Meanwhile, Peyton Manning might have clinched his fourth MVP thanks to four telling days. Mike Tomlin turned Belichickian. Vince Young turned into John Wayne. Ndamukong Suh turned into a Ram. Chad Ochocinco, in defeat, turned noble. Tony Romo turned clutch, and that's where we start this morning in Chapter 15 of a compelling NFL season.
NEW ORLEANS -- Into the gym bag at the foot of his locker in the emptied-out Superdome as Saturday turned into Sunday, Romo stuffed his possessions for the trip home after the biggest win of his young NFL career. Dallas 24, previously unbeaten New Orleans 17. If you saw it, you know it wasn't an upset. On this night the Cowboys were better than the best.
In the middle of the gym bag, a slightly scuffed NFL football peeked out.
"Game ball?'' I asked.
"Yup,'' he said, and smiled. "I'll be keeping that one for a while.''
Like, forever. We have a tendency in micro-examining this game to make judgments too fast on players at difficult positions to judge -- such as quarterback. A month ago, after two playoff games and 50 starts, Romo, a free-agent from Eastern Illinois in the eye of the constant America's Team storm, either couldn't rise to the occasion when times were big, couldn't win in December, couldn't win in January, was a bad leader because he took occasional quiet trips to Las Vegas, or ... well, does that about sum up the shortcomings of Tony Romo?
I'm going to take you to the moment when, in my opinion, we all just might draw the line of demarcation on Romo's career when we look back in 10 years. I think it came Saturday night in a place so raucous that even the nuns were standing and screaming. Yes, nuns attend the Saints' games -- eight of them. They're friends of owner Tom Benson, and they and three local monsignors come to most of the home games. There they were, in the crowd of 70,213, and midway through the fourth quarter all the locals were howling at the roof, and it was so loud, as I wrote Saturday night, that you couldn't read sign language.
At the start of the fourth quarter, the Saints, trying to win 'em all for the first time in team history, trailed 24-3. Now it was 24-17. Cowboys running back Felix Jones just got stuffed for a two-yard loss by a blitzing Roman Harper, making it third-and-seven at the Dallas 23, with blood in the water. Every Saints player and fan smelled it. It was Cowboy blood. It was also only a matter of time before Dallas pulled another December el foldo and dropped out of the playoff race, getting Wade Phillips fired in the process.
Timeout, Dallas. So much at stake for both sides.
(Forty minutes later, as I walked off the field after the game alongside Romo, the first thing he said, "Loudest game I've ever been in, anywhere, anytime. Incredible.'')
So loud that Romo knew he wouldn't be heard by any of his teammates for the rest of the game, except in very close contact in the huddle. So loud that to save time in the huddle, he gave the snap count with hand gestures rather than yelling it two or three times. As he came to the line, with two wide receivers to the right, he liked the matchup he saw on the outside: Miles Austin, the deceptively fast emerging star, across from wily veteran Mike McKenzie.
With the crowd at full throat, Romo bobbed his right leg and started the silent snap count. All that was at stake here was everything, but all Romo could think about was what offensive coordinator Jason Garrett had drilled into his head over the past couple of years: If you throw this pass in a March workout, then throw it again in April minicamp, and again in June minicamp, then through training camp and again in September and October in games, don't make this play any different than any of them. Because that's all this is -- a football play, like the thousands and thousands you've made since high school.
Romo got the snap, looked over the coverage, saw Austin get inside McKenzie on a quick slant toward the post, and zzzzzip, he threw the ball to Austin in full stride eight yards past the line of scrimmage, just enough for the first down ... and more. Austin ran for 24 more yards.
"In that situation,'' Austin said later, "I can hear myself think, but that's all I can hear. You've just got to trust the route you run and the throw. Tony put the ball right where it needed to be.''
On the next play, Romo wheeled out of pressure, pirouetting to his left, rolled out and hit third-string tight end John Phillips for 23, and on the next play hit backup wideout Sam Hurd for six more on a simple out pattern at the sideline. Three plays, two minutes, 61 yards, air out of the crowd. Dallas got no points out of the drive because Nick Folk clanked a field-goal try off the right upright, but the defense saved Dallas on the Saints' last-gasp drive.
My point about the three plays that silenced a city: Romo did what very good players have to do when the times are most important: He played naturally, like it was an August practice.
"Maturity,'' said Garrett. "It's so important for a quarterback. His approach is outstanding. He loves being in these situations. I'm a firm believer that you don't rise to the occasion. You just play like you always play. Why does Tiger Woods play so well in the clutch? Because he plays like he always plays, even at the biggest. That's how Michael Jordan was.''
One other interesting thing about Romo Saturday night: He said he does a lot of Sudoku. I told him he ought to try crosswords, but that would necessitate him listening to NPR on the way to work or watching the news semi-regularly. But that wouldn't fit his lifestyle, because he finds the best thing for him is to pretty much shut out the outside world.
"It's just best for me to put what everyone says and writes about us to the side,'' he said. "Like, I have no idea what you've written about me or said about me on TV. Have you been critical? I don't know. I don't care. It's all good. You've got a job to do, and sometimes that's going to entail being critical about us. But I just find it's best for me if I don't know any of it.''
Maturity, Garrett said. At 29, Romo has it, and the Cowboys ought to be the better for it over the next month -- and the next six or eight years.
There's a storm brewing in the North Country.
OK, start the e-mails coming now. Texts, Tweets, e-mails, whatever. But here's how I saw last night's Viking debacle: Not Brett Favre's fault.
Julius Peppers was Deacon Jones and Lawrence Taylor rolled into one dominant force for four quarters. It's the best I've ever seen Peppers play. I don't care what the stats said -- one sack, three other quarterback hits, one tackle. Peppers was as dominant as a defensive lineman can be. Once, he fought through two blockers, forced Favre to throw a wasted incompletion, and wrapped him up legally and fell atop him, crushing him to the ground. If Favre wasn't thinking, I came back at 40 for this?, when exactly would he ever question his decision to come back for another year?
Peppers' dominance got Bryant McKinnie yanked from the game. (When's the last time you saw a top-10 left tackle get pulled for performance, not being hurt? Ever? I don't recall it.) It forced Brad Childress to put pedestrian Artis Hicks at left tackle, and to keep a back in to chip on Peppers when the game got desperate and the Vikings fell behind in the second half.
But in the middle of the Minnesota ineffectiveness, the NBC cameras caught a semi-heated exchange between Favre and coach Childress. Evidently, it was Childress suggesting that maybe it was time for a relief pitcher. Maybe. (Two weeks ago, I was told Childress had suggested this once before this season, and Favre went batcrap then.)
Last night, there was no change. But Favre seemed peeved about it after the game.
"Yeah,'' Favre said, "we were up 7-6 at the time. No secret, I was getting hit a little bit. I felt the pressure on a lot of plays. We had seven points. So I think everyone in the building was like, 'They're not moving the ball. They're not getting points.' Brad wanted to go in a different direction and I wanted to stay in the game. We were up 7-6. Yeah, it's not 70-6, but we're up 7-6.
"So I said, 'I'm staying in the game, I'm playing.' I don't know if [Childress' effort] was exactly to protect me, or we had seven points, I'm not sure. That's his call. But we talked it out. We didn't have time, I didn't have time to sit there and say why or what. My response was, we've got to win this ballgame and I want to stay in and do whatever I can.''
You recall last year when Favre had the Jets 8-3 after 11 games, then fell apart in December. Could it happen again? Sure it could. But last year happened because of an injury. Favre's sore this season but not hurt, by all accounts. I'm sure there's plenty of blame to go around, and I'm not saying a quarterback should be so sacred that he should never get yanked from a game. But should a quarterback get yanked if he's got pressure in his face on play after play? Only to protect him from injury?
If that's what Childress was doing, I might understand it -- but I emphasize "might.'' A night earlier, the Saints had shown serious vulnerability, and now, with the gap between the two teams for NFC homefield edge only one game if the Vikings won here, this was no time to yank Favre. This was the time to battle through a bad game, survive, and try to fix what ails the team schematically this week.
This will be to Week 16 what Randy Moss-is-dogging-it was to Week 15. Get ready for all Favre, all the time.
Evidently, Chris Henry was growing up.
Maybe he just had a lover's blind spot. We don't know. I'm always skeptical of the stories about a troubled person that, in death, show him to be either a wonderful guy or a guy who was turning his life around. But Chris Henry, who died bizarrely last Thursday after being thrown from the bed of a pickup truck during an argument with his fianc� (the driver), had taken steps in that direction.
Henry and his former Bengal teammate T.J. Houshmandzadeh were not particularly close as teammates before Houshmandzadeh left for Seattle in free-agency. But they talked periodically after that, with Henry seeking a sort of elder to run life and football decisions past as he tried to straighten out his life.
"The way he acted in recent months, I knew he was going to make it,'' Houshmandzadeh said the other night from Seattle. "In the past, he never cared what you'd say. He never cared about next week, or even the next day. But this year, he'd call and ask for advice. Like, 'Hey T, I want to be a family man like you.' And, 'T, what do you think I should do about my [football] future?' I told him, Cincinnati's the place for you. Mr. Brown [Mike Brown, the owner] loves you, Slim, and they're going to do right by you. Stay there. Make sure you keep doing what's right. And he'd tell me, 'T, I ain't doing that stuff anymore. I'm going the right way.' ''
We haven't talked much about Henry (who was on IR with a broken arm suffered in November) as a football player, but the one thing I'll always think is that he could have been Alvin Harper. Harper was the field-stretcher for Troy Aikman for four seasons, averaging 20 yards a catch with 18 touchdowns opposite Michael Irvin. Opposite Chad Johnson/Ochocinco, Henry averaged 15.3 yards a catch with 21 touchdowns in significantly less playing time.
But the way the Bengals receivers stacked up, there wasn't a deep threat of the future on the Cincinnati roster. If a physically and mentally rehabbed Henry came into camp at 27 next year, without many scars on him, he'd have been no worse than the third wideout on the team. He'd have had 25 snaps a game in 2010.
"The one thing about Chris that was unique is he could maintain top speed for longer than most receivers could,'' Houshmandzadeh said. "Carson [Palmer] would throw him a long ball and you'd think it was overthrown, but Chris would keep going at top speed and catch up to it, play after play.'' Not that it should even be in the same paragraph with the loss felt by three children and a future wife left behind, but the Bengals have lost a significant piece of their offensive future.
The only lesson here, I think, is that some players, particularly those with troubled pasts or those who didn't have great mentoring growing up, need the structure and discipline that well-run pro organizations can provide. Not saying it's an elixir for everything, but it's a shame that Henry was away from his team on injured-reserve and didn't have the peers and tough-love coaches like Marvin Lewis around to talk through some of his problems.
Lewis handled his team well in the past few days. He told them in his pregame message in San Diego that Henry was a playmaker, and the best way to honor his memory would be for every player on the field to be a playmaker against San Diego. Ochocinco started in the first half by snaring a perfectly thrown 49-yard touchdown pass from Palmer, then falling to a knee in the end zone and sending a prayer to Henry. Palmer had his first 300-yard passing game in 24 months. (Now there's a stunning sentence.) The defense made a few stops. And the Chargers, the hottest team in the league west of Indianapolis, had to rally with a 52-yard field goal in the last seconds to win. If ever a team won by losing, it was Cincinnati on Sunday.
Is Daniel Snyder actually changing?
Time will tell. But talking to those who know him, they're shocked the fiery Redskins owner whacked close friend Vinny Cerrato and hired Bruce Allen -- and even gave Allen the authority of a real, live GM. But I want to see it work for a while.
I talked to Snyder on Friday and asked if this was finally going to be the time the Redskins were like most teams -- with the owner sitting above the fray as a checks-and-balances guy, entrusting most of the football decisions to a coach or GM or both. When Snyder introduced Allen last week, not much was said about who has authority over the big football decisions.
"Who's going to have final say on the coach -- you or Bruce?'' I asked.
"He is,'' said Snyder. "He's going to do it. I think he knows what fits here, and I trust him to make the right decision. We're not hiring anyone Bruce doesn't want.''
Allen is very careful with his words. When I relayed this and asked him the same question I asked Snyder. Allen said: "That's a fair assessment.''
So we'll see, as I said. As for now, I expect the Redskins to hire Mike Shanahan, and for Shanahan to bring in his own coaching staff -- including, as Chris Mortensen reported over the weekend, his son, current Houston offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, as offensive coordinator. I think Mike Shanahan would be energized by the Redskins and by working with Allen, a man as secretive and with the kind of football pedigree he likes, even if it means he has to use this year's first-round pick to find a quarterback instead of building the offensive line, which the Redskins definitely need to do.
I continue to think the only other place that makes any sense for Shanahan is Chicago. It was interesting to see GM Jerry Angelo say over the weekend that coach Lovie Smith will be evaluated at the end of the year. The Bears (21-26 since Super Bowl Sunday 2007, with no playoff wins) have been an abominable disappointment this season, and they lost their eighth game in the past 10 Sunday at Baltimore. The Jay Cutler trade, an abject failure. The offense, pathetic. Does it make sense to clean house, or just to fire the offensive staff? Something will be done, and watch Shanahan. He won't make any commitment until he knows which way the wind is blowing in Chicago -- unless he absolutely has to. Meaning that he'll keep his options open until given an ultimatum by a team.
Josh Cribbs had a nice day for himself in Kansas City -- and an eloquent one afterward.
Rodney Harrison said it best on "Football Night in America'' Sunday night: When's the last time the best player on a team has been a special-teamer or a return man? Cribbs set an NFL record with his seventh and eighth career kickoff returns for touchdown Sunday, and they were both telling. The first, a 100-yarder in the first quarter, was a combo platter of moves and speed and physical play, with Cribbs breaking two tackles. The second, a 103-yard darter in the second quarter of Cleveland's 41-34 win, was a speed race up the left sideline.
We're watching a return man very nearly the equal of the best return man of our time, Devin Hester (though his prime was short), and a special-teamer who's physical and willing. And he's rapidly becoming Eric Mangini's favorite player.
Because everything in Cleveland is so politically charged right now -- with two friends of Mike Holmgren telling me over the weekend they expect him to take the czar job after turning down a late rush from the Seahawks Saturday -- and Mangini's future in doubt, you have to take everything players and coaches say there cautiously. But the Browns have looked lively and breakneck in the last two games, beating two suspect teams, Pittsburgh and Kansas City (and that's putting it kindly in the case of the Chiefs).
With that as a backdrop, I asked Cribbs Sunday after the game: If you polled all the players on the team, what would be the vote on whether to keep or get rid of Mangini?
"I think it'd be unanimous,'' Cribbs said. "I think the guys would definitely want to keep him. You can't judge coach Mangini on one year. The camaraderie in the locker room is great. You hear things in the media about coach Mangini being too tough on us. But I think we're building something here, and I think the players are behind him.''
Cribbs is a smart kid. I'm not saying a calculating kid, but he does know what makes a team go. He must have talked for five minutes Sunday about his kickoff-unit protectors, Lawrence Vickers and Blake Costanzo and Jerome Harrison. (Harrison also had the 286-yard rushing game Sunday at Arrowhead, the third-biggest rushing day in NFL history. How ridiculous, by the way, that that's a parenthetical.)
Cribbs said he hasn't made his contract a big deal this year -- he's making $620,000, 30th-highest on the team -- because of something club legend and adviser Jim Brown said to him: "I was told by the greatest, Jim Brown, to just play, and everything would take care of itself,'' Cribbs said. "He said when he played, all he worried about was playing, and he figured if he played to the best of his ability, they'd have to pay him. If that's what the great Jim Brown did, I think it's smart for me to do it too. I am confident I will be taken care of.''
Interesting story Cribbs told me about halftime in Kansas City. Mangini told the team, "Josh Cribbs cannot keep bailing out this team by himself. He needs some help.'' And Harrison, a total roster afterthought, told Cribbs he was going to do something about it.
Harrison, a fourth-year back from Washington State, rushed for 60 yards in 2006, 142 in 2007, 246 in 2008 and, in the first 13 games this year, 301 yards. Cleveland trailed 24-20 at the half, and in the second half, Harrison rushed 22 times for 208 yards, with touchdown of 71, eight and 28 yards. I guess Harrison was right -- he did do something about it.
1. Indianapolis (14-0). Deservedly, the best team in football. Colts have won low-scoring affairs and shootouts. The one thing that's getting no attention, wrongly, is the Colts' cornerback play. When Indy lost Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson to injury, I was sure they'd have to play games in the 30s each week to win. But they've held 11 of 14 foes to 23 points or fewer, and rookies Jeraud Powers (third round, Auburn) and Jacob Lacey (free agent, Oklahoma State) have been clinging and tough, stunning for rookies playing quality time against the Randy Mosses, Andre Johnsons and, last Thursday, Torry Holt.
Credit the Colts' excellent scouting process -- led by director of player personnel Tom Telesco and new GM Chris Polian, with president Bill Polian overseeing the whole deal -- for uncovering an undersized guy like Lacey, who made the interception that clinched the win over Jacksonville Thursday. "He's small but with really good cover ability,'' Bill Polian said over the weekend. "Just great ball sense. Remember the Bill Bradley book, A Sense of Where You Are? That's what this kid reminds me of.''
2. San Diego (11-3). Chargers have won the close ones (a pair of three-point victories and a seven-point win the past three weeks), and the routs (back-to-back 29-point margins the two weeks before that) during their nine-game winning streak.
3. New Orleans (13-1). Past three weeks: Foes 77, Saints 76. Now the question is, how will the Saints respond to adversity?
4. Minnesota (11-3). Past three weeks: Foes 66, Vikings 54. Now the question is, how will the Vikes respond to adversity?
5. Dallas (9-5). For one night, at least, the Cowboys were the best team in football. Now they have to win Sunday night at their nemesis, Washington, where they've lost three of the past four.
6. Philadelphia (10-4). Tough call, Dallas leapfrogging Philly. But it comes down to Dallas' 20-16 head-to-head win six weeks ago and the quality of Dallas' win Saturday night. Still, Philly has a fighting chance to beat the Vikings for the second seed in the NFC playoffs.
7. Cincinnati (9-5). These are not your father's lay-down Bengals.
8. Baltimore (8-6). Starting to get the feeling this is a very dangerous fifth or sixth seed, unless the Ravens get torn apart physically at Pittsburgh on Sunday.
9. New England (9-5). There's still something wrong with that offense, but the beat-up defense responded by pressuring Buffalo consistently and forcing two quarterbacks to look awful in Orchard Park.
10. Arizona (9-5). Just a weird game in Detroit, a game the Cardinals could well have lost. In fact, two grim games in a row for Arizona on the road, which is where it will have to win a pair of games for a return trip to the Super Bowl.
11. Green Bay (9-5). Saints, Vikes, Pack. Maybe three of the four best teams in the NFL two days ago, but now with gigantic weekend zits.
12. Tennessee (7-7). Past eight games: 7-1, with the one being a fourth-quarter loss at Indy.
13. Denver (8-6). In six of the past eight weeks, Kyle Orton hasn't put up more than 17 points on the board. Yikes.
14. New York Giants (7-6). We'll see if they can survive some more secondary injuries tonight in Washington -- and we'll see if the line can protect Eli Manning against what's going to be an onslaught from 'Skins defensive coordinator Greg Blache.
15. Vacant. I don't know. You pick from among Pittsburgh, Carolina, Houston, Miami ... or about five other teams.
"Pretty fun. I'll bet you all counted us out too.''-- Oakland coach Tom Cable, to reporters, after JaMarcus Russell came off the bench to throw the winning touchdown pass in the final minute of another stunning victory by the Raiders, 20-19 at Denver.
"These shoulders that I have on my body, you can put the earth on it. Just to let you know: I bounce back.''-- New England wide receiver Randy Moss, who had a strong bounce-back game in New England's 17-10 win at Buffalo -- five catches, 70 yards, one touchdown -- after accusations of dogging it last week.
"Tony said we had no chance. No chance? None? He was a coach. He should know you always have a chance.''-- Dallas quarterback Tony Romo. The Cowboys had played to them NBC analyst Tony Dungy's statement from last week's "Football Night in America'' pregame show --that they had "no chance'' to beat New Orleans -- before beating the Saints Saturday night.
Offensive Player of the Week
Jerome Harrison, RB, Cleveland
Based on opening-day salaries of every roster, there are approximately 1,018 players who make more in base salary than Jerome Harrison's $535,000. Harrison broke the Browns' single-game rushing record (held by Jim Brown) by 49 yards Sunday, rushing for 286 yards in a victory over Kansas City.
Defensive Player of the Week
DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Dallas.
Sermonize if you wish about the intelligence of Ware playing six nights after being removed from the field on a body board, fully immobilized. But Ware was a force all night. At the end of the first half, he stopped a Saints' drive with a strip-sack of Drew Brees, leading to a Dallas field goal and a 17-3 halftime lead. Then, with the Superdome crowd exploding with 12 seconds to go at the Dallas 42, Brees went back on a last, desperate throw, and he never made it. Ware stripped him again, nose man Jay Ratliff recovered, and the Saints weren't unbeaten anymore. Ware saved his best game of the year for the most important game of the year.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Josh Cribbs, WR/KR, Cleveland.
Now we've seen it all from this guy: two 100-yard touchdown returns in one half of football. In fact, they came 17 minutes apart at Arrowhead Stadium against the Chiefs and gave him eight for his career, an NFL record for kick returns for touchdown. Late in the first quarter, he took a Ryan Succop kick at the goal line, shrugged off two arm tackles, weaved, then sped for a 100-yard touchdown. One quarter later, Cribbs broke through initial traffic and put the burners on; no one came close to tackling him.
I've said this about Josh Cribbs a few times this season. He's 26, he's the 30th-highest-paid player on the Browns (2009 salary: $620,000), and he's the best special-teams player and returner in football. Pretty valuable asset for the Browns heading into another offseason of rebuilding.
Coach of the Week
Jason Garrett, offensive coordinator, Dallas.
I thought he had a brilliant gameplan, well-executed by Tony Romo and well-designed by himself. The Cowboys put up 439 yards and went 8-of-15 in third-down conversions in the deafening maw of the Superdome, where offensive players had trouble hearing adjustments by Romo at the line of scrimmage.
On the vital fourth-quarter drive that ate the clock and should have resulted in a game-ensuring gimme field goal (that was missed) by headcase Nick Folk, Garrett had no problem with having Miles Austin, John Phillips and Sam Hurd be Romo's targets on consecutive plays with the season on the line. That's trusting your roster.
Goat of the Week
Jermon Bushrod, T, New Orleans.
There haven't been many games played by left tackles in 2009 worse than the one Bushrod threw out on the floor of the Superdome. After being abused several times during the night by DeMarcus Ware, Bushrod got turnstiled on the last two offensive snaps of the game for the Saints, leading to a pressure and an incompletion, then to a strip sack by Ware to end New Orleans' last-gasp chance in a 24-17 loss. Bushrod's going to need help against the kind of speed-rushers he's sure to see in the playoffs.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. Played another classic Thursday night, four touchdowns and a pick (through the hands of Dallas Clark), and, barring an upset in the last two weeks, should win his fourth MVP. That's how I see it, anyway.
2. Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego. Another game-winning drive, this one in the final minute to set up a field goal that gave the Chargers their ninth win in a row over a game Cincinnati team. It's a mark of how great Brees is playing right now that Charger fans actually Tweet and e-mail me, moaning about letting Brees get away. People: You've got a great quarterback on your team -- and he should be dropping back for you for the next decade. In the last 11 games (nine of them wins), Rivers has thrown 22 touchdowns and six interceptions.
3. (tie) Brett Favre, QB, Minnesota, and Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. I tie these two because they're coming off poor games brought on, in part, by leaky play by the tackles.
5. Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets. Well, Matt Ryan didn't throw that dagger-in-the-gut, winning touchdown against the New York Jets at Revis, who had Roddy White covered. That's because you just don't throw at Revis this year.
T-shirts are being sold in New Orleans with the religious fish symbol on the front, with the word Breesus in italics beneath.
I love the legroom on JetBlue. I love the satellite TV on JetBlue. I've come to the conclusion that the only reason I don't fly JetBlue and AirTran (with the WiFi) more often is the airline points. That's going to be my New Year's Resolution: Be more comfortable when I fly, not just points-minded. Well, one of my New Year's Resolutions.
"McKinnie attending the Flozell Adams school of pass pro?'' --@markschlereth, ESPN's Mark Schlereth, at 9:29 Sunday evening, around the time Minnesota left tackle Bryant McKinnie was being used as a turnstile and cardboard cutout by Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers.
1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of Week 15:
a. Hmmmm. Let's see. Saturday night TV (if you've got NFL Network). Saints-Cowboys. Central Florida-Rutgers. That's a tough call ... if you're Greg Schiano's father-in-law.
b. TiVo Alert: The NFL Network is showing "The Catch'' game at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve. It's the 1981 NFC Championship Game, Dallas-San Francisco at Candlestick (frozen in time in the very good retrospective this fall by Gary Myers), with Vin Scully and Hank Stram at the mike. That's worth the eternal space on your TiVo right there, Vin Scully describing Montana-to-Clark.
c. America, you're lucky the Rams ditched those uniforms of a decade ago -- the Greatest Show on Turf unis. Hideous. Memo to Rams: Please eliminate them from all future Throwback games, or call them Throwup Games if you use them again. They should all be incinerated.
d. "If I was a fan,'' Jonathan Vilma of the Saints told me, "I'd say [the Vikings] were a fun team to watch, with Favre and all that speed. But as a player, I can tell you how tough they'd be to prepare for, with all those weapons.'' We'd love to see you have the chance, Mr. Vilma.
e. Tom Cable says he'll start Charlie Frye at quarterback Sunday if he's healthy, recovered from getting a head-shot at Denver. What a crazy situation. I don't blame Cable, but how odd it is that you're waiting, waiting, waiting for JaMarcus Russell to show you something, and he shows you a great deal in driving the Raiders to the winning touchdown in Denver ... and now he's back at No. 2.
f. I know this about the Bills: If there's not a new quarterback under center in 2010, the locals are going to tear the stadium down.
g. Aaron Rodgers, 26 of 48, 383, three touchdowns. Ho-hum.
2. I think, apropos of nothing football, I just thought of something at 4:38 a.m. while listening to "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For,'' on ITunes, and thought you might find it interesting. When I went to see U2 in Dallas in October, Tiger Woods was in the house at Jerry Jones' new stadium, and when the first few chords of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For'' were played, Bono said, "This is for you, Tiger Woods.'' Eerie, no?
3. I think Clay Matthews, likely one of my Tuesday topics, was all over the field for Green Bay on Sunday at Pittsburgh, and it's a shame he didn't have more help in the fourth quarter. Matthews ... Brian Cushing, Brian Orakpo ... Jairus Byrd ... James Laurinaitis ... I mean, how do you pick a defensive rookie of the year this season?
4. I think one of the 7-7 teams in the AFC, and there are 20 or 25 of them, is going to make the playoffs. I think Denver falls at Philly on Sunday, falling to 8-7, and the Broncos' 6-5 conference record will lump them into a mosh pit of teams. The playoffs are there for Baltimore to take, if the Ravens can win at Pittsburgh.
5. I think Ben Roethlisberger was almost an afterthought, despite throwing for 503 yards. That's because of the crazy decision Mike Tomlin made -- I believe emboldened by what Bill Belichick did on fourth-and-two in Indianapolis. Tomlin's explanation of going for the onside kick with a two-point lead and a little under four minutes left against the Packers:
"I'll be very bluntly honest with you, based on the way the game was going in the second half, first of all I thought with the element of surprise we had a chance to get it, but if we didn't get it and they were to score, then we would have necessary time on the clock to score or match their score. Plan A didn't work, we got the ball but we were illegal, that was the correct call, but it kind of unfolded the way you envisioned it.
"We had 30 minutes of evidence that we could drive the ball on them, we also conversely had 30 minutes of evidence to show they could also drive the ball on us. That's why we took the risk when we did. We were just trying to win the football game. There was time left in that game that had we kicked that ball away and the half had gone the way that it'd gone, they were converting third downs. They would have moved the ball down the field on us, we wouldn't have had necessary time to respond. I'm just being honest, but it starts with feeling pretty good about the element of surprise and having a good chance to get that ball, but that part of it didn't work out.''
How the mighty defense has fallen. Wow. Mike Tomlin throwing his D to the wolves.
6. I think -- no, I believe I know --how the Colts are going to play the final two games of the year. It's smart to look at the history and the present when trying to figure out how the Colts will play the Jets at home Sunday and vs. Buffalo on the road a week from Sunday.
In 2005, when the Colts were in a similar situation as today, Peyton Manning and the first-unit offense played three series in Game 15 and one series in Game 16. That's the history side of it. Now let's look at the present. The Colts will not play Manning very much more than a series in either of the next two games if they feel they want to rest key players on offense that could affect Manning's health for the playoffs. (That also goes for the defense to some degree. Defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are both nursing injuries they can play with, but it's likely they will rest for much of the next two games.)
Left tackle Charley Johnson has a painful turf toe; he can't injure it any more than it's already hurt, but clearly staying off it would be the best medicine to have him fresh for the Colts' first playoff game in mid-January. Starting wideout Pierre Garcon has a hand injury. Indianapolis will get through this week and see how healthy Johnson and Garcon are before determining how much, if at all, they'll play. That, in turn, will help in making the decision on how much Manning will play.
Tony Ugoh is a useful sub at left tackle while Anthony Gonzalez, out since Week 1 with a knee injury, will try to practice full speed today for the first time since the injury. If the Colts are satisfied with the depth that each of those men provide, and comfortable that each can play Sunday, they might be more inclined to let Manning play for a half this week.
There is one other element of the decision that president Bill Polian and coach Jim Caldwell will take into account this week, and that is the defensive pressure Jets coach Rex Ryan will send in a desperate game for New York's playoff chances. All in all, it will be quite surprising to see Manning play into the third quarter against the Jets, and that will certainly put Indy's unbeaten record at risk.
7. I think this is what I liked about Week 15:
a. Beautiful catch and toe-tapping shy of the end line, Randy Moss.
b. The more I see of Chad Henne, the more I like him.
c. I love how hard the Rams are playing. Sign of respect for Steve Spagnuolo. But 12 losses in a row at home ... stunning.
d. Louis Delmas! What a pick-six by Delmas. If you haven't seen it, go here, and watch Delmas' third-quarter interception returned up the left sideline. Looked like a gymnast on the balance beam for about 20 yards.
e. The 1,000 temp workers in Philadelphia and the 1,500 in Baltimore who got stadiums ready after the east coast blizzard. In Philly, the temps showed up Saturday afternoon, before the snow ended, and were put in luxury boxes until shoveling commenced at about 10 p.m. For 17 hours, in shifts, they shoveled. When they were off, they were fed and watched movies and tv upstairs. Removing 22 inches of snow in a place that big so that it looked like it never snowed ... amazing.
f. Matt Ryan finishing off an 11-play, 73-yard drive with a six-yard touchdown strike to Tony Gonzalez in the closing minutes to defeat the Jets. Ryan hit Gonzalez in the middle of four defenders.
8. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 15:
a. The tackling of Reggie Nelson. The Jacksonville safety was horrendous on two Indy touchdowns, merely bouncing off Dallas Clark and not wrapping up, and then trying to club the ball loose from Reggie Wayne on his 65-yard catch-and-run when he could have tackled him. Ridiculous.
b. Kyle Vanden Bosch kicking at a Dolphins ballcarrier. "Bush league,'' said color man Dan Fouts on CBS. Agreed. Vanden Bosch is normally a great guy. Can't lose your mind like that
c. Keith Null's foolish carelessness. Or maybe his careless foolishness.
d. Bad, bad decision by Mark Sanchez, throwing into triple coverage with a minute to go in a crucial game against Atlanta. His third pick of the day sealed the 10-7 loss.
e.Four interceptions by Matt Hasselbeck. Boy is he going downhill fast.
f. It shouldn't be that hard for the Cardinals to win in Detroit. Arizona's defense is too inconsistent; you just can't give the Lions 161 rushing yards.
g.Jay Cutler, 10 of 27. Three interceptions. Every week you think it can't get worse for Cutler and it does. I'm not saying Mike Shanahan is the only guy to fix Cutler, but someone in that organization has to think of that, and soon.
9. I think Kerry Rhodes looks reborn. Rex Ryan has him coming off the edge more -- Rhodes lowered the boom on Jerious Norwood for a five-yard loss -- and Rhodes just seems to have his love of football back.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. I've got to see Up in the Air. Didn't get to a movie last week, and there are so many I want to see. Thanks for all your recommendations.
b. Getting audited by the state of New York. Bummer.
c. You go, Elin.
d. One of the great mornings of the season: Saturday, just after dawn, at Fair Grounds Race Course in an old New Orleans neighborhood. Oldest track in the country. Sat in the office of trainer Tom Amoss with Saints PR czar Greg Bensel, a the racing day took shape. In walks jockey Patrick Valenzuela, checking on one of his mounts for the day. The guy won the Kentucky Derby with Sunday Silence. He rode Arazi. He's been tormented by substance-abuse problems and is trying to put his life together, riding in front of 1,000 raceniks in New Orleans. Just a great scene.
e. Coffeenerdness: Cafe au lait (and a pair of warm beignets) for breakfast at Fair Grounds. When the coffee is hot, and you can taste the pungent chicory in it, that's every bit as a good as the best Italian Roast you can find anywhere.
f. Many, many queries about Paul Zimmerman, and so, at the holiday, I want to share with you a couple of things. One is the latest missive from wife Linda. It's a note about his progress, and then a link to her blog about Dr. Z's recovery, including an interesting calendar page with a great picture of the Z-man.
Here's the note from Linda: "Things have been moving right along. Paul is stronger every day and just as determined to improve. He has started 'restraint therapy' ... using his weaker hand/arm and NOT using his stronger hand/arm. Five hours a day five days a week ... but Paul is really working on it seven days a week ... kind of spreading the hours out! This is in addition to his 3 days a week at Kessler. We hope that everyone is having a wonderful Holiday Season ... and wishing all of you a HEALTHY 2010!''
You can find more Zim coverage and a cool photo of him on Linda's blog.
g. I know it's late, very late, for book recommendations for the holidays, but I have two. And it's not too late to get these books in hand by Thursday. (Last Wednesday night, I placed an order with Amazon, got two-day shipping, and the order was in my condo building in Boston the next day by 2 p.m.) So act now, and these can be yours this week ... I think.
h. Book one: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel football writer Bob McGinn's superbly researched The Ultimate Super Bowl Book. In game after game we thought we knew well, McGinn sheds the kind of light that only a deft student of the game can. He has a chapter, 10 to 12 pages, on each Super Bowl game.
I'll give you an example of the knowledge McGinn conveys, using the Giants-Patriots game two years ago as an example, talking about what McGinn correctly saw as the factor in the game that most influenced the outcome: defensive pressure by the Giants' four-man front. "Our guys were possessed, no question,'' then-Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo told McGinn.
Writes McGinn: "Playing the final game of his brilliant 15-year career, [Michael] Strahan led the onslaught with 5.5 pressures. [Justin] Tuck contributed 4.5 and [Osi] Umenyiora had 3.5. Two of Spagnuolo's blitzers, [Kawika] Mitchell and [Gibril] Wilson, each had two pressures ... [Logan] Mankins, [Matt] Light and center Dan Koppen all made the Pro Bowl for a New England line expertly coached by Dante Scarnecchia since 1999. Mankins allowed 5.5 pressures, while Light and right tackle Nick Kaczur allowed four each ... 'Trust me,' special teams coach Brad Seely said months later, 'I know Scarnecchia is still sick about it. Tom was running for his life.' ''
That's the kind of terrific insight you'll get from this book.
i. Book two: The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies, By Ray Didinger and Glen Macnow, with 121 various sports and Hollywood and media celebs picking their all-time faves. I love the comments, James Carville on Raging Bull, James Gandolfini on Bull Durham, and this, from Tim Tebow, on Rocky: "I was probably 10 years old when I first saw it. Our family had a mini-van with a TV in the back and we'd play tapes all day. I watched it over and over, I think because I kept hoping maybe this time he'll win. But as I look back on it, the ending was great because he lost -- but he still won. One of these days I'm going to run those steps and I know I'll hear that music pounding in my ears."
The authors asked me my favorite, and I said Field of Dreams, and I'm glad to count myself in the same league with Pete Carroll, Ernie Accorsi, Phil Simms, Mike Golic and Jim Calhoun on that one. I mean, who can resist the playing-catch-with-your-dad scene? This is a good book to put in the lavatory and read in eight-minutes snippets.
j. Go, you mighty Devils. Amazing, amazing franchise. They lose stars every single year (except Martin Brodeur). Lou Lamoriello simply trusts his scouts' acumen and his eye for players. No one knows half the players on New Jersey. And they're 17 games above .500, best in the NHL, with 51 points, most in the NHL.
Giants, 27-26. There's a new sheriff in town for the Redskins, and he'll be doing a lot of watching for the next three games. I asked new GM Bruce Allen what he hopes will be the trademarks of the team he'll be overseeing. "Good players, good coaching and good morale ... lead to winning," he said. Now if he can only settle on the two most important facets of a winner: the head coach and the quarterback.