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Rodgers' brilliance, Lions' thrills make NFC North a force to beware

1. The Lions can't lose. With 25 minutes to play last week, they trailed at Minnesota by 20. With 25 minutes to play to play this week, they trailed at Dallas by 24. Won both. They won their last four last year, their only four this summer in the preseason, and their first four this year in the regular season. Just what kind of alternate universe are we living in where the Lions are undefeated and Matthew Stafford is healthy?

2. Cam Newton. Phenom. I find myself reaching for ways to describe what we're seeing in Newton -- the confidence, the downfield throwing ability, the command of an offense early, the knowing when to throw and when to tuck it and run. And I find this to be a way to explain his instant impact: Newton threw for 374 yards in a loss at Chicago Sunday. Last night, it was barely a blip on the highlight shows, including our Football Night in America show on NBC, because of Newton throwing for more than 400 yards in his first two games as a pro. But 374's not bad. In John Elway's first 170 NFL games, he threw for 374 yards or more once.

3. The Eagles, the greatest team assembled since the '27 Yankees, are 1-3. Some things are just plain weird, like Ronnie Brown, a very smart football player, turning around in the middle of the line of scrimmage and throwing the ball away as if it had herpes. He did that Sunday in Philadelphia's 24-23 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. After 16 quarters, they're tied, 101-101, in points scored with the opposition. One more scene none of us ever thought we'd see: A free agent from UMass, Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, beat and out-leaped Nnamdi Asomugha to grab the winning touchdown pass last week. Smart cap money can't buy everything. It's early, and the Eagles are talented enough (on both sides of the ball; new defensive end Jason Babin is on pace to get 28 sacks), but maybe the moral of this story is the same as it's been for the uneasy 18-year marriage of pro football and free agency: Money can't buy championships. More bad news could be coming today. Ace defensive end Trent Cole limped off against the Niners with a calf injury that had the Eagles concerned last night.

4. Dallas could be 4-0. Dallas could be 0-4. Dallas is 2-2. Tony Romo handed the Jets a win in Week 1 with two fourth-quarter blunders, and handed Detroit a lifeline Sunday with two third-quarter blunders. I know what it's like to fall off a cliff following a team, because I'm a Red Sox fan. The 2011 NFL version of the Sox is the team Roller Coaster Romo leads.

5. Lots of players are on pace to do ridiculous offensive things, and then there's Wes Welker, who has 40 catches in four games. Reggie Wayne, Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes have 40 too. Combined. Wes Welker's average 2011 game: 10 catches, 152 yards. Average yards after the catch: Welker 7.1, Steve Smith (Panthers) 6.9, Julio Jones 5.6, Andre Johnson 4.6, Larry Fitzgerald 4.0, Greg Jennings 3.6, Calvin Johnson 3.2. And that is all for the Amazing Wes Welker Stats of the Day. The Raiders tried to combo-cover Welker with four different defensive backs Sunday, playing some man and some zone. He caught nine balls for 158 yards.

6. Washington can play defense. The Redskins had seven sacks Sunday in St. Louis, nearly a quarter of their 2010 total (29). If Cam Newton is the best offensive rookie through the first quarter of the season, the most valuable defensive rookie is Ryan Kerrigan, who has given Brian Orakpo a guy opposite him who can take some of the pressure away.

7. The new coaches aren't lost sheep. Jim Harbaugh changed everything in San Francisco with no offseason program; the Niners, coming off a two-game sweep back East, are 3-1. Same thing with Mike Munchak in 3-1 Tennessee. The Panthers have gone from moribund to thrilling on offense under Ron Rivera, and the Browns, though still struggling on both sides of the ball, are 2-2 under Pat Shurmur. If you'd told me on Labor Day those four teams would be 9-7 this morning, and Atlanta, Pittsburgh, the Jets and Philadelphia 7-9, I feel pretty sure I wouldn't have believed you.

8. Of the top 40 rushers in football, guess who's the least efficient? Chris Johnson, at 2.88 yards per carry. But of course the holdout had nothing to do with that.

9. Tim Tebow is lost at sea in the Rocky Mountains. Tebow's total offensive output in the first quarter of 2011: minus-one yard. No passes. One rush. I continue to be mystified that the 23rd-ranked offensive team in the NFL cannot find a package of plays for a fullback/wingback/quarterback/wildcat-quarterback with the determination of a Brahma bull.

10. Let's see how my mighty Super Bowl picks are doing. Uh-oh. More reinforcement of my all-seeing brilliance. Foes 190, Atlanta/San Diego 181.

Now for a few awards after the first 25 percent of the year. For those you in Washington, Houston and Detroit, and for you fans of Andrew Luck, more news about your teams and the first pick of the 2012 draft at the top of my Tuesday column.

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MVP of the Quarter: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay. Rodgers, of course, won the Super Bowl last year and had a terrific, borderline MVP season. Look how much better he is this year. He's on pace to be six percent more accurate, with 20 more touchdown passes, while throwing for almost 1,400 more yards. He's in the Brady-Brees-Manning pantheon now, except he has the ability to run and make tacklers miss. You don't want to blow too much smoke at Rodgers, but even if he falls off some, and just has average (for him) numbers the rest of the way, his season will be, across the board, 15 to 20 percent better than any of the three MVP seasons of Brett Favre.

2. Tom Brady, QB, New England; 3. (tie) Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit; Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit.

Rookie of the Quarter: Cam Newton, QB, Carolina. Carolina put up 543 yards on Chicago, in Chicago, Sunday. I can't fathom these video game numbers that Newton is making possible. There has been no quarterback who has entered the league in its 92-year history and had the impact Newton has had in his rookie quarter-season. With passing games of 422, 432 and 374 so far, Newton is erasing the stigma that young quarterbacks -- even rookies without the benefit of an offseason program to learn the offense instead of having it force-fed in six weeks -- can't be ready to take the reins of a bad team in the first game of their pro careers.

2. Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati; 3. (tie) Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Washington; Dan Bailey, K, Dallas.

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Coach of the Quarter: Mike Munchak, Tennessee. He'd never been a head coach before, at any level. He'd never been a coordinator before, at any level. He was adopting a new offensive system, coached by Chris Palmer, who he didn't know well. Munchak was bringing on a career West Coast quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, who, without benefit of any offseason minicamps to learn a totally new system, would be asked to start 46 days after signing with Tennessee. He had to deal with the ugly holdout of running back Chris Johnson, the only offensive weapon he could count on. This season had 4-12 written all over it.

Munchak did things like make practices more competitively fun (receivers versus corners, best of five) because, as he said, "When I played, the worst thing was letting teammates down.'' Tennessee has responded superbly. Hasselbeck's on pace for the best year of his career, and the defense is a top-five group so far. The Titans are 3-1.

2. Jim Schwartz, Detroit; 3. Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco.

Now here's something you may not know about Tom Brady.

Until Sunday, Brady had never thrown a professional touchdown pass in the Bay Area.

And Sunday, in Oakland, 29 miles from his childhood home in San Mateo, Brady passed his childhood idol, Joe Montana, on the all-time touchdown pass list. Entering the game against the Raiders tied with Montana with 273 touchdown passes, Brady threw two and now sits tied with Vinny Testaverde for eighth. (Next up, at number seven: Johnny U, with 290.)

Brady has never played at Candlestick, and his only previous game in Oakland came in 2002, a 27-20 loss to the Raiders in which he threw no touchdowns. In 2008, when the Patriots played at both Oakland and San Francisco, Matt Cassel was New England's quarterback because Brady was out after his Week 1 knee injury suffered against Kansas City.

That just seems wrong, Brady never having played in San Francisco. Brady, who was a 4-year-old kid in Candlestick at "The Catch'' game in January 1982, in fact, may never play there. According to the current NFL schedule rotation (which could change following the 2012 season, though I haven't heard any sentiment why it would), each team plays at a nonconference foe every eight years. In 2008, the Patriots had the NFC West as the non-conference division it faced that year. New England hosted St. Louis and Arizona, and traveled to Seattle and San Francisco. That would mean in 2012 the Patriots would have San Francisco and Seattle at Gillette Stadium, and play the Rams and Cardinals on the road.

Brady says he wants to play until he's at least 40, so this could be moot; he could play the Niners on the road at 39, in 2016, if the current schedule format -- and Brady's health -- hold up. But how weird would it be if Brady played from 2000 to 2015, a 16-year career, and never stepped foot on the home field of the team he rooted for as a kid?

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Cleanup on Aisle 5: The Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2012.

Last year, the near-locks for the Hall of Fame were Deion Sanders and Marshall Faulk. The year before, Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith. The year before that, Bruce Smith and Rod Woodson. And so it's gone in the last few Hall seasons. But not so this year. There's no lock on the list of 104 preliminary candidates released by the Hall of Fame the other day.

This is going to be what I view as a cleanup year. A maximum of five modern-era finalists can be elected in any year, and this could be the year when some candidates who have been close finally get in. Two guys who appeared to be on the border last year, Dermontti Dawson and Curtis Martin, might get over the hump this year. If this were Vegas, I think the tote board would probably list Charles Haley, Willie Roaf, Bill Parcells and Will Shields next. But there are four candidates I hope get into the final 15, so the panel of 44 media members can hear their cases and debate in the Hall of Fame selection meeting in Indianapolis on Feb. 4:

• Joe Klecko, DL, 1977-87, Jets, Colts. When making the Pro Bowl was still slightly relevant, Klecko made it at three positions -- nose tackle, defensive tackle and defensive end. He's one of the few men to be named first-team All-Pro at two defensive positions: end in 1981, tackle in 1985. He never mouthed off, so he got a little lost in the Gastineau clutter when he played, but you ask the really good centers and guards of his day, and they'll tell you he played all day and there was no one tougher to block.

• Steve Tasker, special teams/WR, 1985-97, Oilers, Bills. Longtime special teams coach Bruce DeHaven once gave me a videocassette (remember the old days of videocassettes?) with 10 Tasker highlight plays from his glory days of blocking kicks and making crushing special teams tackles and returns for the Bills. The 10 plays, DeHaven and coach Mary Levy agreed, were each the most important play in that game for the Bills from their playoff years. And I watched Tasker turn the momentum of a game, or, in a couple of cases, make the game-winning play in the final minute. With special teams plays being about 22 percent of the total plays in an average game, and with the Hall electing guys who weren't always every-down players (like pass-rusher Fred Dean in 2008), the time has come to hear Tasker's case.

• Paul Tagliabue, commissioner, 1989-2006. The biggest argument against Tagliabue has always been that he force-fed owners a bad labor deal in 2006 just before retiring, and that bad deal would lead to the first lockout since 1987. But the two sides got a new 10-year contract, enabling the NFL to do what the other three sports leagues have been unable to avoid -- job actions.

In Tagliabue's 17 years as commissioner, the other three major sports had a total of four job actions (strikes or lockouts) causing those sports to miss games. Franchises were worth about eight times more in 2006 than in 1989; the gross revenue of the game was six times higher in '06 than '89. But his candidacy has also been hurt by not returning a team to Los Angeles, and by never being able to get eyesore stadiums replaced or rebuilt in Oakland, San Francisco or San Diego.

• Ron Wolf, scout, Oakland, American Football League, Tampa Bay, Jets, 1963-91; GM, Green Bay, 1991-2001. It's a long story, but let's shorten it to this: The Packers were a moribund franchise when Wolf took over late in 1991. He made three decisions that changed Packer, and football, history. He hired Mike Holmgren as coach. He traded his first first-round pick to Atlanta for a 248-pound quarterback who was drinking too much, Brett Favre. And he persuaded the first huge free agent, Reggie White, to come to the smallest city in the league, a city he had zero connections with and a team that hadn't been to the playoffs in 11 years. Since 1992, the Packers have returned to glory, obviously. The architect of the new era of the Packers is Ted Thompson, who went to school in scouting and team-building on Wolf's staff..

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RIP Mike Heimerdinger.

Mike Heimerdinger was a Super Bowl offensive coordinator for the Broncos, and tutored Steve McNair and Vince Young with the Titans. He died after a year-long battle with cancer Friday in Mexico, where he'd gone in a last-ditch effort to use experimental drugs on his cancer. He was 58.

There aren't many assistants I've met who were more well-respected by peers, and very few who could explain the game to the public and media -- and his players -- as well as Heimerdinger. Jeff Fisher and Mike Shanahan counted him among their closest friends. Jim Schwartz told me Saturday he's not sure he ever would have become a head coach had he not had Heimerdinger to work with in Tennessee in 2008.

"We worked well together without ego to do what was best for the team, not just what was best for the offense or defense,'' said Schwartz. "Tough as nails. Perfectionist. Called it the way he saw it, and players and coaches respected that.''

If the defense had something it needed to work on, Heimerdingder would have his offense give Schwartz's unit a good look, and vice versa. On many teams, the rivalry between the two sides is strong and they may not help each other out as much. Schwartz thought Heimerdinger helped his defense get better.

He had another impact in Tennessee, former tight end Frank Wycheck told me, and that was to help maximize McNair's talent. "He put the air in McNair,'' Wycheck said. "He really took Steve to the next level. Early in Steve's career, I think the attitude with the coaches was, 'Don't put the game in the quarterback's hands.' But just like Shanahan did with John Elway, Mike in certain ways worked with Steve to develop the downfield passing game and let him open it up."

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Tony Dungy disagrees, and apparently Eli Manning does too.

But I thought the officials got the weird call in Arizona right. It was a game-deciding ruling. Arizona led late in the fourth quarter, with the Giants driving to take the lead when wide receiver Victor Cruz, after catching a Manning pass, was hit by a Cardinal defender, nearly fell to the ground, then righted himself and ran forward a few steps before inexplicably going down without contact. He placed the ball on the ground, then rose and began to turn back as though to go back to the Giants huddle. The Cards picked it up and started running with it. The officials ruled Cruz was down because he'd given himself up and stopped trying to advance the ball; the play wasn't reviewable.

According to the rule that applies to this play, a dead ball is declared and the down ended "when a runner is out of bounds, or declares himself down by falling to the ground, or kneeling, and making no effort to advance ...'' This is a shady play, and a gray-area of a rule. But the way I saw it, Cruz did stop trying to advance the ball, and he was on the ground, and he lay the ball down and began returning to the huddle, which falls under the tenets of this rule. I can't see how, if replay had been allowed, the referee would have overturned the call anyway.

Manning said postgame he saw it as a fumble and rushed to the line to call another play, in case replay was possible. Dungy said he could recall 25 plays where this was called a fumble and not ruled that the runner was down. I disagree. The way the rule reads, I believe Cruz was down, had stopped trying to advance the ball, and turned to walk to the huddle.

1. Green Bay (4-0). I don't know how you play better than Aaron Rodgers right now: 73 percent accuracy, 331 passing yards a game, 12 touchdowns, two picks.

2. Baltimore (3-1). Can you imagine what it feels like to take a blindside hit, full-speed, to your kidney and spine from a 322-pound man like Haloti Ngata? Mark Sanchez felt that with eight minutes left in the first half Sunday night, and I do believe he'll be feeling it every day when he wakes up for the next month. Or longer.