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Palmer, Favre and an unsung receiver added to Week 3 drama

NEW YORK -- Now that's what I call some drama, and some good stories.

Carson Palmer converting two fourth-downs in the final minute to slay the Steelers. The Jets riding Mr. Charisma again. The Lions breaking the 19-game schneid. Pierre Thomas gaining more yards in 28 minutes than any other back in the league gained in 60.

Remember how the locals wanted to give Josh McDaniels a one-way ticket out of Colorado before he ever coached a game? Now he has as many wins this season as playoff veterans Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin and John Fox combined.

How'd Brett Favre get that ball in there? How'd Greg Lewis get both feet down inbounds?

Just another frantic Pleasant Valley Sunday. And in my five headlines of the week, the biggest is from a 34-14 game, concerning a guy who gained seven yards all day. Off we go, around the league.

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The Michael Vick Experiment gets off to a slow start.

I'll tell you what I worry about with Vick. Greed. I'm not in the man's shoes, but I get a sense that at some point this year, he might want more than some Wildcat snaps and three or four passes a game. He did an interview with Sterling Sharpe for NFL Network Sunday morning and seemed almost embarrassed to be called a decoy by Sharpe.

That's essentially what he was in the 34-14 win over Kansas City. He played 11 plays, was 0-for-2 passing, rushed out of the direct-snap once for seven yards, played receiver one play, and handed the ball off seven times. In the next few weeks, I expect the Eagles will give him more to do; clearly against the Chiefs, he was operating a minimal package of plays.

When we talked after the game -- I hadn't spoken with him for three years -- I wanted to know if he was going to be OK with the role Andy Reid has for him, assuming Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb remain the top two quarterbacks. "I'm fine with the role,'' he said. "I'm blessed to be back in the NFL. My future is at quarterback, but for now this is fine with me. The city has embraced me, the organization has embraced me, the players have embraced me.''

I liked hearing that. It's the attitude he has to have, because this should be the year he uses as training for football and life, not the year he moves heaven and earth to try to be somebody's starting quarterback. It's not important right now.

I asked Vick if there was ever a moment in federal prison when he felt he'd never get to this day. "No, not one moment ... a thousand moments,'' he said. "Days and days and days I didn't think this would ever happen.''

At the time I spoke to Vick, our NBC Football Night in America was preparing for the evening show, and I asked Vick if he wanted to say hello to Tony. "Tony who?'' Vick said. And I said, " Dungy.'' Of course he wanted to say hi.

"Michael,'' said Dungy, "how'd you do?''

"It's the first time I ever had butterflies playing,'' he said.

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Could it be? Could it possibly be? Could the Steelers actually respect the Bengals?

Time will tell if Cincinnati deserves it. But it was interesting after the Bengals pulled the 23-20 stunner at home -- breaking an eight-game home losing streak to the Steelers -- to hear Ben Roethlisberger say: "Tough loss for us. Tough divisional fight.'' Tough divisional fight -- those words have been reserved for games with the Ravens, not the Bengals or Browns.

Two reasons this happened. One: The Bengals played a physical game, and they have players -- Brian Leonard on offense, Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers on defense -- more suited to that style than Bengal teams have been in the past. Two: Carson Palmer. A good quarterback (a healthy good quarterback) always gives your team a chance. "We deserved to win the game,'' Palmer said afterward, and he was right.

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New Vikings hero Greg Lewis will have a place in the Favre history book -- even if he wasn't supposed to be in the game.

The Vikings may be playing a risky game with Favre, who turns 40 in two weeks, because they don't know if he can last the full season at his age. But they've now officially won one more game than they'd have won with either Sage Rosenfels or Tarvaris Jackson playing. That's because Favre pulled a Favre -- he threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Lewis at the back of the end zone with two seconds left to beat the 49ers.

It was one of those plays that at first seemed certain to be overturned because Lewis seemed like he'd come down with at least one foot on the white end line. But in the replay, one foot comes down perilously close to the white line and the other is clearly in. There's no way ref Jerome Boger could have nullified the play.

Lewis said he wasn't supposed to be on the field for this play; Percy Harvin was supposed to be in the left slot, where Lewis lined up. "But Percy was gassed,'' Lewis told me last night. "He just ran, like, seven straight go-routes, and they needed someone to go in for him.''

With Sidney Rice and Bernard Berrian split wide, and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe just to the right of the formation, the Vikings called a four-man all-go pattern on third-and-three from the Minnesota 32 with 12 seconds left and San Francisco up 24-20.

"Just before we left the huddle,'' Lewis said, "Brett told us, 'Stay alive.' [Meaning, if he leaves the pocket, try to find an opening in the coverage where he could find one of them.] Once he breaks the pocket, we're free to go within our landmarks. So I saw him leave the pocket and I just floated toward the back of the end zone, following him as he moved to the right.'' Favre picked out Lewis because he had two steps on his man, and because desperate times call for desperate decisions.

The ball came high and fast, and Lewis went up to get it. "When it was in the air, I thought, 'This is the chance you've been waiting for,' '' said Lewis, cut by the Patriots early this month and signed by the Vikings just before the opener two weeks ago. "When I came down, I felt I wasn't in. But I tried to drag my feet, and they gave it to me.''

I asked him if he was surprised he got cut by the Patriots. "Honestly I was,'' he said. "But you have to be prepared for any situation in this league.'' Good thing he was. And when he said that, I was left to wonder if Bill Belichick wishes he had kept Lewis and cut Joey Galloway.

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Inside Football Note of the Week: Dallas Clark's value to the Colts skyrockets.

Dating to the start of the 2008 season, here are the stat lines for the two most important targets on the Indianapolis Colts, including the playoff loss at San Diego in January:

Though Manning has thrown 29 more passes targeted for Wayne than for Clark since the start of last season (169 to Wayne, 140 to Clark), I'm not overly surprised at the parallel place they reside in Manning's quarterback thought process. Even when Marvin Harrison was on his last legs in Indy in the last couple of years, Clark was getting comfortable as Manning's slot receiver, and with Harrison hurt so much, Clark began to share the go-to receiver role with Wayne. Now with Harrison retired and his replacement, Anthony Gonzalez, down for a few weeks with a sprained posterior-cruciate ligament, you can expect to see the same regimen as last year through the next few weeks. Last night in Arizona, as if to echo this note, Manning threw each man nine passes, and each man caught seven, and each man scored one touchdown. Talk about your symmetrical players.

It's likely Clark and Wayne will alternate being Manning's men in the coming weeks, and perhaps even when Gonzalez returns. That's because Manning takes so long to get totally comfortable with new receivers. I've been told that Gonzalez hasn't become the kind of go-to receiver Manning looks for because he's too exact and doesn't yet have the kind of rapport with Manning the veterans do.

"It takes every receiver who comes into this offense a few years to not just be a receiver running routes, but to be a useful target,'' Clark told me. "It took me four years. It's hard to narrow down why, but a good answer is experience. It's my seventh season now, and it's seeing a lot of plays with [Peyton], in the same film room with him, then getting out on the field and feeling it. Same thing with Reggie. I'm sure he didn't have the chemistry in year three he does now."

We saw this last Monday night in Miami, and not just on the opening play of the game, when Manning froze linebacker Akin Ayodele with play-action and looped a throw to Clark, who made an 80-yard catch-and-run TD out of it. The best example of the sonar between Manning and his receivers came on the last play of the first half, with the Colts holding the ball at the 50-yard line with eight seconds left. Manning needed 17 to 20 yards, minimum, to get into Adam Vinatieri's realistic field-goal range, and he needed it quickly, so there'd still be enough time left to go try the kick.

Before the snap, Wayne went to offensive coordinator Tom Moore and told him that two Dolphins were going with him wherever he went; let me run a deep clear-out, Wayne said. Moore told Manning, and Moore called for Wayne to do as he said, and Manning went to the line knowing that if the Dolphins did what Wayne said, he'd clearly have to go to another receiver.

Clark was lined up to the right of the line, and his assignment was to run a corner route across the field. On this play, there's no defined depth to the pattern. "Peyton's got to know, and I've got to know,'' Clark said. "My landmark depends totally on the defenders.''

Clark has to find the midway point between the linebacker in shallow coverage and the safety or safeties downfield. For Clark, on this play, the soft spot was about nine yards downfield, and he cut left and ran diagonally across the field. Manning hit him near the left hash, and Clark sprinted out of bounds. Twenty-yard gain. Two seconds left. Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal ended the half.

Brandon Stokley, Manning's old slot receiver, once told me he liked playing with Manning because he knew if he did the job the right way, Manning would always come to him. It's defining what "the job'' is, and working to earn Manning's trust, that determines whether you'll be a successful Colts receiver. It's hard to earn Manning's trust, but when you earn it, you'll have it for a long time.

And last night, in the 31-10 rout of the defending NFC champion Cardinals, you'd have never known he was missing two of the four key guys to the passing game from the last two years, Harrison and Gonzalez. That's how at-ease Manning was in his four-touchdown night.

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Jake Delhomme takes the field at Dallas tonight with a clear head. I think.

There's probably enough pressure on Tony Romo for both quarterbacks playing at Cowboys Stadium tonight; he's taken more media and fan hits by far than the Giants threw at him in his three-interception game last week. But Delhomme, the amiable Louisianan, thinks the pressure's been lifted off him with his let-it-all-hang-out performance last week at Atlanta (25-41, 308 yards, one touchdown, one interception). It wasn't one of his best days in football, but at least he played football instead of thought football.

Delhomme said all offseason he was completely over the nightmarish five-interception game in the NFC playoffs against Arizona. But as it turned out, he wasn't. He told me thoughts of the playoff game would creep into his mind often, and that they not only crept into his mind during Philadelphia's rout of the Panthers in the season-opener ... but also prevented him from playing the game he thought he could have played. It's funny -- big, tough football players aren't supposed to have these mental blocks. But sometimes they do. Delhomme did.

"I thought quite a few times in the offseason that I hadn't been there for my team during the playoff game, and it really bothered me,'' Delhomme said. "I thought, 'Why? Why?' And I couldn't figure it out. And the Eagles' game, it was like I was playing and thinking, 'You can't make another mistake.' I was thinking like that on every play. Not good.''

"So,'' I said, "there was a carryover from the playoff game.''

Delhomme threw four interceptions and was yanked for backup Josh McCown. "Without a doubt,'' he said. "Without a doubt. I brought something to that game. I brought something to that game I shouldn't have brought. Josh even said to me later, 'You're trying to aim it.' ''

Delhomme said he thinks he has the problem fixed now, and he did it by, in essence, talking to himself, and by caring about nothing but the next play, and by having an attitude of Bleep it. What's interesting is what he felt from his teammates. He said he's not the type of person who ever needed to hear congratulations from teammates after a win, or after a great performance. That's what he's supposed to do, play well. But after the Eagles debacle, he needed someone to tell him he wasn't worthless, and that someone was tackle Jordan Gross. After the game, Gross literally grabbed him and said, "You're still our guy. Got it? Understand?''

"And now,'' Delhomme said, "I feel great. I really do. Not just saying that. I just want to play. See the field, throw the ball, play, run the offense.''

Starting in Dallas tonight, Delhomme could save the Carolina season if those aren't empty words. God knows the Panthers, at 0-2, need a good jolt to stay in the running for the defense of their NFC South title.

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What a week we've got coming up.

I haven't even been to bed yet, and I can't wait 'til Sunday. The looming highlights of Week 4:

• Baltimore (3-0) at New England (2-1). Why shouldn't Tom Brady face every quarterback of the future. Trent Edwards, Mark Sanchez, Matt Ryan and now Joe Flacco.

• New York Jets (3-0) at New Orleans (3-0). Because this is FOX's doubleheader week, and this game is a CBS game, it won't go to much of the country. A pity. These might be the two most intriguing teams in the league after three weeks.

• (Sunday night) San Diego (2-1) at Pittsburgh (1-2). Did you see Mike Tomlin's post-game presser from Cincinnati? He's mad as heck, and he's not gonna take it anymore, from the looks of it.

• (Monday night) Green Bay (2-1) at Minnesota (3-0). The big storyline: Ryan Longwell tries to exact revenge on the Packers, who allowed him to leave the team he loved. Or something like that.

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Joe Montana really had to be Joe Cool when he threw that big pass to Dwight Clark.

In a book hitting the shelves Tuesday about the 1981 NFC Championship Game, ("The Catch: One Play, Two Dynasties, and the Game That Changed the NFL, Random House) New York Daily News football writer Gary Myers gets quite a confession out of Joe Montana: He played the game with a credible death threat called into Candlestick Park that day. "They told me right before the start of the game, or right at the start of the game,'' Montana told Myers. "Somebody was going to try and shoot me during the game.''

In those days, as Myers points out, there was no security at the turnstiles of stadiums. It'd have been simple for anyone in the crowd of 60,525 to carry a handgun into the stadium that day. Montana told Myers he thought about it a couple of times during the game, but as he said, "You are alone. There isn't a whole lot that could be done.''

Then, late in the fourth quarter, he rolled out and threw the high ball that Clark caught that catapulted the Niners past the Cowboys as the power team of the NFC. And when Montana kneeled on the last play of the game, Dallas unable to stop the clock with 19 seconds left, his teammates were surprised by Montana's actions. He grabbed the football and started running off the field, pausing to celebrate with no one, and sprinted to the San Francisco Giants dugout, which had a tunnel leading to the locker room. No celebration. Just a run for what he thought might be his life.

This book is full of nuggets I'm sure you didn't know -- some of which I doubt you'd know even if you played in the game. You want to know why little-used running back Lenvil Elliott was the star of The Drive that ended in The Catch, rushing four times for a clock-eating 31 yards? Because against the protestations of Dallas safety Charlie Waters, defensive coordinator Ernie Stautner played a dime defense (six DBs, one linebacker) for the first