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Stars align on key sequence as Broncos get sixth straight win

The real world intercedes on the fun and games this morning: Atlanta coach Mike Smith got a clean bill of health Sunday night at a Charlotte hospital after being taken off the Falcons' charter back to Atlanta with chest pains. Paramedics examined him, then sent him to the hospital for tests. No heart attack. "Everything came out negative with the tests,'' GM Thomas Dimitroff told me from the hospital last night. "Mike is in good spirits." In fact, when the doctor came in to examine Smith, the coach told him: "Listen: I will be at my 4 o'clock coaches' meeting [in Georgia] tomorrow."

And, from all indications, he will be. Dimitroff told me he will coach Thursday night when the Falcons play Jacksonville at the Georgia Dome.

That's about all I know, other than this: Smith's 52, has always seemed healthy to me, and is one intense guy on the sidelines. Did he just have bad heartburn? Is the pressure of the job getting to him? Don't know any of that. We'll see in the coming days. But he's one of those occasionally volcanic coaches; once or twice a game you say, "Settle down, now." It's a stressful job. A fun job, but stressful, and full of the kind of pressure that most jobs don't have.

Glad to hear the scare was just that -- only a scare. I'm sure Smith won't mind if we get on with the news of the day. A playoff coach having a significant health scare. That's news ... but it pales in comparison to the force of nature of all Tebow, all the time.

***

Mike Tomlin, after victories, can be a funny and feisty sort. Not at his press conference, but in his locker room. And Thursday night, 50 minutes after the Steelers beat the Browns with the John Wayne performance of Ben Roethlisberger, he called out to Roethlisberger from his coaches' locker room as his quarterback limped past.

"Hey Ben!'' cackled Tomlin. "You Tebowed 'em!''

If Merriam-Webster could add the definition of "Tebow,'' I predict it would go something like this:

Tebow. TEE-bow. Verb. To defeat an opponent while overcoming a major impediment. Ex.: Despite having a 102-degree fever, Lucy managed to Tebow her competition for the Miss America pageant through her great determination.

Now on with week 14, in which, of course, the Denver quarterback Tebowed the Bears in very Tebow fashion.

He had help. An incredible sequence of events got the Broncos undisputed possession of first place in the AFC West. After Denver started the season 1-4, Tebow got the quarterback job and has gone 7-1, and this one, in so many ways, was the weirdest -- and a game Chicago will kick itself over for weeks. Years, maybe.

OK. Tebow was 3 of 18 in the first three quarters, and Chicago led 10-0 midway through the fourth. Tebow got hot, though, against a semi-prevent defense and found a wide-open Demaryius Thomas in the end zone for a touchdown to make it 10-7 with 2:08 to go. But the Broncos had no timeouts left. By the time they got the ball back with two minutes left, all the Bears had to do was make one first down to end the game ... and even if they didn't get it, all they had to do was run it three times and stay inbounds.

But Marion Barber ran out of bounds.

Instead of getting the ball with about 20 seconds left at his 20-, Tebow got it at his 20- with 56 seconds left. Plenty of time to get in position to kick a field goal, especially when the corners are giving receivers so much cushion that Tebow can chip away easily. Tebow got Denver just outside the Chicago 40 with eight seconds left. Here came kicker Matt Prater.

"Before the game,'' Prater told me afterward, "I kicked one from 70. This was really an unusual day for December in Denver. Usually it's cold and the ball is hard, and it is usually windy. But it was warm today, and the ball was really traveling. And when I went out to kick, I remember we were supposed to be having 5 to 10 mile-per-hour winds today, but we were really lucky. There was no wind.

And the wind shall be calm, and it shall be warm, and Matt Prater shall be able to kick one from 75.

His 59-yard field goal hit the net behind the goal post. Overtime.

Bears win the toss. Marion Barber, with the Bears probably a couple of yards yards from winning field-goal position, fumbles. Broncos recover. The Coen Brothers rush to LAX to get on the next flight to Denver to beg Tebow for the rights to his life story. At the gate, they discover first-class is taken up totally by Disney execs, racing to do the same thing.

Mayhem in the crowd. Tebow silences the faithful, drives the Broncos 34 yards, and Prater comes on to try his second field goal of longer than 50 yards in seven minutes.

"I try not to overthink,'' said Prater. "In fact, I don't think about anything."

Timeout, Bears. Icing.

"I don't care,'' said Prater. "Call as many timeouts as you want.''

The 51-yard winner looked like it was a Tiger Woods tee shot on a par-5 hole. It almost drilled a hole through the net behind the goalpost.

"You know what's fun about this?'' said Prater. "Everyone keeps saying what Tim can't do. And he goes out every week and we win. We love the guy. He's so real. Now we just feel like anything's possible.''

To put it mildly.

Tebow, in the fourth quarter and overtime: 18 of 24, 191 yards, one touchdown, no picks. His late-game heroics -- there's really no logical explanation. Other than this one: I've noticed Tebow likes the frenzied style of game, when he can play hurry-up, and defenses get back on their heels a bit, making sure they contain him. The Bears changed late in Sunday's game. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will be sick when he looks at how lax his corners played Bronco receivers late.

That'll be a great and compelling game Sunday, New England at Denver. The Patriots' secondary is in terrible shape. But Bill Belichick had a thing for Tebow before the 2010 draft. I'm told he was fascinated by him. They went out to a long dinner in Boston's North End, and that's not something Bill Belichick does with prospects very often. Fun to see Belichick match wits with Tebow in Denver -- I hope for the first of many meetings.

***

A few words about Eli Manning

In the Giants' last two victories, New York has come back late to win at New England and, on Sunday night, at Dallas. In New England, Manning led the Giants on drives of 88 and 80 yards in the final seven minutes; both ended in touchdown passes. In Dallas, Manning led the Giants on touchdown drives of 80 and 58 yards to erase a 12-point deficit in the final six minutes.

If Tebow is the manic fourth-quarter rally machine, Eli Manning's the buttoned-up one, following the scripts, making all the right decisions, throwing every pass on target. The difference between Tony Romo and Manning was pretty clear in the final minutes. Romo needed a completion to a wide-open Miles Austin inside of three minutes to play to ice the game -- and overthrew it. Manning lofted what should have been the winning touchdown pass right into the arms of a well-covered Mario Manningham in the final seconds -- a perfect throw that Manningham dropped. No matter. Manning got the final 24 yards passing and running, and the Giants won.

I said this after the Patriots game: In terms of clutch, I'll take Eli over Peyton -- and that's no knock on Peyton. It's the simple recognition that right now, today, I think Eli Manning's the most clutch quarterback playing. How much more do you need to see? Winning three on the road and then dethroning the 18-0 Pats in the Super Bowl four years ago was the start. This season's the continuation. There's no more debate about whether Eli's elite. He's put that to rest in Foxboro and Arlington this season.

***

There's a long line of people to credit for the Texans' first playoff appearance ever

Credit owner Bob McNair for not firing Gary Kubiak last January, and for running the kind of organization people want to work for. Credit GM Rick Smith for picking Johnathan Joseph over Nnamdi Asomugha, and making over the defense in the draft with J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed in the first two rounds. Credit the scouts and Smith and Kubiak for taking a shot on an underwhelming quarterback, T.J. Yates, in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, because there were a few things about him -- a good-enough arm, moxie, maturity -- that told Kubiak he'd be a good developmental prospect. Credit the players for not tanking when so many good players were lost -- Mario Williams, Andre Johnson, Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart.

Today, Houston (10-3) is the first seed in the AFC playoff race, and 25 percent of those wins (two plus the second half of the Jacksonville game) were won by Yates. Amazing story. The Texans were down 19-10 midway through the fourth quarter to a desperate Cincinnati team. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said before the game this was the biggest game he'd coached, and though they hadn't played great, Cincinnati was in position to win against the rookie by just making a couple more stops. The Bengals couldn't.

"I have to give a lot of credit to coach Knapp,'' Yates told me afterward, referring to quarterback coach Gregg Knapp. "Back in camp, I never had a relaxing practice. He grilled me nonstop mentally. He tested me on plays, on defenses, everything.''

"Give me an example,'' I said.

"I'd be there watching practice, and Matt [Schaub] would be about to take a snap, and coach Knapp would say to me, 'All right: What blitz here makes you go to your hot receiver?' By the time I got to play, I felt like I'd had millions of mental reps. I can guarantee you that's why I've been able to come in and play.''

On the winning touchdown pass to Kevin Walter, Owen Daniels and Derrick Mason went into the end zone on twin routes to take coverage with them -- and if one was open, Yates would find him. But scraping underneath was Walter, and his primary cover guy fell as Walter crossed over the middle. Easy pickings. "All I had to do was get the ball to him.''

Said Yates: "It's pretty wild. Pretty unbelievable. Today, I made a few mistakes early, and coach Kubiak got in my ear pretty good. Like, 'You can't make mistakes like that!' Then as the game went on, he'd say, 'Short-term memory.' Which is what you have to have as a quarterback.''

Said right tackle Eric Winston: "It's one thing to get a third-string rookie ready to run a few packages. T.J. can basically run everything.'' And that is why the Texans, with a third-string quarterback, aren't going to be so easy to beat in January.

Things you should know about how the NFL schedules TV games

Last week, the NFL raised a ruckus (certainly at the network where I work, NBC) by keeping the Baltimore-San Diego as the Week 15 Sunday night game on NBC, and keeping New England-Denver as a CBS Sunday afternoon game. Let me explain first why the league did that, then I'll tell you a few things about the gymnastics of which games go where.

When the flex schedule was established by the league for NBC's Sunday night package, it was done primarily to keep bad games (like some of the Monday-night clunkers we've seen) off of national TV on Sunday night. NBC paid for the right to flex out of a bad game. (More about why ESPN can't in a moment.) Flexing also gave teams rising from mediocrity (Detroit, for instance, eight days ago) the chance to play their way onto the Sunday night stage. And this is what NBC had hoped would happen when the league decided whether to keep the Ravens-Chargers as the Sunday night game or, as NBC wanted badly, to move the Patriots-Broncos, with the great Tebow story, to the night game, with Baltimore-San Diego moving to an afternoon start in San Diego.

NBC had a couple of good arguments. Denver had played its way into prime time, and Denver owner Pat Bowlen, a member of the NFL's Broadcast Committee, agreed. He wanted the game in prime time. New England is a big ratings attraction for NBC, and when the league flexed out of the New England-Indianapolis game a few weeks ago (understandably, obviously), NBC lost one of its two New England availabilities. Also, putting the game on CBS would mean it wouldn't be a national game. The New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Phoenix CBS affiliates will show their local teams' games and not Tebow-Brady. CBS, on the other hand, wanted to keep the game because of the Tebow factor and made its case to keep the game. And the case was a pretty good one: The Baltimore-San Diego game matched one team, following the Chargers' Monday night win at Jacksonville, that would enter the game one or two games out of the division lead, San Diego, against a team, Baltimore, likely to be tied for its division lead, in a dogfight with Pittsburgh. It didn't rise to the level of needing to take an A game to replace a B-plus game.

I can tell you this: The NFL would have moved Denver-New England to prime time if Jacksonville beat San Diego last Monday. There was still some internal debate to be had when San Diego won the game, but the NFL decided it couldn't justify taking the game from CBS.

Flex scheduling was designed with this primary objective -- to avoid a dog game. Baltimore-San Diego's not a dog at all. It's not Tebowmania, but those are the breaks.

Now, in the aftermath of the decision, it's been assumed that one of the league's powerful owners, Robert Kraft of the Patriots, had a major hand in keeping the game in the afternoon. An afternoon game in Mountain Time means the Patriots would get back to New England at about 2 a.m. If the game had been moved, their charter would return at about 6 a.m. Monday. With a Saturday afternoon game looming the following weekend, obviously the Patriots' preference would have been to play in the afternoon. I'm told two things reliably: Yes, Kraft did tell the league he wanted the game kept in the afternoon. No, Kraft did not strongarm the league in any way about it. "Categorically not,'' said a league source. "It's baloney. Whoever says that doesn't know what he's talking about.''

A few other network tidbits:

• ESPN flex. Many of you have emailed and Tweeted to ask why ESPN doesn't have the same kind of flex schedule. Answer: It's just impractical. It's one thing to move a game back four or seven hours to Sunday night. It's another to move a game, 12 days prior to it, 31 hours back. The hotels, the airplanes, the plans, the fans (inconvenienced enough by the movement from day to night and vice versa) ... It's just too much.

• Rulers. Who makes the final call on the Sunday night flex? NFL broadcast czar Howard Katz and commissioner Roger Goodell.

• Protected game. In early October, FOX and CBS must designate five games in the first six weeks of flex scheduling (and no more than one per network per week) that cannot be flexed to NBC. The Denver-New England game was not protected by CBS; the Jets-Eagles game that weekend was.

• Balancing act. There are 43 prime-time games per season -- 17 on ESPN, 18 on NBC and eight on NFL Network. The NFL cannot take more than 23 games per season away from either network. (CBS has AFC games and FOX the NFC games. In interconference games, most often, the road team dictates the network.)

• Long-term balancing act. This is year six of the eight-year contract with the networks. By the end of year eight, CBS and FOX must be nearly identical in the number of games they lose to prime time. I'm told it's pretty close to even right now so that shouldn't be a major factor in which games are shown in prime time in the next two seasons.

• Week 17. No network has the right to dictate time, and NBC is told which game will be on Sunday night. The NFL plots it to try to have a win-and-you're-in game as the last game of the year -- unless extenuating circumstances pop up. The Packers going for 16-0, for example; that might play a part in the league's decision.

***

Thursday night takeaways:

• James Harrison should not be suspended, but he should be fined. I've watched his scary helmet-to-helmet hit on Colt McCoy 15 times now, and I've listened to his defense. Which is this, basically: Once McCoy tucked the ball under his right arm and began to run, and left the pocket, McCoy appeared to be a runner, and thus could be hit in the helmet by a tackler. (Crazy rule, that runners can be hit helmet-to-helmet in the open field and quarterbacks can't be if they exhibition any intention of passing.)

McCoy, by my count, took five strides with the ball tucked under his arm, and when he and Harrison were about one stride apart, McCoy quickly pulled out the ball and tossed it to a receiver for a completion. I agree with what Harrison said postgame -- when he was coiling to hit McCoy, the quarterback appeared to be a runner.

But the NFL rule does not refer to time when talking about hits on a quarterback. In other words, the rule doesn't say if a quarterback looks to be a runner and at the last second throws a pass, and then is hit in the helmet, it's perfectly legal. The rule simply says you cannot hit a quarterback helmet-to-helmet. And in this case, Harrison clearly had the chance to make his aiming point lower. He could have hit McCoy shoulder pads to ribs, but he chose to aim higher than that. McCoy didn't curl up either.

So while I do not blame Harrison for thinking McCoy was a runner, and I believe it is wholly unfair to indict him for this hit as a cheap shot, I do blame him for where he aimed and where he hit him. There was no need to aim for the helmet. None. The play should result in a good-sized fine -- but it does not rise to the Suh-stomping level of a suspension, even with Harrison's history of NFL fines and discipline.

• The Browns should build around Colt McCoy, not draft a quarterback in 2012 to replace him. I'd seen snippets of McCoy flailing around this year, but hadn't watched every throw of a game. And so I watched Thursday night to get some sense of the near- and long-term prospects of the former University of Texas quarterback. And I came away thinking the Browns should stick with him and use a rich 2012 draft to finally build the kind of offense around McCoy that any quarterback would need to succeed.

Mike Holmgren is a disciple of Bill Walsh. I remember when Walsh was shown a few plays of Charles Haley rushing the passer at James Madison; he told his scouts he really wanted him. "If we see him make a few plays like this, we can coach him to do it all the time,'' Walsh said, and he was proved a prophet -- Haley became a top NFL pass-rusher for San Francisco and Dallas.

Well, on Thursday night, I saw McCoy, with limited help from grade-D skill players, make enough plays to convince me he's not the problem. Now, I realize he made two or three idiotic throws in the second half -- and you're not going to win doing that consistently. But one of the bad throws came after he was concussed and should never have been put back in the game. And those throws have to be addressed.

But he did enough good things that I came away thinking: Use the three picks in the top 40 next April (Cleveland has its own first- and-second-round picks, plus Atlanta's first-rounder from the Julio Jones deal last April) to help McCoy, not replace him. Three plays showed a mature quarterback making good decisions:

1. On the first series of the game, using play-action, McCoy set up, looked over his options and found tight end Evan Moore down the left side on a crossing route with a step on linebacker Lawrence Timmons. The high-arcing pass settled into Moore's arms. Gain of 33.

2. Also on the first series, Josh Cribbs found a gap downfield in the left seam and McCoy made a great touch pass over cornerback Ike Taylor. Gain of 25.

3. In the third quarter, on third-and-eight, down 7-3, McCoy faced a five-man rush and moved up in the pocket. Feeling pressure, he threw the ball about five feet to the right of tight end Alex Smith, because that was the only window open to make the throw -- Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and William Gay converged on Smith and seemed ready to pancake him. But the throw was zipped in perfectly, Smith made a diving catch, and the Browns had a first down. Good judgment, great throw.

Of course, we wouldn't be talking about any of this if McCoy didn't make some brain-fart throws. But I believe he can be coached out of those -- it's what Bill Walsh would believe, watching him -- and I believe some of that stems from the fact that the Browns are a poor offensive team as a whole.

McCoy has holes. He also has a coach, Pat Shurmur, who can correct those, and is in an offense he's so well-suited to run. He's well-liked and respected in the locker room. If I'm Browns GM Tom Heckert, I'm looking for an offseason upgrade at wide receiver (the Browns need two), guard, running back and tight end ... before I even think about replacing the quarterback.

• Mike Tomlin has a tough call this week on Ben Roethlisberger, who certainly will not be near 100 percent healthy after suffering that grotesque-looking high ankle sprain Thursday night. The Steelers, of course, did win the Super Bowl six years ago by winning three playoff games on the road (Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Denver) and one at a neutral site (vs. Seattle, at Detroit). And the Giants repeated that herculean task two years later, as did the Packers last season. But those postseason runs are more freaky than normal, obviously, and Tomlin has to think about the Steelers' upcoming playoffs while determining whether to risk playing Roethlisberger a week from tonight at San Francisco.

Because the Steelers have to finish ahead of the Ravens to win the division -- they're tied at 10-3 with three games to play -- Tomlin has to figure out if it's worth it to play a gimpy Roethlisberger next week against San Francisco, or potentially sacrifice the game by using Charlie Batch and resting Roethlisberger. I'm sure Tomlin figures he can go 1-1, minimum, playing Batch or Dennis Dixon in the next two weeks (at San Francisco, St. Louis at home) while Roethlisberger rehabs and gets ready to play Cleveland in Week 17. If Tomlin sits Roethlisberger and tries to get him healthy for January, Roethlisberger would have 22 days between Thursday night's injury and the Jan. 1 game to get mobile. Then, that would put Pittsburgh on a January path of a road wild-card game, a road divisional game and likely a road conference title game.

What would that path look like? Wild-card: at Denver or Oakland, possibly. Divisional: at New England. Championship: At Baltimore. Maybe. And of course, the whole thing could get messed up with Houston staying hot with a third-stringer, or some unlikely team running the table and barging into the AFC playoff party. But in any case, Tomlin has to choose whether he plays Roethlisberger in an all-out attempt to win one of the top two seeds in the playoffs and a first-round bye, or plays it more conservative and rests him now.

My guess: Tomlin doesn't agree with me. If Roethlisberger can walk next Monday, he'll play.

***

Finally, some praise for a cautionary tale.

John Branch's three-part series in The New York Times about the life and death of hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard (and about the effects of repeated blows to the head in Part III) is one of the best pieces of sports journalism I've ever read.

It follows Boogaard from birth in the plains of Canada, to learning how to fight, to making the NHL because he could fight, and then to his precipitous decline in mental and physical health -- in large part, almost certainly, because of the fighting.

I was especially interested in the story because of the piece I just finished for Sports Illustrated on the mental and physical health of the 1986 Cincinnati Bengals a quarter-century later. And I believe the Branch series does have football implications, because of all the times players' heads are hit in each sport. If you read one thing this week, please take time to read the Branch series. It's unforgettable.

The Times ran a great letter to the editor Sunday from a Jeffrey Prescott, of La Jolla, Calif.: "I have been going to hockey games for more than 40 years. I watch hockey on television every night, all season long ... I will never look at a hockey fight in the same way again. We used to think smoking cigarettes was O.K. We used to think hockey fights were O.K. The N.H.L. commissioner can stonewall all he wants, but for him and the league's governors, the blood is literally on their hands. The fighting must end.''

1. Green Bay (13-0). I'm not trying to minimize the loss of Greg Jennings, if he is lost for the rest of the regular season. But the Packers' next game of consequence is either 33 or 34 days from now, in their first playoff game. If they win one of their final three games, they clinch homefield throughout the NFC playoffs and would have time for Jennings to rehab even an injury of medium severity, like a torn MCL.

2. Baltimore (10-3). Terrell Suggs: three sacks, three forced fumbles. The only questions about Suggs and the All-Pro team is wondering if he'll be classified as an outside linebacker or defensive end. Either way, he's an All-Pro.

3. New England (10-3). I bet Tom Brady really wasn't all giddy and happy with Bill O'Brien, the way it appeared in the postgame presser, for biting his head off when he threw the bad interception late in Washington. But I also bet Brady appreciates a normally placid coach going freakazoid too, because a throw like Brady's shouldn't be acceptable.

4. New Orleans (10-3). I don't know how you throw a better ball than Drew Brees' second TD pass to Marques Colston Sunday in Nashville. So perfectly thrown that if Colston had been sleepwalking, it would have nestled softly into his hands in the end zone and he never would have felt it.

5. Pittsburgh (10-3). In Ben's Rehab They Trust.

6. San Francisco (10-3). Blew a 12-point lead in the second half. To John Skelton. Not good.

7. Houston (10-3). Pinch yourself, Houstonians. You're going to see NFL playoff football in your town for the first time since 1993.

8. New York Jets (8-5). These Jets remind me of last year's Jets. Stumbled late, then built up enough steam to be a factor in the playoffs. Here comes momentum.

9. Denver (8-5). At some point you just have to go along for the ride, sit back, enjoy it and realize you're witnessing one of the greatest stories we've seen in the NFL in a long, long time.

10. Atlanta (8-5). Amazing. For a team that has played so inconsistently all season, these Falcons are on the way to 10-6, at least (Jacksonville, at New Orleans, Tampa Bay), with a good shot at the fifth seed in the playoffs.

11. New York Giants (7-6). Any team with a quarterback as good and as clutch as Eli Manning is going to be one heck of a tough out in the playoffs. Now the Giants just have to get there.

12. Tennessee (7-6). The most impressive loser of them all Sunday. My Lord, where did this Karl Klug come from? (From Iowa. Fifth-round rookie. Another great and underrated product from the Kirk Ferentz School of NFL Development.) Plays like the Tasmanian devil. Six sacks bounding inside and outside.

13. Detroit (8-5). The mystery team of the next three weeks. Could see them go 0-3, 3-0 or anything in between (at Oakland, San Diego, at Green Bay). I mean, predict that.

14. San Diego (6-7). Not saying I believe, but the Chargers have won two in a row by a 75-24 composite score, and Philip Rivers has completed 76 percent with six touchdowns and no picks. Here come the wacky Chargers again.

15. Chicago (7-6). The Bears have a path to the playoffs, but it would be best if Caleb Hanie drove the bus there instead of playing quarterback.

Offensive Players of the Week

New York Giants QB Eli Manning. After throwing a disheartening interception, a fluky tipped one to Sean Lee midway through the fourth quarter, Manning saw the Giants go down by 12. All he did in the last six minutes was lead touchdown drives of 80 and 58 yards, on the road, throwing for 400 yards and two touchdowns along the way. What a cool customer.

Houston QB T.J. Yates. Played like Manning earlier in the day in Cincinnati. Down 19-10 midway through the fourth quarter, Yates led field-goal and touchdown drives to clinch the Texans' first playoff berth in their history. With a 26-of-44, 300-yard passing day, Yates showed the Texans might not have to try to win despite him.

New England TE Rob Gronkowski. He set the NFL record for touchdowns by a tight end with a six-catch, 160-yard, two-touchdown day in the 34-27 win at Washington. He's got 15 now, and no one will be surprised -- especially if he can continue to run through and over defenses like he did Sunday in Washington -- if he puts this record so far out of reach it'll last until long after he retires.

Defensive Players of the Week

New York defensive end/ST Jason Pierre-Paul. Eight tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and the most significant blocked kick for the Giants in years. In the final seconds at Dallas, with the Giants up 37-34, Pierre-Paul slithered through the center-right guard hole, thrust his hand skyward and got a piece of Dan Bailey's kick. The ball ricocheted off his hands, clanged downfield, and the Giants had their biggest win of the season.

Philadelphia DEs Jason Babin and Trent Cole. They took advantage of the injury to one very good tackle, (Jake Long, replaced by Nate Garner) and exploited one poor one (Marc Colombo, with 36 QB pressures/hits in the season's first 12 games, according to ProFootballFocus.com), Babin and Cole had three sacks apiece in the 26-10 rout of the Dolphins in Miami. Nine sacks total for the Eagles, leading every Philly fan to think: Where's this been all year?

Minnesota DE Jared Allen. Lots of pressure on Allen entering the game at Detroit, because he said some anti-Detroit things during the week. He produced, though. His three sacks of Matthew Stafford give him 17.5 for the season, meaning he's 5.5 sacks from breaking Michael Strahan's record. He'll have a chance in the final three weeks, because the Vikings have the beat-up Washington line in two weeks, followed by the suspect Chicago front to end the season.

Special Teams Players of the Week

Denver K Matt Prater. A 59-yarder that would have been good from 69 to tie Denver-Chicago at 10 and force overtime. A 51-yarder that would have been good from 61, or longer, to win it in overtime. We're talking the biggest pressure kicks a kicker can have, and Prater drilled them like it was a May minicamp workout. Pretty impressive.

Coach of the Week

Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt. Beat the 49ers, which is good enough. But also got John Skelton ready to play a winning game (and he threw three touchdown passes), and convinced his team three weeks ago the season wasn't over. It appeared that way at 3-7, but Arizona's won three straight, and the rest of the slate (Cleveland, at Cincinnati, Seattle) at least gives the players hope they've got a prayer and aren't playing out the string.

Goats of the Week

Chicago RB Marion Barber. Are you kidding me? Running out of bounds inside of two minutes left, with Denver having no timeouts left and down three? Pure idiocy. Barber's move allowed the Broncos a last chance to tie the game, getting it with 56 seconds left at the Denver 20 ... instead of getting the last-ditch chance with maybe 22 seconds left and no timeouts. And then he fumbled in overtime, allowing Tim Tebow to keep the miracles flowing.

Referee John Parry, with an assist to head linesman Derick Bowers. In the Minnesota-Detroit game, on the exhilarating final play, Parry had one player to watch -- quarterback Joe Webb. And while Webb floated to the left trying to make a play as time expired, Detroit linebacker DeAndre Levy grabbed Webb's facemask and twisted it. Clearly a flag should have been thrown. No flag. Levy sacked Webb, the ball was fumbled, it got kicked around, and the game ended.

What should have happened: The Vikings should have gotten an untimed final down from the Lions half-yard line (half the distance to the goal).

The non-call could play a major role in the NFC playoff race. The Lions are 8-5. We'll never know if they should be 7-6. Now, who bears responsibility? Parry's sole job is to watch the passer, but the ref was shielded because Webb's back was to him. Bowers' job is to watch Toby Gerhart and action in the offensive backfield. So I'd say Parry should have been able to see the severe twisting of the helmet and assumed the only way it could have been jerked like that was grabbing the facemask ... and he should have been backstopped by Bowers. As it was, a huge call with playoff implications was missed.

"A long line of coaches and players are pretty pissed at me after that. We're both pretty emotional guys so that's what I deserve, you know. If you make bad plays, you're supposed to get yelled at by your coaches. It was just a stupid play by me.''

-- New England quarterback Tom Brady, on getting chewed out on the sidelines by offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien after a second-half interception.

"Hey! Good game, Business!''

-- Steelers linebacker James Farrior, leaving the Pittsburgh locker room Thursday night and shouting out congratulations to Roethlisberger. One of the other guys in the locker room said "Business'' was a nickname for handling one's business superbly.

"Can you say a prayer for Cutler's thumb?''

-- Final question for Denver quarterback Tim Tebow, a very religious man, on his conference call with Chicago reporters last Wednesday. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler had recent thumb surgery, and it's unknown whether he'll play again this year.

"These guys, very few of them are ever going to make a dollar playing basketball. They are here to get an education at two great universities and they need to appreciate that. The world don't revolve around them, around basketball. They need to learn how to act. They need to have respect for the fact they are on a scholarship, that people come to see them play. That's just the facts of college athletics.

"There's too much glorification of all of sports in our society. The fact is, guys are here to get an education. They represent institutions of higher learning. Xavier has been a great school for years. We are trying to cure cancer at Cincinnati. I go to school at a place where they discovered the vaccine for polio and created Benadryl. I think that's more important than who wins a basketball game. And our guys need to have appreciation for the fact they are there on a full scholarship. And they're there to represent institutions with class and integrity ... I have never been this embarrassed.''

-- University of Cincinnati basketball coach Mick Cronin, after a full-scale brawl, one of the worst in college sports history, ended the UC-Xavier game Saturday in Cincinnati.

Good for Cronin, who suspended four players Sunday, three for six games each.

Florida-based NFL teams, their records and the status of their opening day head coaches:

The Bucs' fall has been shocking in its totality. I don't know that they could beat Indianapolis right now. In the last two months, they've lost games by 45, 28, 19 and 27 points. Raheem Morris is supposed to be a defensive innovator, and his team allowed 41 points Sunday to a team, Jacksonville, that hadn't scored more than 20 in a game all season.

With the problems the Bucs have had selling tickets, I think the Bucs would have to do something great in the last three games (Dallas, at Carolina, at Atlanta) for Morris to have any chance of keeping his job.

It occurred to me that Tebow must be getting slammed with media requests and pulled in different directions by the demands, so I asked Denver manager of media information Patrick Smyth just how slammed Tebow is. Smyth estimated Tebow has been getting about 100 requests per week, including the Tonight Showwith Jay Leno, CNN, FOX News and fitness and religious channels. No, no, no, no and no.

From Monday through Saturday last week, the most in-demand player in America's biggest game did the following with the media:

Monday: KOA radio interview (5 mins.).Tuesday: Nothing.Wednesday: Local press conference (10);Conference call with Chicago media (10);Interview, LA Times' Sam Farmer (14).Thursday: NothingFriday: Taping KOA pregame show interview (5);FOX-TV production meeting (15);Interview, SI's Jim Trotter (18 -- includes five minutes just chatting)Interview, FOXSports.com's Alex Marvez (6)Saturday: NothingSunday: The usual.

Total time spent with media on non-game days: 83 minutes.

Total minutes in six days: 8,640.

Percentage of Tebow's life spent with media last week: 0.9 percent.

Doesn't seem like too much of a distraction to me.

A comedy of errors (but I'm not laughing) led to this column being posted so late today. I regret making you wait.

I've caught a little bug in the last few days somewhere, and I've been trying to fight that off. I had to travel for a story early this morning, flying out of JFK at 6:55 a.m., and so at about 1:30 this morning, I lay down to sleep for three hours, unusual for my Sunday night. Woke up at 5. Rushed to get ready, got in the car to the airport and in five minutes discovered two very bad things: I left my cell phone in the car, and my flight, which I was told would have WiFi, did not.

Now that's what I call a great start to a day.

So I got on line quickly at the airport, tweeted my delay, informed my editors I was an idiot, and, with two hours of work left on the column, finished it on the plane and sent upon landing.

I can't figure out why I have this splitting headache.

"Is Tebow the Jordan of football Wow''

-- @paulpierce34, the admiring Boston Celtic, minutes after the Broncos erased a 10-0 deficit with six minutes left and beat the Bears 13-10 in overtime.

"I think Dad loves @TimTebow more than me.''

-- @Jesus_M_Christ, a phony admirer.

"Like Religion, #Tebow and the Broncos comebacks cannot be explained to nonbelievers.''

-- @Iceberg_Dan, a real admirer.

"How bout you fine James Harrison something more than money... The boy cheap!''

-- @CaseMcCoy6, the brother of Colt McCoy, after Harrison's helmet-to-helmet hit on McCoy left the Cleveland quarterback with a concussion.

"#SuburbanPoet mode engaged Feelin Rusty, no not a state of metal, Bense kickin it solo like Hans not Gretel.. Really? Yes really #MrReally"

-- @RustyBenson35, off-and-on Patriots safety, practice-squadder and urban poet, I guess, on Thursday. What it means, I do not know.

Because the MVP is sort of boring right now (Aaron Rodgers, with three weeks left, looks to be running away with it), I'm going to highlight other award races down the stretch. On Saturday, I asked my Twitter followers which Associated Press postseason award they'd like to see discussed here. It was close, but coach beat out defensive player. So coach it is -- for this week.

In AP voting, due the day after the end of the regular season, 50 ballot-holders among the national media vote for the All-Pro team and for each of the awards, like the MVP and Coach of the Year. Here's how I'd line them up today in the coach voting, keeping in mind one very important thing (which you'll see in number two):

1. Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco. A very, very close race that got paper-thin close Sunday when the Niners lost to the Cardinals. But to be 10-3 after meeting your full squad for the first time six weeks before the season, after your coordinators and many position coaches meet the players for the first time six weeks before the season, and after most of these same players floundered to a 6-10 record in a bad division last year ... that's great coaching and great organization.

2. Mike McCarthy, Green Bay. Remember: I'm handicapping the race with three weeks left in the season, so my order could certainly change. And if the Packers go undefeated after winning the Super Bowl, I'm going to be very tempted to pick a 16-0 McCarthy over a 13-3 or 12-4 Jim Harbaugh. Super Bowl winners have enough problems keeping their players focused on the job at hand. Going 16-0? Amazing. If they win out, the Packers will be on a 22-game winning streak entering the playoffs.

3. Gary Kubiak, Houston. At 10-3, with 2.5 wins coming with a third-string quarterback ... this is another guy who could move up in the last three weeks.

4. John Fox, Denver. Remade his offense, willingly, in midseason when it was obvious Tim Tebow was a better option quarterback than pro-style pocket quarterback. Good coaches adjust to their talent. Fox is the poster child for that this year, and the Broncos are contending because of it.

5. John Harbaugh, Baltimore. Since he took the job in 2008, Harbaugh has been chasing the Steelers with his Ravens. This year they swept Pittsburgh and are in position to play at home in the playoffs for the first time since the Brian Billick-Steve McNair Ravens of 2006.

1. I think this is what I liked about Week 14:

a. Pittsburgh's ferocious rush. I thought Jason Worilds was supposed to be a big disappointment. He looked terrific Thursday night against Cleveland.

b. Cleveland linebacker Chris Gocong, for an incredible goal-line stand in Pittsburgh. On four snaps from the two- or inside the two-, the Steelers sent Rashard Mendenhall between the tackles. Four straight times. And Gocong was in on all four tackles. On one play, his crushing hit knocked Mendenhall dizzy.

c. New York Daily News Jets beat man Manish Mehta's story on Jets coaching intern Mike Smith helping/saving third-year pass-rusher Aaron Maybin's flagging career: "Without him, I'd probably be a fish without fins in the open sea," said Maybin, who has six sacks and four forced fumbles in 10 games. "He understands me better than any of my coaches since I was in college.''

d. Washington KR/WR Brandon Banks. The 147-pound smurfy returner had never thrown a pass in his two-year NFL career (there's a big surprise), but against New England, he took a reverse and threw a wobbly, left-handed pass 38 yards in the air to Santana Moss, for a touchdown. Cool call.

e. Ray Rice, who wants the team on his shoulders

f. Baltimore's 4-0 in the games Ray Lewis has missed.

g. What a run by Joe Webb. Impressive second half for the neophyte.

h. "CLIFF AVRIL JUMPED OFFSIDE!'' Good bit of stunning in Thom Brennaman's voice before the last play at Detroit.

i. The Chargers. Everything about them looks good.

j. What got into Shonn Greene? Whatever it is, the Jets could use a lot more 24-for-129 days like he had Sunday.

2. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 14:

a. Mike Wallace's effort, or lack thereof, blocking on plays he's not involved in.

b. The Steelers' play-calling on their goal-line offensive series in the second half against Cleveland that resulted in zero points, four times calling Mendenhall's number between the tackles with a combined one yard gained. They could have at least once put Ben Roethlisberger in the shotgun and spread the field with quick receivers and a physical one, Hines Ward.

c. Cleveland's skill players. I don't see a single difference-maker.

d. Sure looked like whole sections of Paul Brown Stadium came dressed as empty seats Sunday.

e. Brady's first-half numbers at Washington: eight of 19. Strange to see him miss a wide-open Gronkowski in the end zone..

f. Chris Johnson's first-half numbers against the Saints: five carries, five yards.

g. Kansas City's total yards in the first half at the Jets: four.

h. Terrible, awful, ridiculous call by Jeff Triplette's crew, the London Fletcher hit on a sliding Brady that prompted a roughing-the-passer call on Fletcher late in the first half at Washington. First, Fletcher is clearly in full tackle mode before Brady began his slide. Fletcher never hit him in the head. This is a great example of nervous-nelly officials being waaaaaay overprotective of franchise quarterbacks.

i. Boy, Josh Freeman has fallen to earth with a thud.

j. The 3.5-yard onside kick by Kansas City's Ryan Succop. That'd be funny if the Chiefs weren't so awful Sunday. Totally embarrassing day for the Chiefs, all the way down to the safety at the end of the game.

k. Darrius Heyward-Bey: three dropped passes in the first 13 minutes at Green Bay.

l. Carson Palmer trade's looking really good for Oakland, eh?

m. Tim Jennings! What are you doing giving the Denver wideout a 12-yard cushion down the stretch when your defense, Chicago, has to make a stop?

3. I think I'd like to thank Mike Carey, the ref in New Orleans-Tennessee, for not overturning a vital call in the end zone in the third quarter. I feel strongly that referees are taking liberties with the "indisputable visual evidence'' being needed to overturn calls on the field. In this game, the official on the field ruled Jimmy Graham had part of one foot on the white sideline as he came down with a Drew Brees touchdown pass. Incomplete -- that was the ruling on the field. Over and over again the replay ran, and it was uncertain whether Graham's right toes touched the white or not. One angle seemed to show they did, the other looked like they didn't. You can't overturn those, and Carey didn't. Good call.

4. I think Jacksonville RB Maurice Jones-Drew deserves more than a little pat on the back. The Jags' 41-14 win over Tampa was a very off-the-radar game, but Jones-Drew was brilliant: 136 rushing-receiving yards, two rushing touchdowns, two receiving touchdowns ... and he's now broken the Jacksonville record for touchdowns in a career. It took Fred Taylor 140 games to score 70 touchdowns. Jones-Drew has now scored 73 in 90 games. Amazing production for a guy everyone said was too small to be an every-down back in the NFL.

5. I think back 11 months and how everyone in Houston wanted Gary Kubiak fired, and I think how Bob McNair had the patience and the vision to see the team was missing an attacking defense and a couple more puzzle pieces, and I think: Every owner who's thinking about firing his coach should ask himself if the team is really very far away, and if it isn't, what's going to be gained by firing the coach? In some cases, I can see the intelligence in changing coaches. But in some places -- Minnesota, Washington, Philadelphia, most notably -- I see good coaches having bad years with the ability to turn things around next year. I wouldn't make a change in any of those places.

6. I think Tennessee has more good players that we don't know than any other team in the league.

7. I think I heard some very good news out of Roger Goodell's mouth Sunday when he spoke to the press in Detroit. He said the playoffs wouldn't be expanded anytime soon because it would risk diluting the importance of regular season games. Expansion equals dilution. Twelve of 32 teams making it is more than enough. Sixteen of 32? NHL-ish. NBA-ish. Renders so much of the regular season unimportant.

8. I think a great example of how stupid the old NFL scheduling model was came into play this weekend. The schedule format changed in 2002, so that each team would play teams in the opposite conference once every four years, and an NFC team would play in every AFC team's stadium once every eight years. The AFL and NFL merged in 1970. In the 42 seasons since the merger, Sunday was only the third time the Patriots played at Washington. Yes: 1981, 2003, 2011. How can a team on the Eastern Seaboard go 22 years without playing another team on the Eastern Seaboard?

9. I think I'll always have a lot of respect for Thomas George, but we'll agree to disagree on his story in a new NFL magazine about who is deserving of the MVP this year. George writes that Peyton Manning deserves the MVP because, to paraphrase, the Colts have gone from a playoff lock to 0-13 with Manning out all season after neck surgery.

My two unswayable points on this: The award is called Most Valuable Player; if you don't play, it's folly to be eligible for the award. And where does this stop? If Drew Brees breaks his leg next Labor Day weekend and the Saints go 1-15, should he win it? "It's disrespectful and ridiculous ... to the guys who are actually playing the game,'' said Dwight Freeney. Agreed.

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

a. Loved the New York Post's preview of SantaCon, the annual bar crawl in which hundreds (thousands, from the appearances of Manhattan streets Saturday) dress up as Santa Claus and get plastered. Wrote the Post: "'Tis the season ... for drunken Santas to stagger through the city like a bunch of booze-soaked fruitcakes annoying everyone in sight. On Saturday, a legion of liquored-up louts clad in Kris Kringle outfits will hold the dreaded annual Village bar crawl called SantaCon.'' The story went on to quote a bartender saying the louts were "probably from New Jersey and Staten Island.''

b. No arrests, incredibly, in this year's SantaCon, according to media reports Sunday.

c. SI's Sportsman of the Year event last Tuesday was terrific, especially hearing one winner, Mike Krzyzewski, tell the other, Pat Summitt, in an emotional voice how honored he was to share it with her. The winningest men's coach and winningest women's coach, I thought, were the perfect honorees, for their lives of modeling so many people the right way. Got a kick out of Coach K saying he and his family, on a night like this, with lots of Sportsman alums in the house, would be over in the corner saying, "Hey, there's Chris Evert! There's Gretzky! Now we're in the room, dammit!'' Cute.

d. Coffeenerdness: Great order at my Manhattan Starbucks the other day: "Eight espresso shots in a venti cup.'' There's some high-test for you. Watched the fellow go over and add six or seven sugars, stir, and walk out of the place. He's probably still awake.

e. Beernerdness: A shame. I've been living on Vitamin Water and regular water for four or five days, mostly. So I'm sorry, I have no fun beer news to report. Will make it up to you over the holidays. Promise.

f. Smart move by the Cardinals, not upping the ante on their 10-year, $220-million contract offer to Albert Pujols. I don't blame Pujols for migrating to the American League for $3.4 million more per year

g. "I am completely innocent,'' Ryan Braun told Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after it was revealed by ESPN that he tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance in October, making him subject to a 50-game ban to start 2012. All of Wisconsin is saying the same thing this morning: You'd better be.

Seattle 23, St. Louis 9. This says quite a lot about my faith in where the Seahawks are headed -- even without their two starting tackles (Russell Okung, James Carpenter, both on IR) and guard John Moffitt, who was on IR anyway, then suspended four games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. And it doesn't say much about my belief in the Rams making this a competitive evening in Seattle.

Of course, if you'd like to spend your leisure time a little differently, check out the TCM channel starting at 8 Eastern time: The 1951 version of Christmas Carol is on, followed by Oliver Twist from 1948. Hey, it's not Tarvaris versus Sam, but it's classic.

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