The new year will begin without clear-cut Super Bowl XLIV favorite

Publish date:

1. Best team in football? We don't have one right now.

2. I don't like what Indy did Sunday, but we knew it was coming. Why all the outrage?

3. Steve Smith, the Carolina Steve Smith, leads the NFL in guts.

4. Darrelle Revis looks like the Defensive Player of the Year.

5. Bengals-Jets was the only real choice for the final Sunday night game of the year.

There's more to this last MMQB column of 2009 (including The Odyssey of Referee Bill Leavy, the longshot that 2011 football is becoming, Mike Shanahan and Bill Cowher and jobs) but let's start with those five earlier landmarks.


It's going to be a wide-open January. At this point of each of the past six years, we thought we knew the best team in the game as the regular-season drew to a close. It looked like New England in 2003 and '04, the Colts in '05 and '06, perfect New England the next year, and Pittsburgh or Tennessee last year. My money would be on San Diego this season if I were a betting man this morning, but I'm glad I'm not.

The problem: Every good team is flawed. New England can't rush the passer. You can score on Philadelphia. Dallas, other than on plays to Miles Austin, isn't explosive on offense. The Saints are psycho; I don't know what they are anymore. The Vikings' offensive line is a real quagmire. The Colts can't run, though it hasn't seemed to hurt them much. And San Diego is beat up on defense, with a sputtering run game too.

Maybe an Arizona will pop up this year, a surprise team that rides the wave. This year, that team might be Green Bay or Arizona ... or maybe even the Jets because of a run game that always seems to find 175 yards of production somewhere. But the fact is, there's no lock in either conference. That means the next month will be fun and maddening.

San Diego might be a killer because Philip Rivers has been as clutch a player as there's been in the league over the past two months -- and because he has the best set of offensive weapons in the game right now. It's been a long, strange trip for San Diego. Think back to the Chargers losing by 10 at Pittsburgh and 11 at home to Denver in October. They were 2-3. The Greatest Team on Paper was dissolving -- again. Norv Turner was 12 weeks from the unemployment line.

Since then, San Diego's won at Denver, at the Giants, at Dallas, and by 25 against a Tennessee team that had won seven of eight, playing on a short week. Turner's done this while juggling offensive gameplans with a running game averaging a paltry 3.3 yards a pop, and subbing most of the season for a center, Nick Hardwick, who's as important a pivot as on any other line in the league, with the exception of Jeff Saturday in Indianapolis. Turner, who is more often a punching bag in the media than a praised coach, deserves some props for his role in the Charger revival.

I spoke to Turner Sunday -- he had given his team and staff the day off, the benefit of the Christmas night game robbing them of their holiday -- and he said the difference in the season came when his team didn't allow the 2-3 start to snowball. "Sometimes, I think if a good team loses a few, like Tennessee this year, it's important to not overthink what's going on,'' he said. "We played one bad game, against Pittsburgh. Against Baltimore, we lost but threw for 430. Against Denver, we had 280 yards at the half. We were going to be fine, and the players just had to believe that. When we lost to Denver to go to 2-3, I told the team, 'It's not physical, it's mental.' We're a good team.''

Three other interesting nuggets from Turner. He said tight end Antonio Gates "is playing his position as well, as consistently, as any guy I've seen at any position in my years of coaching.'' High praise for a guy who coached Aikman, Emmitt and Irvin in the Cowboy glory years. He said he'd rest Shawne Merriman (plantar fasciatis) against Washington in the meaningless regular-season finale Sunday, which would give him about 22 days off between the game at Tennessee Christmas night and the first playoff game Jan. 16 or 17. "I can't say enough about his effort,'' Turner said. And he said "he's confident'' he'll have a contract extension soon, which has been a foregone conclusion with the team on a 10-game winning streak.

San Diego could have a bear of a run to the Super Bowl -- New England at home in the divisional game, then at Indianapolis. The Chargers, though, have beaten both. They're 3-3 against New England over the past seven years, and 4-1 against Indy in their past five meetings, including two straight playoff wins. Both would be great games.


Steve Smith says his broken forearm is "a minor nuisance.'' Right away in the NBC viewing room at Rockefeller Center Sunday, when Smith got slammed by Giants safety Michael Johnson as he gathered in a pass from Matt Moore near the goal line, Rodney Harrison said, "His arm's broken.'' Harrison knows about broken arms. He broke his in the Patriots' third Super Bowl game this decade, against Carolina, and stayed on the field for the rest of the series though he knew it was broken.

"Toughest wide receiver in football,'' Harrison said of Smith.

Toughest player, I'd say.

The play came two minutes into the second half, from the Giants' 21-yard line.

"When I came out of my break to catch the ball,'' Smith told me from the Panthers' locker room, "I knew I didn't have long to go up and make the catch before I was going to get hit. I felt him [Johnson] coming. But that happens all the time. You catch the ball, you take the hit, you hang on. And so the ball came and I caught it, and he slammed into me. I felt it [break] right away. The bones were moving, shifting in there.''

"How'd you hold onto the ball?'' I asked.

"There was no chance I'd drop it,'' he said. "I'd die before I'd drop that ball. Then I fell into the end zone, and when I got up, I knew it was broken.''

He went to lift the left arm to help him cradle the ball, but the left arm wasn't working; he couldn't use it for support. So he went to the sidelines -- without grimacing -- and said to the trainer who came to meet him, "It's broken, man.''

"I didn't want anybody to touch it,'' he said.

He said he recalled in college colliding with BYU linebacker Rob Morris and breaking a neck vertebrae. He said it's part of the game.

"He gave me his best shot,'' Smith said, "and I must be a pretty good player. Because I broke my arm and still scored the touchdown.''

When Smith was getting the arm X-rayed, the doctor told him he'd have to have it set in surgery this morning. Smith wanted the doctor to cast it so he could play Sunday in the season finale against New Orleans -- a game that means nothing because Carolina's been eliminated from the playoffs. GM Marty Hurney told him that would be impossible, obviously. Bones set in three months, not five days.

"You in pain right now?'' I asked.

"Sort of,'' he said. "It's more of a minor nuisance.''

Football players are different than the rest of us.


Colts fans and NFL fans are seething. This e-mail from a 45-year Colts fan, Ron Olshemsky of Sherrill, N.Y., in the wake of the 14-0 Colts yanking many of their starters with a 15-10 lead in the third quarter, and going on to lose 29-15 to the Jets at home: "I have experienced all of the ups and downs and aggravations that any fan has. I don't recall having a reaction like I had when they pulled the starters. If you don't aspire to greatness, what is the point? I could have dealt with a Peyton Manning injury better than what I feel like now. If it took the wind out of my sails, what do they think is going to happen to the players? You could tell by their reactions on the sidelines. Honestly, I look for an early exit again. Even though I can't stand Bill Belichick, I respected the fact he played that last regular season game against the Giants in 2007 like it was the Super Bowl. How many chances for immortality are there?''

I get it. And I agree. I think, especially because Peyton Manning takes so few big hits (in 12 seasons, he's never missed a start), it's not ultra-dangerous to leave him in the game, even if the untrustworthy Tony Ugoh is playing left tackle instead of Charley Johnson (turf toe). The Colts could rest the guys they need to rest, in my opinion, without putting Manning at undue risk of injury. In the last two years, he'd dropped back to pass 1,132 times and been sacked 24 times. That's one sack per every 47 dropbacks. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore and Manning are smart. They could easily have formulated a gameplan including only quick and intermediate throws, to even further lower the risk of injury.

I understand the Colts' philosophy about not wanting to get key guys hurt. But whether players voice their feelings or not, guys like Manning and Reggie Wayne want to leave their footprints in the game forever. And you'll never be able to convince me they don't care about 16-0. I don't buy it. Manning doesn't know his stats like Pete Rose knew his, but he's well aware of his place in the pantheon. Why wouldn't he long to have an MVP season in the midst of one of the great seasons a team has ever had? I think he does. You could see it on his face. The pained expression on the closeups said it all. The guy I feel for is Curtis Painter. Talk about a baptism by fire. The only time the Lucas Oil crowd got loud Sunday was to boo the poor kid in his first extended playing time in the NFL. A shame.


It's beginning to look a lot like Revis. The suspense on the MVP has dissolved; I'd be stunned if Peyton Manning didn't get a majority of the 50 votes in the Associated Press balloting due next Monday. Coach of the Year could go to any of five or six deserving men. Offensive Player of the Year may depend on whether Tennessee running back Chris Johnson gets the 128 yards he needs to hit the 2,000-yard mark Sunday in Seattle. Defensive Player of the Year? This award always carries some more weight because defensive players usually don't win the MVP (only Lawrence Taylor and Alan Page have). The prime contenders:

• Saints safety Darren Sharper, with nine interceptions (tied for the NFL lead), three touchdowns and a sick 376 return yards.

• Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, with eight interceptions, two touchdowns and four forced fumbles.

• Denver outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who leads the NFL with 17 sacks.

• Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, with six interceptions, a touchdown, and a league-high 31 passes defensed.

It's hard to quantify defensive stats, but I like the way Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders thinks. He has built a database that illuminates some dark statistical positions. At cornerback, for instance, interceptions are often not the best measurement if the player is not being thrown at much. So Schatz keeps numbers on the other important stats for defensive backs -- average yards allowed by team to No. 1 receivers (figuring that many corners will match up on the opposition's best wideout), average yards-after-the-catch allowed to opposing No. 1 receivers, and, to measure physicality, run tackles by cornerbacks.

In average yards allowed to top receivers, the Jets lead the league by a wide margin at 30.5 yards per game -- and that's almost always been Revis' man. Washington (43.6), San Diego (44.5), Philadelphia (45.5) and Green Bay (48.5) follow. In average yards-after-the-catch, the Jets are first, at 2.6 yards, followed by Indy (2.9), Philadelphia (3.1), Denver (3.1) and Cincinnati (3.2). Woodson is second in cornerback run tackles with 35, while Revis is eighth with 20.

It'll probably be a close vote, but I'm leaning toward Revis. He's been matched against Andre Johnson, Randy Moss, Marques Colston, Steve Smith, Roddy White and Reggie Wayne a total of seven times, and he hasn't allowed a 70-yard game. He's been the definition of shutdown corner. He combines wily coverage with a physical presence, and, at 24, there's not a young defensive player in football I'd take over him. Should be a good race.


The Bengals get their prime time moment.The Jets get a chance Rex Ryan thought they'd never have. In the end, the Colts and Saints made the league's decision on which game to flex to the last game of the regular-season Sunday night easy. With no historic unbeaten season in the offing, the NFL could take the game with certain playoff implications and put it on NBC with teams around the league waiting to see how the last spot or two in the playoffs would shake out. Two teams have win-and-they're-in situations: the Jets and Baltimore. The Bengals-Jets game is more desirable than Baltimore-Oakland for a few reasons. It's potentially a more competitive game, it's the last football game in Giants Stadium, the Bengals have been eager to play a prime-time game and have more star power than the Raiders, and it's better to have a 10-5 team on TV than a 5-10 team. I doubt the NFL wanted to put Charlie Frye and 20,000 empty seats in Oakland on the showcase prime-time game of week 17.

Lots of people have asked why the Dallas-Philadelphia game, for the championship of the NFC East, wasn't flexed. A couple of reasons. All things being equal, the league would have preferred an AFC game to be flexed. By the end of the current contract in 2013, the league has to have flexed an equal number of FOX (NFC) and CBS (AFC) games to the Sunday night NFL package on NBC. As of today, the league has shifted four more NFC games than AFC games. So this lowers the margin to three. Another factor is that, by virtue of the Giants losing to Carolina and Dallas beating Washington, Dallas and Philadelphia were already playoff-bound. Now it's just a question of which seed each will be.

One more interesting note from the league's scheduling czar, Howard Katz, late last night: I was under the impression that NBC, with its two wild-card games Jan. 9, got the first choice of which game to put in prime time on that Saturday night. Then FOX and CBS would take an NFC and AFC game, respectively, and NBC would be left with the unchosen game for its second Saturday game.

"I don't know how that ever got started,'' Katz said, "but it's not true. None of the networks get a choice. They all lobby, of course, but it's a league decision.''

1. San Diego (12-3). Remember how the game everyone wanted to see was New Orleans-Minnesota? It was that way for two months. Now it's San Diego-Indy.

2. Indianapolis (14-1). Very, very tough call. San Diego and Indy can both pass. Neither runs well. The Colts rush the passer better. I guess this is a combination of recent history (San Diego 4, Indy 1 in their last five meetings) and how they're playing now. You're thinking I have the Colts behind San Diego because Indy lost to the Jets. Not so. Though I would like to see the Colts play better, I made this ranking because the Chargers have played better over the past two months. In the past 10 games, San Diego's outscored foes by an average of 31-16. In its past 10, Indy's won games 26-20, on average.

3. Dallas (10-5). In this year's NFL, you rise and fall like penny stocks. Ergo, Dallas to number three.

4. Philadelphia (11-4). Did you see the sideline catch by Jeremy Maclin on the decisive drive of the victory over Denver, the one when Maclin just barely toe-tapped on the grass next to the sideline? Huge play. Gain of 27. Set up the winning field goal by David Akers. And with Brent Celek and DeSean Jackson already impact players for a terrific offense, if Maclin starts making winning plays like this, who are teams going to cover in the postseason?

5. Minnesota (11-3). I know the running game is worrisome, but the Vikes have to be smelling the top seed. If the Vikes sweep the playing-for-nothing Bears and Giants, and the Saints stumble at Carolina (how will Vegas possibly make a sane line for Saints-Panthers?), Minnesota wins the top NFC seed.

6. New Orleans (13-2). In the past four weeks, the Saints have played teams with a combined record of 25-35. And they've been outscored 100-96. It's officially time to worry.

7. New England (10-5). Only bit of bad news for the suddenly Patriot-like Patriots came five minutes into the game against Jacksonville. Two extra offensive linemen came in on a goal-line run play for New England at the Jags one-yard line. Laurence Maroney took a handoff from Tom Brady and tried to bust up the scrum and ... got nothing. Except a fumble. That was it for Maroney on the day. Now he's in the doghouse, and it was Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor and Kevin Faulk the rest of the day.

8. Arizona (10-5). Arizona-Green Bay Sunday in the desert. Then Arizona-Green Bay the next Sunday in the desert, quite possibly.

9. Green Bay (10-5). Study the old man well, Charles Woodson. You could be seeing Kurt Warner for two weekends in a row.

10. Cincinnati (10-5). Strong words from Rodney Harrison on "Football Night in America,'' calling the Bengals frauds on TV last night.

11. Pittsburgh (8-7). The Steelers might not be a playoff team, but they're exciting.

12. Baltimore (8-7). The best thing Ravens coach John Harbaugh could do this morning is put a stop to the-officials-cost-us-the-game talk that I'm sure is all over the Baltimore practice facility. Watch the four costly calls and you'll see they all were justified, with one asterisk. It was clear the Ravens felt the Frank Walker illegal-contact foul shouldn't have been called because the Ravens thought Ben Roethlisberger was out of the pocket on the play, and if the quarterback's out of the pocket, a receiver can be hit beyond the five-yard bump zone. Now, I haven't watched the play with all the angles timed right to see whether Big Ben is out of the pocket, but someone who watched the play told me he felt Roethlisberger was still in the pocket.

13. Carolina (7-8). The Panthers are better running the ball and stopping the run than Denver right now.

14. Houston (8-7). Edge the Jets because of offensive explosiveness. Amazing, isn't it, that Matt Schaub's going to end up with 4,700 passing yards or so. What's this league coming to?

15. Denver (8-7). Points for valor, but the Broncos are 2-7 since Nov. 1.

"The perfect season was never an issue with us. We've said it time and time again. It's somebody else's issue, not ours.''-- Colts president Bill Polian, after Indy coach Jim Caldwell removed many of the starters, including Peyton Manning, with a 15-10 lead over the Jets Sunday. The Colts went on to get creamed, 29-15, ending their chance for a perfect season.

"I disagree with their whole scheme ... They don't let me rush. They're all against me, or whatever.''-- Washington defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, to the Washington Post after being sent home from practice Friday when he was 20 minutes tardy to a team meeting. Haynesworth believes the defense doesn't cater to his pass-rushing strengths.

"I think he knows that he should.''-- John Madden, in Sunday's New York Post, asked by columnist Steve Serby if Oakland owner and close Madden friend Al Davis should hire a football czar."

"How would we look at a team that threw away a game to get a higher draft pick? How is that dif than the Colts game today?''-- alvaradoangel, Angel Alvarado, late in the Colts' 29-15 loss to the Jets, ruining Indy's chance for a perfect season.

Good question, Angel. Very good question.

Offensive Player of the Week

Matt Moore, QB, Carolina.

This could easily have gone to Jonathan Stewart (28 carries, a franchise-record 206 rushing yards), but I've got to hand it to Moore, for a simple reason: He's a career benchwarmer, and in the past eight days he's beaten Super Bowl champions Brett Favre and Eli Manning by a combined 67-16, and he's done it by completing 68 percent of his throws (36 of 53) for 470 yards, with six touchdowns and no interceptions. "Some guys just need a chance,'' Steve Smith told me, "and this is Matt's.'' The only question is, what took John Fox so long to yank Jake Delhomme in the midst of the worst year of his life and play this wunderkind?

Defensive Player of the Week

Aaron Schobel, DE, Buffalo.

A few days before Sunday's game in Atlanta, Schobel told reporters in Buffalo he was considering retirement. "I don't think I'm as athletic as I once was,'' the 32-year-old defensive end said. "If I'm not as good as I once was, I'm not going to be around.'' He might want to hold off on buying the Winnebago. Schobel had three sacks of Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan (one in each of the first three quarters of Buffalo's loss to the Falcons. Two of them were strip-sacks, though Buffalo didn't recover either fumble. These were the 76th, 77th and 78th career sacks for Schobel, and the first three-sack game he's had since 2006.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Brad Smith, KR/WR, New York Jets.

Not only did Smith, the former Mizzou Tiger quarterback, give the Jets their first lead over the previously 14-0 Colts with a 106-yard kickoff return for touchdown, but also the special-teams ace had three tackles in the Jets' 29-15 win. Smith caught the Pat McAfee line-drive kickoff awkwardly around his facemask six yards deep, then took the ball up the right sideline, touched only once and never seriously threatened. His touchdown, the second longest kickoff return in NFL history, gave New York a 10-9 lead on the first play of the third quarter.

Coach of the Week

Richard Bisaccia, special teams coordinator, Tampa Bay.

The 77-yard punt return for touchdown by Micheal Spurlock that helped the Bucs shock New Orleans continued a superb season for the Bucs' special teams. Bisaccia's crew has returned punts and kickoffs for touchdowns, blocked two extra points, blocked one field goal, blocked two punts, deflected one other punt and recovered two onside kicks. Bucs special teams accounted for 14 of their 20 points at New Orleans.

Goat of the Week

Oniel Cousins, T, Baltimore.

He had one of the worst quarters a tackle could have, and it could go a long way toward knocking the Ravens out of the playoffs. Early in the fourth quarter of a 20-20 game in Pittsburgh, the Ravens' right tackle -- playing because left tackle Jared Gaither was out with an injury, forcing normal right tackle Michael Oher to play the blind side -- took the Ravens out of field-goal range with a shove in the back to LaMarr Woodley long after the whistle. Instead of trying a 43-yard field goal for the lead, the Ravens had to punt. On Baltimore's last possession, trailing 23-20, Cousins was beaten for successive sacks by Woodley, again taking Baltimore out of field-goal range. The second sack forced a fumble that was recovered by Ziggy Hood, ending the game.

I'll tell you a sign that a team loves a player:

LaDainian Tomlinson does not have a 100-yard game this year. He has not averaged more than four yards a carry in any game since opening day. He's had one run of more than 25 yards in 221 carries this year. But the coaching staff and organization knows how important his legacy is, and how touchdowns are ultra-important to him, so he's remained the goal-line back, and has 12 rushing touchdowns, third most in the league.

Check out the top five on the NFL's all-time touchdown list, and see the one category in NFL history -- touchdowns per season -- in which LT is lapping the field:

You'd have to go back to Jim Brown to find a comparable touchdown-scorer to Tomlinson. Playing a 12-game schedule for half his career and a 14-game schedule for the other half, Brown scored 126 touchdowns in nine years, an average of 14.0 per season.

Tomlinson has a slight edge over Brown in touchdowns per game in a career: 1.09 per game for Tomlinson, 1.07 for Brown.

As you know, I'm loathe to put players into Canton before they finish playing. I love the five-year waiting period because it allows the emotion to settle and the numbers and impact of a player to sink in, with the chance to calmly compare one star to another. But one day around 2017, Tomlinson has a heck of a chance to be joining his boyhood idol, Emmitt Smith, in the Hall of Fame.

Great point fromCold Hard Football Facts Sunday night: In his past two games against Jacksonville, Tom Brady is 49 of 54 (.907) with seven touchdowns and no interceptions.

Factoid II: Wes Welker was targeted by Brady 13 times Sunday. And caught all 13.

This is not my travel note. It is veteran NFL referee Bill Leavy's. It happened two weekends ago, when snow blanketed the East Coast and travel was predictably difficult.

Normally, an NFL official flies to the game site to arrive Saturday afternoon for meetings, video study and a meal. Leavy, a retired cop and firefighter, lives in San Jose and had the Ravens-Bears game on Dec. 20. On Friday, he got an alert from the league office that advised him to fly Friday because of the bad weather approaching. So he booked a redeye with another official on his crew from the same area, back judge Keith Ferguson. The flight would leave San Francisco, fly to Boston overnight, and they'd change planes for the short hop to Washington. Then they get a lift to the BWI Airport Marriott on the southern edge of Baltimore to meet up with the crew and have their regular Saturday meetings.

"Everything was fine until we started our descent for Washington,'' Leavy said. "We were second in line to land when the pilot pulled up and got on the speaker and said, 'They've just closed the airport in Washington. They're going to divert us to Raleigh.' So that's where we went.''

It was snowing lightly in Raleigh. Leavy looked for trains and buses to the Washington-Baltimore area. He could find nothing. So he and Ferguson rented an SUV and set off on the five-hour drive, 300 miles, to the hotel a few miles south of the site of Sunday's game. It was 1:30 in the afternoon. With any luck, they'd be at the hotel by 6 or 6:30. So they got on the road and the snow picked up. By the time they were around Richmond, traffic was crawling and the snow was heavy. Officiating czar Mike Pereira knew they hadn't been to bed yet, and for their safety and sanity and the good of the game Sunday, he wanted them to get a good night's sleep. They got off the interstate twice looking for hotels. Nothing. All booked. So they knew they had to keep driving.

Then, about 40 miles south of Washington, in a heavy storm, traffic on all three lanes stopped dead. For 30 minutes. An hour. Two hours. Nothing moved.

"I know everyone'll think we're suckups now,'' Leavy told me, "but we were just sitting there, tired of listening to hours of country music and Christmas music, and I got out our training tapes and our weekly replay tapes, and we just sat there, in the middle the highway, doing our homework, basically.''

Three hours.

"Is it possible,'' Leavy asked Ferguson, "that we'll still be sitting here tomorrow in the middle of this highway -- and the Ravens and Bears will play the game without us? I might miss my first NFL game.''

Four hours. Finally, about 2 a.m., more than four hours after they'd stopped dead in the road, the traffic started moving. At 4 a.m., they got to the Marriott, checked in, and slept. Leavy got seven hours. He felt great. They worked an uneventful game, got a nice phone call thanking them for their efforts from Roger Goodell, and then planned to leave Monday morning. One problem: His plane ticket was mistakenly ticketed for Sunday, not Monday. Instead of getting home Monday afternoon, Leavy got home around 9 Monday night.

"It sort of felt like 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles,' '' Leavy said.

So you wanted the glamorous life of an NFL official, did you?

1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. Manning was pedestrian Sunday, but he probably can't sit enough to lose his fourth MVP to Rivers.

2. Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego. In the Chargers' 10-game winning streak, Rivers has 20 TDs, six picks, six games with a rating over 100 and zero games with a completion percentage under 60. There's no denying it now -- Rivers is playing the best football of any quarterback drafted in the past six years.

3. (tie) Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. Something is going wrong here. Normally, I'd say a 32-of-37 game would be cause for celebration and a leap up high into the MVP standings here. But this was a dink-and-dunk 32-of-37, producing only 17 points.

3. (tie) Brett Favre, QB, Minnesota. He and Brees have impossible roads to the MVP, barring something very strange happening.

5. Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets. In 35 minutes, his man in Indy, Reggie Wayne, had three catches for 33 yards and no TDs. The strong streak of good play continues.

1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of Week 16:

a. Todd Haley swears he didn't give that Kansas City fan the finger. I hope he's right.

b. What a weird Week 17. Bengals-Jets, Philly-Dallas, Cards-Pack could all play back-to-back weeks, depending how the Wild Card matchups fall.

c. I don't see how Tom Coughlin keeps his defensive coordinator, Bill Sheridan, after another alarming debacle Sunday.

d. Yes, I did report last night about the exceedingly gray pall over the labor negotiations between players and owners. I hear progress is virtually nil and the players are pessimistic that a new deal will get done in time for them to play the 2011 season. It was clear listening to Jerry Jones on NBC last night that the league wants to blow up the current system it views favorable to the players, and it's just as clear that if that happens, the players want something significant in return.

e. San Diego catches a major health break, getting the bye in the first round of the playoffs, as well as a couple of extra days to rest over the weekend.

f. America gave up on the Patriots too soon.

g. I wouldn't want to play the Packers right now.

h. Unless he flops against the Ravens, Shane Lechler's likely going to have the best season a punter ever had. He's a lock to break his own record for net punting average and could break Sammy Baugh's 69-year-old record for gross punting average (51.4 yards; he's at 51.1).

2. I think the NFL is going to have to ask questions to the Competition Committee, and soon, about whether it's smart to ask fans to pay real money if teams are going to treat late-season games like exhibition games.

3. I think I'd present this scenario to you, regarding the proposed 18-game schedule: Suppose the Colts started the season 14-0, and with four games to play, the closest AFC team to them in the standings were New England at 10-4, and Indy had already beaten New England. So the Colts have homefield through the AFC playoff clinched. And say Weeks 17 and 18 are home games. Now you have four games that mean nothing to a team; this year there were three. More games on the schedule could well mean more going-through the motions to make sure guys don't get hurt.

4. think it's a very long shot, but it'd be fun to see the Texans in the postseason, just to see what damage Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson could do. Johnson became the second player Sunday to have back-to-back 1,500-yard receiving seasons, joining Marvin Harrison. "I've never seen so many coverages designed for one player,'' said coach Gary Kubiak. "He's not only a great player and a great kid, but he's very smart in games.''

5. I think as much as I've had my differences with the man (and that might be my Euphemism of the Year), Terrell Owens deserves kudos for making it to 1,000 catches, which he did Sunday in Atlanta. Owens may not make it 1,100 -- I don't know what team will bring him in next spring as a possible third receiver -- but let him revel in the fun of being a mid-major receiver who persevered and became the sixth player in NFL history to hit 1,000.

6. I think this is what I liked about Week 16:

a. Loved the effort of VinceYoung when the game was essentially lost Friday night. His attitude has undergone a sea change.

b. Julius Peppers lives. What got into him?

c. Good hands, Mike Wallace.

d. Four straight 1,000-yard seasons for Frank Gore. I'd never have guessed he's the only Niner to ever have four 1,000-yard seasons, but it's so.

e. When the Houston trainer was giving Gary Kubiak an injury rundown at halftime of the Texans' game at Miami, he mentioned rookie linebacker Brian Cushing being banged up in the first half. Cushing was hooked up to an IV and winked at Kubiak, as if to say, "I'll be out there. Don't worry.''

f. Travelle Wharton, Geoff Schwartz. They're the Carolina tackles who kept Matt Moore fairly clean and helped open the holes for Jonathan Stewart's franchise-record 206-yard rushing day.

g. Matt Moore is 5-2 as a starting quarterback. Looks smart, decisive. I'd be shocked if he didn't compete for the starting job in Carolina next year, assuming whoever coaches the team doesn't import a big-time quarterback.

h. Dallas' Jay Ratliff is playing the best he's ever played. He's getting to be the best-known noseman in the NFC, and for the right reasons. Strong, agile and tireless.

i. The Bucs having a never-say-die attitude in New Orleans and becoming the first team in league history with 12 losses to defeat a team with 13 wins. The missed field goal at the end of regulation helped, but they still had to seal the deal with the game-winning drive in overtime. Admirable effort.

7. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 16:

a. I hope that interception to A.J. Hawk slipped out of your hands, Matt Hasselbeck. If not, that's the Wounded Duck of the Year.

b. Laurence Maroney fumbled at the goal line for the third time this year. No worries, Laurence. It's only seven points in a game with playoff implications.

c. Are you kidding me, Dwayne Bowe? What a shameful, unprofessional display of alligator arms, resulting in a Matt Cassel interception that never should have been.

e. The Washington offense. "It was a disaster, yes,'' Jim Zorn said, in what is sure to be his second-to-last postgame presser as an NFL head coach.

f. Pro Bowl rosters will be announced Tuesday night. If I'm lucky, I'll be out at "Up in the Air.''

g. Seattle has to think about its quarterback of the future. Matt Hasselbeck looks lost.

8. I think that stinker the Giants threw up in the last Giant game at Giants Stadium (and I do mean "threw up'') should make everyone in that organization think hard about whether the talent and coach inside the place is overrated. I was certain the Giants had the deepest 53-man roster at the start of the season, but GM Jerry Reese has to look hard at the money the Giants spent in free-agency and decide if guys like Rocky Bernard and Chris Canty were bad signings or simple bad injury luck in 2009. Only Tennessee, Kansas City, Detroit and St. Louis -- now there's a murderer's row of great defenses -- have allowed more than the Giants' 383 points. Tom Coughlin and Reese need to make some major changes there, and one of the players to go might be Osi Umenyiora, who sounded like he wanted out after the game.

9. I think Jerome Harrison has had a season in the past eight days. His totals against Kansas City and Oakland: 73 carries, 434 yards, four touchdowns. Those numbers, over 16 games, are a 3,472-yard pace. Which would break a couple of records.

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

a. Rest in peace, Connie Hines.

b. Don't know Connie Hines? I'll give you a clue: She starred in the greatest sitcom in American television history. (Answer later in this item.)

c. The family got frozen out of "Sherlock Holmes'' on Christmas afternoon, so we settled for "The Hangover,'' on DVD. Laughed as hard this time as when I saw it on the big screen.

d. I watch far too many reruns of "The Office,'' mindlessly. I can't help myself. I'm gaining a much better appreciation for the greatness of Kevin's acting.

e. Coffeenerdness: I believe I set an espresso record over the weekend. Three days, six drinks, 18 shots. That's got to change. Soon.

f. I'd just like to know, as a frequent flier, how a guy passes through security twice with explosives sewn into his underwear. Don't we have animals to sniff bomb-laden underwear? Can we figure out a better system to uncover hidden bombs?

g. "So this means his retirement was an Urban legend?'' Keith Olbermann said on the set of "Football Night in America'' last night. About flip-flopping Florida coach Urban Meyer, of course.

h. I don't understand the Meyer story. What changed overnight? I admired him very much for stepping away, but not so much for coming back. There has to be a part of this that will allow Meyer to leave for good if he continues to experience the same health problems during the season.

i. So a few of you haven't received your books that I signed and we mailed out. If you're one of the folks whose book never came back, send me an email at, and we'll look into it and get back to you within a week.

j. I will be getting Kindle-conversant this week. Looking forward to it.

k. Connie Hines played Carol Post, the terminally unaware wife of Wilbur Post, who talked to Mr. Ed the horse in "Mr. Ed.'' She was the perfect southern California wife, pert and pretty and polite. But how are you married to a man who talks to a horse without knowing your husband has a close and conversational relationship with a large white horse who once tried out for the Dodgers and took sliding lessons from Leo Durocher?

Is Chicago really a great job in the unlikely event Lovie Smith gets fired? To rebuild the Bears will take at least three primo offensive linemen, one or two wide receivers, a rush end, an impact linebacker, a safety with an anvil in his shoulder pads and one cover corner. The Bears have $11 million invested in Smith over the next two years, which makes his ouster problematic. I'm not expecting much from the Bears tonight in a game the Vikings have to win to hold off the hard-changing Eagles for the second playoff bye in the NFC -- I call it Minnesota 26, Chicago 10 -- but I'll tell you the game they'd better not lose. Chicago at Detroit, Week 17, with the third-string quarterback playing for the Lions. A loss like that would be very hazardous to Smith's Chicago future.