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Behind Pagano appearance, Colts continue Hollywood-worthy season

Current events: This morning, Chuck Pagano checks into an Indianapolis hospital for a second round of leukemia treatment. Tomorrow, we vote. And for a long time -- weeks, months, years -- the New Jersey/New York/Connecticut region battered by Hurricane Sandy rebuilds and heals.

We start with the story in Indianapolis that seems too surreal -- and good, for now -- to be true. Six weeks ago, after the Colts lost to Jacksonville to fall to 1-2, coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia. On Sunday, before the Colts faced Miami in what had suddenly become a game with playoff implications, Pagano showed up in front of the team for the first time since his diagnosis. He spoke to the team before the game, and then after the 23-20 win, and if you haven't seen the video of his postgame speech, I'd advise getting a couple of tissues before you do.

Appearing tired and slightly thinner than when the team last saw him, Pagano spoke, his voice quivering at times. "I've got circumstances. You guys understand it, I understand it," Pagano said. "It's already beat. It's already beat. My vision is that I'm living to see two more daughters get married, dance at their weddings and then lift the Lombardi Trophy several times.''

And then the interim coach and friend of Pagano, Bruce Arians, had all the players put their hands in the middle, enveloping Pagano. Kids on third-grade soccer teams do the thing Arians called for next.

"Chuck on three!'' Arians shouted. "One-two-three CHUCK!!!!!"

Somebody has to make a T-shirt of that. It's the coolest saying in sports right now.

"Coach Pagano's a inspiration,'' Andrew Luck told me after the game. "When I found out this morning he'd be here, I was giddy. Excited. Jacked to see him in the flesh. We all were. I love him. We all do."

BURKE: BEST & WORST OF WEEK 9

The Colts often this year have looked like colts, just learning how to gallop. Chicago pasted them. The Jets, who don't rout anyone, embarrassed them. But since Pagano got sick, the Colts, somehow, are 4-1. Margin of victory in those four wins: three, four, six and three points. They find a way. I'll write more about Luck's record-setting day -- with an NFL-rookie-record 433 passing yards -- and how the Colts are winning tomorrow. It's Hollywood Day today.

"The whole story's for Spielberg,'' Arians, sounding a little misty himself, told me Sunday night. "I can't explain it. No one can. I just know this: I tell Chuck, 'You coach your ass off from the couch, and we'll handle the rest. Don't worry. The job's gonna get done.' "

The story doesn't have a happy ending. Yet. Not for the Colts, and not for Pagano. "This next round of treatment's going to be brutal,'' Arians said. "He could be down and out for a while. But he felt good today, and so he wanted to come in and see the guys. It helped, big time. It's good for him, good for us.''

Then Arians gave me a surprise.

"The goal is to get Chuck on the field December 30th,'' Arians said. "I don't know if it can happen, but that's the goal.''

Final home game of the year. Houston at Indianapolis. The new power of the AFC South coming to town -- maybe with a playoff spot on the line for the little-engine-that-could Colts.

Memo to my bosses at SI and NBC: Whatever I'm doing Dec. 30, make sure I can do it from Lucas Oil Stadium.

BANKS: LUCK, COLTS FOR REAL IN PLAYOFF PICTURE

***

The Sean Payton Saga

On Sunday, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that the contract extension Sean Payton purportedly agreed to in 2011 never was approved by the league office, and Payton will become a free agent at the end of this season, when his year-long league suspension for involvement in the Saints bounty scandal expires. On FOX, Jay Glazer, who is close to Payton, quoted Payton as saying he "absolutely plans'' to stay with the Saints, and the Saints, angry that the story leaked in the first place, insisted Payton was going nowhere other than on their coaching payroll in 2013 and beyond.

But the fact that the story got out tells me a few things. It's no lock that Payton will stay a Saint; if it were, he'd have agreed to a rewritten deal by now. Payton, despite his charred reputation from being the only coach in league history to be suspended for a year, would be sought after in the offseason if he chose to enter the market, with possible head-coaching vacancies in Dallas and Philadelphia looming largest.

And if he does leave, owner Tom Benson will likely feel betrayed -- unless Payton convinces him for family reasons he is best off in Dallas, where his family has relocated. Benson has been hugely supportive of Payton this offseason, leasing him an office and making sure he's tethered to the organization so he can make a smooth transition back to the team once his suspension is up.

Many of the possible coaching openings would be good fits for Payton. I doubt sincerely the Chargers could compete financially in Payton's $8-million-a-year league. I doubt sincerely Payton and the conservative Clark Hunt, Kansas City's owner, would be a good match. Ditto Payton and Carolina's owner Jerry Richardson. He has no connection with new Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam, though Haslam could be very aggressive if he decides to go all-in to try to get him.

That leaves New Orleans, Dallas and Philadelphia. If Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie fires Andy Reid at the end of the season, Payton, who coached quarterbacks in Philly in 1997 and '98, would be intriguing to him, and I believe Lurie would try hard to get him. It's a Lurie kind of move, trying to head off Dallas at the pass and take the kind of jump with a playoff-ready team that would give them a chance to break out of their recent malaise.

Schefter reported the league quashed the contract submitted by the Saints last year because it contained a clause that said if GM Mickey Loomis left the team, Payton could be free to leave too, even if his contract still had time on it. That'd be a bad precedent for the league, a coach having the right to void his deal if some member of the front office were no longer in the house.

Would Payton be willing to trade that clause for money? Would Payton really consider abandoning Drew Brees with four years left on the great Brees' new contract when the coach returns in 2013? Could the Saints' current situation -- a troubled defense with a bloated future salary cap -- have a major impact on what Payton does? Will the Saints, battered and bruised by the mass suspensions and awful defensive performance through the first half of the season, feel pressured to do a new deal with Payton soon, with its rabid fan base in full panic mode at the thought Payton might leave? Does Payton feel it's time for him to be near his children every day, instead of being a commuter dad? I'd have liked to ask Payton or his agent, Don Yee, those questions on Sunday, but neither returned my requests for comment.

I do know this: From the time he was suspended last spring, Payton was not afraid of his job prospects. I believe he knew if Benson decided to part ways with him because of the bounty stain, which I don't think Benson wants to do at all, he'd be well-positioned to get a lucrative gig somewhere else.

Payton's a tremendous coach. He's imaginative, and he's a quarterback guru, and he can get players to follow what he says because they know what he says works. In this day and age, modern owners might not like the baggage of the suspension history, but Payton's so good at what he does that they'd deal with it. Happily, for many of them.

Now for the Cowboys. If you saw Jerry Jones' interview with Bob Costas Sunday night on NBC, you saw the Dallas owner give what I'd call a tepid endorsement of his current coach, Jason Garrett. I know Jones really likes Garrett, but the owner also has to be frustrated with the fact that Garrett's just 16-16 in his short career as coach, and 3-5 this season following a soft offensive performance in a 19-13 loss at Atlanta Sunday night. Awful clock management likely cost the Cowboys a good shot at a win at Baltimore three weeks ago, and Tony Romo and his receivers sometimes look as though they're all college freshmen going through orientation together. Jones liked Payton when Payton was on the Dallas staff coaching quarterbacks and the passing game from 2003 to '05, and they're similar people. They work hard and play hard.

Case in point, which you may remember from the 2010 Scouting Combine, from a Monday Morning Quarterback item I wrote then:

On Friday night, the Saints' staff at the Combine gathered in a private room at St. Elmo Steakhouse, the 108-year-old Indy foodie landmark, for a final celebratory nod to the Super Bowl won over the Colts. This is a group that likes its wine, and likes to have fun. At the restaurant, word passed that Dallas owner Jerry Jones would have his Dallas group in this exact room Saturday night for a team dinner. Jones, one of the waiters told the Saints' group, even phoned ahead to make sure a magnum of a wine he loved, Caymus Special Selection cabernet sauvignon, was ready to be served at dinner.

Sean Payton told the waiter he'd like to have that wine, too. The waiter told him: Sorry, sir. We've got only one bottle of it left, and it's reserved for Mr. Jones.

Payton said he'd like to have the bottle nonetheless. I assume there was much angst on the part of the wait staff at that point. My God! Who do we piss off? One of the most powerful owners in the NFL, or the coach who's the toast of the NFL, the coach who just won the Super Bowl?

Here came the bottle of Caymus Special Selection, and the Saints' party drained it.

But drinking Jones' wine wasn't enough. Payton gave the waiter some instructions, took out his pen ... and, well, the Cowboys party found at the middle of their table the next evening an empty magnum of Caymus Special Selection cabernet sauvignon, with these words hand-written on the fancy label:

WHO DAT!World Champions XLIVSean Payton

That's the kind of thing Jones will get a big laugh out of. And remember.

I don't know how this story ends. But with the Cowboys on the ropes, and the specter of Lurie facing a nutty fan base tired of the same old story, and with the Saints tired of being the NFL's punching bag, Payton could turn the biggest nightmare of his life into the biggest payday. Stay tuned.

***

What the Bears are doing is extraordinary.

Charles Tillman forced the 33rd, 34th, 35th and 36th fumbles of his illustrious 10-year NFL career Sunday in Nashville, where the Bears humbled the Titans 51-20. (It wasn't that close.) At 31, if this is possible for a cornerback, Tillman is an ascending player.

Where I watch the games on Sundays, in the NBC viewing room, I sit next to Tony Dungy, who once had Bears head coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli with him for five seasons on his Buccaneers coaching staff. "We used to have a turnover period every day in practice,'' Dungy said. The Bears do the same thing now, which is a very good reason why they forced six fumbles Sunday, intercepted one pass (Brian Urlacher returned it for a touchdown) and blocked a punt for a touchdown. The five takeaways pushed the season total through eight games to a league-best 28. Chicago is plus-16 through eight games, a vital reason they're 7-1 and the defensive scourge of pro football right now.

It was intriguing to listen to Tillman afterward discussing the turnover philosophy that runs through the defense, one that SI detailed in January. "This week,'' he said, "our whole motto was, 'Let's start fast. Defense, let's force a turnover on the first play of the game.' ''

And he did, punching the ball out from wideout Kenny Britt's grasp -- on the first Tennessee offensive play. Tillman is expert at punching the ball when a ballcarrier seems to have it securely held. He did it later in the game with running back Chris Johnson and tight ends Craig Stevens and Jared Cook. The Bears recovered three of the fumbles, turning two into touchdowns. "I guess I have gotten good over the years at punching,'' Tillman said. "And if I don't get the punch or the forced fumble, the majority of the time I get the tackle."

Urlacher told Tillman he wanted to score a touchdown Sunday. (Why not? Seemingly everyone else on defense has this crazy season.) Tillman said he told Urlacher, "Call it, man. The tongue has the power of life and death. Call it, say it, speak it, believe it. He did, and he got in the end zone.''

Then Tillman channeled his inner Iverson. "Our whole motto on defense is 'score,' '' he said. "We practice it every single day. Practice.''

He sounded like Allen Iverson just then, but no one in the media crowd got the message.

"You like that reference?'' he said. "You're supposed to laugh!''

I have a feeling the Bears laughed most of the flight home to Chicago.

A day in the life of the Steelers

"We're treating it just like a home game,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said during the week, once it became apparent that Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc with the power grid in New Jersey, and therefore the Steelers couldn't be guaranteed that their Jersey City hotel would have power when they arrived on Saturday.

Tomlin didn't make a big deal of it, which was smart. "A lot more people have a lot more adversity than what we had on this trip,'' Tomlin said. Not only was it not a particularly difficult hardship, it would have sounded absurd to complain about logistics when thousands of people had homes and property destroyed.

Here, then, was the Steeler Sunday schedule:

7 a.m.: Players wake up at Omni William Penn Hotel, downtown Pittsburgh, eat, and drive individually to the airport, 25 minutes away.

9:28 a.m.: Take off from Greater Pittsburgh International Airport.

10:21 a.m.: After a 53-minute flight, land at Newark (N.J.) International Airport.

10:33 a.m.: Team boards buses for ride to Newark Airport Marriott

10:55 a.m.: Pregame meal begins.

11:30 a.m.: Players lay on couches and sit on chairs, trying to rest before leaving for the stadium.

12:30 p.m.: Team boards buses for nine-mile trip to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

12:55 p.m.: Arrival at stadium.

4:26 p.m.: Gametime.

7:29 p.m.: Game ends. Steelers 24, Giants 20.

8:35 p.m.: Buses leave MetLife Stadium for nine-mile trip to Newark Airport.

9:29 p.m.: Takeoff from Newark International Airport.

10:18 p.m.: After a 49-minute flight, land at Greater Pittsburgh International Airport.

Time from morning takeoff in Pittsburgh to nighttime landing back in Pittsburgh: 12 hours, 50 minutes.

"It was a challenge for us, because it was different,'' one of the stars of the game, Mike Wallace, told me afterward. "It just seems like a long day. Normally, you have a late game, and you get to sleep a little more and you're more rested for the game. When we got to the hotel, we really were just laying around on the floor or wherever we could find. But it all worked out.''

It's a mark of how meaningless the odd travel day was that the Steelers played their best game of the year. The artistic part of the game might have been better in wins over the Jets and Washington, but this was against the Super Bowl champs, on the road. The Steelers outscored the Giants 14-0 in the fourth quarter and throttled Eli Manning (10 of 24, 125 yards, no touchdowns, one interception) all day.

It had to be a sweet day for Ben Roethlisberger winning the head-to-head with Manning, who was drafted higher than him in the 2004 draft. Roethlisberger played significantly better (21 of 30, 216 yards, two touchdowns and an interception). His well-timed throw to Wallace, who finished it with a 51-yard touchdown, brought the Steelers within 20-17, and then Roethlisberger led a 51-yard drive that ended in an Isaac Redman touchdown run to win it.

"I love this team,'' said Wallace. "We're fighters. This win says we're rolling now."

Rolling, yes. Almost detoured by officials' calls, a big yes. A Keenan Lewis interference call on Victor Cruz gave the Giants 41 free yards when Lewis hardly brushed Cruz. The 70-yard "fumble'' return by Michael Boley that gave the Giants a 14-7 lead should have been ruled an incomplete pass out of Roethlisberger's hands -- and the Giants surely should have been called for an illegal clip downfield on the Boley return. For a while, it looked like everything would come up Giants, to salve the wounds of a wounded region for three hours. But in the end, the better team, on this day, at least, won.

***

Let's not forget the game Alex Smith played in Arizona

It's always easy to dump on Alex Smith. Is there a young quarterback in NFL history who, in the first 16 games he played as a pro, lost by 39, 35, 38, 41 and 31 points; a quarterback who'd been given up for dead time after time in his star-crossed career; a player who -- after leading his team to the conference title game -- watched his team flirt with another quarterback to take his place, and, in response, took a forlorn free agent trip to the last place he ever wanted to be?

Smith didn't play Sunday; the 49ers had their bye this weekend. But I didn't want the week to get away from us without extolling his virtues after his performance last Monday. His numbers were alarmingly good: 18 of 19 for 232 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions -- and the one incompletion was a clear drop by Delanie Walker.

There was something else notable about his game: Not one of his 19 throws (20, actually, if you count one that was negated by penalty) was off-target. His accuracy, in a word, was stunning. I watched the game again on NFL Game Rewind, focusing on each of the 20 throws, and watching each one several times, running it back and forth. Though he threw short much of the night, he did have completions that traveled 10, 11, 15, 20 and 22 yards past the line of scrimmage. Here's how I graded the 20 throws:

A (perfectly accurate, hitting his receiver in stride): 15 throws

B (accurate, but receiver reached slightly away from body): 3

C (passable, catchable throw; if missed, would have been a drop): 2

D (poor throw that would have been a great catch): 0

F (significantly off target): 0

Smith's two Cs came on his eighth and ninth passes of the game, early in the second quarter. The first was a sliding-on-his-knees catch by wideout Kyle Williams on a low throw that led him well. The second: a crossing route dropped by Walker -- slightly behind him, but Walker erred because he tried to run with it before concentrating on securing it. The final 11 passes (10 As and a B) were all thrown the way quarterbacks are taught: leading the receiver, throwing so the receiver can make significant yards after the catch.

"It's good you noticed that,'' Smith told me. "Putting the ball in the right spot, in the right time, when he's expecting it, is a crucial part of the passing game, I think. So many guys talk about yards after the catch, and I've always believed the quarterback has a huge responsibility there -- it's not just the receiver. A quarterback has to put it on the receiver and give his guys the opportunity to make plays downfield. Joe Montana was great at that. I have a lot of respect for Tom Brady with that now. Watch how he gets the ball to [Wes] Welker in stride, so he can run after the catch.''

It stands to reason, then, that Smith would have a good yards per attempt average. Just how good, I didn't know until I looked. I interrupt this note to bring you ...

Stat of the Week

Rating the best quarterbacks in football in yards per attempt and accuracy through nine weeks (not including Eagles-Saints tonight) shows Smith, at the NFL's midpoint, is second in completion percentage and fifth in yards per attempt, two key indicators for quarterback play. Guess who's first in each category? Peyton Manning.

Two other points to make from watching the 49ers passing game:

Randy Moss is a significant presence in the offense, despite have 13 catches in eight games. Perfect example: Late in the first half, Moss took two defenders deep on a corner route -- a coverage error by the Cards -- and left Mario Manningham alone to catch an easy seven-yard out route in stride. Smith threw a nine-yard TD pass to Michael Crabtree on the next snap.

I counted three times in the game that Moss almost magnetically took coverage away from sideline throws and gave 49ers receivers big openings. "You definitely have a point there,'' Smith said. "On that play to Mario, I'm reading from the top down there -- Randy on the corner route, where he draws coverage, and then down to Mario, who's open. Since the beginning of the season, we've seen DBs [defensive backs] give Randy respect, and he gets safety help. The last few weeks, he and Vernon Davis, as well, have forced teams to concentrate on taking the big play away. So the money to be made in our offense is underneath."

Hard to pass judgment on this just from watching every play in the passing game one week, but I didn't see receivers show any sign of ego or anger for not getting the ball when open. You know how you see, on iso-camera replays, receivers sometimes waving for the ball, or jumping up and down when they don't get it, or showing some emotion when they think the ball should have come to them? None of that here. Again, don't draw any conclusions based on one rout of the Cardinals.

"I'm telling you, we have a lot of selfless guys, and a great example is Randy,'' said Smith. "Everyone knows he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he has a role here. He blocks in the run game. He does what he's told to do. He's set the tone for our receivers.''

I asked Smith how often Moss has come back to the huddle saying he had an edge on a corner, or how often in an offensive meeting he talked about how some route would be perfect for him against a certain coverage. "Not a single time,'' said Smith. "Never once. Never says, 'I saw this out there -- get it to me.' Nothing like that. The honest truth is he's taken so much pride in things that no one would notice, like the run game, that the other guys have no choice but to follow his lead."

There's a lot to like about the Niners. They've allowed six points or fewer in four of their last five games. The offense knows what it is -- a move-the-chains deal with a smart quarterback who, most importantly, knows who he is. Smith had a crummy game against the Giants and contributed to San Francisco's downfall in a major way that afternoon. But I really like what I've seen out of him this year, mostly. He's as accurate an intermediate passer as I've seen this season. I think he's going to be asset, not a question mark, as the 49ers make a Super Bowl push.

Each week, thanks to play-by-play game dissection by ProFootballFocus.com, I'll look at one important matchup or individual performance metric from one of the Sunday games.

This week it's Andrew Luck, who completed 30 of 48 passes for 433 yards (151 yards after the catch), two touchdowns and no interceptions, good for a 105.6 rating. The numbers don't tell the whole story, but in this case they come pretty close. A number of things that make this performance one to remember:

Playing under pressure. What the numbers do miss is the fact that Luck ended the day with a new center and right tackle, missing his most experienced linemen, Samson Satele and Winston Justice, forced out with injuries.

Though he was only sacked once, Luck was hit five times and hurried on many others. Some of his best plays came in the face of pressure as he either evaded it and made a great throw (in the first quarter, stepping away from Olivier Vernon and completing a pinpoint pass to Reggie Wayne on an out) or scrambled and threw on the move, as he did to pick up the first down with 40 seconds left in the second quarter. Overall, under pressure, Luck was 9 of 14 for 165 yards and a touchdown. Rating: 128.6. Outstanding.

Playing without much of a running game. Although the stats show 26 rushing attempts for 97 yards, the first-half numbers of 11 attempts for 22 yards are much more indicative.

Third-down passing. Miami entered the game best in the NFL in third-down efficiency on defense. The Dolphins did a good job of getting the Colts into third down (often 3rd-and-long) but somehow Luck seemed to have a knack for knowing exactly where to go with the ball. His numbers were remarkable. On third down he completed 13 of 17 for 204 yards and a touchdown for a rating of 135.4 and converted all but one of these into a first down. He converted on 3rd-and-11, -12, -14, -16 and -20.

Yards in the air. One of the trends recently has been for quarterbacks (particularly novices) to throw short passes and let the receiver do the work. That hasn't been the case with Luck. He threw a few of those (four), but only 35 percent of Luck's 433 yards came after the catch against an NFL average of 45 percent. He also had another 72 yards in the air and a touchdown lost due to dropped balls.

In summary. To put this performance in the category of "rookie" record only would be wrong. It was so much more than that because without much semblance of a running game Luck took a good defense apart, particularly on third down. In short, there are not many quarterbacks in the NFL who could have won this game for the Colts.

1. Houston (7-1). The 14-2 Showdown next Sunday night at Soldier Field: Twin 7-1 teams, the Texans and Bears.

2. Atlanta (8-0). Falcs are 4-0 at home, 4-0 on the road, 4-0 against the NFC, 4-0 against the AFC, 4-0 in games decided by six points or fewer, 4-0 in games decided by a touchdown or more, 4-0 when Matt Ryan's completion percentage is in the 60s, 4-0 when his completion rate is in the 70s.

3. Chicago (7-1). The two most impressive individual games in the league this year: 1. Giants 26, Niners 3 ... 2. Bears 51, Titans 20. How about this: Chicago ran for 160. Jay Cutler threw three touchdown passes. Chicago forced six fumbles. Brian Urlacher returned an interception for a touchdown. Chicago's a fearsome-looking team right now.

4. San Francisco (6-2). Bye week note: I had to do a double-take when I saw Alex Smith, Patrick Willis and Jim Harbaugh in that Visa commercial. Not so much about Smith and Willis; the commercial got shot at Candlestick in the day off between the final preseason game and the start of prep week for the first game of the year. But Harbaugh ... didn't know he had the levity in him.

Then I come to find out Harbaugh, as part of something called the Visa NFL Fan Offers, is going to allow one fan the chance to sit in on a pregame speech to the team. Those, I'm told, can get rather fiery. I always viewed Harbaugh as a clannish, insulated coach who would want his locker room a sanctum. "Coach is an outside-the-box guy, full of surprises,'' Smith told me. For me, this is one.

5. Pittsburgh (5-3). In the last month the Steelers are 4-1, including wins over every team in the NFC East save Dallas. I was down on this team after its losses to the Raiders and Titans -- well, duh! -- but Pittsburgh's a dangerous team on both sides of the ball.

6. New York Giants (6-3). Tough loss for a hurting region, and Eli Manning put it best after the game when he said the Giants haven't been playing well on offense, and it finally caught up to them.

7. Green Bay (6-3). The Packers need a bye like America needs to be rid of political ads. Green Bay needs to get Charles Woodson, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley and about 16 other guys healthy. Heal, men. Lions in Detroit in 13 days, Giants in Jersey in 20.

8. New England (5-3). The problem with setting the bar where Tom Brady has set it is the shades of greatness. Brady is on pace for 32 touchdowns, six interceptions, 4,818 passing yards, 65.3 percent completions and a 100.6 rating. Every one of those five statistical categories but the interceptions (he had 12 last year) would be worse than last year. Incredible.

9. Denver (5-3). Denver 100, Foes 37 in the last two-and-a-half games.

10. Baltimore (6-2). Another unimpressive day -- for 50 minutes -- from quarterback Joe Flacco, who will be needed by Baltimore if it hopes to win big in January. Now: Raiders next week, then what that football-mad corridor between western Pennsylvania and the eastern shore of Maryland has been waiting for -- two Baltimore-Pittsburgh games in a 15-day span.

11. Seattle (5-4). Russell Wilson at home: 4-0, nine touchdowns, no interceptions.

12. Indianapolis (5-3). Don't try to explain. Just sit back and enjoy the story of the year through nine weeks. Chuck on three! One-two-three CHUCK!!!!!!!

13. Miami (4-4). No .500 team with eight games left is out of it when the schedule includes Tennessee, Buffalo twice and Jacksonville, particularly in this year's AFC.

14. Tampa Bay (4-4). Doug Martin is making a horse race out of the Offensive Rookie of the Year competition. He has 386 rushing yards in the last two games, at 7.1 yards per rush. He's an incredible inside- and outside-the-tackles back.

15. Detroit (4-4). Weirdest stat of the year (reiterated on the Red Zone Channel Sunday): Calvin Johnson hasn't caught a touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford this season, through eight games. His one TD catch was from Shaun Hill. Not that Stafford hasn't hit Megatron in the hands a couple of times.

Offensive Players of the Week

Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay. The greatest day a Buccaneers running back has ever had -- 25 carries, 251 yards, four touchdowns -- carried the red-hot Bucs over the Raiders in Oakland. Martin, who is from northern California, scored all four touchdownS in the second half.

Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis. Not just the numbers (30 of 48, 433 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions), but time after time, play after play in the 23-20 win over Miami, you had to wonder how a rookie quarterback could be so composed, so nonplussed in the face of a heavy rush.

Defensive Players of the Week

Charles Tillman, CB, Chicago. In the 51-20 rout of the Titans in Nashville, Tillman had the kind of day his turnover-happy coach, Lovie Smith, and defensive coordinator, Rod Marinelli, live for: nine tackles and four forced fumbles. Chicago recovered three of the fumbles and turned two into touchdowns.

Terence Newman, CB, Cincinnati. He hit the lottery against Peyton Manning Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Imagine intercepting Peyton Manning on consecutive throws, in the process turning what appeared to be a Denver rout into a close game late. "Terence is an old savvy veteran,'' Manning said on CBS afterward. But, as Manning noted, "[Wide receiver Eric] Decker and I kind of got him back on that last one,'' connecting on a touchdown pass with Newman in coverage. But Newman's two picks got the Bengals back in a game they weren't going to be in without him.

Special Teams Players of the Week

Olivier Vernon, DL, Miami. Miami 17, Indy 10, late second quarter. Adam Vinatieri lines up for a 54-yard field goal attempt. Vernon, a rookie third-round defensive end from The U, leapt over the offensive line -- an incredibly athletic play -- and blocked the field goal try straight up in the air.

Sherrick McManis, CB, and Nick Roach, LB, Chicago. Roach and McManis combined to make a great play, a touchdown-producing play to start the Bears' rout at Tennessee. As the two men on the far right of the Bears punt-rush team, Roach engaged the Titans left tackle while McManis sprinted around him and leapt in the air to block the Titans punt. Corey Wootton recovered and took it into the end zone for the first score of Chicago's 51-20 win. This was a notable play, I thought, because it doesn't happen without the teamwork of the two men. If Roach doesn't take the tackle out of the play, McManis would have gotten knocked off his path to the block. And McManis made a terrific block, enabling the touchdown.

Phil Dawson, K, Cleveland. Twenty-three straight field goals, 21 of them this year, and his consecutive kicks of 32, 28, 29, 33 and 41 in a 32-minute span between the second and fourth quarters gave the Browns a 15-14 lead late against Baltimore. Dawson's an unsung player, in part because so often his kicks are in losing causes. But a kick's a kick, and he did his part Sunday against a division rival that owns the Browns.

Dr. Z Unsung Man in the Trenches of the Week

The award for the offensive lineman who was the biggest factor for his team in the weekend's games, named for my friend Paul Zimmerman, the longtime SI football writer struggling in New Jersey to recover from three strokes suffered in November 2008. Zim, a former collegiate offensive lineman himself, loved watching offensive line play.

Kyle Rudolph, TE, Minnesota. Adrian Peterson got great support from center John Sullivan in his 182-yard rushing day, but I thought the unsung Rudolph helped get Peterson's day off to a superb start on his 74-yard run on the first drive of the day. Rudolph, matched against 323-pound defensive end Red Bryant on the right side of the Vikings line, walled off Bryant as Peterson ran around right end and upfield. On Peterson's subsequent touchdown run, Rudolph neutralized a quicker defensive end, Chris Clemons. Rudolph's not the best blocking tight end in football, but he's a willing one, and on Sunday performed like a sixth offensive lineman when Peterson needed it.

Coach of the Week

Greg Schiano, head coach, Tampa Bay. At 1-3 in the first quarter of the season, and then having Aqib Talib, his best cover corner, suspended on the eve of the Bucs' fifth game, Schiano faced the prospect of an embarrassing first season as he tried to transform a soft team into a competitive one. But in the next four weeks, Schiano, with an assist from GM Mark Dominik, continued to remake the team, dumping Talib and a seventh-round pick on New England for a fourth-rounder in 2013 and winning three of four games.

The 42-32 victory in Oakland continued to show that Schiano's way on offense can work. He's determined to be able to run the ball for big chunks in a league where offense seems to be increasingly measured by how gaudy their passing numbers can be. After half a season, Schiano has made his mark in a way the Bucs could have only dreamed of when they made him their surprising hire to replace Raheem Morris last winter.

Goat of the Week

Carson Palmer, QB, Oakland. Hue Jackson traded for Palmer 55 weeks ago -- but not to do what he did late in the fourth quarter Sunday against Tampa Bay. With the Raiders coming back to within 35-32 and the crowd in the Black Hole going nuts, Palmer lofted up a duck to no one in particular that first-year Buc safety Ahmad Black picked off to ice the game. Can't do that, Carson.

"It looks like we've been bombed."

-- New Jersey governor Chris Christie, on a Saturday tour of Bay Head, N.J., a shore enclave -- Giants guard Chris Snee has a beach home there -- that suffered massive damage from Hurricane Sandy.

Christie could have been talking about many different areas between Long Island and the Jersey shore.

"You're givin' 'em the game!!!!!"

-- Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton, to referee Scott Green, captured by a field mic, after a long fourth-quarter completion was negated by a holding penalty on center Jeff Faine, with Denver up 24-20 over the Bengals.

"Well, I think so."

-- Dallas owner Jerry Jones, asked by Bob Costas on Football Night in America on NBC last night if Jerry Jones the owner would have fired Jerry Jones the general manager by now.

"This isn't tennis or golf or even basketball, where three great players, together, can win a championship. This is the ultimate, ultimate team sport, with 22 guys on the field at once, where you need all three phases of the game working for you to win big. For people to say my career's been diminished because I haven't won a playoff game, I say bulls**t! I'm a frickin' tight end, not the quarterback. My career will mean nothing less if I'm never on a team that wins a playoff game."

-- Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez, in my Sports Illustrated story on Gonzalez this week, on his frustration with the perception that his career won't mean as much if he doesn't win a playoff game. Gonzalez, 36, has never won one, and he says he will very likely retire at the end of the year, regardless what happens with Atlanta in the postseason.

Luck and Peyton Manning have a little connection in football history, which you probably can understand. They also have this connection: After eight games, Luck and Manning have each passed for 2,404 yards.

Precocious Rookie Quarterback Note of the Week: In Indianapolis Sunday, Luck and Ryan Tannehill dropped back to pass 89 times and threw no interceptions.

Heath Shuler has retired from two incredible careers, and he's only 40.

After Washington drafted him in the first round in 1994 as a quarterback, he lasted four mostly failed seasons in football before retiring in 1998. Back home in his native North Carolina, he ran for Congress in 2006 and won election as a moderate Democrat in the state's 11th Congressional District. He was re-elected in 2008 and 2010, and earlier this year decided to retire at the end of his third two-year term in January.

In a statement announcing his refusal to run again, Shuler said: "I have always said family comes first, and I never intended to be a career politician. I am ready to refocus my priorities and spend more time at home with my wife, Nikol, and two young children.'' The Shulers have a daughter, Island Shuler, and a son, Navy Shuler.

Hmmm. Four years in the NFL. Six years in Congress. The next career should be eight years. But what?

Had some business in Baltimore early Wednesday morning. Left BWI Airport at 6:55 a.m., drove through light traffic back to Manhattan, and got through the Lincoln Tunnel at 10 a.m. sharp. It is 2.4 miles to my apartment on the East Side of Manhattan. I got there at 11:25. Which means:

I drove the first 193 miles in 185 minutes.

I drove the last 2.4 miles in 85 minutes.

There was a lot of traffic in Manhattan Wednesday, as you're well aware, because of the mass-transit shutdown because of Sandy, and the snarl in midtown because of a collapsed crane on a skyscraper. But as I listened to the radio with the horror stories from around New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and as I sat for four and five minutes at a time, I couldn't have my usual emotion -- spittin' anger -- at the traffic.

"The fix is in."

-- @JamesFarrior, the former Steeler linebacker, after ref Bill Leavy, on replay, confirmed a Giants touchdown that will live in infamy for the Steelers.

"I cannot express how impressed I am with Luck. This guy is the real deal. Clearly he has been groomed well to play ball his whole life.''

-- @ryandiem, who retired as a Colts guard in March -- and sounded at the time of this tweet Sunday afternoon as though he wishes he would have played a season or two longer.

"I'm surprised the presidential candidates haven't promised a couple of high NFL draft picks to the Cleveland Browns.''

-- @nprscottsimon, the weekend host on National Public Radio, with a nod to the intensity of the presidential race in Ohio.

"Now flipped over to LSU/ALA & this is a great game... Can't go to sleep even tho I have a 3:40am wake up call! #whyilovefball #fb''

-- @kurt13warner, at 11:07 p.m. Eastern Time Saturday, after LSU scored to take a fourth-quarter lead over Alabama. Warner had to get up early Sunday because of his NFL Network pregame show in Los Angeles.

"Part # 1: LOYALTY: loy•al•ty: noun, plural loy•al•ties: The state or quality of being loyal; faithfulness to commitments or obligations.

"Part # 2: There are 17 teams with the same record or worse than us. Thanks for being loyal fans....... We'll get it right"

-- @JasonBabin93, the Philadelphia defensive end, angry at what he said were vile comments from fans at Lincoln Financial Field last week during the Eagles' third straight loss.

Because this has been a different week where I live, it's a different time for the Ten Things, with the feelings of some Giants fans who went to the game and some who couldn't even think of going Sunday.

1. This is the voice of Giants fan Benji Raisman: "My apartment in Far Rockaway is on the water, evacuated the second last week's Giants game was over. I still cannot return. I work for a company that is involved with senior care facilities, and I've been sleeping in my office to monitor the radio 24/7. I sleep on chairs when backup can come for an hour here and there. I have not showered in days. I am going to miss my first Giants game this week. Our office cable is down, and health of our residents comes before any entertainment. I am constantly getting to a state of near-depression. That may be a harsh word, but the feeling is that. I am dealing with it by reminding myself how lucky I am to have made it out of harms way when countless families and lives will never be the same.''

2. This is the voice of Giants fan Brendan Murphy: "My home in Rockaway Beach is destroyed. Friday, we were emptying houses of people's entire lives and putting it on the curb as garbage for collection. There's anger, laughter, desperation and hope. I don't see season-ticket holders leaving Rockaway peninsula to go to the Giants game. We don't have power or gas to run generators for cleanup, let alone gas to drive to New Jersey. We hope they win but we can't watch on TV with no power and with batteries running low probably won't listen on radio either.''

3. This is the voice of Giants fan Thomas Hourihan: "My wife and I had to evacuate our building. We grabbed a few things and left. Our car was completely totaled. We stayed with friends in Hoboken on Tuesday and then were rescued by my sister-in-law on Wednesday. We haven't been allowed back since. I am going to the Giants game with four friends. It's an annual trip as we pick out one game a year and make a day of it. We all can use a little bit of fun, good food and football. We'll worry about [the future] Monday.''

4. This is the voice of Giants fan Steve Suhocki: "Our power [in Bedminster, N.J.] came back [Sunday] morning ... I was without power since Monday. I've slept in a different bed every night this week, taking advantage of generous offerings from people with warm beds and showers. I have three-quarters of a tank of gas left, but I've been saving it to drive to the game on Sunday. After driving all the way to Pennsylvania Thursday night just to get gas, and to see the crazy lines and people for gas and food, it will be nice to just get away for a bit and focus on my favorite team for three hours.''

5. This is the voice of Giants fan Bill Smith: "We are going to the game despite having no power or electricity. Trying to give my three sons some sense of normalcy and provide a few hours of distraction and my wife some relief as the week has been a bear for her. My 79-year-old father and 78-year-old mother ... have no power either. I have them in a local hotel trying to get warm and keep them safe. Only apprehension for us is getting home at 9 p.m. or so after the late start, but we're committed. We won't be tailgating as this is no time to celebrate. The amount of destruction and death is mind-boggling.''

6. I think, before finishing the rest of the column, I'd just like to ask everyone who's feeling fortunate today to visit www.RedCross.org. Give what you can. In the metropolitan area, we have thousands, and I mean thousands, of people who have no idea where they're going to live, who have no clue where they'll be a month from today. Thanks for anything you can do. Now, back to football.

7. I think Bud Adams sounds like he's in no mood to be patient in year two of the Munchak Era. "In my 50 years of owning an NFL franchise, I am at a loss to recall a regular season home game that was such a disappointment for myself, and fans of the Titans,'' Adams told The Tennessean, after the Titans lost to Chicago by 31. "We were grossly outcoached and outplayed from start to finish today. At this time, all aspects of the organization will be closely evaluated, including front office, coaches and players over the next seven games. If performance and competitiveness does not improve, I will look at all alternatives to get back to having the Titans become a playoff and championship football team."

Sounds Modellian.

8. I think I understand the emotion Mario Williams must have after the Texans let him go without a fight in free agency. Logically, he'd want to have a great game for the first time against the Texans. But for him to sack Matt Schaub and then point a wagging finger at the Houston bench, as if to say, "You never should have gotten rid of me,'' well ... that was a great play, Mr. Williams. But if you think the Texans should be regretting NOT paying you $16 million a year, you're living in a different reality from mine.

9. I think, for all the times Cam Newton has been bashed this year, he deserves more than a little praise for engineering Carolina's 21-13 win at Washington. He was decisive, accurate and knew when to run and when to stay in the pocket. I thought his game was a step in his progression that was sorely needed.

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

a. Thank you for re-signing, David Ortiz.

b. I wouldn't take a chance on Josh Hamilton for more than three years, $33 million. That would mean I wouldn't get him, which would be OK with me. I'd be able to sleep at night.

c. Not a fan of Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri saying after his kicker, Kevin Harper, missed a 33-yard field goal in overtime, "We missed a field goal. That's why we lost the game." What a teammate Sunseri is. Pitt blew a 20-6 lead in the fourth quarter, and Harper made four of five field goals in the 29-26 loss. But he missed the one field goal that would have won it in the second overtime. Everyone who watched the game, and everyone in the Pitt locker room, understands a makeable field goal would have won the game. But to put the spotlight on one guy -- that's not what the quarterback on a team should do.

d. There's a reason I never hear Les Miles' name when there's talk of how certain college coaches would fit in the NFL.

e. LSU leads Alabama in the 59th minute and gives the Tide the best game, by far, it's had to survive in over a year. And the coaches poll in USA Today drops LSU from fifth to ninth in the top 25. Totally, ridiculously preposterous. And the coaches rip us for our occasional cluelessness.

f. Congrats to Mark Waller and his crew at the NFL for putting together, on very short notice, the 30-second PSA urging TV and web viewers to send money to help the recovery efforts. These were the PSAs narrated by Osi Umenyiora and Eli Manning that were invented Thursday and Friday by Waller and his staff.

It started when Roger Goodell called Waller into his office Thursday morning and said he wanted to do something special for a PSA on Sunday. "Great,'' said Waller. "Which PSA do you want to run?'' Goodell said: "The one you're going to create." So Waller got a 30-second spot together, and Tracy Perlman from his office got Manning and Umenyiora to record narrations at Giants offices Friday afternoon. Let's hope the stark images of the PSA get people to give.

g. Coffeenerdness: I couldn't figure out why, walking Bailey around Tuesday afternoon in the desolate city, after the storm, I saw 10 or so people outside a Starbucks with their laptops in one hand, or seated on the sidewalk with laptop in lap. Then I figured they must be using the wireless. Good citizenship by Starbucks, if it indeed was intentional to leave the WiFi up and running for desperate people to use.

h. Beernerdness: Had a chance the other night to sample a couple of Flower Power IPAs from the Ithaca (N.Y.) Beer Company, and it's one of the best IPAs I've ever tasted. Dry, easy to drink, with a faint scent of pine. Great beer.

Steve Politi, the entertaining, often poignant, terrific sports columnist for the Star Ledger of Newark, N.J., wrote an inspirational Sunday column about the undefeated high school football team in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. The column is about what community is about. You may have gotten to know Point Pleasant Beach from the storm pictures you've seen in the last week. So Politi accompanied the Point Pleasant Beach Garnet Gulls football team -- the entire team -- on its walk through town Saturday, the players going house to house and removing debris and helping neighbors do what needed to be done. Running back Danny Tighe told Politi: "It's not about football now. It's about our town." A terrific story.

As for the game tonight: Philadelphia 33, New Orleans 31. On Saturday, after the Eagles' final full-scale practice of the week, I asked Andy Reid a few things.

Q: How close did you come to benching Michael Vick?

Reid: "There really wasn't a decision to make. I was upset after the game last week. We didn't play well, and I needed to take a step back. I needed to look at everything, which I did. And Michael actually had one of his better games. There's probably three plays he'd like to have back. But as for replacing him, I wasn't there. I never was going to do that."

Q: Are you worried that with Vick saying things like he has to get his swag back and play like the old Michael that he's not going to follow the game plan?

Reid: "Not at all. I don't worry about that. He feels he's the leader of the team and he has to take control, and that's good. He's the most competitive guy. He's got an inferno of competition inside him. He feels like he can make plays, and we want him to make plays."

Q: When you're driving home, or have some quiet time, or thinking about the future, do you ever worry about getting fired?

Reid: "Listen, you know me. I don't care about that. I control what I can control, and after that, it's out of my hands. I understand what the deal is in the NFL. But all I think about now is Monday night. I'm all in for Monday night. You ask me what I think about driving home -- I think, 'The sun sure looks nice. Those trees are beautiful.' I'm not one to worry about the other stuff."

Morning, Jersey Shore.Staten Island and Queens too.We won't forget you.

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