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After dismantling Bears, MVP is officially Rodgers' to lose

Summing up the drama with 17 games left in the NFL season:

NFC: One playoff spot left -- the NFC East title game Sunday night at the Meadowlands. The winner of Cowboys-Giants is in, the loser's out ... The Packers locked the No. 1 seed last night ... San Francisco clinches the second seed with a win at Rams Sunday, or one Saints loss in their last two games ... The lesser of Niners-Saints is third seed ... NFC East winner is fourth seed ... Falcons, Lions have clinched last two seeds, in some order. Battle for fifth seed between Atlanta (9-5 entering tonight's game at New Orleans) and Detroit (10-5) is significant -- and Atlanta has the tiebreaker -- because you'd much rather play a Wild Card game at the Giants or Cowboys than at either of the two teams in play for the third seed, San Francisco or New Orleans.

AFC: Pats clinch top seed with home win over Buffalo -- and they haven't lost to Bills in Foxboro since Tom Brady was a third-string rookie in 2000 ... Ravens (8-0 at home, 3-4 on road) clinch the second seed with victory at Cincinnati, which would make Pittsburgh the fifth seed. But a Ravens loss and Steelers win at Cleveland makes Pittsburgh two and Baltimore five ... Houston is locked in as the three seed ... Denver wins the West and fourth seed by beating KC at home. Oakland wins the West and fourth seed with a win over San Diego and Denver loss ... The sixth seed? Only 943 possibilities, give or take a dozen, but the Bengals clinch it with a home win over Baltimore (anyone in Cincinnati care?), and beyond that, the Raiders and Jets and Titans are still alive.

Now on to everything else, including a personally historic day by Mr. Discount Double-Check, a rewarding day for Detroit (as a team and a city), an emotional day in New England, my annual harangue about the prospect of an 18-game schedule, why John Fassel and Richard Seymour are the heroes of the weekend (and why the left side of the Kansas City field-goal team is decidedly not), how we are watching draft history change before our eyes, my take on Tony Romo's status for Sunday, Jerry Richardson loves him some Cam Newton, the unexpected MVPs of the Giants behind Eli Manning, Adrian Peterson's Christmas nightmare, and Minnesota's enduring Christmas gift, beginning with the night Chicago died.

***

Did Aaron Rodgers sew up the MVP last night?

Well, that's the last time I doubt Bob McGinn. The trustworthy longtime Packers beat man told me last week on my podcast he wasn't worried about three Green Bay tackles being out with injuries, with Marshall Newhouse and T.J. Lang set to protect The Franchise against the Bears' formidable front. Combined defensive stats, via the NFL gamebook, for Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Israel Idonije: seven tackles, zero sacks, zero quarterback hits. Rodgers wasn't sacked. He threw five touchdown passes, an NFL-best for him ("In junior college I threw six against Shasta in 2002; since then, no'') and made next week's finale against Detroit meaningless. Meaningless, too: the whole Kansas City-gave-the-league-a-blueprint-on-beating-the-Packers thing. I'll tell you the blueprint -- keep the Packers defense on the field and keep Rodgers off it.

Now for the talk show topic of the week, the NFL MVP, and whether Rodgers' night clinched the deal. I look for Mike McCarthy to sit Rodgers for most if not all of the final regular season game. And I look for Sean Payton and the soon-to-be-record-shattering Drew Brees to give Rodgers a counterpunch tonight against the Falcons. And if the Saints have something to play for next week (like the second seed), I look for Brees to duel Cam Newton in Week 17 and finish an intergalactic offensive season in which some of the numbers (yardage, completion percentage) could far exceed Rodgers' stats. But the MVP is more than stats, of course. By Rodgers piloting the Packers to one of the best seasons in wins and numbers a quarterback's ever had, it's going to be hard for anyone to catch him -- Tom Brady included.

I remember back in 2009, when Brees and Peyton Manning were in a brawl for the MVP award, I wrote I thought Manning deserved it because his cast of supporting characters wasn't as good as Brees'. I got a call on New Year's Eve, just before the Saints' final game, from Brees' coach, Sean Payton, making a very strong case for Brees. I loved what Brees had done, and I admired Payton for being so passionate about his guy, but I just thought Manning had done the most with a lesser cast (like the worst running game in football that year). I stuck with Manning.

I'll bet a lot of money that, in the spirit of the game tonight in New Orleans, Payton's playsheet holds a big game for Brees. So these numbers will change. I'm including Brady here, because he deserves consideration too. Problem is, the 50 media people who vote for MVP (me included) don't have the ability to vote 1 through 10 on a sliding scale (as in the baseball MVP). We vote for one -- though I've occasionally split my vote in the Associated Press' awards categories.

Comparing the top three, as I did last week:

It'll be interesting to see whether, in the minds of the 50 voters, Brees breaking Dan Marino's yardage record -- and maybe breaking it by a lot -- is a deciding factor.

One last point: Rodgers' year, by most or all measures, is a better one than Brett Favre had in any of his three MVP years, 1995, '96 and '97. Favre was, in touchdown-to-interception ratio, 38-13, 39-13 and 35-16, and Rodgers' completion percentage, yards and rating this year were better than in any of Favre's three years.

Appears to me Brees is going to have to do something incredible in the last seven days of the regular season to win the MVP.

***

Cam Newton is on his way to the best rookie season ever. By any player.

Many of us were skeptical of Cam Newton's ability to transition to the pro game so quickly, and without a full offseason program. But he's done a fabulous job in all ways of adjusting to the NFL. His confidence is off the charts for a young player. His hatred of losing, as I've written about before, is surprising for such a young player; after a loss, he's nearly inconsolable, even by respected opponents. He's more accurate in a complicated offense than anyone had a right to expect. And though he clearly wants to establish himself as a strong pocket passer with awareness to see the whole field, he knows when to take off too. And the results have been strong since the Panthers, on Thanksgiving Day, stood 2-8. Carolina is 4-1 since then (thanks, Bucs), and here are Newton's numbers: eight touchdown passes, two picks, five rushing touchdowns, 60 percent passing.

He already owns the rookie record for passing yards (3,893), and, obviously, will be the first rookie to pass for 4,000 with 107 yards against the Saints next week. Newton passed Peyton Manning's record with his 478th throw Saturday; Manning threw 575 passes as a rookie in 1998. Newton's rushed for more touchdowns, 14, than any quarterback in any season ever. The NFL mark for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback is 43, by Steve Young ... and Newton's a third of the way there already.

Listen to these strong words from owner Jerry Richardson to me the other day: "As far as I'm concerned, he'll be the last quarterback we ever draft high in my lifetime. He is a very unusual young man, and I say that in a highly complimentary way. He does not complain. Ever. He's never in the trainers room. You watch him get hit out there and you think, 'He got to be hurting,' and then you see he's never with the trainers. The way he has adapted to our team and to the NFL has been tremendous. We couldn't be happier.''

GM Marty Hurney said before the draft that in order to compete in a quarterback-strong division, the Panthers had to take a quarterback and develop him quickly. He could never have imagined this. Who could? The most amazing thing is Newton having seven weeks of pro coaching before the real games began, and having a season like this one. Imagine when he has an offseason to work on the things he needs to improve. Which, from watching him, is not much.

Five quick hits covering most everything else I know this morning:

Tony Romo almost certainly will be good to go Sunday night in New Jersey. His right hand ballooned after hitting it on Eagles defensive end Jason Babin's helmet early in the Dallas-Philly game Saturday. X-rays were negative, and there is no structural damage. Romo said afterward he'd have returned to the game if he had to play; the game wasn't meaningful after the Giants capped their victory over the Jets. I can tell you there's very little concern inside the Cowboys about his readiness for the NFC East championship game against the Giants.

FOX seethes. And why wouldn't the NFC's network, after the NFL put the second Dallas-Giants game in four weeks on NBC this Sunday night as the final game of the 2011 regular season? The Cowboys are one of FOX's big draws -- by far. Dallas-Forth Worth is the nation's No. 5 TV market, and Dallas fans are everywhere. This year, as it turns out, FOX got two of Dallas' six NFC East games. Both Giants' games went to NBC, the Washington-at-Dallas game to ESPN, and Dallas-at-Philly to NBC. Dallas, as it turns out, played three games against New York teams, including opening at the Jets. FOX went 0-for-3 in televising them; all went to NBC.

Now, many of you will ask (and have asked), "Why couldn't the NFL put another game in the Sunday night slot? Why not Cincinnati-Baltimore, for instance? Or why not Kansas City-Denver, with Tim Tebow playing for a playoff spot?'' I can tell you this: The NFL would have preferred to not take the second Giants-Cowboys game and give it to NBC. But blame the left side of the Kansas City field-goal unit for that. I believe Kansas City-Denver, which would have been an AFC West title game Sunday had the Chiefs beaten Oakland Saturday, would surely have been NBC's game Sunday night. But when the Raiders caved in the left side of the field-goal team -- Jon Asamoah, Barry Richardson and Steve Maneri, if my eyes were right on the replays I saw -- to block Ryan Succop's potential game-winner at the close of regulation (more about that in Special Teams Player of the Week), that eliminated this game.

Why? Because the league wants to play all Week 17 games in which division races or Wild Card spots are on the line at the same time. Say the league put Kansas City at Denver on Sunday night. If Oakland loses to San Diego in the afternoon, Denver wins the AFC West before it'd kick off at night. Same things, though as it turns out a bit more complex in Cincinnati-Baltimore. If Pittsburgh loses at Cleveland, and several other teams lose earlier, Baltimore could be locked at the No. 2 seed and Cincinnati at No. 6, with nothing to play for. Giants-Dallas moved because it was the only true win-and-you're-in game, whenever it was played, with no other game having any bearing on the outcome of the NFC East. That won't make FOX any happier, but it's a fact of NFL TV life. The league's going to put the game with the most on the line as the final Sunday-nighter of the year.

Adrian Peterson will be hard-pressed to open 2012 in the starting lineup for Minnesota. The opener is 37 weeks away. The rehab for the knee injury he suffered Saturday -- an ACL tear with MCL damage, and probably other damage in the knee -- will take about eight to 10 months after surgery. It's an injury much like the 2001 knee injury suffered by Colts running back Edgerrin James, according to SI.com's injury expert, Will Carroll, and also similar to the injury suffered by Wes Welker at the end of the 2009 season. James returned nine-and-a-half months after surgery, Welker after seven months.

"Wes Welker's rare,'' Vikings coach Leslie Frazier told me Sunday. "But I talked to Adrian on the plane on the way home last night. He's down, of course. But he will attack his rehab viciously. He is such a strong-minded guy. We won't know everything about the damage until the surgery is done, but we think if everything goes perfectly, Adrian will be back to play at the start of next season. I think he'll turn out to be one of those case studies people look at when they want to see how a guy rehabbed to come back strong.'' Carroll made an interesting point about the rehab. "There's no reason to believe Peterson won't be able to come back at or near the same level,'' Carroll said via email. "The biggest issue will be confidence. Peterson will have to believe in his knee the way he did on every step before that last one Saturday. That's the biggest issue, but one I believe he can overcome.''

But there's good news in Minnesota: Look for the Vikings to get a stadium deal done soon in greater Minneapolis. Last week, a source with knowledge of the Vikings stadium situation told me it's not a matter of if, but when the club and state officials finish negotiations to build a stadium at one of three sites -- one favored by owner Zygi Wilf in suburban Arden Hills, or two in downtown Minneapolis. As I reported on NBC last night, you should look for the Vikings to build the stadium in Minnesota and drop out of play to be the team that moves to Los Angeles. This is significant because the Vikings' lease at the Metrodome expires after this season. The team would be the only NFL free-agent team (a team without a stadium lease, in other words), and there's no doubt in my mind that the AEG team or Ed Roski, or both, would swoop in soon after the season and try to sign the Vikings up to move to LA. About six weeks ago, NFL CFO Eric Grubman went to Minnesota not to badger local politicians and the governor but to state a fact: If they waited until after the season to hammer out a deal with the Vikings, they'd risk losing control of the decision-making process. The implication was clear: The Wilf Family is not from Minnesota, and ownership had already pledged $425 million to the stadium effort, and if that wasn't going to be good enough to get a deal done, the family might have to look elsewhere. Now it appears the deal will get done in Minnesota, and as they should, the Vikings will stay in the great north.

Why the Rams have the best job out there -- if, as appears likely, the team parts ways with coach Steve Spagnuolo after the season. Also said this on TV last night. St. Louis will lead the NFL in cap room. St. Louis has its quarterback of the future, if you still believe in Sam Bradford, and I believe most people in the league still do. St. Louis will have either the first or second pick in the 2012 draft, assuming a loss to San Francisco Sunday, and with the lust for quarterbacks among teams in the top 10 (Miami, Washington, Indianapolis and maybe Buffalo and Cleveland), the Rams could turn the pick into something great. Well, the first pick could be turned into a gold mine -- maybe three first-rounders. The second pick could bring quite a bit too, if either Robert Griffin III or maybe Landry Jones comes out in the draft. I know, I know. Many of you are saying the San Diego job, or the Miami job, will be better. And it may turn out that way. But think of the Rams if Bradford returns to 2010 form -- and there's no reason to think he won't, unless you believe he's too brittle, which is possible. Think of three or four prime picks in the top 35 this year ... or three this year and two next year. And think of a flood of free agents getting squeezed by a cap that's not going up much if at all in the next two years, and think what happens if the Rams can sign three or four very good players (Calais Campbell? Arian Foster? Mario Williams? Cliff Avril?) in the next two years. The Rams are heading into an interesting offseason.

***

Finally, a rewarding win, followed by some emotion.

When the Patriots scored 27 second-half points to rally past Miami Saturday, they were probably going to be emotional enough in their locker room afterward. But Bill Belichick gave the game ball to owner Robert Kraft, who's had a difficult year with the summer death of his wife, Myra. Belichick said a few words about the significance of the Krafts, and then tackle Matt Light got up and pulled out an oil painting the players paid to have commissioned for Kraft. The painting show a group of Patriots players in a huddle raising their hands and an index finger, pointing to the initials "MHK,'' for Kraft's late wife. Light said the players wanted to do something to commemorate the season that had been dedicated to Myra Kraft. An emotional Robert Kraft told the players there wasn't a player on the team he wouldn't be proud to have at his dinner table with his family, and how important the players were to the community. One of those present said it was the most emotional thing he's seen in a Patriots locker room in the Kraft era. Good for the players, good for Belichick, and very good for Kraft.

***

Please, please, please: Do not let anyone who loves football start the momentum about an 18-game schedule because we're having so much fun watching the NFL this year.

Consider this my annual harangue about the stupidity of the 18-game schedule, and my congratulations to DeMaurice Smith, his player reps, and all union and rank-and-file player leaders for fighting the league on this issue.

Houston played Indianapolis Thursday night on national television. Houston and Indy, combined, had 34 players from their 53-man rosters on the injury report. With Peyton Manning, Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart out for the season, the quarterbacks in the game were Dan Orlovsky and T.J. Yates. The two best players -- arguably -- on the Texans missed the game; Andre Johnson's missed nine with hamstring problems, and Mario Williams is out for the year with a torn pec. Dallas Clark missed it with a neck injury, and on the other side, Gary Brackett, the Colts' defensive leader, is out for the year with a rotator cuff injury.

Think of the 10 most famous players on the two teams. I'd say they're, in order, Peyton Manning, Andre Johnson, Dwight Freeney, Mario Williams, Arian Foster, Matt Schaub, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Robert Mathis and Gary Brackett. Six of the 10 missed this game, the 15th of the season. You could give me another game with a fraction of the injuries. And I'd give you both starting quarterbacks missing from Oakland-Kansas City, and both starting running backs missing from the same game. All adding more games will mean is more teams will be short more players in them.

And here's where I'll note the 11 current lawsuits (that may morph into one large class-action suit sometime this winter) by players claiming the NFL hasn't done enough to address the issue of head trauma and concussions in the game. Two more suits got filed last week -- one led by Jamal Lewis, the other by Leon Searcy and some Dolphins -- claiming the league knew the dangers of head trauma and wasn't proactive in assessing the risks. My theory is these cases are not going away. Why tempt fate by adding more games to a sport that already is risky enough, and making 10 tons of money?

1. Green Bay (14-1). The Pack's been held under 21 points once in the last 19 games. You're going to have to score in the 30s to have a chance against them in January ... unless you're the Niners. Then you might be able to win by scoring 24.

2. New Orleans (11-3). Drew Brees is 305 yards from breaking Dan Marino's 27-year-old record for passing yards in a season. And the Saints are still breathing for the second seed in the NFC.

3. New England (12-3). In a season of adversity -- the latest being the offensive line being strafed with injuries -- the Patriots have performed like champions.

4. San Francisco (12-3). Two huge wins in five days, first the beatdown of the Steelers at home, then, on a short week at very tough Seattle (the Seahawks had won three straight by a total of 58 points). The Niners stayed in control of a first-round playoff bye and the second seed in the NFC playoffs.

5. Detroit (10-5). Routing the Chargers 38-10 when San Diego was playing for its playoff life ... pretty impressive. The Detroit secondary is proving a lot of folks, me included, dead wrong right now. Clinging, aggressive coverage.

6. Baltimore (11-4). Get a sense there's something missing in the offense? I mean, 284 yards against Cleveland, and three points in the last 35 minutes?

7. Pittsburgh (11-4). Ben sat five days after he should have.

8. Atlanta (9-5). How likely is it the Falcons go 2-0 and the red-hot Saints 0-2 in the next week? Not very. That's the only way Atlanta can win the NFC South. But the one prayer if the Falcons take care of business tonight is that they finish with the Lake Woebegone Buccaneers, while the Saints have to vanquish Cam Newton in the finale. Not easy.

9. New York Giants (8-7). Amazing that I'm putting a team with a 4-7 conference record and a bad running game this high. But it's a weird year. And who else belongs here?

10. Philadelphia (7-8). Won the last three by 55 (assist to Steven McGee). Held each of their last three foes under 300 yards. The Eagles don't deserve to make the playoffs, but that doesn't mean they couldn't have gotten on a roll in them.

11. Dallas (8-7). Good thing Philly's out of the playoffs. Eagles 54, Cowboys 14 this year.

12. Cincinnati (9-6). I just realized that if the Bengals can survive Week 17 against the Ravens and make the playoffs, they'd be going to Houston. Imagine the Bengals in the NFL's final eight this year. Do-able.

13. Carolina (6-9). They've won four of the last five, and even though two came against the (counterfeit) Bucs, this is one steamrolling offense right now.

14. Houston (10-5). In five days, they went from a playoff factor to a playoff speedbump. Losses to Carolina and Indy (with those three Orlovskian scoring drives in the last 20 minutes) make me wonder about their defense as much as their quarterback.

15. Denver (8-7). I guess.

Offensive Players of the Week

Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers. Start of the Sunday-nighter: Rodgers to Tom Crabtree for seven, Rodgers to Jordy Nelson for zero, Rodgers to Jermichael Finley for 11. Rodgers to Ryan Grant for 32, then for two, Rodgers to Nelson for 16, Rodgers to Finley for seven, and, for the touchdown, Rodgers to Finley for two. Pack, 7-0, five minutes in. Rodgers, 8 for 8 for 77 yards. After 37 minutes, Rodgers had three touchdown passes against a defense that has continually vexed him. Cliché word of the night, but altogether true: clockwork.

New York Giants WR Victor Cruz. Twenty-eight minutes into the game they had to have, the Giants trailed the Jets 7-3 and could get nothing going. They had a third-and-10 from their own 1-yard line, and were on the verge of having to punt out of their end zone and give the Jets a short field to get points before the half. "We wanted to call something to have a shot to get the first down, but get the ball out of my hands pretty quickly when you're backed up in your own end zone,'' Eli Manning said. "I threw it to him and it was going to be close if we got the first down or not.'' Him being Cruz. "I was just kind of hoping that he could maybe fall forward to get the first down in that situation.'' But he made three Jets miss -- two at the 11 and safety Eric Smith far downfield. Cruz cruised for a 99-yard touchdown, and the Giants never trailed after that. For the game, Cruz caught three balls for 164 yards, and he set up the eventual game-winning TD with a 36-yard catch and run from Manning.

Indianapolis QB Dan Orlovsky. For the first 40 minutes of what appeared to be the Colts' 14th loss of the year, Orlovsky led Indy to two field goals, and a whole lot of nothing else. But in his last three drives of the game against a top-five NFL defense, the Colts drove 51 yards to a field goal, 67 yards to a field goal, and 78 yards (in 91 seconds, with no timeouts) to the winning touchdown, a one-yard flip to Reggie Wayne. There were better Week 16 quarterback numbers (23 of 41, 244 yards, one touchdown, no picks), and Colts fans everywhere were blanching to see Indy threaten to blow the first pick in the 2012 draft, but that's not Orlovsky's concern. He made play after play when a game was on the line, and he beat his old team with a superb final 20 minutes.

Defensive Player of the Week

New England LB Jerod Mayo. Days after signing a rich contract extension, Mayo showed the Patriots they were smart holiday shoppers. He had 13 tackles and two sacks in New England's 27-24 win over Miami. It was his second sack that helped the Patriots clinch the game. With eight minutes left and New England nursing a 20-17 lead, Mayo sacked Matt Moore and forced a Miami punt. The Pats scored on the ensuing drive, wrapping up the win.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Oakland DT Richard Seymour. Quite simply, Seymour saved the Oakland season, and preserved the Raiders' playoff chances. Seymour blocked a Ryan Succop 49-yard field goal try at the end of the first half that could have broken a 3-3 tie, then blocked a Succop 49-yarder at the end of the second half that could have given the Chiefs a 16-13 win. The Raiders' special teams coordinator, John Fassel, had the block in the game plan for the week, and instructed linebackers Aaron Curry and Quentin Groves to push Seymour through the Chief line on the two blocks. Worked perfectly. "Even though my hand went up to block them, I can't take all the credit,'' Seymour said. "I have to give a lot to our linebackers for giving me good push and the coaching staff for coming up with the calls to put me in the right position to make plays. That's what we talk about all the time, the coaching staff putting players in position to make plays and when your number is called, making it and that's what happened.''

Coach of the Week

New England assistant head coach/offensive line Dante Scarnecchia. It was amazing the Patriots won Saturday, given the pre- and in-game festivities along the offensive line. New England was down 17-0 at the half to Miami, and Tom Brady (7 of 19) had been sacked three times and chased around the pocket for 30 minutes. Much of the problems were line-related. Left tackle Matt Light hurt his ankle during the pregame warmups; with Sebastian Vollmer down with a back injury. Logan Mankins was shifted to tackle and made the first start of his career there. Donald Thomas made his first career NFL start, at left guard. When Mankins tweaked his knee a few plays into the game, Nate Solder moved from right tackle to left, and Marcus Cannon went in at right tackle. How about that: The Patriots played rookies at left and right tackle throughout the second half ... and Brady went 20 of 27 and put 27 points on the board (while being sacked just once) behind the makeshift line. Credit to Scarnecchia for having neophytes prepared to win a game New England, at halftime, had little business winning.

Goat of the Week

New York Jets QB Mark Sanchez. Not for one play, but for two weeks of not making any. Over the past two must-games, Sanchez has completed 53 percent of his throws, turned the ball over six times, and lost to teams that entered the games with a combined 12-15 record ... by 26 and 15 points. Sanchez, who rarely throws a pass to a receiver perfectly and in stride, has the look of a player whose confidence is unraveling rapidly.

"It's time to shut up, fat boy."

-- Giants running back Brandon Jacobs to Jets coach Rex Ryan on the field after the Giants' 29-14 victory over the rival Jets, according to Star-Ledger photographer William Perlman, who overheard the taunt.

"The man told me, 'Hue, we'll win it in the end.' I believe that. I don't know how it's going to happen. I don't care how it's going to happen.''

-- Coach Hue Jackson of the Raiders after their 16-13 overtime win in Kansas City, referring to a conversation he had with owner Al Davis just before he died in October. Oakland will win the AFC West with a victory over San Diego next week and a Denver loss to the Chiefs.

"The Executive Committee of the NFLPA stands firmly united behind Executive Director DeMaurice Smith and what has been accomplished under his leadership. Today, we made an affirmative decision on his discretionary compensation. We look forward to having him serve our membership long into the future.''

-- Statement from the NFL Players Association president Kevin Mawae and the NFLPA executive committee, after giving Smith a $1-million bonus Wednesday.

With 17 games to play in this pass-happy regular season, nine wide receivers have been true deep threats, averaging at least 15 yards per catch with at least 60 receptions. How amazing is it that No. 2 on this list -- both in yards and yards per catch -- is Victor Cruz, the kid from UMass who walked into New York Giants camp in 2010 as an undrafted free agent and made the team ... after a three-touchdown performance against the Jets in a preseason game. A pulled hamstring ruined his zero-catch 2010 season. To say he's exploded onto the NFL scene in 2011 would be an understatement. There's no way the Giants would be playing for the NFC East title Sunday against Dallas without him. Charting the best and the most dangerous of the deep threats in 2011:

The following men have been head coach of the football team at the University of Pittsburgh in the last 13 months:

1. Dave Wannstedt (resigned after 7-5 season in 2010).

2. Phil Bennett (interim coach for 2010 bowl game).

3. Michael Haywood (dismissed after being charged with domestic battery).

4. Todd Graham (carpetbagger who left after one season for Arizona State).

5. Keith Patterson (interim coach for 2011 bowl game).

6. Paul Chryst (Wisconsin offensive coordinator named new coach Thursday).

Just curious whether the Chryst family is renting or buying in greater Pittsburgh.

City-Living Note of the Month:

Travel time from Manhattan, via car, 125 miles to my niece's winter concert in Connecticut, late in the afternoon on a mid-December Thursday: 3 hours, 43 minutes.

Travel time from Manhattan, via car, 133 miles to my family's Christmas-noon gathering in Connecticut, on Christmas morning: 2 hours, 2 minutes.

"I have nothing good to say, so I'm just keeping quite.'' (sic)

-- @RealJoeNamath, early in the fourth quarter of the Jets' loss to the Giants.

"@AdrianPeterson one of the best to EVER ever to play the game. I wish you well brother. You've never given anything but your best.''

-- @arianfoster, the outstanding Houston back, in a message sent to Adrian Peterson after he wrecked his knee Saturday in Washington.

Three from @MerrilHoge, who has had quite a bit to say about Tim Tebow:

"Just finished watching Bronco O, I have been very critical of Tebow after watching tape of his flaws, so let me share what i see now''

"i see the work is paying off for Tebow, as i watched tape this week his development reminded me of someone that was developed very similarly''

"That player was Steve McNair. the titans did a lot of run action play action for several years before he developed into an NFL MVP.''

For the record, Hoge made those comments before Saturday's Tebow debacle. Which you probably could have figured.

1. I think this is what I liked about Week 16:

a. Everything about the Lions.

b. Kahlil Bell, and, surprisingly, Josh McCown. How was McCown out of football and coaching high school five weeks ago?

c. Reggie Wayne, in perhaps his last home play as a Colt, caught his 854th professional pass -- the winning touchdown in the stunner over the Texans.

d. Sione Pouha. A vastly underrated interior run defender for the Jets.

e. You're earning a future, Graham Gano, with kicks like that go-ahead 53-yarder for Washington.

f. Great story by the Associated Press, getting 23 of 44 players interviewed to admit they would try to hide the effects of a concussion rather than voluntarily leave a game. Sounds right to me.

g. C.J. Spiller -- maybe for the first time in two seasons -- justifying with 111 rushing yards his high draft standing.

h. Chris Kelsay, for catching and sacking Tim Tebow twice.

i. Leodis McKelvin, for making an 80-yard punt-return TD look so incredibly easy.

j. Glad to see a good player and person, Tennessee tight end Jared Cook, break out with an eight-catch, 169-yard game.

k. Great throw in the clutch, Carson Palmer.

l. Joe Webb looks better every time he plays.

m. Marshall Newhouse, I underrated you. Sorry.

n. David Akers, who broke the NFL mark with his 42nd field goal at Seattle ... with a game left.

2. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 16:

a. Hakeem Nicks, who drops too many balls.

b. Nick Folk, who misses too many field goals average kickers should make.

c. The Houston defense. Don't tell me it's all missing Wade Phillips either.

d. Tim Tebow. Did he use up all his professional football karma in two months?

e. "My confidence is just fine,'' Tebow said after throwing four second-half interceptions, two returned for touchdowns within 18 seconds. His accuracy, well, that's another matter.

f. Fix the field goal team this week, Romeo.

g. Rex Ryan. America's got Ryan fatigue.

h. The Jags, allowing Matt Hasselbeck to throw for 350 in a steamroller game for the Titans.

i. The Bucs. Shameful performance again.

3. I think I've heard some dumb proposals in my life during negotiations, but the one outlined by Charley Casserly on the CBS pregame show Saturday is classic. Casserly, detailing what he said was the NFL Players Association's proposal for HGH testing to Congress, said one of the tenets would be that players could decline the NFL's request to be tested. Two other points of the NFLPA proposal: Only 10 percent of all NFL players would be tested in any year. (Absolutely foolish. That'd mean, on average, that less than half of the NFL players would ever be tested in an average career.) And testing would occur only out of season, not during the season. Ridiculous.

4. I think whoever thought of that proposal, and discussed it with members of Congress, is either a classic enabler, trying to keep HGH in the game -- and, in fact, to tacitly show players a path to use it -- or simply believe HGH is no big deal in a competitive sport. That's wrong. And an insult to any thinking person who believes the league should be making an effort to make football HGH-free.

5. I think my money's on the Rams to win the first-pick lottery, just because the Jags are so bad right now. Final week: Colts at Jags, Niners at Rams. If the Colts win and Rams lose, the first-round order will be Rams one and Colts two, regardless of what the 3-12 Vikings do.

6. I think Victor Cruz and Jason Pierre-Paul, in some order, have become the second and third most important players on the Giants. Cruz saved the Giants Saturday and has come from nowhere to be one of the league's top deep threats. Pierre-Paul is one of the most dangerous defensive players in the league right now, and a kick-blocker too.

7. I think Devin Hester looked like a shell of himself last night with his bum ankle. I talked up top about the folly of an 18-game schedule. How about the Bears' offense, minus Jay Cutler and Matt Forte, and the return game with a hobbled Hester, adding two more games.

8. I think the Lions' revival couldn't happen to a nicer guy, and a better kicker, than Jason Hanson.

9. I think the defensive player of the year award is going to come down to Sunday night. Five or six strong candidates. I'll be watching closely this weekend.

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

a. Still a sucker for National Lampoon Christmas Vacation. Would you believe I saw Elf for the first time the other night? Loved it.

b. Michael Jordan is neither charismatic or effective in his Hanes commercials.

c. Ditto Jennifer Lopez in the Fiat ones ... because no one believes she's driving a Fiat, alone, in sketchy New York neighborhoods.

d. Mike Tirico, did you really say last night, "World Peace with the bucket'' in the Lakers-Bulls game? I am extremely impressed you can say that without laughing out loud.

e. Metta World Peace, formerly Ron Artest.

f. I know I'm prejudiced, and I get a paycheck from NBC, but that was a heck of a feature last night on the Packer fan who signed an organ-donor card, died, had her liver harvested, and the liver went to a Bears fan who might have been in his last day or two of life. The Bears fan's healthy now and had an emotional on-camera meeting with the family of the woman who died to give him life. Really fine, without being overly sappy.

g. Congrats, Bentley Weiner and your HBO hockey 24/7 crew, for the fun and inside view of the Rangers and Flyers. Highlight for me in the second episode the other night: the focus on concussions, and on the exam of Flyers top scorer Claude Giroux. You see the team doctor asking Giroux if he's having any trouble texting. Cool stuff. That's the kind of stuff that makes these shows must-see TV. On the Rangers' side, John Tortorella seems like the kind of coach all players would want to play for -- he puts his team in the best position to win.

h. Coffeenerdness: You're too homogenized already, Starbucks. And now you make your packaging on the pounds of coffee all the same now, with only the words on the front different. Why? The bags used to be distinctive and recognizable. Now you've done what you do with the boring pastries, making them the same in San Jose as they are in Manhattan.

i. Beernerdness: Can I give a wine shoutout? Had a glass of the Rubicon Captain's Reserve cab with Christmas Eve dinner. And I'll be back for more, Mr. Coppola.

Saints 33, Falcons 23. Love ths rivalry, and one very interesting piece of it will make most of us stay awake late Monday to see history: Drew Brees needs 305 passing yards to break Dan Marino's single-season record of 5,084 ... and this is Brees' 15th game.

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