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Rodgers, Tebow respond with the pressure on in Week 13

The longest winning streaks in the NFL right now belong to Green Bay at 18, with the unflappable Aaron Rodgers at quarterback; Houston at 6, with third-stringer T.J. Yates calling the signals; and the surprising Denver Broncos with Tim Tebow leading them to five in a row. Football is a funny game.

***

Week 13 opening thoughts

1. You know I'm not exactly the president of the Donovan McNabb fan club, but the Bears need to call the unemployed McNabb today. Their quarterback situation is about to ruin a team with a real chance to be a factor in January.

2. It's been years since I've seen a team as undisciplined and as angry as Detroit.

3. If there's been a story like Tebow's in the 27 years I've covered the NFL, I'm having a hard time recalling it.

4. If the playoffs began today, Cincinnati and Chicago would be in. That's why I'm glad the playoffs don't begin today.

5. The NFL will decide in the next 24 hours what game is played on Sunday night, Dec. 18. Currently, Baltimore at San Diego is scheduled for that night. Little secret for flexing games: The NFL would prefer to sub an AFC TV game for an AFC TV game -- as this one is -- if it flexes out of this Sunday night game. And there's really only one AFC game worth flexing to: New England at Denver. It'll be surprising if Tebowmania doesn't come to Sunday night football in 13 days. Brady-Tebow. Belichick-Tebow. Mega-ratings for NBC.

***

Week 13's compelling people

Mike Martin (and the 1986 Cincinnati Bengals).

Chances are -- unless you root for the Bengals -- you don't remember Martin, a seven-year return man and receiver for Cincinnati a quarter-century ago. But he's the centerpiece of a six-month project Sports Illustrated did that will appear in this week's "Sportsman of the Year'' issue, which comes out tomorrow.

Last spring, I got this idea that everything we know and think about the physical and mental health of former NFL players is anecdotal. Dave Duerson, depressed, kills himself, so we think a vast number of hard-hitting defensive players are similarly afflicted. Harry Carson has lingering head trauma, so we think thousands of old linebackers must feel the same way. And many do, certainly. But what about the rank-and-file who don't make the headlines, who just melt away into life after football? I thought, Let's take a team from 25 years ago, and find out what happened to every player on it. So we did.

We took an average team from the 1986 season, the 10-6 Bengals, and examined their mental and physical lives a quarter-century later. I worked with a dogged team of reporters -- staffer Matt Gagne (never takes no for an answer) and summer interns Joan Niesen from Missouri (so determined she took the work with her when she left SI and kept calling players) and Lizzy Pierce from Princeton (an all-Ivy outfielder who interviews as well as she hits) -- to contact the players from that team. Thirty-nine of the 46 living Bengals answered our eight-question survey. They range in age from 62 (quarterback Ken Anderson) to 46 (linebacker Joe Kelly, who turns 47 this week). Two of the seven didn't cooperate because of possible litigation over lingering injuries against the NFL.

We believe it's the first time a roster of players was surveyed to determine the mental and physical toll (and benefits) of the sport decades after the players played.

"I'm so glad you're doing this,'' said Cris Collinsworth, in his sixth of eight NFL seasons in 1986. "The NFL can't forget these guys. I'd like to see a study done of all former players and how they're doing long after they leave the game.''

We used Martin because he seemed an average player. He played seven years, 1986 was the midpoint of his career, and his age, 51, was in the middle of the 48-man team. And his injuries seem about average too. "I take Aleve every day for joint and muscle stiffness,'' Martin told us. "It's my best friend.''

Gagne writes about two players, safety Bobby Kemp and linebacker Emanuel King, whose lives were forever altered by football; Kemp's story I feel will shock even his former teammates, many of whom don't know what happened to him after he left football. I write about Boomer Esiason, who seems to have played with an angel on his shoulder pads. Now 50, Esiason said: "Nothing hurts.''

The findings of our study will surprise you a bit, and I hope you take some time this week to digest our nine-page report.

Tim Tebow.

An aside to Bronco Nation: Still furious at the McDaniels Era? He is, after all, the man who drafted the best story in sports. Shoot, and maybe the best story overall.

After another Sunday of yelling at the Denver game on one of the TVs in the NBC viewing room -- believe me, it's a weekly occurrence -- the digestion process began. What exactly are we watching here, other than the nuttiest story in recent sports history? Tebow has started seven games this year. The Broncos were blown out in one, by Detroit. They never trailed in beating Kansas City. In the other five, well, here's what happened:

As the Denver manager of media information, Patrick Smyth, said to me while I waited for Tebow to come to the phone after the game, "This is routine.''

Denver, three games out of first place when Tebow took the starting job in Week 7, now leads the AFC West with a 7-5 record by virtue of a tiebreaker edge over 7-5 Oakland -- because the Tebow-led Broncos scored the last 24 points in the win at Oakland on Nov. 6.

I spoke with Tebow, who is the most polite interview in NFL history while at the same time spilling zero beans, after the game. I asked him if he felt what was going on around the country right now, with people from everywhere zoned in on his incredible, quirky, starry and winning run. "You know, I'm not sure,'' he said. "I know the Lord has blessed me and blessed our team. Some of what is said out there can be motivating to me. But every game is the opportunity for me to live my dream of being an NFL player. I think we'd all rather be ahead 15 or 20 in the fourth quarter. But the feel on the sideline, trusting each other and knowing we can do it every week, has been a special part of this team.''

"We feel it a little bit,'' Champ Bailey told me, "but the thing is, we're not caught up in it. We just do it. At crunch time, for some reason, and it's so hard to explain, nobody bats an eye. We're used to it. We love coming back.''

This game seemed different. Three or four times, Tebow threw over the Vikings' leaky (to put it mildly) cover-two zone, and he finished with a much better passing day (10 of 15 for 202 yards) than usual. "We had the opportunity to go downfield,'' he said. "I felt we did some good things in the passing game.''

Before I let Tebow go, I asked him if anyone after the game -- coaches, players, execs -- had said anything memorable to him. "Everybody was happy,'' he said, "but I'll tell you one thing that happened during the week that I remember ... ''

Good, I thought. John Fox, maybe, sidling up to him and saying something sportingly profound like, "Son, we're going to ride that left arm and those legs to the Super Bowl.''

" ... I had an opportunity to talk with a kid named Blake Appleton, from Florida, on Thursday. He's a leukemia patient who's just been moved to hospice. And after the game, when I was being interviewed on TV, I got to say his name. That's what I'm proud of today. I let him know people cared about him. I let him know God has a plan for him."

And that was the end of the Tebow interview. He had to rush to get on the bus to the airport. Except ...

"Have a good day, Mr. King. And God bless you."

Ray Rice.

I've got great admiration for Rice, as a player and for how he conducts himself. At Cleveland Sunday, he had a terrific first half in the rain (17 carries, 107 yards) while the Ravens built a 10-0 lead, and a grinding second half (12 carries, 97 yards) as the Browns just got worn down. Baltimore rushed 290 yards in all, and Rice had a career-best 204.

"As a veteran on this team,'' Rice said, "you want to put your team on your back when they really need you. Today was one of those days because of the conditions -- it was going to be better to run it. In games like this, on days like this, you want to be able to demand the ball and to produce.''

Rice, like Matt Forte of the Bears, is in the last year of his contract. He wants to get a new deal done, obviously, and wants to stay in Baltimore. Why wouldn't a player want to stay where the team always contends, and where it's close to home? (Rice is from four hours north of Baltimore, New Rochelle, N.Y.) But you don't hear much from Rice about what he wants. That is so un-2011. And I like it. "I let my game talk,'' Rice said. "This isn't the time to talk about that stuff. I have the hope that when the time comes, I'll get taken care of, and I believe I will. You never want to burn any bridges, so I just don't talk about it much.''

Stop the presses!

Rob Gronkowski.

The second-year tight end thought he'd broken the NFL record for touchdowns in a season by a tight end when he took a swing pass from Tom Brady against Indianapolis and ran it in from two yards out for his third touchdown of the game. And his 14th touchdown reception of the season. But replays showed it was actually a very slightly backward pass from Brady, and thus a lateral, and thus ruled a two-yard rushing touchdown.

Gronkowski thought he'd broken the record. He was congratulated by teammates, and the crowd gave him a hand when the record was acknowledged by the stadium announcer. It wasn't until Marv Albert told him in the postgame interview that it was a rush that Gronkowski found out he was still tied for the record, at 13.

"Well, it's still a good thing,'' Gronkowski told me. "That's the first rush of my life.''

"You mean your first running play in the NFL?'' I said.

"No -- my first rush ever, in high school, college or the pros. I never ran the ball before. And now I got a touchdown on my first run.''

The 9-3 Patriots may not have the wide receiver depth they'd like, but when Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez make plays downfield the way they do, Brady doesn't have much to complain about. Gronkowski said one of the hidden benefits of playing with Brady are the lessons he learns from him about how to get open and how to shed blockers at the line.

The record will come; Gronkowski has four more games to get it. I reminded him about all the teams that graded him down because of neck and back concerns coming out of Arizona before the 2010 draft, and how amazing it is that in his second season he's on the verge of breaking a pretty illustrious record. "It's like it's not even true,'' he said. "Like a dream. I'm so honored to be able to play on this team and have the chance to do these things. And I'm glad the Patriots took a chance on me. I'm 100-percent injury-free and I plan to stay that way. I do all kinds of ab work and back work to make sure I stay injury-free.''

Allen Wilson.

The Bills, prior to their game with Tennessee Sunday, held a moment of silence for the 49-year-old Buffalo News beat man in the press box. Wilson, very large and very quiet and very well-respected, died of leukemia Saturday in Buffalo, leaving behind his wife -- the paper's executive sports editor, Lisa Wilson, and a daughter, Alissa. And a lot of sad peers.

"It's so upsetting,'' former Bills coach Gregg Williams told me Saturday night, "because of the kind of family man he was, and the kind of person he was, and the kind of professional he was. I had so much respect for him. We both are very close to our families, and that was our bond.''

Wilson a former college football player at North Carolina Central, was occasionally mistaken for Bruce Smith; their hair and big chests were similar. "I'm not him,'' Wilson would tell fans, "but I do cover him.'' Most times in press boxes, he was the silent type -- but there was something about him that attracted respect. As I told Williams, "It's like he was Switzerland -- he was so impartial.'' We're in a business now in which newspaper beat people are told by their bosses in many cases to be opinionated, to interpret the news. That's important, to be sure. But it's also important to present the news when you're covering a team in an impartial way, and let the readers decide what they want to think about a story or an issue.

"You hit the nail on the head,'' said Williams. "He was so neutral. A lot of guys in your business I won't read, because I want to know facts, and I don't know what I'm getting from them. Allen, he dealt in facts. He reported what was happening, not what he thought should happen. I think there's an art to neutrality, and Allen was very good at it.''

One of the Bills Wilson covered, Takeo Spikes, reached out to me because he wanted to express his respect for him. "The best way to describe him was firm and fair,'' Spikes said. "He was up front with me, always. If he was going to write something I might not like, he'd come to me and say, 'Look, I'm writing this, And I want to get your side of it. Whatever you say is not going to make me not write it, but I want to be sure I tell your side.' When we're dealing with the media, that's all we want. He didn't come out with any bogus stories. The players respected him.''

He's the second tough but fair beat man to die this season, Tom Kowalski from Detroit the first back in August. The Lions played at Buffalo right after Kowalski died, and the Bills had a moment of silence for him too. Two very good men and reporters, gone too soon.

Peyton Manning.

Today, with his teammates 0-12 and playing out the string on a remarkably bad season, Manning starts the next phase of his rehabilitation from September neck surgery. Manning may have seemed evasive when interviewed by James Brown on the CBS pregame show Sunday, and he was. But what he implied several times is absolutely true: His fate will be apparent to him, and to the Colts, in two or three months and not before. We can't know now how strong Manning will be in the first week of March, which is when the Colts have to determine whether to keep him on the team or not, because of how tenuous a surgery he had, and how difficult it is to predict nerve regeneration.

This much we know: Manning signed, essentially, two contracts last July. The first was a one-year deal for 2011, and the second a four-year deal that is due to be activated with the payment of a $28 million option bonus several days before the start of the 2012 league year. The 2012 league year begins on March 12. If the Colts pay the bonus, Manning stays a Colt. If they don't, he becomes a free agent. Because trades cannot happen until the start of the league year, Manning cannot be traded by Indianapolis -- unless he agrees to delay payment of the option bonus.

On NBC last night, Manning's former coach, Tony Dungy, said he thought Manning would play for the Colts in 2012 or not at all. In discussions with me off-air, Dungy said Manning is such a creature of habit, with intimate knowledge of his receivers' habits, that he wouldn't want to go anywhere (particularly, I noted) in an era when teams don't have offseason control of their players and Manning might not be able to get to know them well before they start playing together.

But the Colts will have one advantage none of us figured when this process started, as I reported last night: Because he is a rehabbing player, Manning is able to use the Colts' facility to work out and lift weights and do all the rehab assigned by his surgeon, Dr. Robert Watkins. Injured players may use team facilities in the offseason to do their recovery work. Manning will certainly take advantage of those conditions in January and February to get his arm and neck in optimum health. He'll have nine weeks after the Colts' season ends to work on getting healthy before Colts owner Jim Irsay and braintrust Bill and Chris Polian have to make a decision whether to keep Manning around for 2012.

Aside from the option bonus, the cap cost won't be prohibitive if they keep Manning and draft a quarterback with the first pick in the draft; Indy would have to pay Manning and the rookie QB a cap charge of about $21.2 million, with the rest of the roster earning about $100 million.

So now we wait. You can't rush mother nature.

***

And one more note from Sunday:

Week 17, 2007: New England (16-0) 38, New York Giants 35.

Week 13, 2011: Green Bay (12-0) 38, New York Giants 35. Said the quarterback who put up 35 points in both games, Eli Manning: "That [New England] game we lost, but I think everybody felt good about the way we played and had a little momentum going into the playoffs. Obviously it's going to be a similar feel with these next four games. They're all going to be playoff-style games where we need to win. We need to make sure that we have that attitude. I think in the locker room, guys are obviously disappointed with the loss, but there was a little sense of energy and sense of, 'Hey, we can get this thing going now.' ''

In 2007, the Giants went on to beat Tampa Bay, Dallas, Green Bay and New England to win the world title. In 2011, they'll play Dallas twice, Washington and the Jets. As happened in 2007, the Giants have their fate in their hands.

Coming Tuesday: Focusing on the Steelers and Texans.

You're out, Bengals. Three games against Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the last 22 days. Three losses. Foes 90, Cincinnati 48.

1. Green Bay (12-0). I love the Packers playing their first truly last-second game since opening night, playing on the road, Aaron Rodgers driving them 68 yards in five plays and 55 seconds to a gimme field goal. At some point of every season, great teams have to win nailbiters, and it was good for the development of this team to struggle and win.

2. New England (9-3). As admirable a game as the Colts played for about 80 percent of it, that they didn't cover Rob Gronkowski on two of three touchdowns ... inexcusable.

3. Baltimore (9-3). Three games do not a trend make, and so I did not purchase the one about the Ravens not being able to beat bad teams after emotional wins. Just too weird.

4. San Francisco (10-2). All those who had the Niners clinching the division in Week 13, raise your hands. Thought you'd be the only one, Jack Harbaugh.

5. New Orleans (9-3). In eight quarters in seven days in the Superdome, the Saints put up 80 points and 1,015 yards on two NFC playoff contenders. They're scary good on offense right now. Really looking forward to the Saints-Niners divisional game at Candlestick in six weeks. I think at Candlestick, but you never know.

6. Pittsburgh (9-3). Steelers home to Cleveland Thursday, then have nearly a complete bye before playing San Francisco on Monday night in Week 15. That's 10 full days between games, plus most of a day of rest in the hotel in San Francisco on day 11 -- just what a veteran team needs this late in the season.

7. Houston (9-3). Hard to have any more admiration for a team than I have for Houston. Not to say the Texans are going to be much of a factor in the playoffs with T.J. Yates at quarterback, but the way they've rallied around him and not made excuses for their injuries and played well enough for the past six-plus quarters to beat Jacksonville and Atlanta ... that's pretty good.

8. New York Jets (7-5). Ship's been steadied now with two straight wins. Coming up: Kansas City in New Jersey next Sunday. Should be a gimme, but it's not. Chiefs have given up a meager 16 points in their last eight quarters.

9. Atlanta (7-5). Anyone watching the Falcons has to be asking, "What's wrong with Matt Ryan?''

10. Denver (7-5). The Broncos made the front page of the Drudge Report Sunday. Or, rather, Tim Tebow did. "MIRACLE: TEBOW DOES IT AGAIN!'' was the headline on the famous news blog.

11. Miami (4-8). Last seven games: 4-3 ... Miami 171, Foes 92. Do I think they beat the Giants, Lions and Bears on a neutral field in Wichita tomorrow? Yes. (Well, not all of them together. I mean, one at a time.)

12. Dallas (7-5). In the previous six weeks, they got creamed by Philadelphia, beat Seattle by 10, manhandled Buffalo, beat Washington in overtime, beat Miami by a point and lost to Arizona in overtime. Trust Dallas at your own risk.

13. New York Giants (6-6). How nutty is this: The Giants have lost four in a row, and if they win out in the last four weeks, they win the division. Weird.

14. Detroit (7-5). Fading fast; 2-5 in the last seven weeks since the miracle start. Doesn't help to have 22 accepted penalties for 209 yards in the last two games.

15. Tennessee (7-5). Chris Johnson put it right when interviewed after the game. He said early in the season the passing game was carrying the offense, and now it's the runners' turn. He's been his old Chris Johnson self the past two weeks: 46 carries, 343 yards. The Titans are in this wild-card race.

Offensive Players of the Week

Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers. This is how silly a season Rodgers is having: He completed 28 of 46 for 369 yards, with four touchdowns and an interception, for a 106.2 rating in the 38-35 against the Giants ... and it was his worst game of the season. You can look it up. It was Rodgers' lowest-rated game by 5.2 rating points in the NFL's arcane way of ranking quarterbacks, but he was money all day against a persistent Giants' rush. He led the Pack five plays in 55 seconds to the winning field goal in front of a hostile crowd at the Meadowlands Sunday.

Carolina QB Cam Newton. Breaking the NFL record for touchdown runs by a quarterback in a season with three TD rushes at suddenly feeble Tampa Bay, Newton now has 13 rushing touchdowns for the year, most in the NFL. He added a touchdown pass and 204 yards throwing, propelling the Panthers out of the NFC South cellar for the first time since the 2009 season.

Defensive Players of the Week

Kansas City LB Justin Houston. The rookie from Georgia made Caleb Hanie's life miserable (well, Hanie helped too) with three sacks, two more quarterback hits, a forced fumble and a pass deflected. Houston contributed to a defense that allowed a weakened Bear offense just 181 yards. Great plan by defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel too. He's having an outstanding run.

Pittsburgh LB James Harrison. He pressured Andy Dalton of the Bengals early and often, and was the vast majority of the Steeler pass-rush. For the day, Pittsburgh had three sacks for 24 yards. Harrison had three sacks for 24. Yep. Had 'em all. In his four games back since breaking the orbital bone in his eye, Harrison has had three, zero, zero and three sacks, respectively, in four games.

Special Teams Player of the Week

New Orleans CB Patrick Robinson, for blocking a Jason Hanson field goal try as the clock expired at the end of the first half, with the Lions trying desperately to get back into the game, down 24-7. To come around the edge as fast as Robinson did so he could get a hand on the kick should be illegal -- which Jim Schwartz thought it was. He thought Robinson was offside -- and it was close. But it wasn't called, and the effect was huge. The demoralized Lions left the field down 17, knowing that every missed chance against a team this explosive would be a killer.

Dallas P Mat McBriar. The stats look pedestrian: five punts, a 38.2-yard average. But consider this: McBriar pinned the Cards at their 11-, 1-, 3-, 20- and 5-yard line after the five punts; Patrick Peterson, the heir to Hester as the most dangerous punt returner in football, had exactly one punt return yard all day.

Pittsburgh PR/WR Antonio Brown. The Bengals were hoping to go into halftime down 21-7 and a chance to regroup. But they had to punt to Brown with 95 seconds left in the half, and he juked toward the middle, then left, then sprinted down the right sideline for a 60-yard touchdown. Ballgame.

Coaches of the Week

Houston offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp. They nursed T.J. Yates through the last 32 minutes of a win at Jacksonville last week, then got him ready for his first NFL start Sunday, at home against Yates' hometown team, the Falcons. Yates completed 12 of 25 throws, and the Texans' game plan eked out 337 yards against Atlanta. Coach Gary Kubiak gave both coaches game balls after the game.

"Greg Knapp and Rick Dennison have not slept this week," Kubiak said. "The job that they did with that kid in the quarterback room this week was tremendous. These things don't happen in this league. It's one thing to lose a guy, but it's another thing to have two out of your three quarterbacks in your room [Jake Delhomme, Kellen Clemens, the new backups] that don't even know your system that you're trying to teach them in the middle of the year. It's been a heck of a challenge and T.J. held up his end of the bargain very well. But those guys did a great job.''

Goat of the Week

Dallas coach Jason Garrett, for his poor handling of the clock at the end of the fourth quarter at Arizona. With two timeouts and 31 seconds left after converting a first down at the Arizona 31 in a 13-13 game, Garrett didn't call a timeout. Rather, he held on to them as the Cowboys scrambled to get a play off, with Tony Romo ultimately spiking the ball with eight seconds left. Then, as the play clock ran down and his field-goal team was ready to kick, Garrett called a timeout ... in effect icing his own kicker. But Dan Bailey followed through and made the field goal, presumably ending the game -- until the officials were seen waving their arms to signify the Garrett timeout. Why call the timeout after 17 seconds ran off the clock? And then why not try to get the ball a few yards closer so Bailey would have a closer try than 49 yards? Anyway, when the kick finally was tried, Bailey missed and the Cowboys lost in overtime. That's a bad loss.

Offensive Rookie of the Year Watch

The MVP Watch is boring me. If the top of it is without mystery, which it is, I think it's more fun to use this space every week to gauge how different races are going. This morning, it's the Offensive Rookie of the Year race, which is probably still a two-horse race. Though if DeMarco Murray continues his climb up the rushing-yardage list, it could be three.

Keep in mind that the 50 voters for the Associated Press NFL awards get one vote per category. I've often railed against this, favoring the baseball system, in which the voters vote 1 through 10 on things like the MVP and Cy Young Award. I'm giving you the top five here in my opinion, but letting you know the bottom four when we vote on Jan. 2 won't matter.

1. Carolina QB Cam Newton. Thirteen rushing touchdowns, with three more Sunday at Tampa in the rout of the Bucs. Wow. And the two 400-yard passing games to start the season. Very, very impressive. It's still very possible I could go Andy Dalton, but as of this morning, I'm leaning toward Newton.

2. Cincinnati QB Andy Dalton. Dalton's won three more games than Newton and been slightly more efficient, until his bad performance at Pittsburgh Sunday. Both teams stunk last year --Cincinnati was 4-12; Carolina 2-14 -- and I think the fact that the Bengals are playoff contenders in Dalton's rookie year and the Panthers are improved but not contending is a big part of the closeness of this race after 13 weeks.

3. Dallas OT Tyron Smith. An above-average right tackle from day one, and he's missed only three offensive snaps all year.

4. Oakland G-C Stefen Wisniewski. Terrific young talent on a line that has needed him at center and guard. Telling that a guard picked in the second round in 2011 will probably turn out better than a guard picked second overall by the Raiders in 2004, Robert Gallery.

5. Dallas RB DeMarco Murray. He still has time to get higher in the race, but he'll probably have to average 125 rushing yards a game to make up for his late start.

"Three weeks, three different quarterbacks. But the same team.''

-- Houston coach Gary Kubiak, on winning in consecutive weeks with Matt Schaub, Matt Leinart and T.J. Yates the starting quarterbacks.

"I've been telling you the same thing since we were 0-5. You just don't want to listen to me. This is a good football team, and I love coaching those guys. I have fun with them every day. We broke this down way back when we were 0-7 and said we had two seasons. November was good to us, and now we want to start good in December."

-- Miami coach Tony Sparano, about his players, after the Dolphins broke to a 34-0 lead and crushed the Raiders. Miami started 0-7 and is 4-1 since.

"I can take getting beat by a better football team, which they were.''

-- Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris, on the Carolina Panthers.

Now, this is a correction from my post of Monday morning. When I saw the quote used from his press conference after the 38-19 loss to Carolina Sunday, the quote read, "I can take getting beat by a better football team. I wish they were.'' Obviously, that makes it seem like Morris is giving the Panthers no credit for the victory. I have since listened to the audio from the press conference, and though it is difficult to hear, Morris does say, "I can take getting beat by a better football team, which they were.''

I regret the error. I'll also post a correction in next Monday's column, so those who don't re-read the column will understand that a mistake with the quote was made.

"We're in great shape ... one win away from feeling a lot better."

-- Chicago coach Lovie Smith, after the 10-3 home loss to Kansas City, conjuring memories of Kevin Bacon ("All is well! ALL IS WELL!'') in "Animal House.''

The Bears visit Tebowville this weekend, and if their quarterback is no better, they'll lose their third in a row.

Jay Cutler's last 27 drives before leaving the lineup with an injured thumb: six touchdowns, six field goals, 10 punts, one interception.

Caleb Hanie's first 27 drives as starting Chicago quarterback: two touchdowns, three field goals, 12 punts, six interceptions.

Bill Parcells used to say, "God's playing in some of these games.'' Maybe he was playing in February and March, which is when the NFL makes up the schedule every year, and maybe he fancied seeing Peyton Manning and Tom Brady playing a whole lot.

It's getting a little freaky now: 2012 will be the 10th consecutive season the Colts, in the AFC South, and Patriots, in the AFC East, have played each other.

For teams in the same conference but different divisions, scheduling is done on a rotating basis. Every three seasons, you play each team in a different division in your conference. In 2003, 2006 and 2009, the AFC East teams played the AFC South teams, and will do so again in 2012.

In every other year, you play one team in the other two divisions you're not assigned to play that year. So in every other year, New England had to finish in the same position in the AFC East standings as Indy did in the AFC South. And every year, they were the same.

This is the 10th season of the two-conference, four-division NFL format. And it's the first time in those 10 season that Colts, who will finish last in the AFC South, and the Patriots, likely to be first in the AFC East, will not finish in the same position in the standings.

For the record, New England is ahead in this one-decade series 5-4 in regular-season meetings and 2-1 in the playoffs. And yes, no two non-division foes have played each other this many times in a decade -- 13 times in 10 years -- which, as of next year, the Colts and Pats will have done.

Ever notice going to New Orleans is like going to a foreign country?

I mean, in a very good way.

Had the good fortune last Monday of going to New Orleans and spending some time with Steve Gleason, the former Saint now suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. We ate lunch at a place called Cochon, a New Orleans fixture for its interesting fare. I noticed that all four beers on tap were local, including the Tin Roof Brewery's Voodoo Bengal brew; nine of the 18 beers in bottles were locals, including Lazy Magnolia Pecan Ale. On the table that afternoon: fried rabbit livers, fried alligator and creamy grits. We passed on the shaved hog head with beets.

The bars and restaurants in the French Quarter are more Americanized, but it's still one of the most walkable American cities, alive from late morning to early morning. Never fails that when I go to the city I feel as though I'm in a European city as much as an American one. The narrow streets, the city dwellings, the strong local accents.

Walking the 10 blocks to the Superdome, beer was sold on the sidewalk and enjoyed by those walking to the game.

I don't remember the last bad day I had in New Orleans. I don't think there's ever been one.

"#Lions C Dominic Raiola went off in locker room afterwards, mostly using expletives, clearly the frustration is mounting."

-- @paulapasche, Lions beat writer for the Oakland (Mich.) Press, leaving the locker room after the Lions' loss to the New Orleans Sunday night.

"No one saying the Bears will be fine with Caleb Hanie anymore.''

-- @greggrosenthal, of Pro Football Talk and Rotoworld, after another awful Hanie performance in the 10-3 loss to Kansas City Sunday.

"Happy 30th Birthday Britney!''

-- @Lane_Kiffin, to Britney Spears, on her 30th birthday, Friday.

Seriously.

1. I think this is what I liked about Week 13:

a. Ross Tucker's news sense. The former player and current SiriusXM, YES and Versus announcer was the first one to tweet there would be more interest in Sage Rosenfels than Donovan McNabb last Friday ... and then Alex Marvez of FOXSports.com broke the story of the Vikings claiming Rosenfels -- while no one claimed McNabb. Good gets by both men.

b. The Seahawks, who are better than we think.

c. Especially you, Marshawn Lynch.

d. Great scoop, Jim Trotter, breaking the story of the two Redskins being banned for four games.

e. Great challenge, Leslie Frazier, barely getting the challenge flag out on the McGahee fumble.

f. Looking more and more like yourself, Chris Johnson.

g. Dan Orlovsky's second drive at Foxboro (even though he missed a wide-open Jacob Tamme for a touchdown): 19 plays, 67 yards, field goal.

h. Good ruling/clarification by FOX's Mike Pereira on Twitter after the Tim Tebow fumble in Minnesota: "The ground can cause a fumble if the runner is not down prior to the ball coming out. Tebows knee was not down when the ball came out.'' Other than the missed apostrophe in "Tebows,'' that was a heck of a tweet.

i. Congrats to FOX info man John Czarnecki on the wedding of his daughter Vanessa Friday night. And a lovely bride she was.

j. What a catch by Jordy Nelson on the sideline in the fourth quarter, with the Pack driving to add to a one-point lead. The hands, the feet on the sidelines --perfect.

k. And a better one by Donald Driver, channeling his inner Cris Carter to catch a bullet from Rodgers, jousting with Corey Webster (the '07 championship game hero, intercepting Brett Favre at the start of overtime) in the end zone, then catching a pass almost parallel to the ground and getting both feet down. An absolutely great catch.

l. Travis Beckum: Didn't know you had that speed.

m. Victor Cruz entered the league as a free agent from that football hotbed, UMass. He's now a legitimate No. 1 receiver for a playoff contender, albeit one that's lost four in a row.

n. Laurent Robinson. Someone please tell me how the Rams and Falcons gave up on Laurent Robinson. I've got to know. His hands, his deep-threat ability and his ability to rise to the occasion on big throws downfield all show he's a starting receiver for a good team in the NFL. Mind-boggling two teams didn't think he was good enough.

2. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 13:

a. The Texans' skimpy cheerleader uniforms, with the word "CHEERLEADER'' on the backs of each. What, did some executive think heavily made up, beauty-pageant-type 20-year-olds would be confused as ushers?

b. Worst uniforms in NFL history made a one-week comeback, regrettably, in Tampa: the creamsicle jobs. Why, oh why, would you embarrass the franchise by reminding people you used to wear those pukey things?

c. Matt Ryan. Wild high all day in Houston.

d. Matt Ryan. Outplayed by T.J. Yates.

e. The Bucs offensive line. Josh Johnson never had a chance.

f. Richard Seymour who, again, couldn't control himself, though he should certainly know better. Threw a punch in the game at Miami and was ejected. I will give him credit for apologizing after the game.

g. The story of Nick Folk's life: makes the 51-yard field goal attempt, misses the 40-yarder.

h. Way to cover Roddy White, Texans. He's a receiver for Atlanta. Pretty good one. You're not supposed to let him run around with no defender within 10 yards, Houston.

i. Jermichael Finley's not in the class of Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham, in my mind. Drops too many.

j. Contagious. Greg Jennings even dropped one with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, and he never has the dropsies.

k. The mental and physical mistakes of the Lions. Three offensive pass-interference penalties against Nate Burleson. (Don't know if I've seen that before.) Brandon Pettigrew shoving an official. Ridiculous.

3. I think Jared Allen would play hard if the game were checkers against his niece on a beach in Florida in July. What a competitor.

4. I think we're going to have an interesting call in Canton one day as one of the most interesting careers of this era is moving toward a significant landmark. Hines Ward's five catches in the rout of Cincinnati left him 10 receptions shy of 1,000 for his career. He'd be the eighth player in history to catch 1,000 balls.

5. I think I was stunned to hear the other day that the Army-Navy game had never been played in Washington in 111 meetings, and I don't think I was the only one. "It's shocking the game has never been here before,'' Redskins owner Dan Snyder said at an Army-Navy luncheon the other day.

Snyder was the driving force behind bringing the game to FedEx Field (suburban Maryland, not Washington; but close), which made the 43 Army and Navy bases in the Washington area happy. The game has mostly been played at a stadium not in one team's backyard; the Naval Academy is in nearby Annapolis. But it does seem a natural to play it in the nation's capital at least once in a while. Good for Snyder for getting it there.

6. I think I would be surprised if Andy Reid either is fired or chooses to quit. I noted Mike Florio on Pro Football Talk said Sunday that Reid will have to fire or demote defensive coordinator Juan Castillo to save his job. After the last two or three weeks, that has seemed like a gimme; Reid hasn't hesitated to fire coaches on low-achieving units before, as he did with defensive coordinator Sean McDermott last year.

7. I think I would be surprised if Raheem Morris isn't in trouble right now. That is a dreadful-looking team, and Morris kicking defensive tackle Brian Price off the sideline after his personal foul in the third quarter just shows the unraveling of this team in the last few weeks. Morris called Price's behavior foolish, selfish and terrible. That's six losses in a row for the Bucs. One looks worse than the next.

8. I think it was a bit of a stunner to see the Patriots on Saturday whack wideout Taylor Price, the third-round pick in 2010 (chosen before NaVorro Bowman and Jimmy Graham), before ever really giving him a regular-season chance to play. The top three rounds of the Pats' draft in 2010 -- in which they ended up taking five players and trading one third-round pick in a package for a pass-rusher, Derrick Burgess, who didn't pan out -- are just more ammo for those who think that when Bill Belichick lost trusted scout Thomas Dimitroff and de facto GM Scott Pioli in back-to-back seasons (2008, 2009), he never replaced the brainpower and the ability of those guys to argue him out of picks.

Jimmy Johnson has been a close adviser to Belichick over the years, and I'm sure he's told Belichick what he told me long ago: Stockpiling picks allows you to make mistakes and get rid of the mistakes without hanging onto them for a long time. Just cut your losses. That's what Belichick did with Price.

9. I think what Aaron Rodgers said on his weekly ESPN radio show in Milwaukee and Madison the other day, about wearing religion on one's sleeve as Tebow does, shows why he's such a compelling figure. He's just smart, and he doesn't have to say, "Hey, I'm smart,'' for you to understand. Not when he says things like this:

"Well I started playing before Tim, so these are things I've thought about for a long time, and I think one thing that I try to look at when I was a younger player, and I mean, in high school, junior college and Division I, I was always interested in seeing how guys talked in their interviews, talked about their faith, or didn't talk about their faith. And then the reactions at times, I know Bob Costas at one point was critical about a player thanking Jesus Christ after a win, questioning what would happen if that player had lost, or do you really think God cares about winning and losing.

"I feel like my stance and my desire has always been to follow a quote from St. Francis of Assisi, who said, 'Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.' So basically, I'm not an over-the-top, or an in-your-face kind of guy with my faith. I would rather people have questions about why I act the way I act, whether they view it as positive or not, and ask questions, and then given an opportunity at some point, then you can talk about your faith a little bit. I firmly believe, just personally, what works for me, and what I enjoy doing is letting my actions speak about the kind of character that I want to have, and following that quote from St. Francis.''

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

a. My favorite color in sports: Toronto Maple Leafs blue.

b. How fast is LSU? Amazing. Every corner, every skill player on offense: NFL-fast.

c. Montee Ball, 13 carries for 105 yards and two touchdowns -- in the first 12 minutes of the Big Ten championship game.

d. Donald Trump to host a Republican debate. Now that's a good way to be taken seriously.

e. Herman Cain blames the media. He's right. We force these women to come forward. Didn't you know?

f. The longer Seinfeld is in the rear-view mirror, the more I hear it quoted. And the more I like it.

g. Glad I don't have a Heisman vote. If I did, I'd have to watch tons more college football, and I'd have to make what seems like an impossible choice between all these good quarterbacks and players like Montee Ball, Robert Griffin III, Trent Richardson and Justin Blackmon. Tough, tough year.

h. Football fan to me on Second Avenue in New York Saturday night: "Hey Peter! Manning or Luck for the Colts?'' Me to fan: "Both.''

i. Coffeenerdness: You know it's Week 13 of the football season when, one day in midweek, you realize the reason you've got the 11 a.m. headache building is because you've been pre-occupied and haven't had a strong cup of Italian Roast.

j. Beernerdness: Need to catch up on my winter beers. How depressing that I've been working so much I'm falling behind on my consumption.

k. Jose Reyes to Miami: It had to happen. The Mets weren't going to pay him real money.

l. Bobby Valentine to the Red Sox: Seems like the most logical manager for that team at this time. He's going to discipline guys, I would think. This reminds me of a football team changing coaches. If the team had a laid-back guy last time, the team would hire a butt-kicker the next time. Glad to hear he's not going to look the other way when players aren't doing what they should be doing.

San Diego 27, Jacksonville 16. I can't see the Jags generating enough offense to win, unless Maurice Jones-Drew runs wild, which he might do. Interesting. As bad as the Chargers have been -- and they've been awful and disappointing in losing five straight -- they'd be only two games back with four to play.

Jacksonville's attention, rightfully, is on its new prospective owner, Shad Khan, a 60-year-old auto-parts magnate from Champaign, Ill. Good story on Khan by the Florida Times Union's Tania Ganguli Sunday.

Khan came to the United States as a 16-year-old college freshman with very little money, staying at the Y in Champaign his first night, and starting his first American job -- washing dishes for $1.20 an hour -- the next day. Wrote Ganguli: "In an unfamiliar environment, most humans cling to others like them. It's comfortable in a time of a difficult transition." Khan took a different route. Instead of seeking others who could relate to his immigrant story, Khan signed up for fraternity rush as soon as he could, eager to meet people who weren't like him in his new home. 'The Beta Theta Pi house, which was a very selective house, and all traditionally white Anglo Saxon Protestant, invited him either out of curiosity, for fun or to see who he was, and they loved him,' said David Sholem, one of Khan's close friends.'' Interesting stuff.

Last week I was told by a business acquaintance that Khan will enter the NFL -- assuming he passes NFL muster and his $760 million bid for the franchise is accepted -- as one of, if not the biggest football fan in the league. Looking forward to meeting him.

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