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Crennel's Chiefs take the spotlight in an interesting Week 15

Making the playoff math look nice and easy with two weeks to play (plus one very important game tonight in San Francisco):

NFC

Clinched already. Green Bay, New Orleans and San Francisco have secured playoff spots. Green Bay's magic number to clinch the No. 1 seed is one over the Niners.

Second seed. A 49er win tonight over Pittsburgh gives them the two seed for now. A Pittsburgh win drops San Francisco to the third seed, and puts the specter of a Handshake Bowl rematch into view -- Detroit at San Francisco, Jim Schwartz at Jim Harbaugh, in one of the two NFC wild card games.

Eagles alive. If the NFC East ends in a three-way tie at 8-8 between Dallas, New York and Philadelphia, the Eagles would win the tiebreaker, be the fourth seed in the NFC and get a home playoff game.

Wild Cards. Atlanta and Detroit, 9-5, are in great shape to make the postseason. Each can lose one of the last two and still be guaranteed a berth.

AFC

Clinched already. Pittsburgh, New England, Houston and Baltimore have wrapped up playoff spots.

Top seed. Pittsburgh wins the top seed if it wins out. New England wins the top seed if it goes 2-0 and Pittsburgh loses once.

Sixth seed. The Jets and Bengals, tied for the last playoff spot this morning, would go to strength of victory as the tiebreaker, and New York holds a slight edge there ... but that could change depending on the results of their 2011 opponents in the last two weeks.

Wild, wild West. Kyle Orton riding into Denver in Week 17 to play the man who took his job, Tim Tebow -- with the winner making the playoffs? Here's how it happens: Home teams win all games involving AFC West teams next week (Buffalo over Denver, Kansas City over Oakland, Detroit over San Diego). Then Orton-Tebow is a play-in game in Week 17 ... and who knows? Maybe NBC finally gets the Tebow game it wanted so badly this weekend, this time with a playoff berth on the line.

***

We say it every year around this time, but this season's really starting to get interesting. The Packers took a body blow Sunday in Kansas City, and the Patriots delivered one in Denver. Who are the Giants? The Jets? (The Jets, whose 2011 defense has allowed 30 or more points five times now, including the 45-point embarrassment at Philly Sunday, after which Calvin Pace told the New York Times: "We're lucky they had a heart and stopped scoring. Because if not, it would have gotten really disgusting.") Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford and Tom Brady played great. Romeo Crennel coached great. And the Colts won't be ignominious. On with the show:

Romeo Crennel finally tastes the Gatorade.

In all his years assisting Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells, and his four years coaching the Browns, Crennel never got the bucket dumped over his head. "Not even the year we won 10 games there,'' he said. "The only time I got it was after I got fired in Cleveland, and I coached in an East-West All-Star game in Orlando against Marty Schottenheimer, and we won. That's it. I have to say, it felt pretty good today.''

Kansas City ended Green Bay's hopes for a perfect season, winning 19-14 at Arrowhead behind a steady game by Kyle Orton and a relentless game from the defense that wanted to show management that Crennel deserves the full-time gig.

Crennel did a couple of things to give the Chiefs a chance against the Packers, six days after taking over for the fired Todd Haley. Haley was wedded to the highly marginal Tyler Palko for some reason, through four mostly poor performances, and Crennel yanked him for veteran Orton during the week. And his game plan against the 13-0 Packers was just what his players wanted to see. Aggressive, risk-taking.

"We're quite fond of him and his philosophy,'' cornerback Brandon Carr told me. "Today, we laid everything on the line. The way Romeo coaches, he makes you confident. He told us, 'You're professional athletes. You can win this game.' ''

I like what Crennel said about the coaching change. "I think the change put our guys on edge,'' he said. "There has to be a bottom-line mentality that you're going to be judged for what you do on the field. These guys really had that today.''

I told Crennel when he watches the tape, I thought he'd see a defense that played as hard as any in football Sunday. "I'm glad you noticed that,'' he said. "That's what I felt down on the field."

It helped that the Packers line ended the game in tatters, with Tamba Hali abusing Marshall Newhouse at left tackle, and the middle of the line caving in late after Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod were lost with injuries. But there's no question the Chiefs were playing for Crennel. They know there will be a coaching search (GM Scott Pioli's second), and they'd like to give Crennel his second chance at a full-time gig.

"Everyone in this game has an ego,'' Crennel told me. "I have one too. I'd like to have another opportunity to prove I can do this job. I had one in Cleveland and we won 10 games one year, then got hit hard with injuries the next year. Scott knows me, and that helps. But he knows me as an assistant, not as a head coach. Now he's got to see me as a head coach.''

Crennel used The Gladiator to help get his team ready for this game. He'd seen it last weekend in the hotel, before the Chiefs played the Jets, and he took some Russell Crowe into the Saturday night team meeting with him. "I told the team that, like the gladiator, we were going to play a great team in Green Bay, and no matter what comes out of these gates, we've got to stay together,'' Crennel said. "We did that. I told them after the game, 'Everyone expected us to die with honor today. But we're not ready to die.' ''

Amazingly, they're not. A lot has to fall right next week, but the Chiefs have a chance to enter Week 17 with a playoff prayer.

***

The Lions look dangerous. Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are two big reasons.

The way Stafford figures it, he owed the Lions something big midway through the fourth quarter, after he was sacked by Tommy Kelly deep in his own territory in the Black Hole. The Raiders pounced on that and scored to go up 27-14 with eight minutes left in the game. On the next drive, Stafford converted a third-and-10 and a fourth-and-two, then finished it with a three-yard pass to Titus Young. Raiders, 27-21. The defense held and the Lions got the ball back -- but at their own two, after Shane Lechler pinned them there with 2:14 to play.

"I just try to be calm in the huddle,'' Stafford told me from the locker room. "I didn't say anything special. We just played. When you're 98 yards away, on the road, with two minutes and change left and no timeouts, you've just got to execute your plays or you're going to lose. I don't think it helps to get all emotional about it.''

Watching this drive, I sensed what I saw in training camp with the Lions last summer. When Johnson is covered, Stafford throws to him anyway. On this drive, he went to him for 21, 48 and then again, with Stanford Routt interfering with Johnson at the Oakland six. Then, with a safety and linebacker in coverage in the end zone (might want to rethink that scheme, Chuck Bresnahan), Johnson slipped behind them and Stafford, under pressure, falling back, zipped a perfect spiral to Johnson. Touchdown. Ballgame.

Of all the excited teams Sunday, no team reacted like Detroit. The Lions looked like they just made the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, which they probably did. Detroit, 9-5, will make the playoffs if they win one of the last two, or if a team or two trailing them loses one game.

Stafford, drafted to be the savior of the franchise in 2009, has never shirked from the task. He understands the responsibility that comes with being the first pick in the draft, and at 23, takes to it well. On Sunday, at 23 years and 10 months, he became the second-youngest player ever (Dan Marino, 1984) to throw for 4,000 yards with 30 touchdowns in an NFL season. Finally, the Lions have a top draft choice who's worth what they paid for him. Well, Johnson is too.

"I was never that [a savior],'' Stafford said.

I beg to differ.

I don't see the elephant in the room bugging Drew Brees much.

Brees, after one of the best games of his career in Minnesota (32 of 40, 412 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions, on the bench for the final 12 minutes) is 305 yards shy of Dan Marino's single-season passing yards record with two games left.

"I didn't know how close I was,'' he said from the team bus after New Orleans' rout of the Vikings. "Thanks for clarifying that. It's sort of the elephant in the room, obviously, because it's a record people talk about a lot. But I will not let it influence how we prepare, or how I make decisions in games. When all is said and done, if I have a chance to break it, I'll be happy about it, but it's not going to be the focus of this team.''

New Orleans has won six straight. The Saints might be the toughest playoff obstacle for Green Bay, because they can win in many ways. They've got four running backs who can run in any weather, in the potential January muck of San Francisco or the ice rink of Green Bay. And they have an incredibly accurate passer who's threatening to break the accuracy record he set in 2009.

It might be too late, because Aaron Rodgers has been so good for 14 games, and so consistently good until Sunday in Kansas City. But let's look at the holy trinity of MVP candidates:

I'd still give it to Rodgers this morning. The MVP should be his to lose at this point. But let's see how it plays out the next two weeks. If Brees sets records for accuracy and passing yards this year, and the Saints finish the year on an eight-game winning streak, it should be a contest.

***

Speaking of quarterbacks playing well, and good numbers, I bring you Tony Romo at the 75-game mark of his career.

Saturday night's 31-15 snoozer over the Bucs was the 75th regular season start of Tony Romo's Dallas career. It seems a good time to measure Romo against the great Cowboy quarterbacks of the past -- specifically the two Hall of Famers who preceded him in Dallas, Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. The first 75 starts of the Cowboy Three's careers, along with the productivity in those 75 regular season games:

In his last seven games, Romo has six interception-free games. In that span, he's thrown 18 touchdowns with two picks, and Jerry Jones said after the game -- and he's right -- that he wants to make the playoffs so badly this year in part because when you've got a hot quarterback, you want to get into the postseason because you think all things are possible when your most important player is playing his best.

***

Mind if I get waaaaaay ahead of myself?

Let's say the NFL draft were tomorrow (Quick -- get the combine going this afternoon!), and let's say the two juniors who haven't announced their intentions (Matt Barkley, Landry Jones) both enter. I could see the following play out, despite Jones' draft stock slipping because of a poor end of the season:

Do I think this is how the draft is going to play out? Who knows? And I definitely would rather see Cleveland keep Colt McCoy and draft multiple players to put around him for the future. But I do not share an office with Tom Heckert; nor does Mike Holmgren seek my counsel. I'm just projecting one way the draft might go.

Keep in mind that Seattle, one of seven 7-7 teams right now, also will likely draft a quarterback high in April, and the Seahawks have an aggressive GM, John Schneider, and coach, Pete Carroll. Don't be surprised to see the Seahawks love one of the four prospects and try to move up to get him.

***

What the NFL's new TV deals mean.

On Nov. 12, NBC executives and talent and production crew hosted NFL Broadcast Committee chairman Robert Kraft, his son, Jonathan and Jonathan's wife, for dinner at ritzy Park Avenue Autumn. Robert Kraft was in his element, telling stories, reveling in the company of NBC execs Steve Burke and Mark Lazarus, and anticipating the Sunday night game in the Meadowlands between the Patriots and their good friends the Jets.

Afterward, Kraft and NBC Universal CEO Burke went back to Kraft's apartment at the Plaza, near Central Park, to transact some business. Or, Kraft hoped, to start to transact some business. It was that night when Burke heard what the NFL wanted NBC -- paying $600 million in 2012 and 2013 for rights to the NFL Sunday night package of games -- to pay going forward. Kraft told Burke the league would want $950 million a year, on average, for nine years of rights, beginning in 2014.

"Everyone gulped when we told them what we wanted,'' Kraft said last week. "I think [FOX's] Chase Carey and Rupert Murdoch had to pick themselves off the floor. And it was tough for Steve Burke and Mark Lazarus and Brian Roberts, but they understood the value of the package, and they showed great leadership to figure a way to get it done.''

Actually, there was another factor in the negotiations, and that factor surfaced five months ago. With the NFL and its players on the verge of doing a 10-year Collective Bargaining Agreement, at the 11th hour, the players asked for an opt-out clause after the sixth year of the deal. This came after the owners and players had agreed to a strict 10-year deal with no opt-outs, and some player reps not involved in the negotiations thought the union had given away too much by agreeing to a deal for a decade with no ability to get out if the owners' deal was seen as too sweet midway through it.

On the day before the deal was announced in late July, one player source told me he was sure the deal would have an opt-out, and perhaps for both sides. But it was then, on the night of July 24, that some owners, and commissioner Roger Goodell, were adamant that there be no opt-out. Kraft said it. Goodell said it. And the chairman of the labor committee, Carolina's Jerry Richardson, said it.

"It was a huge sticking point with me,'' Richardson told me over the weekend. "I would have voted against the deal if there was an opt-out. To go from having business certainty for 10 years to possibly having the deal interrupted in the middle -- that's obviously a huge difference. I think it's allowed us to begin making some smart long-term business deals.''

The 10 years of uninterrupted football (through 2020) allowed the league to be aggressive in tying up the TV deals while the economy is still a huge question mark. Richardson is right -- had the opt-out been in effect (unless it was such an onerous one and so out of reach that it would never come into play), it's highly unlikely the NFL would have been able to get $6 billion per year, on average, from TV partners CBS, ESPN, FOX, NBC and DirecTV. Think of that. In 2004, the NFL's total gross revenue was $6 billion. A decade later, they'll get that in one year, in stormy economic times, from TV alone. And they'll get it on free TV. "We're proud that we could keep every game on local free TV through 2022,'' Kraft said. "No other sport does that.''

(NFL Network and ESPN aren't free, obviously. But games shown in local markets on those cable outlets are made available to over-the-air channels so local viewers without cable or access to NFL Network can see their home teams.)

The league was going to do an eight-year deal, but that would have left one of the major carriers without a third Super Bowl. The ninth year, 2022, means CBS, FOX and NBC all get three Super Bowls in the deal -- and that's a $250 million to $300 million-per-game boost. "There were a few moments where I doubted we'd find the economic path,'' Lazarus told me. But that's where some of the adjustments to the NBC deal came in.

NBC got the Thanksgiving night game, beginning in 2012, taking it from NFL Network. NBC got one of its Wild Card games changed to a divisional game, beginning in the 2014 postseason. NBC got the ability to add a two-hour pregame show on its new NBC Sports Network in 2014. And this under-the-radar add-on, which could come in handy. In the new contract, NBC will not only have the ability to flex-schedule games in Weeks 10 through 15. In Weeks 5 through 9, NBC will be able to flex out of a bad game; this won't be an unlimited opportunity, I'm told, and it won't be like the regular flex scheduling, when a good game can be flexed for a great one. Call this the Peyton Manning Injury Clause. In Week 7 this year, NBC was stuck with the Saints against the 0-6 Colts, and no one cared. In the future, the league will erase a game like that one and sub something more palatable.

"It's a big risk,'' said Lazarus of the $950 milion per-year tag. "But we got value for it. We improved our package. Our first reaction was, 'That's a lot of money, and we have to have increased value to make that work.' ''

They got it. Now it'll be interesting to see in the coming decade who was smarter: Kraft and the league for getting economic certainty for the next 11 years, or the networks, for locking in programming none of them can live without.

***

Jerry Richardson goes to a funeral.

Last week, after the Panthers lost at home to Atlanta, longtime season-ticket holder R. Bruce Rognon, 71, of Pinehurst, N.C., was walking from the stadium to his car. Rognon collapsed. He died of a heart attack. His memorial service was Saturday in Pinehurst, and Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who did not know Rognon, got in his car and drove the 80 miles to the service. "He [Rognon] never missed a game,'' said Richardson. "The least I could do was go to the service and pay my respects. These fans are amazing. They do more than invest their money. They invest their time and emotion, and they buy into your team. It is such a sad thing for the family.''

I love that he got it in his car and drove to the funeral of a man he didn't know.

1. Green Bay (13-1). So now the Packers don't have to worry about a Lambeau leap into history. They have two home games left -- Christmas night against the Bears, New Year's Day against the Lions -- to finish off one of the greatest regular seasons in NFL history, and to get their offensive line right for the playoffs.

2. New Orleans (11-3). They've won six straight, by an average of 13 points. It's close, but the Saints just look better all around right now than the Patriots or Ravens.

3. New England (11-3). After looking terrible against the run in the first 10 minutes (133 rushing yards by Denver), the Pats settled down and played effectively on defense, despite losing valuable pass-rusher Andre Carter, probably for the year with a quad injury.

4. Pittsburgh (10-3). Will Ben Roethlisberger play? Someone Who Should Know told me Friday, "No way.'' But I'm also told he really wants to play tonight. Stay tuned.

5. San Francisco (10-3). This is a big game tonight for lots of reasons, not the least of which is you don't want to enter the postseason playing the way San Francisco's played the last three weeks.

6. Baltimore (10-4). Imagine what a sick feeling the Ravens had this morning, flying back across the United States. They worked so hard to earn supremacy in the AFC North, and they swept Pittsburgh, yet they flew home knowing if Pittsburgh wins out, the Ravens will have to use the road route AGAIN to advance in the playoffs. All that hard work could be for naught.

7. Houston (10-4). First real sign of shakiness for T.J. Yates, against Carolina. How will he respond Thursday at suddenly interesting Indy?

8. Atlanta (9-5). At 7-2 since mid-October, the Falcons now are real competition for the Saints. Good game coming a week from tonight.

9. Dallas (8-6). Interesting how things go from bleak to booming in six nights. The Cowboys will need help, but if they win out they host a playoff game -- no matter what the Giants and Eagles do.

10. San Diego (7-7). You figure them out. I can't.

11. Seattle (7-7). Too high? Tell that to their last three foes, vanquished by 17, 17 and 24 points, the latest of which was Chicago Sunday in a Soldier Field beatdown.

12. Detroit (9-5). The 98-yard Matthew Stafford-led drive will go down in Lions lore. It has to. "What fun,'' he told me. Looked it.

13. Denver (8-6). It wasn't Tebow's play Sunday against New England that was worrisome. It was a defense that allowed 451 yards. A sieve, that D.

14. Philadelphia (6-8). Manhandled Miami and the Jets by a total of 42 points in the last eight days. They're hugely disappointing overall, but they're also dangerous today.

15. (tie) New York Jets (8-6). Huge Disappointment Bowl on Christmas Eve in the Meadowlands: Giants at Jets. Two teams on the playoff cusp, combining to lose by 45 points Sunday.

15. (tie) Arizona (7-7). John "Red'' Skelton's 5-1. The only quarterback with a better winning percentage in 2011: Aaron Rodgers. The defense is pretty good too. Cards have won six of the last seven.

Offensive Players of the Week

Detroit QB Matthew Stafford. He joined the big time Sunday with 57- and 98-yard drives in the last 10 minutes, leading Detroit to a playoff-sustaining 28-27 win at Oakland. For the day, he was 29 of 52 for 391 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Other than a vital fumble earlier in the game, Stafford played about as well as a quarterback can play in a game with huge playoff implications for a franchise desperate to make the postseason.

New Orleans QB Drew Brees. On a day when he moved within 305 yards of breaking Dan Marino's all-time single-season passing-yards record, Brees was superb in dismantling the Vikings and keeping the Saints in the race for a first-round playoff bye. He completed 32 of 40 throws for 412 yards, with five touchdowns and no interceptions. A brilliant performance, even though it came against a spent Minnesota defense.

Miami RB Reggie Bush. This is precisely what Bush wanted -- the chance to be an every-down back. And he's reveling in it. His 25-carry, 203-yard rushing day keyed interim coach Todd Bowles' first career victory Sunday at Buffalo and added to Bush's string of great performances recently. This month, he's rushed for 100 yards against Oakland, 103 against Philadelphia and now the biggest game of his career, in Buffalo. And he's not plodding through defenses; he's running around them for 6.7 yards a clip over the last three games. This is what the Dolphins traded for, and it bodes well for the 2012 Dolphins, whoever coaches them.

Defensive Players of the Week

Carolina LB Jordan Senn. Never heard of him? You're not alone. Sunday at Houston was the fourth start for the undersized, fourth-year middle 'backer from Portland State, and he made it count: He was all over the field at the Texans, making 14 tackles, an interception of quarterback T.J. Yates and a forced fumble.

Kansas City pass-rusher Tamba Hali. He capitalized on the soft underbelly of the Green Bay offensive line. But remember, he was rushing over left tackle Marshall Newhouse, who has been the left tackle of the Pack for much of the season since Chad Clifton was lost with a hamstring injury. His three sacks, two pressures and four tackles led the upset of the Packers.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Arizona CB/PR Patrick Peterson. Not a great day for the kicking game around the NFL. But Arizona made one play that won the game with Cleveland on the punt team. After Cleveland's first drive of overtime stalled, Brad Maynard punted to Peterson instead of punting it out of bounds. Peterson returned it 32 yards to the Cleveland 40 (accounting for all but one of his punt return yards of the day). Three plays later, Jay Feely kicked the winning field goal and the Cards stayed, tenuously, in the playoff chase.

Coach of the Week

Kansas City interim coach Romeo Crennel. Oh, he wants the permanent job, all right. And with one more day like Sunday, he just might get it. In fact, there's a mathematical chance the Chiefs could still win the division -- and if that were to happen, GM Scott Pioli might not just give Crennel the full-time job. He might give him Clark Hunt's office. The one thing that's obvious is those players love playing for Crennel. They hope they can do enough to get him the job full-time after the season.

Goat of the Week

The Green Bay instant-replay mechanism. It was clear Packer coach Mike McCarthy wanted to throw the challenge flag early in the fourth quarter after the officials ruled Kansas City's Leonard Pope was down at the three with a 9-7 Chiefs lead. Replays showed Pope appeared to fumble as he tried to reach the ball across the goal line, and slo-mo showed certainly that the ball was out of Pope's grasp when he reached over the goal line. Almost certainly, the correct ruling should have been a touchback, with the Packers getting the ball at their 20. But McCarthy never pulled the red flag out of his back pocket, obviously waiting for the word from upstairs to challenge the play. That word, apparently, never came. If it had, Kansas City wouldn't have kicked a field goal to end that drive and Green Bay would have been down two points, needing about 45 yards to have a good shot at the go-ahead field goal.

"Still sucks. But nice to go a calendar year without losing.''

-- Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, after the Packers' 19-game winning streak was broken Sunday at Kansas City.

"I personally always viewed the undefeated season as really just gravy. The goal is to get the home-field advantage and win the Super Bowl. That's what we discussed as a football team. We were fortunate enough to be in a position to possibly achieve the undefeated season, but we still have the primary goal in front of us and that's to get that home-field advantage.''

-- Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy.

And to have five healthy bodies to line up and block the Bears and Lions the next two weeks.

"Those guys are jokes. They couldn't get a f------ receiver if it hit them in the head. They haven't had any decent receivers since Jimmy Smith.''

-- Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson, to the Florida Times Union after Atlanta's 41-14 rout of the Jags Thursday night, on the quality of receivers acquired by the Jaguars over the years.

The Jags had their top receivers missing due to injury Thursday. The three Jags who played the most at wideout Thursday night -- Jarett Dillard, Chastin West and Taylor Price -- had a combined 35 career catches entering the game. Dillard was a fifth-round pick of the Jags in 2009, West was signed off Green Bay's practice squad earlier this season, and Price was claimed on waivers from New England Dec. 5.

"I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses.''

-- Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, at the latest Republican debate last week.

Kyle Orton's home record against the Green Bay Packers as a starting quarterback: 4-0.

Last week, I heard Raiders coach Hue Jackson on with Alex Marvez and Vic Carucci on Sirius NFL Radio, talking about penalties. The Raiders, as usual, are having an abominable year in that department. "It's a problem,'' said Jackson. "I've got to get it fixed. It's embarrassing.'' It's beyond embarrassing. It's a major impediment to winning.

Check out how the Raiders compare to a good team in penalty stats this year. Not coincidentally, the good team in penalty stats is also a really good team:

Most telling to me is that the Raiders have been penalized 376 yards more than the opposition. Think of that in this way: That's 37 lost first downs. This is a field-position game, and the Raiders have handed the opposition a 29-yard edge, on average, by losing the penalty battle.

Last week, Jackson was all over his team. Did his words work Sunday? Not so much. Penalties, plus penalty yards, on Sunday: Oakland 10 for 86 yards, Detroit nine for 72.

One of the best things the players got out of the new CBA last summer was the line item mandating they get 55 percent of all TV revenue through the 10-year deal. Now that the new TV contracts have been signed, we can start to figure out exactly what that is.

Assume that each team employs about 60 players. It's actually slightly more because of practice-squad players, but we'll use 60 because of the financial inequities the practice-squadders bring when you're figuring out average player pay. Now figure that, on average, ESPN and the over-the-air networks and DirecTV will pay about $5.95 billion per year for the rights to games through 2022. (It's actually an escalating scale per year, but that's the average.) And then figure that about 1,920 players per season will get 55 percent of that money.

Average money per player, from the TV contracts alone, over the nine years of the new TV contracts: $1,704,427.

That doesn't include the next Thursday night contract, which the NFL is likely to do with a cable provider like Turner or FX. Let's estimate that at $900 million a year. There's another $257,000 per player.

So that's about $2 million per year per player over the nine years of the new TV deal ... from TV alone.

The Baltimore Ravens, under John Harbaugh, have played seven playoff games, all on the road. If the playoffs opened today, the Ravens would be in line for their eighth.

If the playoff continued with the seeds holding, except for the Ravens, Baltimore would play two more road playoff games in a row. That would mean in four seasons, the Ravens would play 10 playoffs games, all on the road.

So I traveled to New Orleans Monday to report a story for NBC, a bit under the weather after catching something late the previous week. And after having a fine local dinner of red beans and rice, I was headed back to the hotel around 9:45 p.m. with my crew, producer Phil Parrish and production assistant Paige Westin. I was feverish, run down, sapped of energy. I saw a 24-hour medical place when we stopped at a stoplight and said, "Drop me off here. You guys head back. I'll take a cab when I'm done.''

Good soldiers, they said they'd stay with me. Phil went to the front door and saw they were undergoing some renovation, and, lucky for us, the doctor in charge of the place, Dr. Srinivas Kata, was there describing to a construction guy exactly what he wanted done. Phil explained to him he had a sick visitor in the car, a reporter for NBC, and was there any way he could see me?

Sure, Dr. Kata said. "Follow me to my office. It's about 15 minutes away.'' So we went, and Kata opened up another urgent care center. He shook my hand, I thanked him profusely, and he had me fill out some forms.

He met me in an exam room. I told him I needed to be at some higher degree of good health than I was now for a long day on Tuesday, and he said he'd give me two shots that should help me out. Which he did, as well as a prescription for an antibiotic, which he wanted me to take just in case it was a bacterial disease that I had.

Dr. Kata's Indian. He grew up in the D.C.-area, still loves the Redskins and has a 'Skins license-plate border on his Louisiana car tags, though he's lived in New Orleans since the '80s. A fervent fan of New Orleans, he could be a Welcome Wagon host if not a doctor. He kept saying he just wanted to take care of me so I'd be healthy enough to do my job. He refused to take any payment.

"I just want to make sure you're OK and you can go out and enjoy our city and not be sick,'' he said.

Whoa.

"Do you know where this Walgreen's is?'' he said, after he'd phoned in the prescription to the pharmacy. We tried to take down directions, but he was afraid we'd get lost trying to find it. So he told us it wasn't on his way home, but he'd lead us there in his car, then turn around and go home himself.

Then he gave me his card. He wrote his cell number on it. "Call me tomorrow if you don't feel right,'' he said. "I'll take care of it.''

The karma gods, Dr. Kata, are going to look after you for a long, long time. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And New Orleans, thank you.

"Life is like the Baltimore Ravens. you never know what you're gonna get."

-- @GeorgeFoster72, former NFL offensive lineman and current aspiring broadcaster, after the Ravens laid another road egg Sunday night in San Diego.

"Had chat with #Ndamukong Suh as he left O.co Coliseum. Dude was real chilly. Sez he's learned something from all the controversy."

-- @JarrettBell, the USA Today football writer, after working the Lions' victorious postgame locker room. Evidently not everyone in the locker room was all smily.

Tell us more. We want it now.

"When flight attendant said to turn off all electronics, she said she didn't want to have any Alec Baldwins on board. #flightattendanthumor''

-- @paulapasche, Paula Pasche, Lions beat writer for the Oakland Press, before flying to the West Coast Saturday for Lions-Raiders.

So we've hit a couple of tight races -- coach of the year, offensive rookie of the year -- in prior weeks. Now let's go to the muddled race of the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year. Muddled's the perfect word for it too, because I could see myself writing down any of four names when the ballots are due on the morning of Jan. 2, the day after the regular season ends.

1. San Francisco DL Justin Smith. Tireless, relentless leader of the best defense in football today.

2. Baltimore DE Terrell Suggs. Pass-rusher, along with DeMarcus Ware, most capable of taking over a game by himself.

3. Minnesota DE Jared Allen. Chances for eclipsing Strahan's sack record took a blow Sunday when he was shut out by the Saints.

4. Philadelphia DE Jason Babin. Took over the NFL sack lead (18) with an impressive day against the Jets. He needs five sacks against Dallas and Washington to break Strahan's mark.

5. Kansas City LB Tamba Hali. Could have put DeMarcus Ware or Darrelle Revis here easily, but both have slid the last couple of weeks (Ware because of injury). Hali is a rising star 3-4 outside rusher who made life miserable for Aaron Rodgers Sunday.

1. I think this is what I liked about Week 15:

a. Roddy White. As much as we all thought Julio Jones was going to re-make that receiving corps, he's helped, but White's still the cornerstone.

b. Twenty-four points in the second half for the Colts, against a playoff contender.

c. Cam Newton, who should run away with the Offensive Rookie of the Year voting.

d. The one-handed interception by Washington's DeAngelo Hall -- the interception of the weekend.

e. Good reporting this morning, Gerry Dulac, of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Dulac has Ben Roethlisberger playing tonight in San Francisco.

f. Speaking of injured players, I love the FOX injury music. Always have.

g. Philip Rivers, who is not hurt.

h. Good day for Seneca Wallace -- and for Greg Little (five catches, 131 yards).

i. Who needs wideouts? Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski played like big wides Sunday: 13 catches, 182 yards. Amazing when the best tight end in football (some would argue) plays Best Supporting Actor to his backup in a very big game.

j. Tom Brady. Loved that spike. It's an emotional game, and his emotion fuels his team.

k. Late-season Chargers. If Late-season Chargers played October Chargers, the score would be Late-Season Chargers 63, October Chargers 6.

l. Tarvaris Jackson, who threw a beautiful deep rainbow in Chicago.

m. Did you see the interception by Red Bryant of the Seahawks? A fastball (well, Caleb Hanie's version of one) came at his gut, and he caught it and pranced in for a touchdown.

n. Antwan Barnes of the Chargers. The outside 'backer's career-high four-sack night helped the Chargers bully the Ravens.

o. Good for you, Todd Bowles. You'll always have Week 15, 2011, in Buffalo.

2. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 15:

a. Andre Carter going down for the Patriots with a quad injury, probably for the season. Bad, bad loss. Good thing they've got a passable sub, Mark Anderson. But that's a loss that will hurt New England in January.

b. The Raiders' defenders crumbling down the stretch. Maybe they all need pedicures.

c. Baltimore on the road. Ridiculous.

d. Caleb Hanie. It's embarrassing. Mike Martz was right to not have faith in him.

e. Ryan Fitzpatrick's last seven weeks. Talk about Murphy's Law. The Bills are living it, and Fitzpatrick's captain of the ship.

f. Hue Jackson the GM.

g. Everything about the Giants, but especially Eli Manning. He threw consistently short in a game the Giants had to have.

h. Josh Freeman, who must be playing hurt.

3. I think NFL.com writer Jeff Darlington's piece out of Denver last night gives you a good view into Tim Tebow that you may have heard about but didn't know how it worked. Each game, home and road, Tebow has as his guest a young person who has gone through some medical or personal struggle, and win or lose, he spends 15 to 30 minutes with the person and his/her family afterward. On Sunday, after the loss to New England, Tebow met with brain-tumor victim Kelly Faughnan and her family. While Tebow and Kelly spoke, her father said to Darlington: "I can't begin to tell you the impact he's had on my daughter. She's very positive, and she tries so hard, but she's had a struggle. Tim Tebow has built her self-confidence up so much -- taught her to believe in herself -- that when I see people criticize him, I'm just dumbfounded. I don't get it. It's almost incomprehensible to me. I don't understand why anyone wouldn't want to see an athlete use his position and platform to do good for people." And that's Tebow. Forget his religion, forget his politics (if he has any). He's a good person who does good things. He's not the only one, and we in the media are remiss pointing out what other players do. But that shouldn't be a criticism of Tebow. I've found him genuine, as the dad says.

4. I think that was a nice touch, what the Ravens did for the troops in Afghanistan. They've adopted some troops, sending them packages, and coach John Harbaugh told NBC Sunday night: "Imagine if you're out there and you get a note from a Ray Lewis or a Joe Flacco or an Ed Reed. I think that'd be pretty cool.''

5. I think the Giants are the worst home team of any contender in the league. No, I don't think. I know.

6. I think Sunday saved Jim Caldwell. Now maybe the Colts still fire Caldwell after the season, but it would have been nearly impossible for him to come back after an 0-16 season. This, in many ways, was a day the Colts had been waiting for all season -- and the day former first-round pick Donald Brown had been waiting for his entire career. He bulled 16 times for 161 rushing yards, including a Marcus Allen-like 80-yard change-of-direction touchdown run to put the 27-13 verdict over Tennessee out of reach in the fourth quarter.

7. I think the 17 offensive drives by Tampa Bay over two games -- plus the fact that at one point in the last two games the Bucs had allowed 68 straight points -- show why Raheem Morris is in such jeopardy. The defense has regressed hugely, and the offense is right on its heels. The 17 futile drives against Jacksonville and Dallas: punt, punt, fumble, interception, end of half, interceptions, fumble, punt, punt, downs, interceptions, fumble, punt, punt, punt, punt, end of half.

8. I think the last two weeks are why you don't fire Andy Reid. That, plus the guts of Mike Vick playing hurt.

9. I think it's a good time to be an NFL player. Not just for the money, but for the offseason opportunity. The players have had job-enrichment opportunities such as entrepreneurial sessions at Harvard and Wharton, and a broadcast boot camp at NFL Films. Now they're adding a couple of interesting things in the 2012 offseason. First, a business of music course; players can learn how to manage and run their own labels or bands. And the league will announce this week the NFL Pro Hollywood Boot Camp in April, designed to help players interested in screenwriting, producing, film financing and the business of motion pictures. "Our goal,'' said the NFL's Troy Vincent, "is to provide our players with as many opportunities as possible, so they can judge for themselves what they might want to do when their time in the game is over. Playing football is not a career. We want to help players get ready for life after football.''

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

a. Yes, you probably heard Bob Costas choke up last night on NBC if you were listening to our Football Night in America pregame show. That's because he was paying tribute to a great friend of ours who died of cancer on Friday. Michelle O'Callaghan was the makeup artist for so many shows in New York -- at NBC, at HBO, and at CBS with David Letterman -- and she made me, and many of my peers utterly beautiful in the last few years. We'll miss her terribly. Irreverent, cackling, honest to a fault. Dan Marino was really hit hard by her death. "She's a great girl,'' he said. "She could have been from Pittsburgh.'' Now that's high praise from Marino. I'll always remember her tremendous growing-up-Catholic-in-New York stories -- most of which I cannot repeat here.

b. RIP Christopher Hitchens. The Dr. Z of non-sports journalism.

c. Speaking of Dr. Z: We had a good lunch Wednesday in New Jersey, in Parsippany, and he's in very good physical condition. As I've written, he still cannot communicate 37 months after a series of three strokes quieted his distinctive voice and pen. Matt Millen and I -- and his photographer friend, Artie Snaps, as Zim calls him -- told him stories from the road over a long lunch. Good news for Zim: He still enjoys wine. Better news for Zim: He is married to an angel, Linda. The Flaming Redhead is hanging in and is as devoted a partner as any of us could ever wish to have. I told Zim about how much you all care, and how often you all write to say you miss him. He smiled. Just know your kind words have an impact. Zim's a little different, obviously, more tender than he was, more appreciative of the little things. But you could tell he wishes he still had a forum. When Millen was telling Penn State stories (about the bad Penn State stuff), Zim laughed and ruefully shook his head. It's like he was saying, "I wish I could skewer Jerry Sandusky myself."

d. The Bobcats won a bowl. Congrats, Frank Solich.

e. My Welcome to New York moment last week: Discovered even the scrawny Christmas trees cost $125.

f. Coffeenerdness: Sunday, 11:45 a.m., corner of Madison and 51st, Manhattan, two woman, evidently tourists, staring into an iPhone with a pink cover. One looks at me. "Starbucks,'' she said with a hint of desperation. "Where's a Starbucks?'' I say: "A hundred yards behind us, on this side of the street. Can't miss it.'' They both gasped. "Thank you!'' Sometimes, you just need caffeine.

g. Beernerdness: Tried the Abita Christmas Ale in between working last week in New Orleans. Loved it. Different than normal northeastern Christmas beers with the cloves and nutmeg. But there was an orange taste, and it was the kind of bitter ale I like.

49ers 16, Steelers 13. It looks like Ben Roethlisberger will play despite the sprained ankle. I think Aldon and Justin Smith chase the truly immobile quarterback down early and often in what is going to be a terrific defensive game.

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