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What divisional weekend lacked in drama, it made up in poignancy


The moment I liked most from the weekend happened Sunday night, in the bowels of Qualcomm Stadium, where Marty Schottenheimer had coached the Chargers for five seasons, and where he shockingly was fired after going 14-2 and losing an opening playoff game.

Marty's boy, Brian, the offensive coordinator of the Jets, had just done his part Sunday orchestrating an offense with a rookie quarterback and a rookie running back into an upset of the Chargers that left the locals just as deflated as they were in 2006. And as a light rain fell on this crumbling place, Brian took out his cell phone, dialed his dad's number, heard him say, "Hello,'' and son said to father: "Dad, this one's for you.''

There wasn't a lot of drama over the weekend in the four playoff games, but there's a lot of good stuff out there, in and around the NFL. Settle back, tell your boss you need a few minutes, and I hope I make this column worth your while.


A cornerback can't play much better than Darrelle Revis did Sunday.

"We've got a ton of respect for Revis,'' Philip Rivers told me Friday at the Chargers' training facility, "but we're not going to avoid him. We'll take some shots at him.''

Oh really? Rivers went back to pass 45 times (40 passes, two sacks, three runs after being chased from the pocket), and I charted Revis' coverage pattern on every one of Rivers' pass-drops. By my count, Rivers threw four passes into the zone where Revis had primary coverage, or to the man Revis was playing man-to-man. One was complete, to LaDainian Tomlinson, for a loss of four yards. One, to Legadu Naanee, was batted down by a diving Revis on a cross route. One, to Vincent Jackson, a deep pass up the left seam, was overthrown, with Revis and Jackson running stride for stride. And the fourth, to Jackson, was up for grabs between the two, with Revis coming down with a juggled ball for an interception in a spectacular play.

Four times Rivers went at Revis in 45 pass calls. One completion, for minus-four. One interception. You cannot play the position better than Revis played it Sunday. I don't care if you're Deion Sanders or Night Train Lane. Revis put on a clinic, a masterful display of clinging coverage and bump-and-run when the situation called for it.

"We were playing a lot of man coverage on his side regardless who the receiver was,'' Rex Ryan said, "and on the other side we were running some loaded zones and mixes and things like that. He had the tough guy most of the time.''

I told Revis the numbers in the tunnel after the game, just before he boarded the team buses for the airport. "I guess they gave me a lot of respect. It's my job, to cover guys, and I hope I do it pretty well.''

More than pretty well.


The Saints got better because their secondary got healthy.

There's the story of the black baseball bats being handed out at the Friday night team meeting with "Bring The Wood'' burned into them, and the re-signing of local hero Deuce McAllister. Nice stories. But the Saints clobbered Arizona in the first game of the weekend because Jabari Greer, their most athletic cornerback, is finally healthy after late-season hernia surgery, and bookend cornerback Tracy Porter feels fit after spraining his knee, and nickel back Randall Gay is healthy enough for the Saints to have a potent threesome at corner against a top quarterback like Kurt Warner, giving New Orleans a fighting chance to play shutdown coverage.

On the second series of the game, Gay brought the wood against Arizona receiver Jerheme Urban. After Tim Hightower of the Cards took the first snap of the game the distance for a crowd-silencing touchdown, it looked like a track meet was on when Urban subsequently rumbled downfield. But Gay chopped the ball out of his hands, Darren Sharper recovered, and the rout was on. New Orleans 45, Arizona 14.

"We do that drill first thing in practice every day,'' defensive coordinator Gregg Williams told me Saturday night. "We practice takeaways. It's our ball-disruption drill. We have six stations, and guys go from one to another, practicing taking it away. The chop by Randall Gay is one of our stations.''

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There was a bit of bring-the-wood mentality by the Saints' defense. Williams all week told them Warner must go down, and he must go down hard. "We had to put Kurt down early so he would play with a little fear,'' Williams said. The other thing the Saints D did was make sure Warner couldn't step up in the pocket and get a second platform and be comfortable enough to throw. So defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis was vital in collapsing the pocket enough so that Warner couldn't step up -- he had to escape out the side, and you know Warner's glacially slow, so escaping right or left is only going to get him hit more. Warner never had the kind of time to look for Larry Fitzgerald that he did last week against Green Bay, and it was no surprise Fitzgerald's longest catch of the day was for 16 yards.

So now the secondary faces its second straight geezer, 40-year-old Favre, for the NFC title. You can bet Williams will change a few things up against Favre, but two things will be the same. The Saints will try to batter him with a couple of early shots, and they'll try to knock Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice off their routes in the five-yard bump zone.


Favre is just ridiculous. But so is the Minnesota defensive front.

There can't be 10 throws in Favre's football life as good as the one he made to start the scoring in the rout of the Cowboys. He sets up, flings it deep down the right sideline for Sidney Rice in tight coverage, and Rice barely has to move his hands to catch it and score on a 47-yard touchdown. The ball finds Rice's hands. Not a Randy Johnson fastball per se, but a line drive that was as perfectly located as a ball can be.

We're now through 17 games. Favre is having the kind of impact no one except maybe he (and I bet he'd tell you he never thought the year would be going this good) thought he'd have. In 17 games, he's at a remarkable plus-30 touchdown-to-interception differential -- 37 touchdowns, seven interceptions. The Vikings need him to play like this only twice more and they're Super Bowl champions. That'll be a tall order, obviously, but the one thing we know is that physically the task has not been too much for him.

I've got to give defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier a tremendous tip of the hat after the defense's six-sack, 19-pressure performance against Tony Romo. Ray Edwards, especially, was a tour de force player. "I challenged Ray Edwards Saturday night,'' Frazier said. "So many times this season, we've seen defenses adjust what they do to change their protection to adjust to Jared Allen on the other side. I felt like Ray needed to step it up, and I told him, 'You have to be a difference-maker.' ''

That was a career-changer, potentially, for Edwards and Frazier. For Edwards because it showed he can be a premier pass-rusher on the biggest stage. And for Frazier, who should be the Bills' first, second and third candidate for head coach right now.


How can you not admire Gary Brackett?

He's the undersized core-of-the-defense linebacker who, in a typical performance Saturday night, where he's supposed to be in the shadow of the great Ravens defenders, had five tackles, a sack and a Ray Lewis-like influence on the outcome of the game. Brackett, Raheem Brock and Clint Session are the guys who make the interior of that Colts defense much better than the scouting reports say, especially when they play indoors on the rug. "They're built for the carpet,'' Jets offensive line coach Bill Callahan told me Sunday night. "They do a great job of filling the holes quickly because of their defensive speed.''

"We define ourselves,'' Brackett said after the Colts' 20-3 trouncing of the Ravens. "We've been, in my opinion, the best team in football all year, and we don't concern ourselves with what people in the outside world think of us. The one thing people don't realize about us is we're a physical team. Yes, we play with a lot of speed, but you can't get to 14-0 without having a physical presence on your defense.''

The matchup of brawn on the Jets line -- and with 228-pound rookie back Shonn Greene -- against the speed and quickness of the Colts' front will tell the tale in the AFC Championship Game.


It's true, to a degree, about Tony Dungy and Seattle.

Good notes by Charley Casserly on the CBS pregame show, and Jay Glazer on FOX, about the flirtations of Tony Dungy with the Seahawks, telling the Seahawks he'd sleep on it when they asked about him becoming team president, and about Dungy saying he would have hired Minnesota defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier to be his coach in Seattle. The job was never offered, but I can tell you this: I believe the only job Dungy would consider in the NFL, at least now, is one with him running the franchise and good friend (and family friend) Frazier as the coach. Dungy said several times during the season that he absolutely is not coming back -- but the chance to work Frazier has to give him something to think about. Or, perhaps, something he'd already thought about.

Now, my gut feeling is it won't happen next year either, but who knows? Dungy is getting to like TV, and he's getting to like the freedom the TV life gives him to do his charity work and to be around his children more.

Two things I know:

1. I'm told late last week that Seattle president Tod Leiweke was in the horns of a dilemma: If Dungy was seriously interested in the job, Seattle was going to have to decide who to hire -- Dungy and a head coach, or Pete Carroll and a front office. Those with knowledge of the situation say it would have been a tough call. And because Dungy did not tell Leiweke for sure he wasn't interested until last weekend, Leiweke went ahead with the interview of Frazier when it looked to all the world as if it were a sham. (That's exactly the word I used to describe it on NBC, though now it appears that the interview was legit.)

2. Dungy and Frazier are very close. So close that Frazier considers Dungy his mentor, and calls him weekly for advice on playcalls and personnel matters. "To be able to walk down the hall as head coach and talk to Tony for advice would be a dream,'' Frazier told me Sunday night ... after he and Dungy had dinner together in Minneapolis. "Tony has told me this: If he did ever do it [become a club president], it would be because of me. When he told me that, it brought tears to my eyes.''

So stay tuned. If Frazier doesn't get the Buffalo job after Minnesota's strong run, and if he waits until next year to be a head coach, we'll all have to be on Dungy watch again.


Donte' Stallworth is on the verge of being reinstated by the NFL.

I'm hearing that after the Super Bowl, commissioner Roger Goodell will reinstate disgraced wide receiver Donte' Stallworth so that he'll be able to sign with any NFL team in 2010. Stallworth will be 29 this offseason and is still under contract with the Browns. Should Cleveland cut him, there's no guarantee he'll get a job in the league, though he seems to have turned the corner after his DUI manslaughter conviction in March led to the widely decried month's jail sentence plus probation -- plus a huge settlement (thought to be between $3 million and $5 million) with the family of the victim he ran over, Mario Reyes, on a Miami causeway early in the morning of March 14 last year.

Goodell recently met with Stallworth for two hours, and he came away impressed that Stallworth would devote time for the foreseeable future to anti-drunk-driving causes. Living in south Florida, Stallworth is coaching kids part-time and working out seriously to try to get in the kind of shape that would convince a team to give the well-traveled and chastened receiver one more shot.


I really hope Ed Reed doesn't retire.

You want to see great players make great plays in big games like these. Well, I do anyway. Reed had the most compelling three minutes any player has had in a while against the Colts on Saturday night. In the span of six plays on the same drive in the third quarter (technically, they are two different drives because of the change of possession and then the change back within seconds), Reed twice intercepted Peyton Manning. The first pick he fumbled back to the Colts. The second interception was negated because of a pass-interference call against nickel back Corey Ivy and robbed the Ravens of their last chance to get back in the game.

Reed, 31, said after the game a nerve impingement in his neck may force him to retire. "You'll know soon enough,'' he said. That would be sad for football, because this is the best ball-hawking safety of our time (maybe ever), and the most instinctive defensive back of this era. Intercepting Manning twice in a span of six plays ... that's absolutely stunning. And it's no fluke.

On the first play, a long throw down the right sideline for a seemingly open Pierre Garcon, Reed stayed in centerfield (well, maybe right-centerfield) until he saw Manning bring his arm forward, which is a different motion than Manning's pump-fake, and then sprinted in front of Garcon to intercept the ball. Obviously, by Reed not protecting the ball and getting it punched out by Garcon on the return, the Ravens took a big hit.

But five plays later, Reed did the same thing in straight-away center, on a ball I'm surprised Manning threw. With Ivy in tight coverage on Dallas Clark, Manning tried to squeeze a line drive into Clark; there was some jostling, a flag was thrown on Ivy, and then Reed stepped into the picture and picked Manning again. The interference wiped it off the books.

Someday, if Manning stays healthy for six or seven more years (a big if), we might be talking about him as the greatest quarterback of all time. If you talk to corners and safeties around the league, they'll tell you he's virtually un-baitable. That's what makes Reed, who has studied the difference in mechanics between Manning's pump-fakes and his real throws, so special. Even though one of them didn't count, I don't think you'll ever see such a great quarterback as Manning picked twice by the same guy on such instinctive plays.

If Reed retires, it'll be like some of the greats who went out in their prime -- Otto Graham, Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, etc. "I've been thinking about it often, and I'm thinking about it now,'' a stone-faced Reed said quietly in the Ravens' locker room. I'm not sure Manning would miss Reed, but the game certainly would.


The negotiations for a new labor agreement couldn't be going any worse.

If the past few days, I've spoken to sources on both sides of the labor talks, and I've come to the conclusion that it'll be an upset if there isn't a work stoppage that either delays or cancels the 2011 season. Many of us in the media have speculated about the chances for a lockout and predicted one is coming, but the total lack of progress over the nut issue in 11 bargaining sessions tells me unless there's a sea-change by one side or the other, you'd better savor the 2010 season because it could be the last football we see for a while.

At the core of the problem is ownership's demand for players to bear an equal part of the cost for stadium construction, debt service and upkeep -- and the players saying it's not their problem. In NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith's recent e-mail to player representatives, he startled player leaders by saying ownership wanted to cut player compensation by 18 percent per year in the new CBA.

I thought the 18 percent number might be an exaggeration, a scare tactic to get players' attention. It's not. The owners, one management source said, have asked that the players' pool of revenue against which the salary cap is calculated be reduced by 18 percent.

The players' response, a union source told me, is that they're not prepared to take a penny, or a percentage point, less. While Smith, in his letter to players, didn't dismiss the possibility of negotiating on the issue, he wrote that there has been no compelling information presented to players to justify such a major reduction in what players make.

You wonder what 18 percent means. So did I. The management source said the owners want $1 billion a year credited to ownership and not subject to being part of the pie that the players divide. "There's obviously been an enormous shift from public financing of stadiums to private funding,'' the management source said. "Those costs are not recognized in the current CBA, and we feel that has to change.''

The league has beat this drum for several years. I wouldn't be surprised if there is some give-and-take in the owners' demands, because this is collective bargaining, but I would be surprised if the owners drop this as a demand altogether. They're just too dug-in on it.

But from the players' perspective, it's got to be a tough sell to union leaders. Imagine Smith going into a union meeting at a team and telling the players that the average compensation to the men in this room is about $1.8 million this year in salary and bonus payments, and explaining to them in a time of bountiful success for the NFL, each of the players is going to have to take, on average, a $324,000 pay cut. The players will never go for that, absent the owners being able to prove they're losing money in a time of unparalleled wealth in the league.

At some point, serious talks will start, with each side compromising. But I can't see the two sides bridging this chasm anytime soon.


Marriage of the Week

Bobby April and DeSean Jackson. Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

When the Eagles convinced April, formerly of the Buffalo Bills, to take their special-teams coordinator job Thursday, they obviously got a great mentor for their kicking game; April, the NFL special-teams coach of the year in 2004 and 2008, had the best combined special teams in Buffalo three times in the past six years, according to rankings compiled by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News.

One of April's fortes is getting rookies who have never played special teams in college to be key guys as gunners on the punt team or pursuit men on kickoff teams. With a weapon like Jackson in his hands? Who know how great the Eagles punt-return team can be. Jackson had two touchdowns and a 15.2-yard average punt return this season, and scored an NFL-record eight touchdowns of 50 yards or longer. Jackson, who made the Pro Bowl this year as both a returner and receiver, has become what the Bears hoped Devin Hester would be -- a punt-returner who doubles as a deep-threat receiver.

"I had Deion Sanders,'' April said the other night, "and I don't want to put a lot of extra pressure on DeSean, but he has that kind of big-play ability. He's special. He's very similar to Roscoe Parrish, who I just had in Buffalo . We'll have to make sure he stays disciplined and hungry.''

April preaches the punt return is the first play of the offensive series. He's had the backing of his prior coaches in making the kicking teams an equal third of the team, and this can only ratchet up the danger of the already formidable Philadelphia special teams.


This Lane Kiffin story really ticks me off.

The gall of Kiffin. The unmitigated, outrageous gall of this kid. And the idiocy of Tennessee apparently giving Kiffin -- when, let's be honest, what options did he have coming off his disastrous 5-15 run with the Raiders? -- an $800,000 buyout after one year of his contract. But I blame Kiffin far more. Tennessee bought out Phil Fulmer's coaching staff, then brought in Kiffin and his staff (including his father, Monte, for a reported $1-million-a-year deal to be a college defensive coordinator) and the minute there's an opening at USC, Lane Kiffin bolts ... in the prime part of recruiting season, a terrible time to hire a coaching staff.

I wonder if Kiffin ever said to a single recruit since getting hired by Tennessee 13-plus months ago, "USC's my dream job, so if it ever opens up, I've got to go?'' Of course not. I'm sure the conversation was something like, "Come to Tennessee, I'm going to be here a long, long time, and we're going to win a national championship together.''

One 7-6 season. After Tennessee rescued a tarnished Kiffin. After Tennessee's athletics department backed Kiffin through six secondary recruiting violations, and after Tennessee backed Kiffin in a potential violation of having campus "hostesses'' make "visits'' to recruits all over the southeast.

And he's rewarded by another institution of higher learning (and I type that with as much sarcasm as I can muster), making him even richer than if he'd stayed at Tennessee .

Where's the decency? The maturity? The gratitude? The simple sense of even a pinch of loyalty?

My favorite part of this story is that Kiffin left Tennessee so hurriedly that he didn't even bother to call his brother-in-law, the brother of his wife, who was also his quarterbacks coach at Tennessee . The New York Times reported David Reaves found out Kiffin was bolting when he saw the news on TV at a local restaurant.

In the past few days, I've learned that I'm really old, because there's not nearly as much outrage as I thought there'd be over this. I'd say my Twitter account has been 60-40 against my anti-Kiffin stance (yes, I did call him "a bum''), believing that as long as he pays the buyout, he's got no obligation to the university beyond that. That's where I'll draw the line in the moral sand. He has an obligation to Tennessee. That school gave Kiffin and his family a life-preserver when he was on the street. Would he have gotten a good coaching job, after Davis booted him out of Oakland? Maybe. An SEC contender's coaching job? I doubt it. And this is how he thanks them.

Interesting column Friday on by Penn State quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno, son of Joe, railing about the state of college football. "This profession has lost touch with the reality of the world around us, and some coaches have lost touch with what the mission of our profession should be,'' Jay Paterno wrote. "We are starting to look as arrogant as the Wall Street bankers raking in seven-figure bonuses. The astronomical explosion in coaching salaries continues at a time of 10 percent unemployment in America and exploding tuition costs burdening working class families ... Coaches walk into a recruit's home and talk about how they will look out for that young man's future. The expectation is that the coach will help to guide him through a very formative time. A year later the same coach is off to another job for more money and left behind are the young men he promised to nurture towards their future.''

That's precisely the way I feel. I hated Brian Kelly skipping out on Cincinnati before its bowl game; I hated the USC staff not returning calls to recruits they'd bombarded with text messages and phone calls for months when Pete Carroll flirted with the Seahawks. But this one is so reprehensible because of Kiffin being rescued by the Vols and leaving after a cup of coffee and tons of broken promises. Now, a few notes responding to many of your e-mails and Tweets to me:

• Why this differs from a NFL coach like Bobby Petrino or Nick Saban leaving for college football. It doesn't. Those things were outrageous too.

• Why this differs from a coach who gets fired despite having a valid contract with his pro or college team. It does, because teams or schools have to pay a coach who gets fired what he's due under the terms of his contract. If he's got three years and $3 million left, the school has to fork it over.

• Why this differs from the Josh Cribbs story. You may know that I've been on Cribbs' contractual side. He's got three years left on a contract that in 2009 made him the 30th-highest-paid Cleveland Brown, though he was selected the all-pro return man this season. I've written the Browns should do the right thing and give Cribbs, the most dangerous special-teamer in football, a new contract. I feel strongly he should be paid more. But if he is not paid, he needs to live up to the contract he signed. He signed it, it stinks, and he's got to live with it if he can't reach agreement on a new deal.

• Why this differs from the real world. Scores of you believe I'm a Pollyanna about this. I currently have a contract with Sports Illustrated, and another with NBC. If another media company came to me and offered me three times what I'm making, I wouldn't entertain the offer. I want to believe I'm like most Americans -- a contract's a contract.

Except, of course, if you're a college football coach.

"over-RATED! over-RATED! over-RATED!''-- The chant of a few exuberant Jets, referring to the vanquished Chargers, when they came up the tunnel leading from the field to their locker room at Qualcomm Stadium after the stunning 17-14 upset victory Sunday.

"So much for being rusty.''-- New Orleans coach Sean Payton, whose team hadn't played a complete game since Nov. 30, and whose starters hadn't played en masse in three weeks before clobbering the Cardinals 45-14 Saturday.

"I didn't know who the heck I was as a football coach. What transformed for me, before getting to USC -- between New England and SC -- was really, I had an epiphany of what was most important to me as a football coach. In that process of putting those thoughts together, it kind of just solidified a mentality and an approach that now has been put in practice for 10 years.

"I feel like I'm bringing a very, very clear message to our football team when we get in our meeting room. When we start this thing off, they're going to know where I'm coming from, because I know where I'm coming from ... The whole challenge here is to get the whole organization on the same page, everybody understands where we're coming from, what we're all about, where we're going, what we're doing. I didn't know that then. I didn't know it. And I'm almost embarrassed to tell you that I [was] coaching an NFL club and I didn't have my act together.''-- Seattle coach Pete Carroll, on the difference between him as a football coach now compared to his NFL stops with the Patriots and Jets a decade ago.

"A number I think would be interesting would be eight. And no, that's not the amount of touchdown passes Green Bay gave up against Arizona . That's the number of touchdown passes we gave up all season. And the biggest reason for that is Darrelle Revis.''-- New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, decrying Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson beating out his own corner, Darrelle Revis, for the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year award. The Packers bowed out of the playoffs two days earlier by giving up 51 points and 531 yards of offense to Arizona.

"Am I worried about him getting a reputation for dropping the football? No. Because let's be honest -- he's earned it.''-- Stan Edwards, father of Braylon Edwards, to Steve Politi of the (Newark) Star Ledger, on the Jets wide receiver's penchant for dropping easy catches, including a sure touchdown in the wild-card victory over Cincinnati .

The top three teams are pretty close, and I am becoming a believer in the Jets ... because if you can't run well against them, and if you can't make big plays, then what exactly can you do? I don't have a great conviction on any of them being the best. But I thought the Vikings played the best 60 minutes of the weekend, so they're on top headed into championship Sunday.

1. Minnesota (13-4). Showdown at the Superdome Corral. Favre-Brees. Thirteen years ago this week, Brett Favre won his Super Bowl at the Superdome. He'll have slightly fewer fans on his side Sunday night.

2. Indianapolis (15-2). Maybe we can throw Joe Montana into the argument, but in my 25 years covering the NFL I've not seen a quarterback handle the clock inside of two minutes better than Manning. At the end of the first half Saturday night, you saw Manning motion to the sideline, and to coach Jim Caldwell, to let him run one more play with seven seconds to go before attempting the field goal.

3. New Orleans (14-3). What I liked about the Saints on Saturday: After the first snap of the game, the Saints allowed 289 total yards to a team that scored 51 points last week. That's the kind of defensive effort that will be vital Sunday night in NFC title game.

4. New York Jets (11-7). "We all know everyone wants to see Favre and Manning in the Super Bowl,'' Bart Scott told me in the tunnel after the game, "but we're the party-crashers. Watch out.'' By the way, if the Rams had picked Mark Sanchez and left the Jets quarterback-less in the draft last year, I am sure Rex Ryan would have been on the first plane to Mississippi to convince Favre to play. I'm curious about what Favre would have done. I think he would have balked at first and insisted on staying retired. But then? Who knows? From the looks of Favre yesterday, it might not have been a bad outcome.

5. San Diego (13-4). If the Chargers and Jets played again, I think the Jets would win again. I am stunned at how the Chargers couldn't run worth a darn and never pressed the envelope with downfield throws. This game is a strike against a lot of the players we all thought were big-time, none more than Nate Kaeding and Philip Rivers.

6. Dallas (12-6). I thought the Dallas defensive front would be too much for Favre. Turns out the Minnesota defensive front was too much for the Cowboys, and would have been even if Flozell Adams didn't go down with a first-half injury. Ray Edwards and Jared Allen outplayed DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer.

7. Arizona (11-7). No question in my mind: Since the start of the 2008 season, Ken Whisenhunt has done the best job of any head coach in pro football.

8. Baltimore (10-8). If Ozzie Newsome doesn't restock the receiver position, and Joe Flacco doesn't stay healthy, 2010 will be Groundhog Day for the Ravens. Just not enough offensive firepower to play with the big boys.

9. Green Bay (11-6). The team's not broken, Ted Thompson. Massage it, don't do surgery.

10. Philadelphia (11-6). Only a matter of time before trusted personnel man Howie Roseman is named GM, replacing Tom Heckert.

11. New England (10-7). Dean Pees: jump or pushed?

12. Pittsburgh (9-7). Too bad they couldn't have convinced Bobby April to come and fix special teams.

13. Carolina (8-8). I still say what I've said for three weeks: John Fox is most likely to coach out his contract, then be one of the lead dogs in the coaching market next offseason.

14. Cincinnati (10-7). Good to see Mike Brown step up and sign defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to a new deal -- though with Buffalo having no interest in Zimmer as a head coach and Washington hiring Jim Haslett to be defensive coordinator, I'm not sure Zimmer had many options.

15. Houston (9-7). I like Gary Kubiak being given another year.

Offensive Player of the Week

Sidney Rice, WR, Minnesota.

We asked in Sports Illustrated last week which of the young breakout receivers would own the playoffs this year, and Rice began to take possession Sunday. In the first half of the divisional showdown with Dallas, Rice caught the pass of the weekend, a 47-yard laser from Favre, on the second drive of the game for Minnesota. Then Rice made the complete play of the weekend, lining up wide right, coming toward right end in motion and, at the snap of the ball, chopping the legs out from under DeMarcus Ware in a textbook cut block. Then he got up, ran uncovered up the seam, caught a flip from Favre and dove in for a touchdown. For the day, Rice caught six balls for 141 yards and three touchdowns.

Defensive Player of the Week

Ray Edwards, DE, Minnesota.

Very tough to not pick a Colt like Gary Brackett after the way Indy snuffed out the Ravens. But Edwards has been in Jared Allen's shadow since Allen's huge trade from Kansas City to Minnesota 21 months ago, and he escaped it Sunday with one of the best individual performances of the 2009 season: three sacks for 23 yards in losses, another tackle for loss, three additional levelings of Tony Romo, five tackles and a forced fumble. It's going to be a long time before Marc Colombo of the Cowboys, the right tackle victimized embarrassingly all game long by Edwards, forgets this day.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Reggie Bush, PR/RB, New Orleans.

His 83-yard punt return for touchdown capped the Saints' 45-14 rout of the Cards, and his hard-charging 84 rushing yards conjured up memories of his USC days. He was untouched on the punt return. He was touched plenty on his five rushes, and didn't seem to mind. This is the back Mickey Loomis and Sean Peyton made the first draft pick of the new regime in 2006, and if he shows up like this Sunday night in New Orleans, he'll give the Saints the kind of jolt Percy Harvin has given the Vikes this year.

Coach of the Week

Rex Ryan, head coach, New York Jets.

He epitomizes brash, and his players love it. "Players want to have fun,'' offensive line coach Bill Callahan told me after the game, "and Rex makes it fun for them every day. Plus they know he's doing everything in his power to put them in the best position to win.'' Ryan has told his players all season, and again this week, that they were better than the opposition, and they have come to believe it without questioning him. The chemistry and good feeling around this team starts with Ryan.

Goats of the Week

Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego, and Nate Kaeding, K, San Diego.

Rivers came up incredibly small in the biggest game of the year. I still have no idea who he was throwing the ball to on the vital, late-third-quarter interception by Jim Leonhard that set the Jets up for the go-ahead score early in the fourth. MVP candidates can't let lesser teams hang around like Rivers allowed the Jets to do. Can you think of one big throw that Rivers made all day? I can't. His 27-of-40, 298-yard passing line is one of the most misleading you'll ever see.

Kaeding hit the trifecta for the Chargers: He blew a three-point game every which way -- wide left (from 36 yards), short (from 57 yards) and wide right (from 40 yards).

"What happened on the three missed field goals?'' Kaeding was asked afterward.

"I didn't kicked them between the uprights,'' he said.

The last one, the kick wide right, showed me it was either a choke job by Kaeding or he was pressing terribly. He pushed the ball. He didn't kick it, but rather punched it, like instead of taking a natural kick he was pressing. It showed. He has eight months before he can make it up to his team.

Downfall of the Cardinals Dept:

Arizona allowed 90 points in 78 minutes between midway through the second quarter of the wild-card win over Green Bay and midway through the third quarter of the divisional playoff loss to New Orleans.

Of the 16 Packers/Saints drives in those 78 minutes:

• 11 ended in touchdowns.• 2 ended in field goals.• 2 ended in punts.• 1 ended with a fumble.

Thirteen of 16 scoring drives. If defensive coordinator Billy Davis has a drawing board, he's going to have to go back to it.

In the span of three complete seasons, dating to opening day 2007, Kaeding, the most accurate kicker in NFL history (87.2 percent) entering Sunday's game, had made 69 consecutive field goals of 40 yards or less.

In the span of 21 minutes against the Jets, he missed two within that distance.

Nine flight segments since the aborted terrorist on the plane in Detroit on Christmas. Zero difference in security that I've seen. Have I just missed it? Or is there just not the vigilance we should be seeing? Hard to tell, but I've not seen slower lines with more patdowns or anything I thought we'd see. I hope TSA knows what it's doing.

"I'm donating $1 to the Red Cross for each follower I have by midnight. PLS RT & let's help the ppl of Haiti 2gether 2day.''-- @D_Stallworth18, Donte' Stallworth, the former NFL receiver now under league suspension for the involuntary manslaughter conviction in the death of a pedestrian on a Miami causeway last March, writing Sunday afternoon on Twitter.

By the end of the day, Stallworth had increased his Twitter followers from about 18,000 to 33,000, and he got former teammate Wes Welker to match his donation to Project Medishare, a medical group dedicated to providing care to the affected masses in Haiti. Just through this simple act, Stallworth raised at least $68,000 to treat the sick and injured. Moreover, Joshua Cribbs has promised to donate his Pro Bowl check, win or lose.

1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of the playoff weekend:

a. Strong analysis by FOX's Daryl Johnston, about Saints fullback Heath Evans telling Reggie Bush that he's not just a scatback but also a powerful runner with a bodybuilder's lower body. Johnston said Evans told Bush he should not hesitate to play a physical game instead of trying to make people miss all the time, and in the first half, Bush looked like a different back.

b. When I got to the Jets' team hotel Saturday, the Hyatt Regency in La Jolla, there was Ira from StatenIsland in the lobby. Ira calls New York talk radio hourly, always to talk Jets, and I think he would follow this team into the valley of death.

c. Good intelligence by my buddy John Czarnecki of FOX Sports, who reported Saturday that it was a running play every time Beanie Wells lined up in the I formation against Green Bay last week -- and on every snap but two that Wells was in the game Arizona ran.

d. I really admire the comeback story of the Saints' Anthony Hargrove, who has overcome a major substance-abuse problem to be an important rotational defensive lineman.

e. Arizona will be back. I just don't know if Kurt Warner will be.

f. "A big hit like that makes you think twice about playing the game,'' Warner said after the Cardinals loss, and he'll give retirement serious consideration. If I had to bet a dollar on his fate, I'd say he's done.

g. The Saints have never hosted the NFC Championship Game. Cool stuff there this week.

h. It's going to be hard to beat the Saints, with the biggest religious presence this side of Vatican City on their side for the title game. Three monsignors from the area attended Saturday's games, and you can be sure the five crazy-fan Dominican nuns -- Sisters Mary Andrew, Mary Pious, Mary Ester, Jon Marie and Mother Mary George -- will accompany the monsignors to the Dome this Sunday. They're quite a compelling sight, in their white habits and crucifixes.

i. Jennifer Austin, sister of Miles, to the New York Times after seeing him on the cover of SI: "I saw Sports Illustrated and said, 'That's my brother?' "

j. Yes, it did bug me to see the Vikings first offensive unit in the game in a 27-3 blowout in the final five minutes, scoring another TD with less than two minutes. It's not a federal case, but I didn't like it.

k. I can give you a lot of reasons why Wade Phillips might be in trouble, the biggest of which is that Jerry Jones was absolutely embarrassed by that performance Sunday in Minneapolis, when this team ought to be over above having a ridiculously non-competitive game like that one. But I can also give you one reason I don't believe he will fire Phillips: He likes working with him, and he thinks the players play for him, and he can't make broken down guys on the offensive line play better against fast defenders on the carpet.

2. I think, if I had to guess right now, I'd say the best shot for Tim Tebow on draft day is San Francisco, at number 13. No proof. No solid evidence. Just this: The Niners gave a tepid endorsement to Alex Smith as their quarterback of 2010 after the season; and Mike Singletary didn't draft him; and Singletary is going to fall in love with Tebow once he meets him after the season; and Tebow is the kind of winner that Singletary has preached he wants since he took the job from Mike Nolan in mid-2008. After Singletary meets Tebow at the Scouting Combine, this is my prediction of his reaction: He'll turn to GM Scot McCloughan and say, "That's my guy. We've got to have him.''

3. I think the Jets' decision on Braylon Edwards, restricted free-agent, won't be as difficult as some of us have thought. Let's look at their alternatives. Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum is almost certain to put the franchise tender on Edwards, about $6 million for the 2010 season. If a team wants to sign Edwards, it would have to pay a first-round pick to the Jets as compensation. With the receiver's uneven performance this year and continued plague of dropped passes, it's highly unlikely a team would surrender a first-round pick plus a contract of $9-million a year or so for Edwards. So the Jets could pay him $6 million for a year and give him a full season to prove he's not the disappointing receiver he's been in all but two years of a five-year NFL run.

4. I think no coach or GM needing a veteran receiver could seriously consider bringing Marvin Harrison in after reading the damning GQ piece by Jason Fagone. The writerdescribes in vivid detail Harrison allegedly emptying the chambers from two pistols into the car of a rival on a Philadelphia street in 2008 -- bullets that allegedly hit a bystander and shattered the window in another car and injured a young child in the car? The same story described Harrison "noisily stomping the fat man in the face and gut'' before firing all the shots at his car. Either Harrison is a guy who's gotten away with a brazen crime because of the code of silence on the streets of Philadelphia -- or he has one heck of a lawsuit to file. It's amazing to me this case is languishing.

5. I think one of the reasons the Saints play for Sean Payton was illustrated well Friday morning. Payton starts his team meetings with the news of the day usually, and on Friday he had some team business to discuss. "We've placed Rodney Leisle, defensive tackle, on injured-reserve,'' Payton said, very businesslike. "Signed Deuce McAllister, running back, Ole Miss.'' Stunned, the players erupted in cheers.

Payton smells the coffee. He knows how beloved McAllister is in his locker room and in the city of New Orleans, and he knew how much it would mean for McAllister to be involved with the team he had labored with for so long -- and he also knew he had 52 healthy players on his roster and wouldn't need the roster spot for this game, at least. Why not give the city and the player a boost.

"I appreciate moments like this,'' he told me. "I realize how precious these moments are, and how quickly they go by. With players, you know, they have a schedule and itinerary in high school, then every day in college, then every day in the NFL, and then they wake up one day and it's gone. I just want to make sure Deuce knows how much we appreciate everything he's done for this franchise.''

6. I think one of the sad football things about the death of Gaines Adams, the Tampa Bay-turned-Chicago defensive end who died Sunday of cardiac arrest at 26, is that he was about to be coached into his potential by Rod Marinelli, who believed in him like no other coach he'd had in the NFL. Everyone associated with the Bears had no regrets over trading the second-round pick to Tampa Bay for him, even though it left the Bears without a pick in the first two rounds, because they believed that he'd become a good pass-rusher. Just a sad, sad story.

7. I think this is what I liked about the playoff weekend:

a. What a hit by Bobby McCray on Kurt Warner -- a clean but vicious hit on Warner's first-half interception -- and what a great job by Warner the football player trying to make the tackle on the play.

b. An interesting scene in the bowels of Qualcomm Stadium. Roger Goodell, ready to leave San Diego to fly back to New York near the end of the game, was watching a small TV, not wanting to leave until the game was decided. And when Thomas Jones made two yards on the fourth-and-one call in the final two minutes, Goodell knew the outcome was decided and he could go. He's got big fish to fry, but he wasn't leaving the stadium without seeing what he came to see.

c. Percy Harvin's impact. Can't wait to see Gregg Williams' plan for him Sunday.

d. Reggie Bush finally showing up big. It's been a long time.

e. Nobody talks much about Chad Greenway and Ben Leber on the Minnesota front, but they had impactful days against Dallas and are great backbones for that front four.

f. Antonio Gates' one-handed catch. I know he gave one away later with a big drop, but he's got the softest hands of a tight end in football.

g. Jim Leonhard. He's a star in the making. Great addition by the Jets in free-agency.

h. If that's the last game for Derrick Mason, it's been a pleasure watching him over the years. Tough player, hard-working player. Shy of Canton, but there's no crime in being in the Hall of Very Good.

8. I think this is what I didn't like about the playoff weekend:

a. I continue to dislike the formal title of "divisional playoffs.'' Does anyone ever say, "Hey, come on over and we'll watch the divisional playoffs and have a few beers?'' No, but they do say they'll come over the watch the wild-card games or the championship games. The league ought to call this weekend the conference semis.

b. FOX going to a commercial with a compelling closeup of Kurt Warner laying on the ground, being tended to by trainers, in what might be the last game of his career.

c. The Dallas protection. Don't let me hear a word this morning about "Tony Romo not coming up big.'' Nonsense. He could have made a couple more plays, but not enough to be competitive in a game in which he was pressured on more than half of his dropbacks.

d. Joe Flacco. He's a good player, and the Ravens are in good hands at quarterback, and I'm sure he was hurt more than the Ravens let on, but he didn't make a play all night in Indy.

e. San Diego's sloppiness. In all aspects. Ten penalties, the missed field goals, Philip Rivers not make a single play downfield ... how does a team with an 11-game winning streak throw slop like that on the field in the playoffs?

f. I wish LaDainian Tomlinson the best, and he seems sincere about playing another year. But the Chargers can't count on him as an impact running back anymore. When's the last great run you've see from LT, the last LT-like run? Twelve carries, 24 yards Sunday.

9. I think an imprint on my brain from the weekend will always be the emotional family hugs between Mark Sanchez and dad, mom, kin and friends underneath the stadium. The embrace between him and father Nick was so hard I thought they'd break bones. What a support system for the kid, the kind of support that makes him a good leader at such a young age, and the kind of player afraid of nothing.

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

a. I now have figured out how tax audits work, especially for employees like me who have to file in more than one state. One state desperate for money tries to take the taxes you've paid in another state desperate for money. It's not pretty, and I have a feeling I'm going to be in the middle of it for a while.

b. The Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien thing is amazing, if only because I've never seen a guy getting paid millions attack his employer publicly the way Conan has. And Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman jumping in with both feet ... amazing how so many rich people can be so angry, trying to disguise it with humor.

c. There are at least nine TV shows I'd like to see, like "Mad Men,'' but for some reason I just gravitate to reruns of "The Office'' when I've got TiVO time. Must be something wrong with me.

d. Coffeenerdness: Three visits to Peet's in San Diego over the week convinced me that we've got to do something about increasing the Peet's store nationwide. Artful baristas. Great lattes. They must train their people well.

e. Due to the Haiti crisis, I'm going to postpone my appeal for Mike McGuire's men for a couple of weeks. I hope we all give what we can to Haitian relief. It's hard not to feel for those people with the pictures we're seeing on TV.

f. I've sent out all my "Monday Morning Quarterback'' books that got lost in the first mailing. Thanks for being patient, all of you who sent in appeals to have books re-shipped. You should be getting them soon.