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As we hit home stretch, suspense reigns in NFC playoff chase

Prelude to a diss: In the last 52 weeks, the Packers have met the Giants three times. Green Bay has allowed 35, 37 and 38 points, and an average of 419 yards a game, and nine Eli Manning touchdown passes. Time for defensive coordinator Dom Capers to figure out a way to cover the Giants deep. Time for Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews to heal. Time for a shaky line to protect Aaron Rodgers. Time for GM Ted Thompson to find reinforcements for the line.

***

Now we enter the cruel month of December with six NFC teams separated by one game fighting for the last playoff spot. (And if Green Bay doesn't wake up after that five-alarm fire of a loss Sunday night to the Giants, the Packers might give away the five seed.) In the AFC, we're going to sleep through the playoff race, because it looks like it'll be 7-4 Indianapolis, 6-5 Pittsburgh and 6-5 Cincinnati fighting for two spots, and the way things look now, none is a threat to the AFC elite.

But there is an interesting subplot in the AFC, which Ray Rice raised to me last night, before getting on a giddy Ravens charter to return home from the impossible 16-13 overtime win at San Diego.

"I don't know what kind of medicine the Steelers will put Ben Roethlisberger on this week,'' Rice said, "but they're going to give him something."

Pittsburgh-Baltimore, the rematch, Sunday at The Big Crabcake. (I think that's Chris Berman's invention, so I'll give him naming rights.) And does anyone think the Steelers stand a chance of winning in Baltimore without Roethlisberger, who missed his second game with a dislocated first rib (last week's column explains how dangerous that injury can be, and typically the injury would take more than a month to heal) Sunday? Next Sunday, he'll be 20 days out from the dislocation. I can't see him playing, and when I look at the Steelers' schedule, I'd hope he could play the last four, because the schedule's advantageous to Pittsburgh compared to the Colts and Bengals down the stretch. The Steelers finish at Dallas, then Cincinnati and Cleveland at home. Indy has Houston twice in the last three weeks. The Bengals close with the Steelers and Ravens. Logic says Roethlisberger for the last three games, four if the Steelers are lucky, could still win the sixth seed.

Now for the NFC. It's bizarro world. Here's how I handicap the six-team race:

1. Washington (5-6). The 'Skins and Bucs are playing the best among the contenders, and if Washington can win one of the next two (Giants Monday, Ravens to follow), the last three weeks (at Cleveland, at Philly, Dallas) are manageable. How great would it be to see Robert Griffin III in a Wild Card game at Soldier Field, getting chased through the snow by Urlacher and Briggs?

2. Tampa Bay (6-5). Watching the Bucs the last month, I keep thinking no one wants to play them. Greg Schiano's instilled a toughness in them, and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan has obviously worked wonders with a rejuvenated Josh Freeman. The problem's the schedule. Bucs are at Denver, at New Orleans and at Atlanta in December. The only hope with that tough slate is maybe the Falcons have nothing to play for in Week 17, and Julio Jones and Matt Ryan sit.

3. Seattle (6-5). Seahawks have the tiebreaker right now, but that can disappear if Richard Sherman does. (See below.) Russell Wilson has been efficient in his rookie season. Now he'll need to be explosive, even more than in his last four weeks (nine touchdowns, one pick) to make up for what may be a yawning gap in the secondary.

4. New Orleans (5-6). The loss to San Francisco was logical, as well as disappointing. New Orleans now has to go 4-1, minimum, against a murderer's row slate (at Atlanta Thursday, at the Giants, Tampa Bay, at Dallas, Carolina) in the next month. All things are possible with Drew Brees, of course, but maybe not with a defense that just doesn't pressure the quarterback enough.

5. Minnesota (6-5). Can Adrian Peterson play quarterback? Green Bay twice, Houston on the road, and Chicago in the last month. I just don't see it.

6. Dallas (5-6). Schedule doesn't matter to me. The Cowboys haven't played well since September. Why start now?

So here's how I see the Wild Card round on the first weekend of January:

NFC (Byes: Atlanta and San Francisco): Green Bay at the Giants (Saturday night, NBC), Washington at Chicago (early Sunday, FOX).

AFC (Byes: Houston and New England): Cincinnati at Baltimore (Saturday afternoon, NBC), Indianapolis at Denver (late Sunday, CBS).

I repeat: Andrew Luck at Peyton Manning. The Irsay Bowl. I am reminded of a quote Bill Parcells uttered every other week in the four seasons I covered the Giants for Newsday in the '80s: "Sometimes God is playing in these games."

Now for the news of Week 12:

The best cover corner in the game is in limbo this morning. Adam Schefter broke the news last night just after the Seahawks' charter lifted off from South Florida to go home from a loss at Miami: Seattle cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner were handed four-game suspensions for violating the league performance-enhancing drugs policy. They'll appeal, and be available for the Seahawks until their appeals are heard and ruled on. Sherman has taken over the title of top cover corner in the game from the IR'd Darrelle Revis, and he should be available to play Sunday in Chicago, as the Seahawks try to stay alive in the playoff hunt.

"This ... issue will be resolved soon and the truth will come out. Not worried,'' Sherman tweeted early this morning when the Seahawks landed at SeaTac. He should be. The likelihood is he'll eventually have to serve four games, and if it's not this year while the appeal plays out, it'll be next year, which would put Seattle in a major hole early in 2013. As it is now, pass defense has been a major reason why Seattle's the sixth NFC seed through 11 games. The best secondary in football has allowed just 59 percent completions and a 75.4 passer rating. What we don't know now is how long the appeals process will take, but since the news broke, the league isn't going to want it to linger. Seattle's December: at Chicago, Arizona, at Buffalo, San Francisco, St. Louis. Looks like 3-2 with Sherman, 2-3 without him to me.

Fourth-and-29 will go down in Ravens history. I've watched the play that saved the game for the Ravens 15 times now, and what I marvel at is what I asked Rice about last night: "Did you know exactly how far you had to go for the first down?'' Because it looked like Rice knew exactly how far he had to go to save the game for the Ravens. The situation: Chargers up 13-10, 1:59 to play, fourth quarter. Baltimore ball, 4th-and-29 at the Ravens' 37. Rice slipped out after staying in for a second to help protect Joe Flacco. "I was the check-down guy,'' Rice said. "I didn't expect Joe to come to me.'' But Flacco did, dumping it to Rice one yard past the line of scrimmage. That's some pressure right there, asking Rice to elude eight Chargers in coverage and somehow make 28 yards on his own through the San Diego gauntlet.

Again: Did Rice know where to aim for -- namely the San Diego 34? "I saw the yard marker,'' Rice told me, "so I knew how far it was. I just knew somehow I had to get there. And when I took off, I saw them overpursuing me, so I cut to the left. I think I must have found another gear. And then I got that great block from Anquan [Boldin].'' Which looked like a classic crackback block that should have been penalized; Boldin blindsided Eric Weddle, who had to be removed from the game, just as Rice dove for the Chargers 34. He made it ... Or did he?

"There was a lot being said out there, but I didn't pay attention,'' said Rice, while the spot of the play was examined and re-examined and replayed. The more I looked, the more I thought Rice's knee didn't come down until the ball was at approximately the 34-yard line. If Gene Steratore and his officiating crew erred in the spot, it wasn't by more than a foot. No outrage to me. The play kept the game-tying drive alive, and the Ravens won 14 minutes into overtime. When I've been around the Ravens in the last couple of years, I've always gotten the impression that Ray Lewis was preparing to pass the mantel of team leadership to Rice. Lewis loves Rice, and this play shows why he does. A play that had no business getting made got made by Rice, and it could be the play that makes the difference between a first-round bye and a veteran team having to play a wild-card game. How incredible would it be for that extra week of rest allowing another week of healing for Lewis -- and enabling him to come back from his arm injury to take the field in mid-January, maybe for the final time?

Kaepernick was the right man at the right time, apparently. Colin Kaepernick didn't have the wild success Sunday in New Orleans that he had last Monday against Chicago at Candlestick Park; it would have misguided to think he could. But the second-year man from Nevada, Jim Harbaugh's hand-picked quarterback of the future, played like Harbaugh would want him to play. "Just go out and be yourself,'' Harbaugh told him before the game.

Two things that impressed me: Kaepernick turned it over once, and led the Niners into scoring position five times (two touchdowns, three field goal chances) in 10 San Francisco possessions ... and he did all of that while running the offense in a silent snap count for all 56 offensive snaps. "It was difficult our first few drives because of the noise and the energy here, but then it was just football,'' Kaepernick told me after the game.

Impressive thing No. 2: Alex Smith was an ally, not a disgruntled employee, throughout the game. "It's got to be tough,'' said Kaepernick, "but Alex is so good to me. Our relationship is still the same as it's been. Every time I came off the field, he'd say to me, 'Did you see this?' Or, 'Did you see that?' Alex is a great guy.'' Apparently.

The hidden advantage in the choice Harbaugh made is that now he knows he can win with two quarterbacks. One more mobile with a stronger downfield arm, weapons Harbaugh had on display in the Dome; Kaepernick completed throws of 26, 40 and 45 yards. The other is as efficient and smart a player as a coach could hope for, in Smith. I mean, who has a backup quarterback leading the league in completion percentage, with a rating over 100? All over a deep roster, Harbaugh has almost an embarrassment of riches -- just two seasons after the 49ers were an embarrassment.

The low-block business. I reported Friday night on NBC Sports Network that the NFL Competition Committee will consider a move the league very much wants to see happen -- the banning of all blocks below the waist for the first time in the NFL's 93-year history.

Reaction was swift. Two coaches with an offensive leaning told me they thought it'd be the death knell for running games as we know them, because so many teams teach pulling guards and backs to chop down defenders by diving and rolling at their feet; they also said smaller backs who have to blitz-protect would be at a disadvantage -- the diminutive Darren Sproles is a good blitz man, and chops down rushers much bigger than he -- against defensive ends and outside linebackers. But the defenders? They love it. "That'd be great,'' said Houston linebacker Connor Barwin. "It'd be the first thing this league has done to protect defensive players in years.''

Last season, Buffalo receiver Stevie Johnson dove at Kansas City safety Eric Berry's knees, causing torn ligaments and Berry to be out for the year. On Sunday, Johnson told me: "That's cool. I'd be in favor of them making that rule. I stopped doing it anyway, because I didn't want to knock guys out for the year. That's not the kind of player I am, and this is a brotherhood. We don't want to be hurting each other.'' I don't think the league will get the votes to ban all blocks below the waist in 2013, but I do think downfield blocks away from the play, such as Johnson's on Berry, have a good chance to be banned.

Dot dot dot things. Until I saw Rice's incredible fourth-down conversion, I thought the play of the day was Stevie Johnson's strip and recovery late in the fourth quarter on Colts safety Tom Zbikowski after Zbikowski picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick. Smart play for Johnson, who had to aim for the strip and make the strip, all while being stiff-armed by an amateur boxer, which Zbikowski has been. "At the time, we're driving, and it's pretty much the season on the line,'' Johnson said. "So I did what you'd do in the backyard -- you just try any way possible to knock the ball away. I'm like, 'Where's that football at?' And it bounced right up to me. That never happens." ... If Hines Ward were still a Steeler, he'd make running backs Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Rainey, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman (six fumbles at Cleveland Sunday, four recovered by the Browns) walk around the facility lugging a football tight to their chests. An eight-TO day? Inexcusable ...

Mike Holmgren told Kevin Harlan of FOX this weekend that Sunday was his last day with the Browns, an odd way to end one's club presidency. Sounds very much like Holmgren will return to his big digs in Seattle and hope he gets an offer to coach again. He's 64, two years younger than Tom Coughlin, and may want to erase the way things ended for him in Seattle, and in Cleveland. In Holmgren's last three coaching seasons in Seattle, he was 23-25. In his three seasons as Browns president, the team was 12-31 ... Six starters hurt for the Bears. A month ago, I thought the NFC North was the best division, top to bottom, in football. Now it's the War of Attrition Division ... Any doubt about the wisdom of Mike Brown playing hardball with Carson Palmer in 2011 got erased Sunday. The Bengals have the better quarterback for the long-term, to be sure, in Andy Dalton and building-block cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (from the first-round pick acquired from Oakland in 2012), not to mention a pick that appears to be around 35 or 37 in the upcoming draft, also from Oakland. "Hopefully everyone believes the Bengals did the right thing,'' Dalton told me after the Bengals' 34-10 rout of Oakland and Palmer. "I think they do. I think my teammates do. We went to the playoffs last year, and now we're playing complete games and should have a good chance to go back this year." More importantly: Palmer didn't want to be in Cincinnati. Dalton craved it, because it was a place that would give him a starting job from day one.

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.

If the last six weeks of the 2012 season play out similarly to the first 10, the defensive story of the season could well be two sophomore defensive players: Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Broncos linebacker Von Miller. Their play has been so outstanding that the question might not be which deserves the Defensive Player of the Year award, but are either worthy of the MVP? I asked Neil Hornsby of ProFootballFocus.com to break down their play to try to answer those questions:

Playing Time: Watt has played 89 percent of Houston's defensive snaps and Miller 90 percent for Denver. Watt has been so dominant that teams have had to start game-planning just to stop him. So the Texans have moved him from his favored position on the left. In 2011 he was on the left 85 percent of his snaps, but it's 74 percent this year, as the Texans have shifted Watt around to counter blocking schemes. Miller has actually spent more time on his preferred left side (72 percent, up from 67 percent last year) because his position and style of play means he is far harder to scheme against. EDGE: Even.

Run Defense: Watt plays the run better than anyone else at his position (including defensive tackles). His 35 defensive stops in run defense (tackles which are defeats for the offense) are four more than anyone in football. In productivity terms that gives Watt a stop on 18 percent of running downs; the next best is Justin Smith at 12 percent. Miller can't match those pure numbers (he's 12th in the same stat against outside linebackers) but that's not his game. His position on the field distorts those figures. It's much fairer to say when he makes a play in run defense, it's usually a big one; the average gain on his 24 tackles in run defense? Minus-1 yard. EDGE: Watt.

Pass Rush: Miller is the most devastating pass rusher at any position in the NFL. There is no one on offense who can consistently match up to him; offensive linemen are not quick enough to counter his acceleration. The 49ers' brilliant outside 'backer, Aldon Smith, has 43 quarterback disruptions this year on 292 pass rushes. Miller has 61 on 297, 41 percent more on nearly the same number of attempts. Watt's base numbers are excellent too (49 quarterback disruptions from 402 rushes). They come a close second in productivity terms to the Bengals' Geno Atkins, who has 40 QB disruptions on 300 pass rush snaps. EDGE: Miller

Coverage: Well, Watt doesn't cover, so this is an odd stat for him (he's dropped in coverage only 14 times), but there has to be a way to count his passes swatted away. He has tipped 13 passes at the line of scrimmage, more than twice as many as the next player. Since 2008, the most we'd had in a full season before this was in 2009, when Johnny Jolly batted down 10. Watt is probably redefining the way in which linemen will be taught to play. Pass coverage is currently seen as a weakness in Miller's game. He's average in that regard, but compared to the other facets of his game it's clearly not as well developed. Having said that, he's only dropped in coverage on 92 plays so far. EDGE: Watt.

In Summary: Many players on defense are having great years, but no one is as far ahead of the competition as J.J. Watt and Von Miller. Just as Darrelle Revis did in the early part of 2011, they are redefining what's achievable at their positions. Who's better? Flip a coin. Good thing there are five games left for each, so one can win the award they both now deserve.

1. New England (8-3). Pats have averaged 47.5 points per game the last four weeks. Tom Brady's on pace for 35 touchdowns and four interceptions. Occasionally they show signs of being defensively competent. And Thursday, they won by 30 without their two best offensive linemen, best tight end and best defensive end. How they have three losses, I have no idea.

2. San Francisco (8-2-1). We will never question you again, Jim Harbaugh. Well, at least maybe not until next week.

3. Houston (10-1). I appreciate the fact that their defensive leaders -- Connor Barwin, to me on Thursday -- says they're ticked off about giving up 983 yards in five days. They should be. But to play 10 quarters in five days and win both games deep in overtime ... that erases any negative in my mind.

4. Denver (8-3). Romeo Crennel always has a good game plan for Peyton Manning. One problem. Denver's defense is for real.

5. Atlanta (10-1). At the risk of sounding like a broken record: Michael Turner's output Sunday in the 24-23 win at Tampa: 16 touches, 30 yards; Jacquizz Rodgers' output: 12 touches, 79 yards. I keep thinking I'm watching a different game than the Atlanta coaches.

6. Baltimore (9-2). Ravens down 10 with six minutes to play in San Diego. Win in overtime. Something to be said for winning late on the road, ugly though it was.

7. New York Giants (7-4). The best performance in the league after a bye this year, and it's not close. What a strange team this is, struggling as much as it was, then battering a strong offensive Packers' team that came in with a five-game winning streak.

8. Chicago (8-3). It's vital the Bears somehow find a way to keep Jay Cutler from getting mashed to pieces behind that line, because he's the only quarterback who can get chased and whacked around and still find a way to complete 74 percent of his throws.

9. Tampa Bay (6-5). The more I see the Bucs, the more I think they might do what the Giants of 2007 or 2011 did -- get hot late and get on a January run that could take them very far. Not saying I think this will happen. Just saying it wouldn't surprise me if the Bucs were the NFC's sixth seed and made some big noise.

10. Green Bay (7-4). Giants beat Packers 38-10. Packers beat Texans 42-24. That means, of course, if the Giants and Texans played, the final would be New York 46, Houston 0.

11. Cincinnati (6-5). Won three in a row by a combined score of 93-29. At this time of the year, that qualifies as a team worthy of being in the Fine Fifteen.

12. Washington (5-6). I don't have to take a poll to tell you that no team in its right mind wants to play Washington right now, not after Robert Griffin III put up 69 points in the last two weeks with his arm (mostly) and legs. And teams might feel that way about the Redskins for a long time, which wasn't the case before he arrived.

13. New Orleans (5-6). Never thought I'd see the 2012 Saints conjure up memories of the bygone days of September. Good thing they don't play the 49ers very often.

14. Indianapolis (7-4). If the Colts go 2-3 in December, they're likely a playoff team.

15. Seattle (6-5). I liked Seattle's upstart playoff chances until Sunday, when they looked nothing like a playoff team.

Offensive Players of the Week

T.Y. Hilton, WR/PR, Indianapolis.Hilton's 75-yard punt return started the scoring for the Colts in their 20-14 win over Buffalo at home Sunday, and his 8-yard touchdown pass from Andrew Luck finished it. In between, he got knocked into next week by a hit on his second punt return that certainly should have finished him for the day, but Hilton returned to return three more punts and make the catch that allowed the Colts to escape with their seventh win. After the game, I asked him how he felt. "Fine. Perfect,'' he said. I said to him: "What hurts right now?'' And he said, "Nothing. I am fine.'' Well, if that were true Sunday night, I doubt it'll be true this morning, unless Hilton's made of Silly Putty.

Defensive Players of the Week

J.J. Watt, DE, Houston. Another week, another great game in the insane season of J.J. Watt. In the 34-31 overtime win at Detroit, Watt had three sacks, two passes deflected (he now has 13), one tackle for loss and two quarterback pressures. Amazing for a player who started his career as a tight end at Central Michigan and continued it at Wisconsin to return to Michigan as the best 3-4 defensive end in the NFL ... at age 23.

Janoris Jenkins, CB, St. Louis. His 39- and 36-yard interception returns for touchdown made him the first rookie to return two picks for scores in 52 years, and made coach Jeff Fisher a genius for benching him two weeks ago at San Francisco for violating team rules and having to run the stadium stairs before the game at Candlestick Park. Watch how he baited quarterback Ryan Lindley of the Cardinals, especially on the first pick-6, and you'll see why the Rams took a chance on the troubled college star in the second round of the draft.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Justin Tucker, K, Baltimore. Big deal. A 38-yard field goal. Or two. Well, I say it is a big deal. The Ravens trailed 13-10 in San Diego with four seconds left when Tucker, the rookie free agent from the University of Texas, came on and kicked a 38-yard field goal to send the game to overtime. Then, with 67 seconds left in overtime, he trotted out for another 38-yarder. Drilled the game-winner too. No doubt about either one, both straight down Broadway. The Ravens, who will be playing in January, look to have a playoff-caliber kicker they won't have to worry about in the big spots.

Leon Washington, KR, Seattle.His 98-yard touchdown return on the kickoff after Miami tied the game at 14 gave the Seahawks a 21-14 lead midway through the fourth quarter. The eighth kickoff-return touchdown in his career was among the most electrifying, and should have given Seattle an edge for the sixth playoff seed in the NFC, but Miami rebounded to win 24-21.

Rafael Bush, SS, New Orleans. How about this? An "R. Bush'' for New Orleans who wears number 25? Reggie, however, wouldn't be playing on the punt team, which Rafael was midway through the second quarter of a 7-7 game with the 49ers. Bush sprinted downfield to cover a Thomas Morestead punt, and as Ted Ginn Jr. muffed it (sound familiar, Niner fans?) Bush reached in and grabbed it, setting up a short, 11-yard touchdown drive. Bush and Courtney Roby have been terrific on punts this year, and are big reasons Morestead is having such a great net-punting season.

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 in November 2008. Zim, a former collegiate offensive lineman himself, loved watching offensive line play.

Will Montgomery, C, Washington. A standout all season for Washington, he's the No. 2 rated center in the game this year, according to ProFootballFocus.com rankings. Montgomery kept Robert Griffin III clean all game Thursday and was a force in the running game as well. The Redskins did a very smart thing in the offseason when they knew they were in cap jail but also knew they wanted to keep this promising 29-year-old center as the centerpiece for a rebuilt line to protect RGIII. They signed him to an extension through the 2016 season, guaranteeing only $2.5 million of his deal; Montgomery will earn $12 million over the next four years, a good deal for a center who earned it, and a good deal for the team paying him.

Coaches of the Week

Jim Harbaugh, head coach, San Francisco. Harbaugh proved last week he's got some Bill Belichick in him. As a coach, you have to be able to tune out the majority of the public and the media and even some in your own organization who think you're making a mistake if you firmly believe you're doing the right thing and you trust in your players to know you're doing the right thing. Such was the case when he chose Colin Kaepernick as his starting quarterback over Alex Smith, who was playing at a Pro Bowl level.

Kaepernick went out and played better than Drew Brees at the Superdome Sunday, and Harbaugh was proven correct, for the week, anyway. Harbaugh's brash, and rubs some people the wrong way. He's also the brightest star, by far, of all the young coaches in the game today. Who would have imagined, approaching the last month of the regular season of his second season in the league, that he'd have but five career regular season losses?

Bruce Arians, interim coach, Indianapolis. Arians raised his eye-popping record to 6-2 with the victory over Buffalo. What I liked was his message to the team following the 59-24 drubbing by the Patriots last week: "Your job is to play well enough to earn the right to go back to Foxboro and show you can beat this team." Arians has a good grip on a team he was never supposed to coach in the first place, and he's showing a cadre of owners and general managers who will be in search of a new coach in January that he deserves their attention.

Goat of the Week

Ron Winter, referee,Pittsburgh-Cleveland game. As horrible as the Steelers were Sunday -- and turning the ball over eight times is sufficient to lose 100 percent of the time -- Winter made an incredible non-call with two minutes left in the fourth quarter and Cleveland trying to run out a 20-14 lead. Cleveland running back Trent Richardson ran into a clogged line, got stoned and stripped at the same time, and the Steelers jumped on the fumble. Though no whistle was audible, and Winter was staring at the play as it happened, no fumble was ruled, and the Steelers lost a last legitimate chance to catch up. You just can't miss those calls.

"Everybody is always doubting us because we give them reason to do that."

-- Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, after New York broke a two-game losing streak with a 38-10 domination of the Packers Sunday night in New Jersey.

"This was his second career start? He's been playing like he's been in there forever."

-- San Francisco wide receiver Mario Manningham, after Colin Kaepernick's second start, and second win, at New Orleans on Sunday.

"The runner's buttocks was down on the ground before the ball came loose. Therefore, it's Indianapolis ball at the 47-yard line. The clock should be reset to 13:22.''

-- Referee Ed Hochuli, explaining why he reversed a call that originally had Indianapolis fumbling and Buffalo recovering in the second quarter Sunday.

And if you weren't watching, yes, announcer Marv Albert did chuckle when Hochuli said "buttocks."

"I know the rule: You can't challenge on a turnover or a scoring play, but I was so mad that I overreacted. I had the flag in my hand before he even scored because he was obviously down. It's my fault. I overreacted in that situation and cost us a touchdown.''

-- Detroit coach Jim Schwartz, who threw a challenge flag after a Houston touchdown he wanted to challenge Thursday, preventing the challenge from taking place because of the dumb NFL rule that negates an automatic replay if a coach throws the flag after a scoring play or turnover. The league, thankfully, will erase the non-replay of the challenge by 2013, and maybe sooner.

"He writes down everything. He writes down my Wednesday talks to the team, and then I'll hear it again with the media. I'll hear it again when he talks to his teammates, at the end of practice. It's off-the-chain leadership. He holds guys accountable, man. They don't want to let him down.''

-- Denver coach John Fox, to Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times, ina storyabout Peyton Manning's road back to the NFL (I recommend it.)

Bill Belichick won his 200th game (regular season and postseason) Thursday night, in his 307th NFL game. As a means of comparison, let's measure Belichick versus the great Chuck Noll of the Steelers, who needed 347 games to reach win number 200 and who coached 366 games in all. Now we're getting some sense of where Belichick will rate in the pantheon, with his three Super Bowl wins and 65 percent winning percentage. Look at the numbers: He could match the great Noll in career victories in 50 fewer games. Comparing the two:

For two men so inextricably connected in Cincinnati Bengals history, it's notable that the first time Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton met was on the field at Paul Brown Stadium Sunday.

The extent of their conversation after the game went something like this, per Dalton:

Dalton: "Stay healthy."

Palmer: "You too. Good luck."

Not mine. Ian Eagle's. What the CBS football/YES Network basketball/Dial Global sports radio football announcer has done in the past week:

Sunday, Nov. 18: Flew from St. Louis to New York after doing Jets-Rams game for CBS. Arrived at his New Jersey home at 11:15 p.m.

Monday: Flew from Newark to Los Angeles at 8 p.m.

Tuesday: Did the Nets-Lakers game in Los Angeles for YES Network.. Flew on Nets' charter with team from Los Angeles to San Francisco. In bed by 2 a.m. Wednesday.

Wednesday: Did the Nets-Warriors game in Oakland for YES Network. Flew on Nets' charter with team from San Francisco to Newark after the game. In bed in his New Jersey home by 9 a.m. Thursday.

Thursday: Did the Patriots-Jets game for Dial Global Radio. Home by midnight.

Friday: Did the Clippers-Nets game from Brooklyn for YES Network. Home by midnight.

Saturday: Flew to San Diego at 8:20 a.m. Did CBS production meeting with Chargers at noon at their team facility.

Sunday: Did the Ravens-Chargers game for CBS at 1 p.m. Pacific Time. Returned to San Diego hotel. Rested. Flew to Newark at 9:30 p.m., with the redeye due to deliver him home just after dawn today.

"At one point on the flight to San Diego Saturday,'' Eagle reported Sunday night, "I napped for about seven minutes and woke up and I thought I was flying to Buffalo to do a Bills game. Then again, I also thought at one point I was an orthodontist."

"Manning family has 750 combined @NFL TD passes. Peyton (425), Eli (200), Archie (125). #justwow''

-- @NFLhistory, NFL Record and Fact Book editor Jon Zimmer Sunday night, as Eli Manning passed Phil Simms for first on the Giants' all-time passing touchdowns list.

"From Steve Kelley: 'It's going to be hard to tell when the crowd starts leaving.' "

-- @dannyoneil, the Seattle Times' Seahawks' beat man, reporting from the press box at the Seattle-Miami game in South Florida, quoting his buddy and columnist Kelley about the sparse crowd at the game.

"I HATE LOSING!"

-- @TerrellePryor, after the 3-8 Raiders lost their fourth straight game, in Cincinnati on Sunday.

1. I think this is what I liked about Week 12:

a. The Washington offensive line, which I have criticized often. Great job enabling Robert Griffin III to make his magic. What a treat a rested Griffin and his mates will be against the Giants, at home, next Monday night.

b. Tom Brady, on pace for 35 touchdown passes and four interceptions. Is it possible he's getting better with age?

c. Adam Merchant, the 15-year-old Make-A-Wish kid who pumped up the Giants with a Friday speech to the team and then appeared in their locker room after that 38-10 rout of the Packers.

d. And the Giants, for making Merchant's appearance -- and his dreams -- come true.

e. Catch of the 1 o'clock Sunday games: Cleveland tight end Benjamin Watson's full-extension dive with Lawrence Timmons in coverage.

f. The NFL, for doling out approximately $187 million in retirement, health and pension benefits over the past 12 months to former players ... and for its 228 approved Parkinson's, ALS and dementia cases, to which $20.5 million has been given since the league's "88 Plan'' was kicked off five years ago. Much work remains to be done. Much work is being done.

g. Ahmad Brooks and Donte Whitner, for their pick-6s of Drew Brees. San Francisco's defense is the best in football, and those two unsung players are big reasons.

h. Jay Cutler. If we define "value'' in "Most Valuable Player'' as someone whose loss would totally deflate and screw up his team, then Cutler has to be in the running for the award.

i. Brandon Marshall, for his sixth straight season of 1,000 yards receiving.

j. The two bald Colts cheerleaders, particularly ringleader Megan Meadors, the former Miss Indiana. It has to be a pretty big deal for a woman who makes her living at least part due to her looks to shave her head with a jillion cameras and eyes watching. But raising $22,000 for leukemia research, which the cueballing look ensured, was worth it to the women.

k. Chuck Pagano, for touching so many Hoosiers. When he heard about Meadors' plan to shave her head during the Colts' game, he texted Meadors. "It was a pretty lengthy text,'' she said. "The gist of it was that he was thankful for all the support from me and the fans in Indianapolis. He said he came to Indianapolis hoping to build a team based on service and community. He was proud of the way everyone has responded and he wished me and my family a happy Thanksgiving."

l. Who wouldn't want to play for that guy?

m. Chad Henne, for leading a Jags win, their first at home this year. He'd have to royally mess up to not be the Jacksonville quarterback heading into the 2013 offseason.

n. Julio Jones, whose six catches for 147 yards and a vital touchdown for the 10-1 Falcons came on a bum ankle. Jones is making the 2011 megatrade by Thomas Dimitroff look better every week.

o. Knowshon Moreno, who came off the scout team with the injury to Willis McGahee to grind out 85 yards in Kansas City and help the Broncos overcome the stubborn Chiefs defense.

p. C.J. Spiller, 14 for 107. He's electric every week.

q. Indy's defense. In winning five of its last six, the D has allowed 13, 13, 20, 10 and 13 points in the five wins.

2. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 12:

a. The Steeler running backs. All four fumbled in what was easily the most justified team loss of Sunday.

b. Rex Ryan's logic after the 49-19 loss to New England Thursday. He tells his coordinators he doesn't want them to play Tim Tebow, then says Tebow (two broken ribs) was "100 percent available." I'm not getting that. Wonder if Woody Johnson is.

c. Great Carson Palmer trade, Raiders. I like the headline I saw somewhere during the night about Bengals assistant Hue Jackson "taking the high road'' after the Bengals wiped out the team he head-coached last year, Oakland. What? Jackson got fired from the Raiders, in part because he overpaid (first- and second-round picks for Palmer) for a quarterback and went 4-6 after acquiring him. What high road exactly would he be taking?

d. Worst pass interference call I've seen in a while, on Antoine Winfield of the Vikings, saying he interfered with the clear interferer, Brandon Marshall, in the end zone at Chicago.

e. Wait! Even worse was Randy Moss yanking down Malcolm Jenkins in full view of the world in the end zone at New Orleans, and a blind official seeing nothing. Horrendous non-call.

f. Indy cornerback Darius Butler, for biting on the Stevie Johnson double-move, giving up a huge gainer.

g. Catch the easy interception, Asante Samuel. But I can't kill Samuel too much, because he played hurt down the stretch when his Falcons desperately needed him.

h. Josh Freeman's overthrow of a wide-open Mike Williams.

i. The Norv Turners, scoring three points in the last 59 minutes of another crushing loss.

j. The Packers, for whatever that was at the Meadowlands Sunday night.

3. I think the league overreacted, and that's putting it mildly, by censoring Rich Eisen's interview with Oscar favorite Bradley Cooper and yanking it from Eisen's Thanksgiving special on NFL Network. "The segment was pulled because the movie included content related to gambling on NFL games," the statement from NFL Network said.

Cooper stars in Silver LiningsPlaybook, a movie about a bipolar Philadelphia Eagles fan who returns home to live with his parents to help him handle his mental illness. His father, played by Robert DeNiro, is a part-time, small-time bookie. None of Eisen's questions, and none of Cooper's answers, concerned gambling on NFL games.

Three points. First, Eisen's interview with Cooper would have gotten zero attention in this column and scant attention elsewhere had it aired, but banning it pushed it to the top of the New York Post's infamous Page Six gossip column Friday morning and made the NFL look small and paranoid.

Second, Cooper is one of the biggest stars in America. Eisen's podcasts and specials get some big stars talking about how much they love the NFL. I'm sure Cooper talked about growing up loving the Eagles, and building the brand that Eisen is trying to build, of the NFL as a paragon of entertainment that people in show business and politics and power all love. Now see if Cooper wants to do anything with the NFL again.

Third, the NFL can't sanitize life. I would bet (oops; bad word choice) that a father or two of a prominent NFL player is an inveterate gambler, and puts down money on NFL games. I bet NFL players go to Vegas in the offseason and put a few bucks down on horses and games. It's America.

4. I think, by the way, there isn't a more pro-NFL guy on TV than Eisen, and he can do it without seeming like a total house man. That's a great skill to have. And what the NFL has done, essentially, is to say to Eisen, who is the league's Brian Williams: We don't trust you. If I'm Eisen, I'm furious.

5. I think these sound like the top five college coaching candidates for NFL head coaching jobs, per chats with front office people in the last two weeks (in order):

1. Chip Kelly, Oregon2. David Shaw, Stanford3. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame4. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa (even coming off the bad season at Iowa, he's well-respected in the NFL)5. Doug Marrone, Syracuse.

I didn't include Bill O'Brien of Penn State because (and call me naïve) I can't see him preaching love of, and loyalty to, Penn State, and then leaving after 12 months. But never say never in this business.

6. I think these sound like the top 10 NFL assistants who will get sniffs for head coaching jobs in the league next year (in order):

1. Mike McCoy, Denver offensive coordinator2. Mike Zimmer, Cincinnati defensive coordinator3. Vic Fangio, San Francisco defensive coordinator4. Perry Fewell, Giants defensive coordinator5. Dirk Koetter, Atlanta offensive coordinator6. Dave Toub, Chicago special teams coordinator7. Bruce Arians, Indianapolis interim head coach/offensive coordinator8. Ray Horton, Arizona defensive coordinator9. Kyle Shanahan, Washington offensive coordinator10. Clyde Christensen, Indianapolis quarterbacks coach.

7. I think the most curious decision of the week came from appeals officer Ted Cottrell, who cut the Ed Reed discipline from a one-game suspension and a $423,000 fine to no suspension and a $50,000 fine. Cottrell said he didn't think Reed's helmet-to-helmet hit on Emmanuel Sanders was serious enough to merit the suspension and fine. Then Cottrell called Reed's hit "egregious.'' The definition of "egregious," according to Merriam-Webster, is "conspicuously bad; flagrant." If Cottrell thought the hit was conspicuously bad and flagrant, why in the world did he eliminate the suspension and cut the fine by 88 percent? How is that justice?

8. I think the Steelers, normally among the smartest two or three teams in the league in player personnel, need to answer this question: Why are you backing up a perennially beaten-up quarterback with Byron Leftwich, a very slow 32-year-old quarterback, and Charlie Batch, a soon-to-be-38-year-old quarterback?

Isn't it logical to think that, among starters in the league, Ben Roethlisberger has a better-than-average chance of needing a replacement during the year? Maybe the long-term younger backup is Brian Hoyer, who the Steelers signed last week. But Steelers football czar Kevin Colbert needs to find someone so Pittsburgh won't have two old and/or slow backups.

9. I think, for all of you Fireman Ed fans, put some black crepe paper over the this column today. Ed Anzalone, the longtime Jets mascot who does the J-E-T-S chant in the stands, writes in the free paper Metro that, "I decided to leave [the Jets-Pats game before halftime] Thursday because the confrontations with other Jets fans have become more common, even though most Jets fans are fantastic. This is an indication of how society has lost and is continuing to lose respect for one another ... I will attend games as usual, just not as Fireman Ed.'' Well, I sure am glad we got that straight.

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

a. So long, Larry Hagman. You were a fixture on Friday nights in the King family house -- and in millions of others -- as J.R. Ewing.

b. Controversial: Mike Florio says he was bored by Lincoln. I have to carve out three hours, and soon, to see it.

c. Black Friday. One of the lightest traffic days of the year, because I had to drive quite a bit Friday. Can't figure that one out.

d. Dope that I am, I never heard of "Cyber Monday" until Friday.

e. Congrats, Toronto Argonauts, for the Grey Cup win, the 100th Canadian Football League championship game. Argos 35, Stampeders 22. You can be sure Doug Flutie was there, and received a standing ovation. One of the fun things about working with Flutie at NBC these days is listening to his stories about the CFL.

f. Congrats, Notre Dame. Of all the crazy things you could have said 12 months ago, the craziest might have been this: Notre Dame will be universally ranked No. 1 in the country at the end of the 2012 regular season and will play Team X for the BCS National Championship. And it's not online yet (Wednesday it will be), but take time to read Tim Layden's SI magazine story about the rise of the Irish. Really a great history lesson.

g. I really want to see the Civil War in Oregon one day.

h. My Bobcats sank like stones, didn't they? Still think Nick Saban quakes at the thought of facing the mighty men of Solich.

i. Florence Norman has been born. One piece of advice, Flo: Don't listen to a word your grandfather says about rooting for the Yankees. It's the wrong thing to do.

j. Coffeenerdness: Daughter Mary Beth is visiting, and I'm proud to say I've got her on the espresso trail. Her drink of choice: a quad (four-shot) grande Americano. Chip off the old block, that girl.

k. Beernerdness: Thanks, Ommegang (Cooperstown, N.Y.) for making your White beer available throughout Manhattan. I don't like it as much as Allagash White, but any port in a storm when you're jonesing for some Belgian beer is a good thing.

l. So good to see Christie Werder, daughter of ESPN's Ed Werder, as such a good soldier battling brain cancer, and good of the Dallas Morning News' Barry Horn to write about itso movingly.

Siebert wrote an incredibly enlightening story about the life of an end-of-the-roster NFL player, Atlanta linebacker Pat Schiller, for the New York Times Sunday magazine this week. So much about the profile is moving and beautifully written and heartfelt and portrays the requisite desperation of an undrafted free agent trying to make a roster. Siebert could write that way, because he is Schiller's uncle.

He wrote of being in Schiller's apartment during this season and seeing the area where he kept his medicines. "I noticed that the dresser was topped with all manner of balms, unguents and painkilling medications: a 23-year-old with the medicine cabinet of a septuagenarian. Somehow, it was only then that I felt the full weight of what my nephew had managed to pull off: the ridiculous odds he overcame; all the excellent players he beat out. I suddenly felt more like one of his hometown acolytes than an uncle to a kid who grew up a thousand miles and, in terms of life experiences and career pursuits, a world away from me. A kid I only came to know at this juncture because he is so good at a game that I, like millions of others, so love to watch.

"'Dude,' he said, as I stood staring at his dresser. "I swear to God, if someone tells me right now there's some miracle body cream out there that would make me feel 100 percent and prevent me from getting hurt but that could also cause cancer or liver damage down the line, I'd use it in a heartbeat. I would."

You will fly through this story, I guarantee it. Siebert has made a great contribution to the football landscape. He's explained so well what so many marginal players, hundreds of them, go through every spring, summer and fall.

Regarding tonight's game, I have Philadelphia 21, Carolina 17. In a battle of endangered coaches, it's not going to do Ron Rivera much good to lose to a team that hasn't won a game in October or November. Not to make you feel worse, Eagles fans (is that possible?), but how about this for offensive frustration: Games scoring 25 points or more in 2012 -- New England 9, Philadelphia 0.

Colin Kaepernick.Looks like I misjudged the lad.Chiefs sound good, Alex?

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