the Week

Tennessee RB Chris Johnson. This is what the real Chris Johnson looks like. In eight of his first 10 games this season, Johnson was held under 65 yards, and he played as if the 2,000-yard Johnson had been kidnapped and replaced by a free agent from Ohio Northern. But his running Sunday allowed Tennessee to win its sixth game and stay in the murky AFC wild-card race. Johnson opened with a pedestrian 46-yard first half, then burst out with a 79-yard third quarter and ran for 65 yards of insurance in the fourth: 23 carries, a season-high 190 yards in all. That's his best rushing game since Week 8 2009 -- his 2,006-yard rushing season.

New England QB Tom Brady. The Eagles were disadvantaged in the secondary, but Brady's day in the 38-20 rout of the Eagles -- 24 of 34, 361 yards, three touchdowns, no picks, only two punts in the first 10 New England possessions, on the road -- is proof the Patriots will be in the pennant race well into January if their defense doesn't collapse.

Defensive Players of the Week

Houston linebacker Connor Barwin. You know why the Texans aren't in the toilet right now? Because of guys like this third-year pass-rusher from Cincinnati. In his best day as a pro, Barwin sacked Jacksonville quarterbacks four times, had two additional quarterback pressures and one tackle for loss. As long as Houston's defense keeps getting performances like Barwin's in Jacksonville, they'll be in the race for the top seed in the conference.

Baltimore pass-rusher Terrell Suggs. "I love playing on Thursday nights,'' Suggs told me postgame. "I love the national games.'' So we saw. Suggs' three-sack, three-tackle, one-forced-fumble night in the 16-6 Thanksgiving night win over San Francisco showed why any offensive game plan against the Ravens has to start with the question, "How are we going to stop Suggs from wrecking this game?''

Suggs' 10-yard sack of Alex Smith on the Niners' first drive of the third quarter stunted their best scoring chance of the night and forced them to settle for a field goal. On his second sack, Suggs sloughed off right tackle Anthony Davis, chased Smith down and strip-sacked the quarterback; the Ravens got the insurance field goal on the ensuing short-field drive. And his last sack, the Ravens' ninth of the night, gave the desperate 49ers a second-and-17, ensuring they'd get nothing going down the stretch. Virtuoso night, one of the best of Suggs' career -- and there have been many.

Special Teams Players of the Week

Oakland K Sebastian Janikowski. Three quarters, six field goals: from 40, 47, 42, 19, 37 and 44 yards. Seabass has made 17 of his last 18 field goals, and I do believe he's going to make a case for Canton before his career is over.

Arizona CB/PR Patrick Peterson. How valuable has Peterson been to a Cardinal team struggling so mightily to score? His fourth punt return for touchdown in his 11th NFL game tied an NFL record for punt-return touchdowns in a season -- and he's just the second rookie in NFL history (Detroit's Jack Christiansen, 1951) to do it. The 80-yard winding return gave the Cardinals a 20-10 lead in a game they'd go on to win 23-20, on a day that quarterback John Skelton struggled mightily all day.

Coach of the Week

Baltimore defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. Nothing against Greg Mattison, who kept the defensive coordinator seat warm for a couple of post-Rex Ryan years, but the Ravens have the right defensive brain to choreograph their defensive plan in Pagano.

The Ravens Thursday night threw the same kind of unbalanced blitzes at San Francisco that made Ryan so hard to figure out over the years, and it resulted in those nine sacks that had a very good team, San Francisco, reeling all night. The key to the Ravens' blitz was taking big, fast and mobile guys like Suggs and Jarret Johnson, overloading one side of the field on one play and looking regular the next, and then never giving the offense a read about where the rush was coming from.

It helps to have a rusher with the strength and greatness of Suggs, but Pagano has tried to build a well-rounded rush that doesn't feature just one guy. This year, he's moved rookie fifth-rounder Pernell McPhee into a prominent position rushing, and McPhee's produced five sacks playing about a third of the snaps. Not bad for a guy who had been a secondary coach for 20 of his 22 years as a coach -- he really gets how to rush the passer.

Goats of the Week

Detroit DT Ndamukong Suh. You need an explanation?

Buffalo WR Stevie Johnson. The game against the Jets -- a must-win job for both teams, 5-5, heading into Sunday -- started swimmingly for Johnson, who caught four balls against Darrelle Revis in coverage before scoring late in the first half to give the Bills a 14-7 lead. He then did a ridiculous end-zone demonstration, pretending to shoot himself in the leg (mocking Plaxico Burress) and then cruising around with his arms spread (a la Santonio Holmes, flying like a Jet), then fell to the ground on purpose, getting flagged for a 15-yard excessive celebration penalty that was enforced on the kickoff.

Then, when the Bills flubbed the kick, the Jets had a short field and tied the game on a Mark Sanchez TD pass to, fittingly, Burress, to tie the game at halftime. "It was a bad decision and it hurt our team,'' Johnson said. "I need to be more mature than that.'' Oh really? Then, in the fourth quarter, Johnson dropped what would have been a sure touchdown pass. Jets 28, Bills 24. Bills out of it now, thanks largely to Johnson.

Jacksonville TE Marcedes Lewis. Tie game with Houston, second quarter, 11 minutes left. Lewis wide open in the end zone. I mean, WIDE open, no one within six yards. Every point counts when you're playing the explosive Texans (even with a sub quarterback). Drop. As easy a catch as Lewis will ever have in his career. And the Jags lost by seven. Killer drop.

Employee of the Week

Anthony Hardwick, Target, Omaha, Neb. James B. Stewart's column in the Saturday New York Times on the excess of the Thanksgiving business season, and the 29-year-old Hardwick's place in it, should be required reading.

Hardwick earns about $25,000 a year as a shopping-cart attendant at Target and a printing supervisor at OfficeMax. He was told last month he'd have to report to work at Target at 11 p.m. on Thanksgiving night, and work until 4:30, with him needing to report to his OfficeMax job at 5 a.m. on Black Friday. Hardwick took to Change.org to post an online petition to see if other Americans shared his distaste for the holiday shopping season cutting into family time on Thanksgiving.

"A full holiday with family is not just for the elite of this nation -- all Americans should be able to break bread with their loved ones and get a good night's rest on Thanksgiving!'' Hardwick wrote.

He is clearly thankful for his jobs in such a poor economy, but he said that doesn't mean he should be forced to work when common sense says Thanksgiving should be a family day. The argument that he should be thankful for any job and should be willing to work any time, he told Stewart, is "the same argument that was used when 7-year-olds were working in coal mines.''

The mania of consumerism has now spread in many stores to being open on Thanksgiving, with some stores open all day. Why does Consumer America whittle away at it more every year? What's next? Black Veterans Day? I understand Black Friday and the mania of getting good deals, particularly for families who need to watch every nickel. But Black Thanksgiving? A black mark on our society. Good for Hardwick for calling an end to the madness -- in his own little but effective way -- and for Stewart for writing about it.

1. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay. This race for MVP is going to be the most anticlimactic since Tom Brady's 50-8 TD-to-pick season of 2007.

2. Tom Brady, QB, New England. He's doing the most without a deep threat and a running game, but I'm open to Drew Brees being number two depending on the stretch drives.

3. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. The Giants will provide a good test, because they can send four rushers and pressure the passer, thus keeping enough men in coverage to create traffic in the back end.

4. Terrell Suggs, OLB/DE(you figure out the position; technically he's an outside 'backer, but he sure looks like a defensive end the way he lines up to me), Baltimore. When he's really good, the Ravens don't lose.

5. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh. Now 5-1 on the road. While every big Pittsburgh star misses time with some injury or other, Roethlisberger's playing with a broken thumb, and playing very well.

"Each team must have an opportunity to possess the football and score.''

-- Referee Jeff Triplette, at the start of overtime before Denver and San Diego.

Did you think you were hearing things when Triplette said that? Were you, like me, gawking at the TV and saying, "What? Is this the playoffs?'' It's unfathomable that Triplette would make that mistake with the nation watching -- and six weeks before the first playoff games of the season.

"Coach! Hey coach! I just wanted to tell you: I'm thankful you're my coach."

-- San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis, on the NFL Network's "SoundFX'' show Saturday night, from a micing of Willis on Thanksgiving night.

Cool. Almost touching. Made me think very highly of Willis.

"The lap band was in trouble. I was stretching that bad boy out.''

-- Jets coach Rex Ryan, who has had weight-control surgery, on his Thanksgiving habits.

I'm not a big fan of passer rating, and there's no doubt the new ESPN rating system is a better way to measure the relative merits of a quarterback's total performance. But the rating is what the NFL uses -- for now -- and it's part of the measuring stick I'll use to judge the final numbers of Aaron Rodgers' amazing season. It's clear he's on his way to one of the best statistical seasons ever.

I've measured Rodgers' first 11 games against the first 11 games of three recent record-setting seasons: Peyton Manning's passer-rating record of 121.1 in 2004, Tom Brady's 50-touchdown year in 2007, and Drew Brees' record season for accuracy (.706) in 2009. Rodgers looks pretty good in comparison.

Interesting, isn't it, that the combined records of the four passers after 11 games in their best years is 41-3, and three of them either chased or are chasing perfect seasons?

Before Sunday, the last time Matt Leinart had thrown a touchdown pass was in December 2008, for Arizona, to Larry Fitzgerald, in a 47-7 loss at New England. How long ago that was: The leading tackler for New England that day, Junior Seau, and the man covering Fitzgerald on the touchdown pass, Ellis Hobbs, and the leading rusher for the Cardinals, Edgerrin James, and the starting quarterback for the Cardinals, Kurt Warner, are all retired.

I'm hardly the arbiter of great parenthood -- that would obviously be Steve Martin -- but sometimes it's hard to keep your mouth shut when you see some of the interesting parenting out there.

On Saturday, I flew back from San Francisco to New York after spending a family Thanksgiving in California. Across the aisle from me were a mom and her 3-year-old (I'm estimating) daughter. As we ascended above 10,000 feet, the mom and daughter got organized for the flight. The mom put a video machine in front of the daughter on the tray table and put in a movie for her. The mom put her own headphones on and opened a book. After about 90 minutes, the movie was done, and the kid was restless, and the mom kept shushing her. "Sssssshhhhhh!'' And the kid would say, "But Mommy!'' and ask for drink or food or whatever, and the mom would say, "Sssshhhhhhhh!'' This went on, on and off, for the rest of the flight, the mom refusing to pay attention to the kid, the kid crying out for attention -- any kind of attention. Five hours of the mom ignoring the kid other than to shush her.

Those two have some interesting years ahead of them.

"@ochocinco How You Get Hurt On Your Year Off??''

-- @qbkilla, former Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp, now with NFL Network, on Saturday night to lightly used New England receiver Chad Ochocinco, out this weekend with a hamstring injury.

"I love Clinique! I use Clinique Happy for men before I go out! I'll be wearing this home after our win tomorrow. Leaving Oakland smelling good!''

-- @jmarcuswebb, Bears left tackle J'Marcus Webb Saturday night, tweeting about the scent he enjoys, apparently. I wonder if he was Clinique Happy after a 25-20 loss.

Tweet A: "... Go on a diet, fat-so!! Y r u worried about wht I'm tweeting?! ... It wasn't a diss @ T-new, it ws my observation like my observation that u're FAT & need to hit the treadmill ASAP!! #RealTalk''

--@terrellowens, defending himself against criticism from a Dallas sports anchor that Owens had been critical of Cowboy corner Terrence Newman Thursday.

Tweet B: "@terrellowens I'll get on a treadmill when you pay your child support. #deadbeat''

--@newyscruggs, the sports anchor Owens ripped, Newy Scruggs, in a Twitter feud with T.O.

"Stuhpid.''

-- @stevepoliti, the columnist for the Newark Star Ledger, after Ndamukong Suh stomped on Packer guard Evan Dietrich-Smith Thursday.

A few good Suh tweets from others, such as this one from @rosstuckernfl: "Suh must be a big Seinfeld fan. 'It's not a lie if YOU believe it.' -- George Costanza.''

1. I think this is what I liked about Week 12:

a. Shane Lechler's 80-yard punt.

b. The diving catch to keep the Broncos alive on third-and-11 by that Minnesota Golden Gopher, Eric Decker ... and the correct replay review by Jeff Triplette: There wasn't enough evidence to overturn a catch ruled good.

c. You saved the Jets' season with that sideline catch on third-and-11, down three, inside of two minutes to go against the Bills, Plaxico Burress.

d. James Brown's piece (with Deb Gelman producing) on the struggle of Tom Brady's personal throwing coach, Tom Martinez, to live after being diagnosed with kidney disease that will require a transplant. Beautifully told, with the proper emotion and education about both Martinez's fight and why he's been so important to Brady. As Brady's dad said in the piece, Tom Brady wouldn't be the Patriots' quarterback today were it not for Martinez's attention to throwing-mechanical detail in his formative years.

e. Sam Bradford's gorgeous throw to the back of the end zone, hitting Brandon Lloyd in stride.

f. Charles Woodson, who is not getting older. He's getting better.

g. Brandon Saine, who might be this year's James Starks for the Packers. Not Starks in a tailback kind of way, but Starks in a contributing-down-the-stretch way when the Pack needs him. I love how Ted Thompson finds these backs who have some scars on them from college (Saine's senior year at Ohio State: 70 carries, 337 yards) and Green Bay signs them and gives them roles and they just fit.

h. Matt Moore. Good backups have 15-year careers, and Moore is at least that -- and on a day when he and Mike Pouncey couldn't get the exchange right, I thought he was still a major plus.

i. The catch by Brandon Marshall while getting mugged.

j. Jason Witten, the best security blanket Tony Romo will ever have.

k. Not your fault, Joe Staley. You were a rock at left tackle for the Niners in defeat.

l. Good for Mike Mayock to give Jarret Johnson props. Rex Ryan used to call him the most underrated guy on his D. He still is, for some reason.

m. Ray Lewis' sideline quote to Terrell Suggs, captured by NFL Films: "Hunt. Hunt. Hunt. Don't stop huntin' 'til you got 'em on your wall!!!''

n. Tackle of the weekend (and it wasn't even close for first place): San Francisco safety C.J. Spillman, on Ray Rice near the Niner goal line in the second quarter. The Ravens had second-and-goal at the one-yard line and the Niners were in danger of seeing their 10-game streak of games not allowing a rushing touchdown broken. Baltimore brought in an extra tackle on their goal-line scheme, and Rice tried to run right, wide and cut into the end zone. Spillman broke through the traffic and nailed Rice with a form tackle for a four-yard loss.

o. Everybody keeps giving up on Bernard Pollard. Everybody then watches Bernard Pollard keep making plays -- now starting for the Ravens next to Ed Reed.

p. Shannon Sharpe's interview with Tim Tebow. Impressive. "Can I say something honestly? This offense is stunting your growth,'' Sharpe said to Tebow.

q. Ever hear of Tommie Campbell? Seventh-round pick of the Titans this year, 251st pick overall, a corner from California (Pa.). Took a handoff on a first-half kickoff against Tampa Bay and took it for an 84-yard touchdown.

r. Ever hear of Kaluka Maiava? Backup linebacker for the Browns. Fourth-round pick out of USC in 2009. He, along with Chris Gocong and D'Qwell Jackson, goal-line-stopped Cedric Benson on the Bengals' opening drive of the game.

s. Ever hear of Ryan Mahaffey? Fullback for the Colts, plucked off the Ravens' practice squad in the Colts' bye week. Cleared a big hole for Donald Brown on Indy's first rushing touchdown

t. And then the one-handed pluck-out-of-the-air reception by Mahaffey.

u. Heck of a play by Dwight Freeney, spinning off Jordan Gross to sack Cam Newton.

v. Best throw of Christian Ponder's season, the TD bomb to Percy Harvin in the end zone at Atlanta.

w. Brooks Reed, fifth straight game with a sack. What a pick by Houston GM Rick Smith.

2. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 12:

a. The pass-protection of Niner right tackle Anthony Davis, who allowed three sacks and two quarterback pressures (according to ProFoootballFocus.com) against the Ravens. By game's end, the Niners on some plays had two extra blockers to help Davis, who played with very slow reaction time Thursday night.

b. Alex Smith missing a wide-open Delaney Walker on the first 49er offensive play of the game. Big, big error.

c. Matthew Stafford's accuracy. Don't tell me his throwing hand's not going to be a problem down the stretch.

d. The Lions' composure.

e. Winning's the only stat that matters, but Dallas isn't going to win in January without more offensive production.

f. Frank Gore touching it 15 times on 54 offensive snaps for the Niners in a very physical game. Just not enough.

g. Two words for you on the goal line, Jay Gruden: play action.

h. I like Colt McCoy, but he made a dumb play attempting to run for a first down in the opening quarter. Having to get to his 11-yard line, he ran out of bounds at the 10, clearly seeing that the marker was a yard ahead. Very strange. He could have swan-dived and made it easily.

i. Blaine Gabbert, rightfully pulled.

j. Tyler Palko, who would have been pulled if Todd Haley had a good option behind him.

k. So much for the fourth-quarter magic, Josh Freeman.

3. I think whoever hires Tony Sparano when he gets fired after the season is going to get a heck of a football coach. And whoever gets the Dolphins coaching job is going to get a good base of talent. Steven Ross' preliminary search list should include Jon Gruden and a slew of defensive coordinators: Mike Zimmer (Bengals), Chuck Pagano (Ravens), Perry Fewell (Giants), Rob Ryan (Cowboys) and Mike Pettine (Jets).

4. If think you think I'm overdoing it about a 3-8 team, Miami. I'm not. Last six games: Miami 137, Foes 78. On Thursday, the Dolphins were one dumb botched center snap from beating the NFC East leaders at their place.

5. I think I found even more reason to hate the existing pass-interference rule. In the second quarter of the San Francisco-Baltimore game, Joe Flacco threw a rainbow deep downfield for speedy Torrey Smith, covered closely by cornerback Tarell Brown. They jousted for the ball before Brown intercepted it. But Brown was called for pass interference -- a close call, but justified. The interception was nullified and the ball placed 50 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage, at the Niners' 15.

I've said for years the NFL needs to adopt the college system for pass interference -- 15 yards from the line of scrimmage on defensive pass interference -- instead of the spot-foul it uses. (I actually think 10 yards would be better, but I'd settle for 15.) Brown's foul was relatively ticky-tack, and this was a game that was going to be a defensive struggle all the way, and this foul gave the Ravens 50 yards. Huge.

For those of you who think the 10- or 15-yard penalty would cause corners to tackle wideouts when corners felt they were beat, that's foolish. How often do you see that happen in college football? Ever?

6. I think if you want to get a good view into a very fertile football mind, you should read Bruce Feldman's book on Mike Leach, Swing Your Sword. Hard to imagine many football coaches channeling "Seinfeld'' and Howard Stern to help them learn how to communicate with or motivate players, but Leach does.

I keep waiting for an NFL team to talk to Leach, who is to the left of Mike Martz, about its coaching job. Is he difficult to get along with? He might be. Very smart coaches often are. Read the 10 pages of his game-calling and planning to beat Texas in 2008 and you think: I'd like to hear more from this guy.

One other thing from the book, about his former wideout Wes Welker. Leach liked Welker's approach to life and football so much that he had this quote from Welker posted all over his football facility: "I just try to concentrate on what I can control, and that is me going out and believing in myself.'' Good work by Feldman.

7. 1. I think these are my thoughts on the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2012 semifinalist list, which the Hall issued last week and which will be cut down from 26 to 15 in early January and become the finalists for the next class:

a. No Art Modell, Ray Guy, Joe Klecko. Modell's hurt by his move to Baltimore and I believe in the thought that though he was important to the TV explosion it likely would have happened anyway. Guy's hurt by the fact that his gross average is 74th all-time -- and possibly by the fact that a Raider heir, Shane Lechler (who had the longest punt of his illustrious career Sunday, an 80-yarder), is the all-time leader with an average of 5.1 yards-per-punt higher. Klecko? The man who made the Pro Bowl at three positions can't get traction among the voters, and I'm surprised.

b. Steve Tasker made it, which is good. I've said this before about him: His long-time special teams coach in Buffalo, Bruce DeHaven, once gave me a tape of 10 plays Tasker made on special teams that he figures won games for the Bills in their glory years. I back the man I consider the best special teams player ever, and I think he did enough to get in. But I'd be surprised if he made the final 15.

c. There are 26 semifinalists, not 25, because there was a tie for 25th. By the bylaws, a tie for the last position means all those tied make the next cut.

d. Sunday was the 20th anniversary of the Packers hiring Ron Wolf as GM. Good to see him make the list of 25 (or 26) for the first time. And fitting because the Packers that he set the architectural stage for are unbeaten.

e. Now a word about Jerry Kramer. The former Packer guard seems to be the player in the last year or so who has the most ardent group of supporters behind him via email, on the Internet and in the Twitterverse. A few things about the Kramer candidacy. He retired from the Packers after a stellar 11-year career in 1968. He was elected All-Pro five times, and to the Pro Bowl three times (an odd juxtaposition, seeing that there were three Pro Bowl guards and just two on the All-Pro team), and to the NFL's 50th anniversary team in 1970.

He was a modern-era candidate from 1974 through 1988. He was a finalist nine times and not elected. After his 15 years on the modern-era list, he was eligible as a Seniors Committee candidate. For the last 24 years, he's been on the Seniors list, and came up again in front of the full selection committee in 1997. He didn't get the required 80 percent of the votes to make it. That Seniors Committee could recommend him again any year, and may in the coming years, to have his case heard by the committee, which has many new members since 1997.

(The Seniors Committee is a group of nine Hall voters who meet every year to determine which two long-retired players will have their cases heard by the 44-member group of Hall selectors. If Kramer had been a hot candidate, he'd have been in the room to be considered by now.

It seems to me a couple of things are at play here. He had some competition on his own team at guard, and overall. Gale Gillingham and Fuzzy Thurston (but Gillingham especially) were very good players too, and players in that era are split on who is most deserving, particularly between Kramer and Gillingham, who played with Kramer for three years and then took over for him at right guard when Kramer retired. The fact that there are 10 Packers from that era's team in the Hall can't help -- the same way it doesn't help L.C. Greenwood that there are so many Steelers in. But because Kramer was selected to the NFL's 50-year team, it seems dumb that he's not in.

OK, now you know the history. The way I view it is this: The vast majority of voters who watched Kramer and the Packers live are no longer on the committee -- including the writers who covered the great Green Bay era, with the exception of Sid Hartman from Minneapolis. The rest, veteran scribes like Art Daley from Wisconsin, Cooper Rollow from Chicago, Chuck Heaton from Cleveland, Jerry Green from Detroit, are gone from the committee. In their place are young writers and voters.

We are being asked, basically, to overrule those who watched Kramer's entire career. They had 15 chances to enshrine Kramer after watching the Packers win five titles in the '60s. They had years to nominate and push his case as a senior candidate. And the media people who saw him the most and knew the Packers the best didn't think he was worthy.

Many of the senior candidates are those who never had their cases heard before the entire body of voters, either because they played an invisible position or played for a mediocre team, or both. That's the case with this year's two candidates, guard Dick Stanfel and defensive back Jack Butler. Kramer was on TV a lot, and with the best team of his era. So it's a pretty tough thing to ask, first, the Seniors Committee to nominate him again, and second, the 44 voters to say the media who watched him year in and year out made a mistake. Not impossible. Just difficult.

8. I think this was an embarrassing lead-up to the Grey Cup, which was played Sunday in Vancouver (British Columbia 34, Winnipeg 23). Remember Joe Kapp? He was the scrambling, gambling quarterback brought to the Minnesota Vikings in the late '60s from the Canadian Football League. Kapp led the '69 Vikings to the Super Bowl, which they lost to Kansas City.

Well, Kapp punched out a guy at a Canadian Football League luncheon in Vancouver Friday. Seems that Kapp held a 48-year grudge against Angelo Mosca stemming from the 1963 Grey Cup. Kapp quarterbacked the B.C. Lions in '63, and Mosca was a defensive lineman for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. During the game, Mosca slammed into B.C. running back Willie Fleming after he was clearly down, injuring him and creating years (decades, really) of ill will between the Lions and the Ti-Cats. Kapp never forgot.

Both men are 73 now. Mosca walks with the aid of a cane. At a luncheon to benefit indigent retired CFL players Friday, with both men on a stage, Kapp waved a flower in Mosca's face, apparently following some unkind words from Mosca. Mosca swung his cane and hit Kapp in the head. Kapp took a step toward Mosca and punched him off the back of the stage.

9. I think that was the softest, weirdest, most unimpressive four-touchdown game that Mark Sanchez played Sunday that I'd seen in a while.

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

a. Great to hear from Army First Sgt. Mike McGuire on Thanksgiving. He'd planned to retire from the Army after his third tour in Iraq and Afghanistan commanding troops disarming improvised explosive devices; that tour is due to end in 2012. But he says he's been offered a post in Hawaii and has decided to accept it, so he'll postpone leaving the Army. "Who can pass that up?'' emailed McGuire the night before Thanksgiving. "I will do a few more years, at least another deployment, and then retire.''

b. Take A Breath Dept.: Far be it from me to critique an obit in the great New York Times, but the Tom Wicker piece after he died Friday in Vermont could have used a few more periods. In the first seven paragraphs of the piece were 49-, 65-, 69-, 58-, 58- and 62-word sentences.

c. That right there is a Paul Zimmerman kind of note.

d. Wicker was a great questioning-authority and participatory-journalism beacon for J-school students in the '70s. His reporting from inside Attica during the New York prison's uprising was riveting.

e. Spent Thanksgiving with my family in San Francisco. Fun, relaxing, at times slothful. Very enjoyable, including the football-watching. What I found most interesting was the interest in the games.

The gathering included three men and six women. Five of the women watched the football on a scale between interested and rabid. Before the third game, Niners-Ravens, one of my daughter Laura's friends said, "God, I love Thursday night football.'' Another friend talked my ear off about her team, the Redskins. Five of the six women play fantasy football. I left there thinking what a racket the NFL has going. Amazing.

f. Coffeenerdness: Had a very different coffee experience in San Francisco at Philz, which has several brewed-to-order coffee shops in the Bay Area. No lattes or cappuccinos there, only brewed coffee. You order your cup -- mine was French Roast -- and the gal takes a stainless-steel cup and dips it into the container of beans and gets enough for the cup, and grinds it in a regular coffee-grinder. Then she takes the ground coffee, puts it into an individual filter suspended over your cup, pours the hot water in the filter, stirs the brew while it drips into the cup. Had a little cream in mine. Delicious. No bitterness. So fresh. Next time, I'll go even darker than the French Roast.

g. Beernerdness: Two interesting beer experiences over Thanksgiving. One of the guys brought a growler with a red ale, Ramble Tamble, of Elevation 66 Brewery in El Cerrito, Calif., for dinner. Satisfyingly bitter, creamy on the head, not overwhelming in any way, with a good bite and taste. Then Friday night, I tried a lager from Tahiti, Hinano, brewed in Papeete. Interesting and different, more bitter than a normal lager; but not much taste to it.

h. Even in twilight, Marty Brodeur still makes some incredible saves, as he did Saturday against the Isles.

i. Lord, Notre Dame looked pathetic Saturday night until that frosh quarterback from Cincinnati Moeller came in. How in the world has the Irish won eight games?

j. Belated thanks to young reporter Adam Bond, who works for the student newspaper The Rabbit at the University of Essex in Colchester, England -- and who, covering a soccer game involving a local team, supplied the Tim Tebow anecdote from the fans at the game last week. Great story, Adam.

Saints 30, Giants 17. Look on the bright side, Eli: At least your parents only have to get on a streetcar to commute to this game. I don't trust the Giants to be able to stop Jimmy Graham -- or Drew Brees.

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