Not the greatest weekend for start-to-finish drama, but the Denver-Pittsburgh overtime thriller made up for those earlier 21-, 17- and 22-point playoff games. Let me get some of the news of the weekend to you first, then get on to the dramatic non-game story of the weekend: the fight to beat tongue and throat cancer by veteran referee Tony Corrente, who worked Detroit-New Orleans Saturday night.
You may have noticed Corrente with no hair or eyebrows when the camera zoomed in on him calling penalties in the Superdome. Chemotherapy and radiation have changed his appearance. Things are going to get worse for him before they get better, and the 60-year-old Corrente was realistic enough when he walked off the field Saturday night to know he had no idea when or if he'd officiate another game.
"Lord,'' said Corrente, a religious man, "if this was the last game I ever work, thank you for the opportunity.''
More to come on Corrente's stunning story, but first the headlines of the weekend:
The Tebow-to-Thomas roots run deep.
Sunday, 8:07 p.m. Eastern: In Denver, Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow opens overtime with an 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas to beat Pittsburgh. It's the first time in playoff history a game ends on the first snap of OT, spawning a stadium-shaking, ear-splitting celebration in the stadium stands.
Thomas, the 22nd player picked in the 2010 draft, and Tebow, the 25th, were scouted, identified as cornerstone players and picked by former Denver coach Josh McDaniels ... who, as you may recall, was fired less than eight months after that draft, one of the most reviled fired coaches in recent NFL history.
Sunday, 8:10 p.m. Eastern: A story is posted on the New England Patriots website. It begins, "The New England Patriots announced today that Josh McDaniels has joined the team as an offensive assistant for the remainder of the 2011 season.''
A week after the 2-14 St. Louis Rams finished their season, McDaniels, their offensive coordinator, is released from the last year of his contract and flies to Foxboro to assist in the Patriots' playoff drive.
Next Saturday, 8 p.m. Eastern: Denver at New England, AFC divisional playoff game. If I were McDaniels, I wouldn't pick my nose Saturday night. CBS will have an iso camera on him all night, wherever he is.
"Crazy,'' Demaryius Thomas said from the din of the Denver locker room Sunday night. "Just crazy. Good to see him back with a winning team. We're all just so surprised. Just crazy.''
Thomas thought for a minute. "I remember on draft day when my phone rang. It was coach McDaniels. He said, 'We're gonna take you with this pick. Congratulations. Get out here, and let's ball.' I was so excited. It was the happiest day of my life. Then, when I found out we picked Tebow, I said, 'All right. We've got a winning quarterback.' ''
On the night of that draft, in April 2010, I remember distinctly two phone conversations. One was with Tebow, who said Denver was where he wanted to be drafted, and McDaniels the coach he wanted to play for. "I told [agent] Jimmy [Sexton] all along that I wanted to play for this guy,'' Tebow said. "His whole attitude is he believes in himself, and he's going to do it his way. I like that.''
The other conversation was with McDaniels. "The reason I'm so happy about getting these two guys,'' he told me, "is they're going to be the cornerstone of what we do here, both on offense and as a team. They love football. They are such good people. Tim ... the football traits he has are the stuff you die for. They will show our core group of young players how they need to work and what it takes to succeed in this league. I just believe that so strongly. I would die to have 53 guys here who love the game as much as I do.''
Three days before the draft, McDaniels had gone to Gainesville, telling no one, because he wanted to work out Tebow and talk football with him, to see how much he knew about offensive football -- and to see if he might be worth a major investment of draft choices if that's what it came down to get him.
"We spent about seven hours together,'' McDaniels said. "Our offense is pretty complicated, and the terminology and the scheme is totally different from what he did at Florida. But about midway through my time there, we're going through plays, and he starts using our terminology. He's so smart about football that he was able to begin to speak my language and talk apples to apples. He'd already translated what he knew of our scheme into my words. There're going to be doubts about him. Great doubts -- and I understand that. Some people don't think he has the natural traits of a great quarterback. Here's what I think: Do Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods swing the club the same way, hit irons the same way? No. But they both win tournaments. There's different ways to throw, different mechanics, and you can still get the job done.''
At the end of the conversation, McDaniels said he couldn't wait to see Tebow throw the ball deep to Thomas. "He's 6-foot-3, and a legit 4.3-second [in the 40-yard dash] guy. What a weapon he's going to be. Wait 'til our fans see these guys together.''
They did Sunday, in one of the greatest games the city's ever hosted. Now, it's clear that offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who has been important in Tebow's development and has been a very smart play-caller and strategist, deserves a huge hand for his work this year. John Fox has been a smart head coach, because he has adjusted to Tebow's style rather than forcing him to the play a straight pro style. But after what we witnessed on draft day 20 months ago, and the magic we saw Sunday, one question:
Still hate Josh McDaniels, Denver?
The new overtime system was in action Sunday ... for 11 seconds. In 2010, league owners ratified a new system for playoff overtime -- as an experiment to see if it'd work in the regular schedule -- and then had none of the 11 playoff games in 2010 go to OT. The system, in essence, requires each team to get at least one possession in overtime, unless the first team possessing the ball scores a touchdown. This prevents the cheapie overtime loss, with one team running the kickoff back to the 30, then gaining 30 yards or so and kicking a field goal to win.
Now if a team wins the toss and takes it the length of the field for a touchdown, it's earned a victory ... or so goes the theory. (I believe strongly each teams needs to be guaranteed a possession in overtime; otherwise, the coin flip simply takes on too much importance. In the history of OT prior to 2010, the team receiving the kick to start overtime won the game on the first possession 41 percent of the time.)
So referee Ron Winter explained the call to all Sunday in Denver, and then the Broncos won the coin flip and elected to receive. Denver took over at the 20. Great call on the first play by offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. He motioned a receiver across the formation, which signals run. On 21 of the 22 first-down plays on the day, Denver had run. So McCoy called for a pass, into the teeth of a nine-man Pittsburgh box, with Troy Polamalu down and the other safety, Ryan Mundy, creeping to the line near where Demaryius Thomas was split wide left.
"My assignment was to get on the corner and beat him inside, cutting across the middle,'' Thomas told me. "When I saw the safety come up, I knew all I had to do was get a step on the corner and Tim would find me.''
I asked him if he was shocked to see zero coverage -- no deep safety help, anywhere.
"No,'' said Thomas. "They'd been doing it all day.''
Tebow threw the ball to Thomas, who caught it at the Denver 43. At the 48-, with cornerback Ike Taylor bearing down on him, Thomas stiff-armed him away. "I know I'm young,'' he said, "but I think I've got one of the best stiff-arms in the league.'' Sure looked like it. Taylor got shucked away, and it was off to the races for Thomas, in a play that made you gasp. Eleven seconds to history.
Now Jeff Fisher takes a day to pick the Rams or Dolphins. After spending five hours at the Rams' practice facility in suburban Earth City, Mo., Sunday, the former Titans coach returned to Nashville to consider his options. By Tuesday, I expect he'll have figured out whether St. Louis or Miami is the best place for him; and his agent, Marvin Demoff, will begin negotiating with one team, or both if it's very close. Expect a resolution by Thursday.
Fisher, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is concerned about the possibility of the Rams moving to Los Angeles, and he'll want to have that concern addressed by owner Stan Kroenke before making his final call. He also has concerns about Miami, and it's expected he'll ask both clubs to clarify their positions on several matters before he decides.
As I said Saturday on NBC, I expect the Dolphins and owner Stephen Ross to be the high bidders if this comes to pitting one franchise against the other. But I also expect Fisher to go to the place he feels he has the best chance to win. In Miami, the pros are he'd have a playoff-ready defense, some good offensive pieces and an owner willing to spend whatever it takes to win; the cons are he wouldn't have a franchise quarterback, and he'd be battling Bill Belichick and Tom Brady for (just guessing) at least the next three years.
Pros in St. Louis: Sam Bradford's still likely an excellent quarterback prospect, the team is flush with cap room in the next two years, there's no franchise quarterbacks on the other three teams, and the Rams could leverage the second pick in this draft into two to four high picks. Cons: the mystery of Kroenke and what he'll spend, and whether he might move to L.A.
The other openings ... I said Saturday the Bucs want an authority figure to clean up Raheem Morris' mess, and they like former Packer and Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman ... As Adam Schefter reported, Kansas City is likely to keep Romeo Crennel as the permanent coach after he went 2-1 as the interim man. I expect that to happen as early as this week ... Jacksonville's quiet, but I expect Dallas special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis and Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden to be in it at the end ... Hue Jackson (Oakland) and Jim Caldwell (Indianapolis) are in limbo until, respectively, a new GM in Oakland (Reggie McKenzie) learns the ropes and considers his options, and owner Jim Irsay picks a GM in Indianapolis.
Déjà vu for the Giants. Four years ago, the Giants got hot at the end of the year, beating Tampa Bay and Dallas on the road in the playoffs, then went to heavily favored Green Bay for the NFC Championship Game with a hot quarterback -- and stunned the Pack in Brett Favre's last Green Bay game. This year, the Giants got hot at the end of the year, beating the Jets and Cowboys in the regular-season finales and Atlanta in a wild-card game ... and now go to heavily favored Green Bay for the NFC divisional playoff game with a hot quarterback. Only this time, it should be about 40 degrees warmer than four years ago.
After the Giants clubbed Atlanta 24-2 Sunday (who'd have guessed James Sanders would outscore Matt Ryan for the Falcons), linebacker Chase Blackburn, who was on that Giant team four years ago and had an impressive game against the Falcons with nine tackles, said one of the things the two teams have in common is confidence. "There are similarities,'' he said. "I can't say we'll have the same playoff run, but I can say we have the same character, and we have a lot of confidence in our quarterback.''
The Giants are rushing the passer as well as they did in the 2007 postseason, and Eli Manning, sharp Sunday, looks as hot. Should be a good game.
The other matchups: It's New Orleans at San Francisco (combined record: 27-6) Saturday afternoon, then Denver at New England Saturday night. Houston is at Baltimore early on Sunday, the Giants and Packers at Lambeau late. The best game might be Saints-Niners, with the rested 49ers likely to have hamstrung linebacker Patrick Willis back to full strength to help chase the hottest passer in the land, Drew Brees. The ratings giants: Giants-Packers at 4:30 Eastern on Sunday and Tebow-Brady (under the watchful eye of McDaniels) in prime time Saturday.
A shaky weekend for the zebras. In the Lions-Saints game, a ball flew out of Brees' hands and was ruled a fumble by referee Tony Corrente. It flew forward and was recovered by the Lions. At the same time, another official on the field ruled an incomplete pass. That should have rendered the play dead with possession reverting to New Orleans. But the game crew gave possession to the Lions, mistakenly.
In another weird play, Brees, on a 4th-and-a-foot call, leaped over the line, stuck the ball out long enough to get the ball past the first-down marker, then pulled it back as he was swarmed by the Lions. Looked like he voluntarily pulled it back, which, of course, would have meant he didn't have the forward progress for the first down. But the officials on the field gave him forward progress.
The Steelers looked very old Sunday. At one point Sunday in Denver, 35-year-old wideout Hines Ward was nailed to the bench in what might have been his last game as a Steeler; defensive linemen Brett Keisel (33) and Casey Hampton (34) were out with injuries; James Harrison (33) and James Farrior (37) were trying to give the Steelers some sort of pass-rush, and Ben Roethlisberger, who turns 30 in March, was hobbling around on his bad ankle like he was 45. Ugly way to end a season.
To give up 447 yards to the Broncos, who couldn't buy a first down the last couple of weeks, had to stun Pittsburgh into the realization the Steelers need some youth on defense and some bodies on the offensive line, a unit that is just awful.
Houston, however, looked young and spry. After losing its last three, Houston bounced back with the kind of defensive game and running attack coach Gary Kubiak would draw up as a perfect plan. The Texans held Cincinnati to 300 yards and were in Andy Dalton's face all day.
What impresses me about the Texans is the young defensive talent. Defensive end J.J. Watt is the prototype 3-4 defensive end, shifty and athletic enough to maneuver around tackles, and strong enough, at 290 pounds, to hold the point on the run. Late in the first half against Cincinnati, Watt made the second interception of his life when he somehow corralled a line-drive throw from Dalton and rambled 29 yards with the interception for a touchdown.
"I had no intention whatsoever of catching it,'' he said. "I'm just taught to put my hands up to block passes, and when this one hit me, it just stuck. Never had one like that before. I was a little bit amazed, a little crazed.''
In fact, his other pick came last season when he played at Wisconsin, taking a tipped pass back against Michigan. "I probably made it maybe 15 yards, and Denard [Robinson] caught me,'' said Watt, speaking of the Wolverine quarterback. "He's a little bit better athlete than me.''
After Saturday's game, Watt got a hug from defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. "We've been working on disruptive plays like that all year, and when he hugged me, he said, 'Practice makes perfect,' '' said Watt.
Expectations shouldn't have gotten Turner and Smith fired, Spanos says. The Chargers seemed on the verge of firing coach Norv Turner last week, but president Dean Spanos, after a few long days of consideration, decided not to -- even though the Chargers sandwiched one 13-3 season with an 8-8, 9-7 and 8-8 over the past four years, with but one playoff win in the four seasons despite an explosive offense.
I was leaning toward thinking the whole place should be blown up myself, because I thought it was a better team than it showed on the field; I'd picked the Chargers to win the AFC, and they finished .500, with a six-game losing streak in midseason. A lot of that was an uncharacteristically bumpy year for Philip Rivers, and a defense that just didn't have enough playmakers; Cincinnati, Arizona and Seattle were all stingier on defense.
Look at the defense. Where are the difference-makers? Eric Weddle, the safety, and linebackers Shaun Phillips and Antwan Barnes. But where else? The drafts have been poor.
"I thought the expectations here got out of control,'' Spanos told me the other day. "We did not have good drafts in '07, '08 and '09, and so we've been set back a little by that. I thought we had a good nucleus with a great quarterback who Norv has done a great job with. But I didn't think we had a great team. Should I blow it up, get rid of the coaches and the general manager, with no guarantee on anything coming in here? I thought that would have been a mistake, and I thought they deserved another chance. This is all a guess. It's a big bet. But I think I'll be right.''
For the short term, Spanos knows the Chargers need to fix major problems on the offensive line -- health issues may force stalwarts Marcus McNeill and Kris Dielman to retire, though McNeill says he will try to continue playing. "We need to find out why we've had such an inordinate number of injuries,'' Spanos said.
Join the club.
Tony Corrente's story.
Today's a big day for Corrente. Less than two days after serving as ref and crew chief at the game in New Orleans, Corrente is beginning his second course of debilitating chemotherapy at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
To this day, Corrente is still blown away by what might have saved his life: a mini-brawl in the season-opening Baltimore-Pittsburgh game.
Corrente, a trim, veteran referee, felt fine and was in excellent physical condition entering the season. In the second half of the game at Baltimore, he stepped in the middle of some pushing and shoving between two Steelers and two Ravens, and he found himself shoved hard out of the scrum. He landed on his back and hit his head, and he felt it the rest of the game.
Afterward, with pain in his head, back and buttocks, Corrente had a choice in the referee's room -- Tylenol or Motrin. And he remembered a former member of his crew saying Motrin was better for pain, so he took 800 milligrams of Motrin and flew home to California.
At home, he noticed he was coughing up blood, and still was the next day. More Motrin. The next week, after doing the Kansas City-Detroit game, Corrente was still taking Motrin, and noticed when he woke up Monday after the game there was blood on his pillow where his mouth had been. His doctor in California, Susan Sleep, set him up with an ear, nose and throat specialist, who snaked a camera through his nose to look at everything.
The camera spied a mass at the base of his tongue, where the tongue led into the throat, extending down the throat slightly. The mass was about the size of a full male thumb.
"What is that?'' Corrente asked the doctor.
"Sir, that is cancer,'' said the doctor, whose specialty was apparently not bedside manner.
"Excuse me,'' Corrente said. "I've got WHAT?''
After more tests and seeing a second expert at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Corrente would have a choice: get the tumor removed surgically, which carried some significant risks about future speaking ability and throat damage; or shrink it and eliminate it through chemotherapy and radiation. "The doctors believed the survival chance was about equal,'' Corrente told me Sunday afternoon. "So that made it a fairly easy choice.'' In late October, after returning from reffing the Tampa Bay-Chicago game, he began a seven-week course of chemotherapy.
"Every doctor I saw would look at me and tell me how lucky I was,'' Corrente said.
"Getting knocked down and hurt in that Baltimore game might have saved my life,'' he said. "Then I started taking Motrin, which I found out causes your blood to thin. It broke through blood vessels and would come out when I coughed. Obviously, you've got to find out why that's happening. Had I not done anything, or had I taken Tylenol, which doesn't cause your blood to thin, I probably wouldn't have discovered this for a while -- and by then, I'd have needed massive surgery, and who knows what chances I would have had.''
At first, the chemo did little to him physically. But he began to lose his hair and look pale; at one point he had a bad skin rash. The Colts found out what ailed Corrente, and Peyton Manning, before the Nov. 27 Colts game against Carolina, gave Corrente a hug. "We heard,'' Manning said. During a TV timeout, Corrente was told Colts coach Jim Caldwell wanted to see him.
"He took both my hands, right there on the field,'' Corrente said. "And he said, 'I just wish you all the best. Our whole organization is praying for you.' ''
After that game, the treatments weakened Corrente to the point where he had to miss three weeks of work. Five days after he finished his last chemo treatment, he said he felt good. "A hundred percent,'' he said. "So I called [NFL officiating czar] Carl Johnson and told him I felt fine and I was ready to work. I said, 'I wouldn't come back unless I felt 100 percent.' ''
So he worked the last two weekends of the season, Minnesota at Washington on Dec. 24 and Baltimore at Cincinnati eight days ago.
"Before that game, I went to coach [John] Harbaugh of the Ravens, and told him I'd like to talk to a couple of his players if it wouldn't be too much of a bother before the game. I told him the story, and he was in disbelief. So they brought the two players who were in the scuffle with the Steelers that first week, Michael Oher and Matt Birk, out to talk to me. I told them, 'I just wanted to tell you that you actually may have saved my life.'
"I could see they were shocked as I explained it. This crazy ref was thanking them because they knocked him on his butt.''
Postseason assignments are made based on performance during the season. Corrente was told his crew would be working one of the wild-card games, and he was thrilled -- as much for his crew as for himself. He thought of his umpire, Fred Bryan, who collapsed late in the season with a blood clot in his lung and wouldn't be able to work the playoff game. "It would have been his first playoff game,'' said Corrente. "That really bothered me, that he'd miss it.''
It bothered Corrente that he wouldn't get to work another playoff game, even if his crew's performance warranted it according to the grading scale the NFL uses. He told them he wouldn't be available. Several weeks of arduous treatment lay ahead.
"There's going to be some dark days ahead,'' Corrente said.
Corrente found it interesting that he made it through the Saints-Lions game with no pain, no sore throat, no lack of energy. He had the presence of mind to -- correctly -- rule the Brees fumble/no-fumble a fumble when Brees was hit before he tried to throw the ball, though the play was incorrectly ruled because another crew member ruled an incomplete pass. But Sunday, he had a sore throat. His body felt sore. It's like he'd conditioned himself to make it through the game, knowing a tough regimen was ahead, and when the game was over, his body stopped protecting him.
As well as the chemo, Corrente will begin a new round of radiation treatments. He described it as being bolted down on a table and shot with radiation from 10 different angles for between 15 and 35 seconds. His throat will blister. He won't be able to talk. He'll have a very hard time swallowing. He'll lose all sensation of taste, which won't be much of a change. "Food, to me, is repulsive right now,'' he said.
Ask him about the future, and he can't tell you. His doctors say he came through the first two-plus months of treatment well, but they don't know what the future holds. As a former high school baseball coach, Corrente's been given some baseball allegories by one of his chemotherapy docs. "He told me, 'We just scored a couple of runs, but we're only in the sixth inning -- and the other guys have some good hitters coming up,' '' said Corrente.
He's heard from coaches, players, league officials, fellow officials, all wishing him well. "You hear it's the No Fun League, or it's Not For Long,'' said Corrente. "I'll tell you what the league is -- it's the National Family League. I've learned my glass isn't half-full. It's been full my whole life, and it's full now.''
And he's looking forward to next season, if for no other reason than to look up Ryan Mundy and LaMarr Woodley of the Steelers. They're the two players who jousted with Birk and Oher. Corrente can't wait to tell them how they might have helped save his life.
My All-Pro team. As promised, here's the All-Pro team I filed to the Associated Press last Monday, the day after the regular season ended:
Receivers: Calvin Johnson, Detroit; Victor Cruz, New York Giants. Very tough to leave off Wes Welker, who won the receptions crown by 22 catches, but Cruz was just so dominant late in the year.
Offensive line: LT, Joe Thomas, Cleveland. LG, Carl Nicks, New Orleans. C, Scott Wells, Green Bay. RG, Marshal Yanda, Baltimore. RT, Eric Winston, Houston. Brian Waters of New England was close at guard, but I love the year Yanda had, and how he played so well in pain late.
Tight end: Rob Gronkowski, New England. As great as Jimmy Graham was this year, Gronkowski's one of the best all-around tight ends to come into the league in decades.
Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay. Stunning that Rodgers got 47.5 of the 50 votes, as good as Drew Brees has been.
Running back: Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville. When your foes know you're the only even remote offensive threat on the team, and you win the rushing title by 242 yards, that's impressive. (I'm supposed to name two backs, which I never do. The AP wants two, and I've explained for years if you have two backs and two receivers, how fair is that?
Fullback: Vonta Leach, Baltimore. A human anvil.
Defensive line: Jared Allen, Minnesota, and Justin Smith, San Francisco (ends); Haloti Ngata, Baltimore, and Sione Pouha, Jets (tackles). Smith played outside, or end, on four-fifths of the snaps he played this year, so I can't figure out why he'd be listed as a tackle.
Linebackers: Tamba Hali, Kansas City, and DeMarcus Ware, Dallas (outside); Derrick Johnson, Kansas City, and NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco (inside). So many good players here, and I feel terrible for not including Terrell Suggs, who could have placed at either end or OLB. He's ferocious. Hali and Ware were special too, especially the day Hali terrorized Rodgers in Green Bay's only loss of the year.
Secondary: Darrelle Revis, New York Jets, and Johnathan Joseph, Houston (corners); Eric Weddle, San Diego (free safety) and Kam Chancellor, Seattle (strong safety). Joseph was a big reason the Texans improved drastically, and Weddle became a premier roaming safety this season.
K: David Akers, San Francisco ... P: Andy Lee, San Francisco ... Return: Patrick Peterson, Arizona. Akers set the field-goal record. Lee had the highest gross plus net averages. Peterson had four return TDs.
MVP: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay. See last week's column for reason.
Off. player: Drew Brees, New Orleans. Not a copout. The best stat season ever by a quarterback deserves this.
Def. player: Justin Smith, San Francisco. Tape-watchers marvel how he never takes a play off. Watch how he caught Jeremy Maclin from 15 yards behind to clinch the Philly game in Week 3.
Off. rookie: Cam Newton, Carolina. Best season a rookie's ever had, I'd say.
Def. rookie: Von Miller, Denver. Slowed by bum thumb late. Edges Aldon Smith.
Coach: Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco. Great candidates this year. Only one premier one.
Assistant coach: Wade Phillips, Houston. Took the 30th-ranked defense of 2010, lost Mario Williams early, and turned it into second-ranked D.
Comeback: D'Qwell Jackson, LB, Cleveland. Missed the last 26 games with two separate pectoral tears. This year, led the AFC in tackles.
Executive: Mike Brown, Cincinnati. Good draft netted long-term weaponry. Good trade raked Raiders over coals for Carson Palmer.
1. Green Bay (15-1). Four years ago next week, in minus-23 wind chill at Lambeau Field, in the game that launched Aaron Rodgers' career, Brett Favre and the heavily favored Packers lost to Eli Manning 23-20 in overtime. Now it's time for a rematch. And revenge.
2. New Orleans (14-3). The grass isn't always greener on the other side. In San Francisco, however, grass is often more slippery than elsewhere.
3. San Francisco (13-3). This is why the Niners desperately needed those last three wins in the regular season, to get home field. Bad news for the NFC West champs, at least until the meteorologists change their minds: The forecast for today through Saturday in San Francisco is glorious, 60 degrees and sunny almost all week. So if you were hoping for the kind of muddy track to throw the Saints off this weekend, that's not happening. Long-range forecast for the 1:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday by the bay: Abundant sunshine, 62 degrees.
4. New England (13-3). How weird it'll be to see Josh McDaniels walk into Gillette Stadium today. How comforting for Tom Brady, knowing he'll have the McDaniels security blanket when current offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien walks out for State College soon to be Penn State's new head coach.
5. Baltimore (12-4). Smart move by owner Steve Bisciotti to give director of player personnel Eric DeCosta a rich, multi-year contract, for general manager money, because it prevented DeCosta from exploring his options in Chicago, St. Louis and Indianapolis. Smart for Bisciotti because he made DeCosta make a decision before he could seek his fortune elsewhere, and because the Ravens put a clause in the contract that DeCosta can't negotiate with other teams for a GM job for the life of the contract. Smart for DeCosta because he'll make more money than any No. 2 guy in any front office (and more than lots of current GMs) in the league, and because he'll be Ozzie Newsome's heir whenever Newsome retires. The grass wouldn't have been greener anywhere else.
6.New York Giants (10-7). It's beginning to feel a lot like '07.
7. Denver (9-8). I don't know how you watch that game -- that event -- in Denver Sunday evening and think the Tebow Broncos aren't the best, coolest, most fun story in the NFL in years.
8. Pittsburgh (12-5). Too beat up to compete for anything right now. But that was a heck of a comeback while it lasted. I've got to think that safety Ryan Clark, who didn't play because of his sickle-cell trait, wouldn't have sold out as much as Ryan Mundy to play the run on the first play of overtime. And then, who knows what would have happened.
9. Atlanta (10-7). The day started badly when vital cornerback Brent Grimes was declared inactive 90 minutes before the playoff game in Jersey. And it got worse.
10. Houston (11-6). The Texans can play defense.
11. Detroit (10-7). The Lions can't.
12. Philadelphia (8-8). Andy Reid's job one: whether to replace defensive coordinator Juan Castillo with Steve Spagnuolo. Important decision, obviously, and one that will be a tough call for Reid because of his affection for Castillo.
13. Arizona (8-8). Rod Graves' job one: sign Calais Campbell.
14. San Diego (8-8). Just wondering if A.J. Smith saw former Charger Darren Sproles playing at 110 mph Saturday night with the Detroit defense playing at 55.
15. (tie) Tennessee (9-7). Good thing for the Titans that Mike Munchak, while being torn, didn't want the Penn State job more than he wanted the Tennessee job.
15. (tie) Miami (6-10). Sometime this morning, owner's designee Carl Peterson (don't know what else to call him right now) will pick up the phone and call Marvin Demoff, the agent for Jeff Fisher, and try to get negotiations going. And I think he'll be put off a day while Fisher continues to go over the pros and cons of the Miami and St. Louis jobs.
Offensive Players of the Week
Denver QB Tim Tebow. He wrecks games. Sometimes for the Broncos, but mostly for the opposition. His 316-yard, two-touchdown passing performance against the Steelers (Tebow passer rating: 125.6; Matthew Stafford rating in New Orleans: 97.0) will be Colorado legend forever. That was the most exhilarating touchdown drive by the Broncos since The Drive.
Detroit WR Calvin Johnson. He was targeted 15 times by Stafford Saturday night in New Orleans, and I bet on 12 or 13 of those he had a second man in coverage about to lay a hit on him. Yet he caught 12 balls for an wild-card-playoff record 211 yards -- 17.6 yards per catch -- and two touchdowns. A brilliant, unforgettable playoff game, almost as impressive a performance in defeat as Larry Fitzgerald's day in the Super Bowl three years ago.
New Orleans QB Drew Brees. Just when you think Brees can't play better, you see him complete 33 of 43 for 466 yards, with three touchdowns, no interceptions and a whole lot of "Take the MVP and shove it'' sentiment from his loyal Superdome fans. For the season now, Brees has played 17 games ... and averaged 349.5 yards passing per game. We've never seen a run this prolific. It used to be 300 yards was a big day passing the ball. Brees has done it eight weeks in a row.
Houston RB Arian Foster. With the Bengals knowing Foster was going to get the ball early and often and late, Foster morphed from a classic Denver-style, one-cut-and-get-upfield back to a stretch-the-line-and-get-upfield-all-day back against Cincinnati. In his first playoff game ever, Foster rushed 24 times for 153 yards and two touchdowns.
Defensive Player of the Week
Houston DE J.J. Watt. A 6-foot-5, 290-pound defensive end doesn't make the kind of catch Watt made at the end of the first half Saturday. He somehow Velcroed a line drive from Andy Dalton and ran it in 29 yards for the deciding touchdown late in the second quarter. Watt also had a sack of Dalton, and he was part of an excellent run defense that held Bengal back Cedric Benson to seven carries for 14 yards.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Houston P Matt Turk. In a game that looked for 30 minutes like it'd be a field-position game, Turk booted five punts for a 50.2-yard average (a 42.2-yard net). Turk is 43. This is his 16th NFL season. He's seen it all, and now he's seen a playoff victory in Houston.
Coach of the Week
New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin. With five minutes left in the third quarter Sunday, Coughlin saw the Falcons, with a 3rd-and-10 from the New York 30, gather with 12 men in the huddle. That's illegal. The Falcons called timeout before running a play, and during the break Coughlin argued vehemently that there had been 12 men in the huddle. The officials huddled, and they ruled there were indeed 12 men in the huddle. That's a five-yard penalty.
That brought up 3rd-and-15, and the Falcons were likely out of field-goal range on a breezy day at the Meadowlands if Ryan threw an incompletion. He didn't; his pass to Roddy White took the Falcons to the Giants' 21. Fourteen-yard gain, a gain that would have been a first down (assuming they had make the same gain on a 3rd-and-10, which you can't guarantee). Then Atlanta went for it on fourth down and was stopped. Three plays later, Eli Manning threw a 72-yard touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks, and the game was iced.
Coughlin never gets the credit he deserves for being on top of game management. Who knows if the Falcons would have converted 3rd-and-10; all I know is they were a yard short of converting 3rd-and-15, and moments later the Giants iced the game.
Goats of the Week
Atlanta coach Mike Smith. Went for it on 4th-and-1, bypassing a 41-yard field goal in a scoreless game in the second quarter; Matt Ryan got stuffed. Went for it on 4th-and-1, bypassing a 38-yard field goal in a 10-2 game in the third quarter; Matt Ryan got stuffed ... and this one came with an empty backfield, with 245-pound back Michael Turner on the sidelines.
"It was less than a yard, it was about half a yard, maybe even less than that,'' Smith said. "That was the play, again, we go through and sequence those things all through the week and felt like that was the play we had up and we just didn't execute it. We felt like at any point and time we ought to be able to move less than a half-yard with the quarterback sneak.''
Either his line blew it or Smith overestimated its ability to move a stout Giants' front. Either way, Smith misjudged the situations, particularly the second one.
Cincinnati S Chris Crocker, with an assist from CB Adam Jones. Midway through the third quarter, Houston led 17-10, and quarterback T.J. Yates threw a duck over the middle -- right into the hands of Crocker. Crocker dropped it at the Houston 40. Had he caught it, he might have returned it for a touchdown, or simply put the Bengals in position with a short field to tie the score. The dropped pick led to a touchdown that gave Houston a 24-10 lead.
So instead of a short field to tie, Crocker's drop -- leading to a T.J. Yates-to-Andre Johnson touchdown pass with the formerly talented Jones getting faked out of his jock by Johnson -- put Cincinnati in a two-touchdown hole with 19 minutes to play. And one postscript: On Foster's insurance touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, Crocker flailed and tried to tackle him, failing, on one of the worst missed tackles you'll ever see.
Detroit CB Aaron Berry. After the Lions secondary got wrecked by Drew Brees Saturday night -- and Berry dropped what would have been a crucial interception -- Berry took to Twitter to rip the fans who were ripping him. "Y'all can go back to being Broke & Miserable ... now back to regular scheduled programming.''
Smart thing by Berry -- your defense gets shredded for 626 yards, most in playoff history. Your secondary (with help from a pass rush that didn't bother Brees much) yields 466 yards. And you drop an interception. That's just the time to fire back at fans.
"I'd take it and run and probably pull both hamstrings."
-- Denver coach John Fox, asked after the playoff win over Pittsburgh if he'd have taken a division title and a first-round playoff win if told that would be his fate before this season.
"We're going to win. A hundred percent we're going to win ... Because we're the best."
-- Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, looking forward to the NFC Division playoff game against the top-seeded Green Bay Packers Sunday in Wisconsin, to Mike Garafolo of the Newark Star Ledger.
"If the quarterback throws the ball to you, you gotta intercept it.''
-- Detroit coach Jim Schwartz, after watching his Lions either drop or not make the play on three Drew Brees passes that could have been intercepted.
"Justin Blackmon is Dez Bryant, with all his brain cells.''
-- Hall of Famer quarterback Warren Moon, to KIRO radio in Seattle, on one college star receiver Blackmon, comparing him to another young receiver who has had his share of problems, Bryant.
Attention, all personnel men in love with Alabama running back Trent Richardson high in the first round: Following a regular season in which none of the six leading rushers in football were drafted in the first round, here were the five leading rushers over the weekend:
As we look ahead to the divisional round, here's an interesting note about the final eight teams left in the Super Bowl derby: Only one, Denver, starts a first-round running back ... and Willis McGahee's on his third team, in the twilight.
Thanks to Mike Florio for sending me scurrying to the 2010 draft, and the incredible tributaries from a single late-round trade. It just shows how smart Pittsburgh director of football operations Kevin Colbert is.
In 2009, the Jets traded fourth- and fifth-round picks to the Eagles for cornerback Lito Sheppard and a fifth-round pick in the 2010 draft, the 155th overall pick.
In 2010, the Steelers traded wide receiver Santonio Holmes to the Jets for that fifth-round pick, the 155th in the draft.
The Steelers took that 155th selection on draft weekend and traded it to Arizona for cornerback Bryant McFadden and a sixth-round pick -- the 195th overall. With the 195th pick, Pittsburgh chose wide receiver/kick returner Antonio Brown.
In 2010, McFadden started all 16 regular-season games at left cornerback for Pittsburgh's Super Bowl team.
In 2011, Brown started at wide receiver for the Steelers, finishing 15th in the league with 1,108 receiving yards, while being one of the best punt- and kick-returners in the league -- 10.8 yards per punt return, 27.3 yards per kick return. He's the first player in the history of the NFL to have more than 1,000 yards receiving and returning in the same year.
Colbert turned a late fifth-round pick into one Super Bowl starter and one long-term explosive receiver and returner. That's a valuable personnel man.
New York subway story of the week: The other night around 8, I was on the E train in Manhattan, standing inside a fairly crowded car. At the Port Authority Bus Terminal stop, a woman got on at the far end of the car cradling something and saying over and over again in a pleading, accented voice, "Please. Please. Please.'' As she got closer, I could see was a woman of about 30, and she held a cup and small sign out with one hand -- the sign said she was homeless and needed money -- and I couldn't quite see what she had in the other arm until she got closer. It was a baby, maybe five months old, with mouth locked onto her breast, the woman making no effort to conceal the breast as she walked, looking every person in the train in the eye while saying, "Please.'' I guess I'm not a hard-edged New Yorker yet. That was a startling, eye-opening experience.
I will say something positive about the human race: From the looks of it, she collected $10 or so from our car in five minutes. After two stops, she got off and went to the next car.
"I don't care what people say, this Tebow is a beast.''
-- @BrentCelek, the Philadelphia tight end. Human like the rest of us right after the Denver-Pittsburgh game.
"The team that kept us from our potential Super Bowl in 08 is back on OUR turf now. Trust me,we haven't forgotten. Here.We...GoPackGo! #BeGreat''
-- @GregJennings, the wide receiver for the Packers, recalling the Giants' 23-20 overtime upset of the Pack in the NFC title game four years ago.
"Bringing Sam Baker in for extra pass protection is like bring Wile E Coyote in to test product safety."
-- FO_MTanier, Mike Tanier of the New York Times and Football Outsiders, seeing Atlanta bring Baker in as an extra blocker in the third quarter Sunday at the Meadowlands.
"Fame is overrated.''
-- Injured and formerly quite famous Buffalo linebacker Shawne Merriman, who should know.
"A setback is just a setup for a comeback.''
-- @BrentCelek, the Eagles' tight end who underwent surgery on a sports hernia and torn labrum in his hip last week.
Playing football with either of those injuries would be one of the braver things a man could do. Playing with both must have been torture.
1. I think this is what I liked about Wild-Card Weekend:
a. Seeing Bum Phillips.
b. Luv ya Blue!
c. Alex Flanagan getting A.J. Green to juggle.
d. Connor Barwin. Cosmo Kramer.
e. Cincinnati defensive tackle Geno Atkins, one of the most underrated players in the league, engaging rising star center Chris Myers of the Texans, pushing him back three yards and into Arian Foster, knocking him down for a tackle for loss.
f. Great throw by Andy Dalton -- his seventh completion in a row -- lasering one into Green's hands, just inside the hands of clinging cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
g. Classy move by the Greg Bensel and the Saints PR staff, not filling a prime press box seat at Saturday night's game in honor of the late Detroit beat man Tom Kowalski, who died unexpectedly in August, but leaving this notice in his place: "The New Orleans Saints honor the memory of Tom Kowalski.''
h. Great internal protection by the Saints line, giving Brees plenty of time to be great. Center Brian de la Puente holds his ground better than Olin Kreutz did early in the season.
i. Thirty-four first downs by the Saints. Amazing.
j. Is there a more accurate downfield passer in the game than Brees? Can't believe there is.
k. Excellent coverage by Corey Webster on Falcon wideout Roddy White, who had but two catches for eight yards in the first 37 minutes of the Atlanta loss.
l. John Fox putting Tebow on notice. I like Fox making this a bottom-line business, and who knows? Maybe that's why Tebow responded so well.
m. The back-shoulder throwing of Roethlisberger.
n. All throwing by Tebow.
o. The tying TD in Denver by Jerricho Cotchery? Couldn't happen to a nicer man.
p. Everything about Darren Sproles, who might be the biggest non-quarterback difference-maker left in the playoffs.
2. I think this is what I didn't like about Wild-Card Weekend:
a. Glover Quin interfering with Green instead of playing smart defense the way he's been taught.
b. I hate ... no, detest ... that stupid NFL rule (the worst on the books, the one I'd erase if I could change one thing about the rule book) that makes a 52-yard defensive pass-interference penalty a monstrous game-changer rather than a 15-yard penalty from the line of scrimmage. Yes, Quin interfered with Green, but 52 yards? When Green might not have caught the ball anyway? I beseech you, Competition Committee -- change that this offseason.
c. Marvin Lewis, are you serious? Using a dubious challenge, your last one of the game, with 34 minutes left in a playoff game? Not smart.
d. Chris Crocker, dropping what should have been an easy game-changing interception, down seven in the third quarter at Houston.
e. Johnathan Joseph needs to know when the quarterback is throwing a Hail Mary on fourth down he's got to bat the ball down, not intercept it.
f. Matt Ryan's accuracy. One game's not everything, but a third of his completions were hard to catch.
g. Atlanta's run defense, allowing the Giants 172 yards and 5.5 yards a carry. Ridiculous.
h. Roethlisberger's decisions, including playing when he shouldn't have in December.
i. The rutty, slippery turf in Denver. Understand the weather's been bad there, but that's the best you can do, Broncos?
j. Doug Legursky's shotgun snapping ability.
k. The Steeler pass rush. I know the injuries hurt the line, but that front seven failed to pressure Tebow into mistakes, which had happened the previous three weeks.
m. Ron Winter: How'd you miss the facemask call on Tebow with 1:51 left in regulation ... a penalty that would have given the Broncos 1st-and-10 near midfield with the best long kicker in football waiting to win the game in regulation, in altitude?
3. I think, and I'm sorry for continuing to dump on the Bucs, but how on earth did a team with that much recent defensive drafting and a defensive head coach and a solid core allow 31 points a game? I don't recall such a blatant and incredible collapse on defense. Seven times the Bucs allowed 35 or more points in a game -- and that's with four picks in the top two rounds of the last two drafts being used on the front seven. Seven! Twenty-two sacks, with some of the best and the brightest pass-rushers to come out of the draft in recent years! Utterly, absolutely, stunningly pathetic. What was that coaching staff doing? Where was the defensive discipline?
4. I think if there's one college coach who could emerge as a candidate somewhere, this year or in the next couple, judging by the love he's getting from pro people, it's Greg Schiano of Rutgers. I've said this for the last couple of years, but if you ask Bill Belichick which young college coach he thinks could be a very good pro coach, it's the 45-year-old Schiano.
5. I think the Bengals obviously had no business being in the playoffs -- finishing 3-5, going 0-4 against AFC North bullies Baltimore and Pittsburgh. And they showed it for four quarters Saturday in Houston. One word for their play: disorganized.
6. I think the 47.5-2.5 vote for the All-Pro quarterback this year, with Rodgers beating out Brees, shuts the door on the MVP debate. It'll be Rodgers.
Just for fun, I checked out the odds you could get by a sportsbook in Vegas, Bovada.ly Sportsbook, Rodgers is 1-10, Brees 5-1, and any other player 30-1. Said Bovada.ly's manager, Kevin Bradley: "The ironic thing is, if Mark Ingram scores on the last play of the game in the season opener and the Saints beat the Packers in overtime, the odds would be almost even."
He has a point there. With no time left in the first game of the NFL season, Ingram was stoned at the goal line. Packers won by eight.
7. I think this is what a close acquaintance of new Penn State coach Bill O'Brien told me when I asked what kind of college coach he will be: "He will be a phenomenal recruiter. Just phenomenal. When he goes into a kid's living room, he won't have to sell them something he doesn't believe in -- he never would have taken this job if he didn't believe in Penn State. He'll believe in what he's saying, and I guarantee you the parents and the kids -- whether the kid ends up going there or not -- will be impressed with who he is.
"On the field, his players will love him. His coaching style, his fire, his determination ... very few people have the personality and the drive he has. He's a smart play-caller. I think he'll be a great success.''
Maybe. I don't know O'Brien. All I know if so much of college football is recruiting, and how is O'Brien -- how would anyone -- be able to recruit a top-tier team with the black eye Penn State is facing? I hope the fans and the boosters (particularly the silly former players who got ticked off they didn't have a say in naming the coach) are patient with O'Brien. He'll need it.
8. I think -- and if you know me, you know I have no use for the Pro Bowl -- the folly of the NFL's all-star game can be pointed out by this note: Stafford was the fourth player in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards in a season, and he was sixth in the voting for NFC quarterback. Three make the Pro Bowl, so that means three quarterbacks in front of him will either have to beg out of the game, or not play because of injury, for Stafford to make the trip to Hawaii.
One of the reasons this happened, obviously, is because players vote for the game with two weeks left in the regular season. So their vote came before Stafford threw for 893 yards and eight touchdowns in the last two weeks.
Look, I have no interest in the Pro Bowl. But the season is 16 games long. There's no good reason the balloting is done with one-eighth of the season left. That cost Stafford and Victor Cruz (342 receiving yards the last two weeks, and the biggest plays in two Giant wins) Pro Bowl spots. Balloting that happens with an eighth of the season left is not legitimate.
9. I think Mike Sherman would be a perfect fit -- today, for what the Bucs are and need right now.
10. I think these are my non-Wild-Card Weekend thoughts of the week:
a. The knot on Merril Hoge's tie is wider than Texas.
b. Happy 80th birthday (last Thursday), Chuck Noll.
c. I read The Art of Fielding, a book that sounds like it's about baseball and is .. and is also about a lot more. Author Chad Harbach is a terrific writer. I'm a baseball fan, as you may know, and I thought I would like this book mostly because of the smart baseball writing. But I got to the point midway through the tome where I wished he'd stop writing about baseball and concentrate more on the disparate and fascinating characters. Strongly, strongly recommend it.
d. I care some about the football game tonight between Alabama and LSU for the national championship. And I know I come off like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino saying this, but I cared nothing about the succession of games last week that could well have been a bunch of Weed Whacker Bowls. None of them, save Oklahoma State-Stanford, had anything whatever to do with the national title picture, yet there they were in prime time, played up as though they meant something.
e. I like those Man U and Manchester City and Arsenal and Liverpool games on TV. What great atmosphere.
f. I'm making plans to go see cricket in the spring in England. I've been told I'm going to either love it or nap through it. But my brother, who lives in England, has caught the bug big time, and usually what he likes, I like. Looking forward to it.
g. I'm excited about everyone telling me what a lamebrain I am for the next month. It's Hall of Fame Month! And coming Tuesday: My observations about the list of finalists for the 2012 Pro Football Hall of Fame class.
h. Coffeenerdness: Don't know how you fix this, Seattle. But the latte quality, overall, in New York Starbucks stores is significantly worse than in Boston or Montclair, where the stores are rarely as crowded as the packed ones in New York. Just a word to the wise.
i. Beernerdness: Always nice to go into an everyday bar, as we did at our NBC Football Night in America wrap party Saturday night in Manhattan, and have a good choice of beer on tap. I chose Hoegaarden, a wheat beer, with a lemon, over Goose Island 312 Ale. I needed to drink light after a good pasta meal at NBC. I could have done without the annual shot of tequila, though. Why do I always do that?
j. What a loser I am. Still haven't seen Moneyball or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
k. Goodbye, Jorge Posada. Always admired you, even when you helped wreck so many lives on The Night Grady Little Ruined The ALCS in 2003.
l. Re Beyonce having her baby: I'll never forget Brent Musburger doing an ABC promo a few years ago and calling her "Bee-yontz.''
m. Rest in peace, Jim Huber of CNN. Jim was a great storyteller, and I was lucky to know him back in the CNNSI days. A very good man, too.