NEW YORK -- Seven storylines for a weird Week 7, when rock-bottom teams found a way to get worse, England hosted New England, the Saints blew away what I thought was a good defense, Norv Turner survived, the amazing Miles Austin carried the Cowboys again, the Cardinals beat back that East Coast thing ... and the Steelers continued their quest to build a defense without peer:
1. That, readers, was a Steelers Sunday right there.
I think we've all gotten spoiled by the defense of the Steelers. Three times in the past five years, Pittsburgh's finished with the best defensive numbers in football, including last season, when it had an unheard-of sub 4.0 yards-per-play defensive average. (The league average is usually around 5.3 yards per defensive snap.) You get a number like Pittsburgh's 3.90 last year by the kind of D the Steelers played Sunday against one of the game's explosive attacks. The Vikings can pass (Brett Favre), run (Adrian Peterson) and return (Percy Harvin) as a combo platter better than any other team in football. That's why this game was such a great chess match -- the diverse offense against the defense that's shut down most everything over the years.
From the start Sunday, the Vikings knew Dick LeBeau was going to take the run away, and so Favre began probing the secondary to see what was there. And time after time, the shiny new Minnesota toy, Harvin, got his clock cleaned by the Pittsburgh safeties. On four third downs, Favre went to Harvin. Four times Troy Polamalu or Ryan Clark, or both, hit the kid like they had anvils in theirs shoulder pads. Polamalu covers so much area, and Clark's an underrated sideline-to-sideline guy, and they set the stage for what happened in the last half of the final quarter.
The Steelers have had 40, 50, who knows how many, of these games over the years. Tight in the fourth quarter, and the defense just does something. Or more than one something. Minnesota had a sure touchdown nullified midway through the fourth quarter when Vikings tight end Jeff Dugan roll-blocked a Steelers rusher and was called for tripping. I thought it was a bad call. In the NBC viewing room, Rodney Harrison and Tony Dungy were apoplectic. The Vikings, instead of taking a 17-13 lead, now had to come back to try to score again.
Pittsburgh led 13-10. The Steelers were in a position they'd been in twice this year -- ahead in the fourth quarter, only to lose. "Championship teams don't do that,'' LeBeau had told me Thursday. "We have to stand firm. And the other thing we've got to do if we're going to be a great defense is start forcing more turnovers.''
On third-and-goal from the eight, Favre got strip-sacked by left end Brett Keisel, and in rushed linebacker LaMarr Woodley and seven of his closest defensive friends. "When I first saw the ball on the ground,'' Woodley said via the cell phone Sunday night, "I figured, 'OK, just pick it up and see how far you can go.' But we've got this thing in practice every day when the ball's turned over, our main thing is just find somebody to block. It's drilled into us, day after day after day.''
Woodley swerved downfield. Favre got disposed of early, then a couple more offensive players got lost in the wash of the seven-man convoy downfield. Woodley scored, covering 77 yards. But Harvin answered, scoring on a kick return to make it 20-17 Pittsburgh. Later, Favre drove the Vikes downfield again, threatening another of his thrilling finishes. He tossed a screen pass to Chester Taylor that bounced off Taylor's hands into those of sub linebacker Keyaron Fox. He rumbled 82 yards. Another score. And that was it: 27-17 Pittsburgh. Finally, a win for the defense.
Back home Sunday night, Woodley sounded content, as if the team had finally played a complete game against a good team. It had -- with a little help from an official's call and a little more from the slippery hands of Taylor. But that's football. Mistakes happen. What are you going to do when they're made?
"The statement we made today,'' he said, "is that the Pittsburgh Steelers will no longer be a team that gives up the lead in the fourth quarter. We're going to make plays in the fourth, not let plays happen to us.''
This is one dangerous two-loss team if the Steelers can keep it up.
2. Miles Austin is one good reason football's such a great game.
The past two Sundays Dallas has played, Austin has led the NFL in receiving. A 250-yard day on Oct. 11 and, after the bye, a 171-yard day against Atlanta on Sunday. He's an undrafted free agent from Monmouth (N.J.) University. His quarterback's an undrafted free agent from Eastern Illinois, Tony Romo. Together, along with a little pass-rush, they've saved Dallas' season.
Now, the Cowboys might be completely back and they might not -- but what I like is that Romo is playing like you have to play sports. He's playing with his thought on only one thing: getting the ball to the open receiver, regardless of jersey number or salary or pedigree. And Austin gets open. If Terrell Owens were in Dallas now, the team would have to figure a way to tiptoe around him and keep him happy. Romo eventually may have to do a little of that with Roy Williams, The Invisible Man in the Dallas offense (more on this in Stat Of The Week). But all Romo cares about, from watching him, is set up, survey the field, find the open guy. That's it. And as long as that continues, Dallas is going to play well on offense.
One other thing about the Cowboys: Is it just me, or do they look like they're having more fun on offense? Maybe that comes from winning. But the enthusiasm of Austin is contagious. It's amazing how much can get done when no one cares who gets the credit.
3. I'm tired of taking San Diego's temperature. Every loss, Norv Turner's getting whacked. Every sackless game, Shawne Merriman's finished. Every one-yard gain, LaDainian Tomlinson's done. Following a Monday night loss to Denver, it looked darkest, then Rivers threw for three touchdowns -- one to 6-foot-5 Vince "Kobe'' Jackson -- and the Chargers skated over the Chiefs, 37-7.
"We've had a strong negativism outside the building for a few years at times,'' Turner said afterward, "but the guys have been unaffected. We had a real disappointing loss to Denver Monday night, but we came back in on Wednesday and had our best practice of the year. After the practice, I told them, 'There's some people leaving you for dead out there, but you're not leaving yourselves for dead.' Then we came out today and played well.''
Rivers has a little bit of a pushing motion on his longball, but it works. He hit Jackson five times for 142 yards Sunday, once on a beautiful throw in the corner of the end zone that was spot on. His two partners high in the 2004 draft, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, have won three Super Bowls between them. I still think Rivers will get one.
Will Turner be around to see it? You never know. "I never let that get to me,'' he said. "I can't coach for people outside the team. That story's been written twice a year for the last three years, and it doesn't concern me. I think we're on our way to being pretty good.''
As usual, they'll have to survive some bumps in the schedule. After Oakland at home this week, they're at the Giants, home to Philadelphia and at Denver. When this stretch is done, when a good three-game stretch of challenging football happens, that's when I'll take their temperature.
Why not now? Because I want to give Shawne Merriman every opportunity coming off knee surgery and a sore groin muscle to regain his pass-rushing form. And I don't want to be too harsh on the running game, particularly when stalwart center Nick Hardwick (who's really missed in goal line and short-yardage situations) is out for the next month due to injury.
This is a flawed team, as many are, but when I look at them I still believe the Chargers are a playoff team capable of beating anyone in January -- the way they've beaten the Colts two Januarys in a row.
4. Something's gotten into Cedric Benson.
What an interesting day the Bears' castoff had against his old team Sunday in Cincinnati. Eight carries for 70 yards in the first quarter, 12 for 28 in the second, 8 for 54 in the third, 9 for 47 in the fourth. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has always wanted to base his offense on getting four and five yards from a running back on first down (what offensive coordinator doesn't) and it looks like he's found the right man in Benson. He's not particularly shifty and he doesn't have Adrian Peterson speed, and he doesn't have fullback power. But he's running with an intensity no one has seen before, in large part because he feels he was so trashed as a failure in Chicago.
It's easy to be mystified by these Bengals, particularly after they were so lousy against Houston two Sundays ago. But if they have an efficient back and Carson Palmer at 90 percent of classic Carson, this is going to be a team to be reckoned with down the stretch.
5. Fifteen years later, and close to the scene of his prime, Heath Shuler returns to the field Tuesday night.
Shuler, 37, the third overall pick in the 1994 draft by Washington, is a Democratic congressman from North Carolina. He'll quarterback a team from Congress against the Capitol Hill police Tuesday night at 8 at the D.C. Armory, in a game benefiting the Capitol police. The other day, from the floor of the House, he talked to me about life today between votes. "Hold on!'' he said at one point. "Gotta vote on this investment for more solar energy research.'' Shuler went away for 45 seconds, voted yea, and returned.
Of course, Tuesday's flag-football game won't be the same for Shuler. His foot hurts every time he puts too much pressure on it or tries to sprint, the result of two surgeries late in his career after he broke the sesamoid bone in his toe. Still he'll hear the same thing he hears a lot around town these days, with the Redskins in such a funk. "People say to me, 'We need you back with the 'Skins!' '' Shuler said. "I tell them, 'You obviously slept through what it was like back then.' '' Ugly, he means. Shuler was a classic busted pick, winning four games in two seasons before being dealt to New Orleans, then hurting his foot so that he couldn't play anymore.
But he's always been a man of faith who thinks there's a reason for everything, so he hasn't moped much. And he thinks his training in football -- getting ripped by columnists and booed by fans -- helped him in his new life. "Football helped me in so many ways in this job,'' he said. "The work ethic. Leading by example. Having thick skin. Everything didn't go so great in the NFL, and you hear about it when you play. In politics, your opponent can make a 30-second attack ad and go after you. Football's no different from this life.''
6. NFL might try to find a home team for England.
On the heels of a third straight sellout in London Sunday, everyone's looking for the Next Big Thing in international expansion. Two games in England next year, probably, with the prospect of going to four in Europe by 2012. But I'm told reliably (and reported on NBC Sunday night) that one of the options the NFL will consider in the next year is choosing one team to play annually in London, so the league can work to develop a following over there.
If the league can find a willing partner -- Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk wrote Sunday night, "Get ready for the London Shaguars'' -- it could be an interesting experiment. Say the Glazer family, owners of the Bucs and Manchester United, wanted to form some sort of marketing partnership. Particularly with an expanded schedule to 17 or 18 games, would the Glazers want to play a Buc Bowl over there annually? Would Jacksonville trade one of its non-sellouts for a crowd of 75,000 there each year? Or would Buffalo? Stay tuned.
7. Get ready for Brett Favre Hype Week.
Favre handled the friendly portion of the blood-feud home-and-home series between Minnesota and Green Bay quite well (24-of-31 passing in the Metrodome, 271 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions). None of those 31 passes were more than moderate-risks, and he didn't go nuts trying to make big plays in Minnesota's victory. I wonder how he'll react walking onto the turf at Lambeau for Sunday's late-afternoon game between the Vikings and Packers.
I think Favre believes he'll have more than a few supporters in the stands. But a longtime Green Bay resident told me recently what he thinks, from talking to the townies, that the crowd will be almost entirely anti-Favre, and the sentiment will be loud. I remember one time Jerry Rice telling me, "Lambeau Field's an amazing place. They don't really boo us much. When we left the field after one game there, a bunch of fans yelled to us, 'Good luck the rest of the year.' '' Well, I doubt there will be much of that for Favre Sunday.
"This is Brett's homecoming, let's be real about it," Packers safety Atari Bigby told the Green Bay Press Gazette. "Of course it's going to be special. Everybody wants to see this, everybody's going to be in tune with this game. It's more special than us playing in Minnesota.''
I checked out StubHub this morning to see the fervor. You can buy two for Sunday in the 14th row at the 30-yard line for $2,800. Later in the month, you can buy a pair against San Francisco in the 12th row at the 30-yard line for $458. Should be interesting to see how Favre responds to whatever comes.
1. New Orleans (6-0). Thirty-six points in the second half on the road. Did you get that? Thirty-six. That's almost as many Viagra/Cialis commercials you see in an average Sunday. When FOX scanned the Miami bench with 40 seconds left, the players looked like 36 trucks had just run them over.
2. Indianapolis (6-0). The only remotely alarming thing I saw out of their 15th consecutive regular season victory was safety Bob Sanders leaving the field with 14 minutes to go, presumably to ice up for the 10-game schedule ahead. When that's the worst thing to happen, you're a very good team.
3. Denver (6-0). Take one young coach and one old safety. Add water, two eggs, three cups of flour, and you have yourself a championship cake.
4. Pittsburgh (5-2). Four wins in a row headed into the bye and then a showdown at Denver, with a defense that's finally showing up in the fourth quarter.
5. New England (5-2). Pats 94, TitanBucs 7 over the past two weeks, on two continents.
6. Minnesota (6-1).Chester Taylor's going to cringe when he watches the film from Sunday's game because he handed Keyaron Fox a touchdown. This game should have gone to OT after a Vikings field goal knotted it at 20, or the Vikings should have had a touchdown with less than a minute to go -- leading to a narrow victory. But that's football.
7. Cincinnati (5-2). The most enigmatic team of not only this season, but of the past few. A 45-3 lead over the Bears (not the Bucs, the Bears) after 46 minutes. Cincinnati's first seven series: TD, TD, TD, TD, field goal, TD, TD.
8. Green Bay (4-2). Nice little warmup for this weekend's Favre Bowl. Packers corners Al Harris and Charles Woodson made life miserable for Browns receivers all day. (Which, come to think of it, is like Harris and Woodson shutting down Ashwaubenon High.) Derek Anderson threw to Cleveland rookies Muhammad Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie 13 times. One was complete.
9. Arizona (4-2). With the Cardinals first three-game road winning streak since 1987, we can now say goodbye to this old saw: Cards can't win in Eastern Time. They're 3-0 in my time zone this calendar season (Carolina, Jacksonville, Giants).
10. San Diego (3-3).Norv Turner to me postgame: "Vincent Jackson's an incredible football player. You've called him an NBA-type player, and you're right. He's so gifted.''
11. Dallas (4-2). Finally a pass rush, the kind of pass rush the Cowboys have been lacking the entire season. Matt Ryan had been sacked twice in the first five games. Dallas got him four times.
12. Atlanta (4-2). Can't kill 'em for losing at New England and at Dallas ... but they'll need better pressure on the quarterback to win at New Orleans next Monday night.
13. New York Giants (5-2). What quality win does New York have? Week 2 over the Cowboys? That's it. And the Jints have allowed 72 points in the past eight quarters. They're in trouble.
14. Philadelphia (3-2). You know, maybe Michael Vick is just a lousy option quarterback. Maybe. But I still think the Eagles have to find a way to make Vick more of a factor, perhaps starting tonight against Washington. It's on Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg.
15. Houston (4-3). Past three weeks: Matt Schaub's completed 68 percent of his throws, with eight touchdowns and two picks. Pretty soon we'll have to put him in the top-10-quarterbacks discussion.
"There was no doubt on our sidelines that we would come back and win.''-- New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, after the Saints rallied from a 24-3 first-half deficit to beat Miami 46-34.
There was a lot of doubt elsewhere, buddy.
"I'll be up to the challenge.''-- Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, who announced Sunday that he would undergo season-ending shoulder surgery on Wednesday by noted orthopedist James Andrews, then -- barring complications -- make himself available for the NFL's April draft.
Let's do the math here. Bradford's surgery is Oct. 28. The rehab for the injury is between four and six months. Let's halve that and say five months before he's back to semi-normal. That's March 28 -- precisely four weeks before the weekend of the 2010 NFL draft. That would leave 19 days for Bradford to work out for the teams that would be interested in him, and for every team to see what kind of shape his shoulder is in.
By my count, at least four teams drafting in the top half of the first round next April will want a quarterback -- Cleveland, Washington, St. Louis and San Francisco (which holds Carolina's first-round pick), along with possibly Tennessee and Oakland. Those teams will have a tough decision to make. Do you take a quarterback coming off significant shoulder surgery without being positive whether the injury will flare up again?
"This is going to be one of the diciest picks a team has ever had to make,'' one club official of a team that may have interest in Bradford told me Sunday evening. Another team executive told me this is a hairier decision than teams had to make with Michael Crabtree coming off the stress fracture in his foot last winter, when Crabtree was unable to work out. The investment in a quarterback is different, quite simply because when you've used a top pick on a passer, you forget it as a draft priority for the next three or four years; when you take a receiver high, there's no reason to not pick one high in the next draft because of the widespread use of multiple-receiver sets.
Said the executive: "The team that picks Bradford will be a very, very confident team, because it won't be an easy pick.''
"Under the facts and circumstances of this case, it would be a miscarriage of justice to pursue criminal charges and we will not ask our citizens to give up their valuable time for jury duty, nor will we allow our criminal justice system to be compromised."-- Napa County (Calif.) district attorney Gary Lieberstein, in announcing the county would not pursue assault charges against Oakland coach Tom Cable.
Oakland assistant coach Randy Hanson publicly accused Cable of punching him and breaking his jaw. Now Hanson will have to decide whether to pursue civil charges. Cable will have to decide whether to pursue civil changes against Hanson, and the league will have to decide whether to sanction Cable for whatever actually happened in the training-camp meeting room that August day.
"Actually I wasn't.''-- Oakland quarterback JaMarcus Russell, responding to coach Tom Cable saying he was "out of sorts'' during the 38-0 loss to the Jets Sunday.
If that performance isn't "out of sorts,'' kid, I'd like to see a performance that is. Russell was 6-of-11 with no touchdowns and two interceptions. After seven games, he's completing a league-low 46.3-percent of his throws.
I'd like to thank two people -- Len Pasquarelli of ESPN and Mark Godich of Sports Illustrated -- for talking some sense into me over the past couple of years. Pasquarelli told me to stop naming so many players and coaches and goats of the week, and I said, OK, I'll think about it. Then, after last week, when I had six players sharing offensive and defensive honors, Godich, a former editor of mine at the magazine, e-mailed to tell me I was a foolish ninny, or words to that effect. They're right, of course. I'm going with a max of two in each category the rest of the way, and I'm going to try to keep it to one per category each week. Because I know how meaningful these ritzy awards are to the players and coaches involved.
Offensive Player of the Week
Shonn Greene, RB, New York Jets
When Leon Washington was lost for the season with a broken leg at Oakland, Jets fans re-familiarized themselves with a player from Iowa they'd seen carry the ball only seven times this season. The Jets used most of their draft currency to move up for Mark Sanchez at No. 5, so the team's first pick after him was Greene at 65, at the start of the third round. All Greene did at Oakland was rush 19 times for 144 yards, a 7.6-yard average, with two touchdowns. They'll need him for the rest of the season to take the load off Thomas Jones.
Defensive Player of the Week
Leon Hall, CB, Cincinnati
On a day of great defensive performances -- Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather had a two-interception game in London -- Hall's job took top honors because he not only picked off two Jay Cutler passes in Cincinnati's rout of the Bears, but also knocked two more passes away and had seven tackles. The Bengals' secondary is no longer a liability with Hall and Johnathan Joseph a formidable cornerback duo.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Spencer Havner, TE, Green Bay
The third-team tight end had two of the biggest plays, back-to-back, in the Packers' lopsided win at Cleveland. With the Browns up 3-0 early in the second quarter and fellow tight end Jermichael Finley injured, Havner took a pass from Aaron Rodgers and rumbled 45 yards for a touchdown, giving the Pack a lead it would not relinquish. On the next play, the Green Bay kickoff, Havner shed a double-team block by two ineffective Browns and slammed into the best special-teamer alive, return man Josh Cribbs of the Browns, and stopped Cribbs at the Cleveland 30.
Coach of the Week
Dick Jauron, head coach, Buffalo
Meaningless games beckoned earlier this month, with sprouting billboards calling for Jauron's job as the Bills stared at a two-game trip to the Jets and Panthers. During the visit to the Jets, a quarterback from Harvard, Ryan Fitzpatrick, was asked to save a season, and the Bills won in overtime. On Sunday they got past a bad Carolina team in Charlotte. This won't get the billboards overtaken, but the past eight days showed this team still plays for Jauron.
Goat of the Week
JaMarcus Russell, QB, Oakland
One step forward last week, three steps back this week. On the Raiders' first play, 12 seconds into the game, Russell showed his poor sense of pocket presence again, getting strip-sacked by Calvin Pace. A Jets touchdown soon followed. On the second series, under pressure, Russell made the most ridiculous throw I've seen this year. Jets safety Jim Leonhard stood about three yards past the line of scrimmage, virtually alone, looking for someone to cover, and Russell threw the ball to him as though he were the intended receiver.
Russell completed the trifecta 14 minutes into the game, throwing a pick to Darrelle Revis in the end zone as Oakland drove, trying to salvage a score before the end of of the quarter. Hard to roast him for that one, because Revis made a great play. Still, another bad sign overall that Russell can't be anyone's quarterback of the future.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. The shame of the NFL: Manning doesn't throw for 300. First time all year -- and the Colts still win by 35 points.
2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. "Drew Brees is my MVP so far,'' said Tony Dungy, the man who coached Peyton Manning until last January.
3. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh. Seven weeks, 70 percent passing, six interceptions ... and he's faced significantly more pressure than he thought he'd be seeing.
4. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota. I assume you saw him run over William Gay of the Steelers on Sunday with the game on the line. That's not a figure of speech. He trucked Gay. Ruined him.
5. Elvis Dumervil, OLB, Denver. I debated over Dumervil or Kyle Orton for this spot. At the beginning of the season, what odds would you have given me that we'd be arguing whether one of the league's most valuable players throught seven weeks would be Orton or Dumervil? Fifty to one? I picked Dumervil here because, with 10 sacks, he's been the irreplaceable key to a defense that's given Denver a chance every week.
The Miles Austin revelation is shocking, particularly when seen in the light of wide receiver Roy Williams. Comparing the past two games of Austin with the Dallas career of the currently forgettable Williams:
Draft picks used to acquire each: Austin 0 (undrafted college free agent out of Monmouth, 2006); Williams 3 (first-, third- and sixth-round picks in trade with Detroit, 2008).
Salary: Austin, $1.5 million; Williams averages $9 million annually on a five-year, $45 million contract signed with Dallas last year.
In sum, Austin makes 1/6th annually what Williams makes, and he's produced as many yards in two weeks as Williams has in a totally unproductive 12 months with the Cowboys.
Indianapolis won at St. Louis Sunday. In its past 19 games, Indianapolis is 17-2 and St. Louis is 2-17.
I guess I don't mind foreign football, though I have doubts it will work. But if I were a fan in Miami, New Orleans or Tampa in the past three years, I'd have a big problem with it.
The New England-Tampa Bay game Sunday in London was a home game for the Bucs. The Bucs haven't hosted the Patriots in a regular-season game in Tampa Bay since 1997, and under the current scheduling format, which calls for NFL teams to play at out-of-conference foe at home once every eight years, the Patriots won't be in Tampa 'til 2017. Tom Brady will be 40 then. Who knows? He may still be playing, but I'd bet Brady will never play a regular season game in Tampa, ever.
Two years ago, the league moved Miami's home game with the Giants -- likely the only Giants-Dolphins game in Miami 'til 2015 -- to London. That would make it a full generation, 19 years, between Giants games in south Florida.
And when the Chargers played the Saints in London last year, it meant no San Diego trip to Louisiana until 2016. So Saints fans in New Orleans will never get to see LaDainian Tomlinson.
What I'd suggest: The league should stop scheduling cross-conference games for foreign soil, or limit them. The Tampa fan probably wouldn't miss an Atlanta game nearly as much as he'd miss Brady's only appearance ever in Raymond James Stadium.
If you traverse this great land, you know the difference between gum-chewers and gum-poppers. Chewers are barely audible. Poppers somehow make a snapping sound with each chew. Know what I'm talking about? It's madness, I tell you.
On Saturday, about 30 minutes into the Boston-to-New York Acela trip, I found myself sitting in front of a gum-popper. Across the aisle in the quarter-full car were two silent Kindle readers. Behind me, with his Bose headphones silencing all the noise in the car (including his gum-chewing), was the nearly rhythmic snap-pause-snap-pause-snap of the clueless gum-popper. I had three choices: ignore it and go on with my typing, tell the guy to please stop popping, or move to the opposite end of the car.
I moved. Gum-popping, I think, is one of the truly annoying things that we just have to put up with. Like the 35 erectile-dysfunction drug commercials per Sunday.
"My father played for the coach from 'rememeber the titans.' Our coach played golf. My father played for redskins briefley. Our coach. Nuthn."
-- @ToonIcon, Kansas City RB Larry Johnson, on Sunday evening, in what is possibly one of the least intelligent Tweets in athletic history. I'm talking about the content, not the spelling.
First, it's emotional, done in the heat of the aftermath of a disastrously one-sided loss to the Chargers. Second, it's a shot at a coach who's given Johnson a tremendous chance this year (Adrian Peterson touches: 156; Johnson touches: 144). Third: How does Johnson think this isn't going to be become public knowledge?
Before this, I thought Johnson was a smart guy.
1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of Week 7:
a. What really impresses me about the Cardinals is their defensive tenacity along the front seven. That wasn't there with any consistency last year under defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Ken Whisenhunt had the club fire Pendergast coming off a Super Bowl season, and the renewed emphasis on aggressive pass rush and run-defense paid dividends Sunday night against the Giants. They had Eli Manning on the run all night and forced him into some bad decisions. Arizona clearly has taken control of the NFC West.
b. I loved what Daryl Johnston said on FOX after Jeff Reed gave a weak effort while trying to tackle Percy Harvin on a kickoff return for touchdown in the fourth quarter. "What is THAT!'' Johnston said. "Are you kidding me! That is unacceptable.'' Some would argue the same could be said for Favre's efforts on Pittsburgh's interception returns.
c. Percy Harvin. What a force. And how valuable he's become. Did you see Favre run 35 yards downfield to check on Harvin when he was shaken up in the second half of Vikes-Steelers?
d. Much less yukking on the FOX pregame show Sunday. A very good show.
e. The proverbial difference in philosophy apparently led to the divorce between the NFL Network and its excellent Sunday morning pregame show producer, Brian Hyland (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a friend of mine from the HBO days). That show is losing a lot of good people.
f. Excellent story by Pete Thamel in Sunday's New York Times about Rhodes Scholar Myron Rolle, the Florida State safety who put off the NFL for a year while studying at Oxford. The lesson from Rolle is so good -- that you don't have to be just an athlete, and that using your brain can be as rewarding as using your body. It should be required reading for all college athletes.
g. Stupid, stupid display by Ahmad Bradshaw in the fourth quarter of Giants-Cards. First the killer fumble with four minutes left and the Giants down by seven ... then the punch to the face of a Cardinals tackler, causing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with the Giants backed up inside their five. You can't lose your cool like that.
h. Check out this football card of Josh McDaniels. It's from 1995, from the Big 33 high school all-star game between Pennsylvania and Ohio. It's the only card of McDaniels, obviously, seeing that he went on to play Division III football and never played in the NFL. When he got the Denver coaching job last January, the card could be had for 75 cents. On Friday, it was selling for $40 on some of the secondary markets.
Think of the timing of this. In 1995, McDaniels was a huge Browns fan, and Bill Belichick was getting run out of town right about then. Belichick's the guy who eventually became his mentor, obviously. And now look at him. He hasn't changed much, has he?
i. One leftover from Week 6: No matter what Floyd Reese says about his wife blasting the Titans, he'll be smiling inside.
2. I think, Jeff Fisher, that 0-6 is no time to fool around with wearing a Peyton Manning jersey with cameras present. This isn't a fireable offense by any means, and owner Bud Adams should retain Fisher barring a ridiculous breakdown of team authority and discipline. This just struck me as over the top and wrong.
3. I think the NFL should do its game officials a favor on these AFL classic games, the ones when the original American Football League teams face each other in the throwback unis. Please, please, please take them out of the outfits that make them look like human creamsicles.
4. I think Kevin Boss' diving catch, with the full knowledge that he was about to get ear-holed by Arizona's Antrel Rolle, gets my vote as the second-best catch of the first half of the season, right behind Greg Lewis' tip-toe job in the back of the end zone for the Vikings to beat San Francisco. What a great play, and it was even better to hang on while getting popped.
5. I think this is what I liked about Week 7:
a. One good sign (and there aren't many) for Steve Spagnuolo in St. Louis: Danny Amendola can play. He's a good returner and Welker-esque receiver.
b. I like the call by Brad Childress, down 13-6 after three failures at fourth-and-goal from the Steelers' one. With Casey Hampton over the first-year starter at center, John Sullivan, Childress went for the field goal. I'd have taken the three points instead of going for the seven.
c. Karl Paymah made a great hit on Hines Ward, helmet to midsection, that stopped a Pittsburgh drive. As one of the subs for the uber-valuable Antoine Winfield,Paymah was a real worry heading into this game. He held up well.
d. I like the assuredness and self-confidence Alex Smith showed subbing for the struggling Shaun Hill with the 49ers. I bet Smith starts again next week. (SI.com's Don Banks was equally impressed with Smith.)
e. Rashard Mendenhall's the man in Pittsburgh now. Face it. When you have 14-, 15- and 17-yard carries against the Vikings defensive front, you're solidifying your grip on a job the coaches already want to give you.
f. I loved Arizona's philosophy of blitzing Eli Manning so much, and blitzing the Giants on run downs too.
g. Best sign for the Jets: Mark Sanchez playing with confidence.
h. Houston's better than we think.
i. Al Michaels is probably right: that was one of the Arizona Cardinals' biggest wins ever, going to the Meadowlands and being the better team and coming out with one.
j. Ryan Grant will tell you he had to work pretty hard for those 148 yards against Cleveland. That was a good old game of grind-it-out played by the Packers in Cleveland.
k. The Jets had two runners over 120 on the road, which is great ... until you realize it came against the Raiders. How the Raiders can follow an inspired 13-9 win over Philly, a team just as good as the Jets, with a 38-point loss to the Jets is beyond me. Very poor tackling by the Raiders Sunday.
l. Sidney Rice is flowering with Favre throwing him the ball.
6. I think these are the things I didn't like about Week 7:
a. Chris Chambers: San Diego traded for you a couple of years ago, in part, for your hands. Use them.
b. Two bad throws in a row by Matt Cassel with the Chargers-Chiefs game getting interesting in the second half. Gotta make better throws than that.
c. Anyone on Kansas City feel like covering Darren Sproles?
d. Jake Delhomme almost seemed resigned to his fate after the bad loss to Buffalo. John Fox, after the three-pick game by Delhomme, probably has to bench him. And now how bad does the Carolina trade of its 2010 first-rounder (to get defensive lineman Everette Brown last year) look, obviously needing a quarterback of the future?
e. The Bears without Brian Urlacher and Tommie Harris look hopeless to stop anything.
f. Looks like a season-ending knee injury for impressive rookie corner Bradley Fletcher, the Rams' third-round pick.
g. You got schooled by Dwight Freeney in your first start at left tackle, Jason Smith. Join the club.
7. I think it's incredible that we're almost halfway into this season and Kyle Orton is ahead of Jay Cutler in almost all ways. Count them:
a. Wins: Orton's 6-0, Cutler 3-3.
b. Passing yards: Orton's 13 ahead.
c. Touchdown-to-interception differential: Orton's plus-8, Cutler plus-1.
d. Yards-per-attempt: Orton's .70 better, against the guy who's supposed to have the biggest arm in the league.
e. Passer rating: Orton 100.1, Cutler 82.9.
8. I think I might have overrated the impact of the video board in Dallas. Still some big legs coming to town, but in three regular-season home games, there have been no direct hits of the board ... though Michael Koenen of the Falcons snaked one around the board Sunday against the Cowboys.
9. I think I'd be a lot more impressed by the Patriots scoring 80 straight points over the Titans and Bucs the last two weeks if they weren't a combined 0-13.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week.
a. It pains me to say it, obviously, but congrats to the Yankees. They're the best team in baseball, and they deserve to be facing off against the defending champs in the 2009 Arctic World Series.
b. Baseball has to do something about its postseason schedule. Come on, Bob Costas. Rattle a cage or two. Tell Bud Selig you can't have a one-day-on, one-day-off schedule. It negates the importance of having a deep team and a real bullpen if all your 'pen men can pitch every game.
c. Call me 112 Across.
d. I'm at a book signing last Wednesday for Monday Morning Quarterback: A fully caffeinated guide to everything you need to know about the NFL, in Boston, and this fellow I don't know, Brendan EmmettQuigley, comes up to me in line and introduces himself. Says he's a "crossword constructor,'' hands me a card with said title on it, asks if I remember my wish to one day be in the New York Times crossword, and tells me to make sure I read the Sunday crossword. Intimates I'll be in it, and for more than one clue.
Whoa. Now, a month ago, I wrote in this column that my goal in life was to be in the crossword, which was a bit tongue-in-cheekish but nonetheless something I thought would be extremely cool. My wife and I are crossword people, but we can't get past the Thursday puzzle generally. Anyway, come to find out that I'm actually the theme in the puzzle, for wishing I would one day be in it.
That raised the ire of one Keith Olbermann, a much more famous man than I am, because he's been trying to get in the puzzle, even appealing to editor Will Shortz. And so Keith gave me a few raspberries Sunday on the Football Night in America show.
Anyway, the King-themed puzzle clogged up a blog run by crossword aficionado Rex Parker in New York, eliciting comments like: "This puzzle is about the weirdest thing I've seen in the NYT. It's like a love letter to one guy. Why anyone else should care, I don't know. If you wanna put the guy in a puzzle, just put him in a puzzle. No need to beatify him like this.''
And from 'Meg': "I did not have a negative reaction to this puzzle. Actually, I feel kind of sorry for the guy. I mean, if your goal in life is to be mentioned in a puzzle ... So I felt like BEQ was doing this poor sot a favor more than showing adulation.''
And this: "For Peter King's egomania to be rewarded so laboriously is icky.'' And this: "Build it around a Winston Churchill quote, or even someone alive and not nearly as famous. But a blowhard sportswriter -- with a Brett Favre infatuation -- who has his share of critics?''
And, finally, this: "It doesn't matter how well known Peter King or the quote is or how much Peter King likes Brett Favre, who I've despised from the beginning of his career for a lot of reasons, one of which is that he's supposedly a 'blue collar' player on a 'blue collar' team. That drives me nuts! Do people think the players on these 'blue collar' teams all go to offseason jobs at the brewery or the steel mill? The Canton Bulldogs haven't played in years. Now that was a blue-collar team. The Packers and the Steelers get their players from the same places all the other teams do. Also, that stupid fiction everybody subscribes to that somehow the northern teams play better in the cold. Most of their players grew up in Houston! Auugh! I can't stand Brett Favre! Don Meredith, now there was a quarterback.''
Aaah, the crossword crowd. Anyway, thanks for the highlight, Brendan.
e. Coffeenerdness: I'll tell you what we need in midtown Manhattan -- a Starbucks open until midnight on Sundays. As my MacBook Air expired Sunday, I had 4,500 forlorn words for MMQB written, but they were locked in the snowy vault of the white screen. Uh-oh. Screwed. So I went about recalling everything and rewriting everything, miserably, with only green tea and deli coffee as strong as a dying housecat. I needed something to kick in around 5 this morning. What's the closest Starbucks to Rockefeller Center with late Sunday hours?
f. The Curb Your Enthusiasm with Larry dating not one handicapped woman but two has got to be on the top 10 "Curb'' list of all time.
g. Good note from NBC's Joe Gesue: Looks like next Sunday's going to be the first day ever with regular or postseason hockey, basketball, baseball and football all going on the same day.
h. Good luck at Comcast, Tom Curran.
Philadelphia 23, Washington 10. I expect the voices that began to waft up into the owners' box last week ("Sell the TEAM! Sell the TEAM!'') will grow louder tonight if the Redskins put up another performance like the all-time stinker against Kansas City last week. Even though Redskins football czar Vinny Cerrato said Friday that Jim Zorn won't be fired this year, I'm skeptical. I said to Cerrato Sunday, "What happens if you guys get your clocks cleaned the next three games? Won't you have to fire him then?''
"That's not going to happen,'' he said. "But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.''
He also said owner Dan Snyder was "on board'' with the change of play-callers from Zorn to Sherm Lewis. "Who do you think I talked it over with?'' Cerrato said.
The Redskins probably are going to have to get a quarterback after the season. Charley Casserly had some good tape Sunday on the CBS pregame show of Jason Campbell ignoring open receivers downfield to consistently throw checkdowns. This echoes what opposing coaches have been saying, and it's certainly part of why McDaniels wouldn't trade Cutler to the Redskins in April; he wanted a quarterback he could trust and one he felt he could win with, and that quarterback was not Campbell.
This is a game the Redskins defense is going to have to win, and I don't think they can hold the Eagles down. Philly's explosive plays will carry the day.