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Forget Harbaugh's handshake, his 49ers are the real top story

I liked it better when coaches wore suits.

The NFL likes coaches to wear licensed casual apparel on the sidelines (not "likes;'' more like "mandates''), and maybe there'd be more dignity in sideline decorum if the league went back to allowing coaches to dress like businessmen. Maybe that would have prevented 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, after a huge win at Detroit, from flying off the sidelines like a bottle rocket and slapping Lions coach Jim Schwartz like a player on his team who'd just scored a touchdown.

And maybe it would have stopped Schwartz, though understandably ticked off at Harbaugh's exuberance, from chasing after him the way he'd chase the kid on the block bullying his fourth-grader. Harbaugh lit the fuse. Schwartz exploded. And if it weren't for a 49er security guy and San Francisco PR man Bob Lange interceding ("WhoaWhoaWhoaWhoa!!!!!!'' Lange shouted at Schwartz, in the middle of the two men, when Schwartz was about to get at Harbaugh and possibly do something he might regret for a long, long time), this story might be a lot more than three paragraphs on the top of this column.

The postgame handshake is supposed to be an example of the sportsmanship the NFL stands for, which is why I think the NFL has to discipline both coaches in the wake of what happened Sunday. On all the TV shows, including my stint on NBC, as much attention (maybe more) was paid to the bizarre sights of an orgasmic Harbaugh and a losing-it Schwartz than to an incredible game between two of the best teams in football, and certainly there were more sound bites pertaining to the fight than to what happened in three tense hours of football at Ford Field.

At NBC, we not only used the accusatorily mellow sound bite of Schwartz and the mea-culpa bite from Harbaugh, but also looked at the Baltimore-Houston game. Instead of celebrating another great game by Ray Lewis or another steamroller game by Ray Rice, Jim's brother John, the coach of the Ravens, joked about fights he got into when he was a kid with Jim. Not blaming us; the coaching confrontation was the wildfire story of the day at 7 p.m., for better or worse, and our job at NBC was to mirror that, cover it from all angles, and reflect what everyone was talking about.

Point is, the actions of Harbaugh and Schwartz took away from a great football game. I don't care who started it, or who was most at fault. Fines will be fine, but there's something else the league should do: Make each coach either do a PSA about sportsmanship, or appear at a school, with the local media covering it, to talk to student athletes about the importance of sportsmanship. Sorry if I come off like your nerdy, ancient high school gym teacher, but the NFL will be taking the easy way by taking $15,000 from each coach and leaving it at that. Make this a teaching moment.


The Niners are serious contenders for a first-round NFC bye.

San Francisco is 5-1, comfortably ahead by 2.5 games in the NFC West. The Packers look like overwhelming faves for one of the top two NFC seeds, and of course, if Green Bay wins the North, the second-place team in the division, at best, could be the fifth seed in the conference playoffs. With the egalitarianism of the East and the presumed knock-each-other-off dogfight in the South, why can't the Niners win 12 or 13? Have you seen them play? Mike Florio pointed this out at NBC last night, and he's right. There's no good reason the 49ers can't be home resting on Wild Card weekend while the Saints and Bucs and Eagles and whoever else are trying to survive.

And the schedule. San Francisco plays 0-5 St. Louis and 1-4 Arizona four times in its last 10 games. Combined record of foes: 21-31.

Not to get ahead of ourselves, but in the words of teens everywhere, I'm just saying.

On to the game in Detroit. Tense. Tremendous. Not altogether pretty, but gritty. It reminded me of something Bill Cowher used to tell his Steelers before road games at hostile places. He's not the only coach who says it, but he used to preach it a lot. You've got to take their best shot early, and you've got to fight the crowd, and you've just got to hang in there in the first 20 or 30 minutes and not get too far behind. The crowd will shout itself out, and emotion will level off, and then it'll be a football game.

Mature teams do that. The 49ers, led by Harbaugh and the quarterback no one believed in, look very much like a mature team. Here were the first nine snaps, making up the first three 49er series, by San Francisco at a cacophonous Ford Field:

1. First series: Alex Smith strip-sacked by Kyle VandenBosch. The turnover led to a Lion field goal. Detroit, 3-0.

2. Second series: False start, tight end Delanie Walker.

3. False start, tackle Anthony Davis.

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4. Frank Gore up the middle for 1.

5. Smith incomplete to Ted Ginn.

6. Smith pass to Gore for 8. Punt.

7. Third series: Kendall Hunter around left end for minus-2.

8. Smith pass to Michael Crabtree for 7.

9. Smith incomplete to Ginn. Punt. The punt led to a Lion touchdown. Detroit, 10-0.

Over the next 49 minutes, the 49ers, having taken the Lions' best shot, outscored Detroit 25-9. One of the best run defenses in football -- more about inside linebacker Patrick Willis and his trusty sidekick NaVorro (I Love That Name) Bowman later -- held the Lions to 66 yards, and though Calvin Johnson got his catches and yards (seven for 113), he was held touchdown-less for the first time all season. And really, while the Niners battled back to take their first lead, 15-13, Johnson was invisible. In the first 35 minutes of the game, he managed three catches for 29 yards, well-blanketed by an intent secondary.

At the same time, the players Trent Baalke drafted and Harbaugh showed faith in came through. Baalke signed Gore to a contract extension in the summer and drafted Kendall Hunter in the fourth round last April; they combined to rush for 174 yards (141 by Gore). Smith was chased by a marauding Lions front and didn't have a great day, but he still exited Ford Field as the league's eighth-rated quarterback, and after six games has thrown just two interceptions. This kind of move-the-pocket, move-the-sticks passing game is the closest he's felt to his days at Utah. The Niners admittedly reached to make him the top overall pick in 2005, and there is no quarterback who has had more lives with his current team than Smith. But maybe, just maybe, he's found the right offensive match in his fifth offensive scheme.

And the draft picks. Baalke, in charge of the last two drafts, has every right to light up a fine Dominican cigar today. Last year, he chose to rebuild the offensive line with guard Mike Iupati and tackle Anthony Davis and get a defensive piece to pair with Willis, Penn State linebacker Bowman. This year, pass-rusher Aldon Smith came with the seventh overall pick (way too high, some said). Bowman had a game-high 13 tackles. Smith had two sacks for a loss of 29, plus four tackles, a forced fumble and a pass defensed.

Harbaugh's made the mix work. What's amazing about the job he's done is that he didn't know most of these players before July 25. He was installing a new offense, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was tinkering with what the Niners did on defense, and the results have been other-worldly. How does a new head coach come in and build a team in seven weeks that wins five of its first six games? How does a West Coast team play three Eastern Time Zone games in 22 days and sweep them?

Harbaugh left this message on my voicemail afterward: "That was as good a victory as I've ever been a part of. I was talking to [defensive coordinator] Vic Fangio, and he said it was the best defensive performance he's ever been a part of.''

That's one of those calls on the busy postgame Sundays I wish I hadn't missed, obviously. Topical day for Harbaugh.

"Jim was tough and gritty and smart and competitive as a player,'' Fangio told me. "He just tries to be himself. And we've got good players. Jim's smart enough to know he doesn't know it all, and he relies on his coaches to coach.''

Now for a bit on the dynamic inside linebacker duo. When's the last time a 3-4 had two inside guys who played all three downs? I mean, played every snap? Entering Sunday's game, Bowman and Willis had missed 15 of a combined 666 San Francisco defensive snaps. They have the quickness to play laterally and the speed to chase plays down. Bowman is still learning to drop in coverage, but his pursuit ability is already at a Pro Bowl level. He caught a juking Michael Vick, preventing a key third-down conversion, in Philadelphia two weeks ago.

"They're athetic enough to play three downs,'' said Fangio. "Patrick is probably the fastest inside linebacker in the league. NaVorro is not too far behind. They are not one-dimensional. That means they can stay out there in the sub packages.''

About Bowman: He played three years at Penn State. Being from suburban Washington, he followed the Redskins, and when he went to Penn State, linebacker LaVar Arrington, a Nittany Lion himself, followed him. In his third year at PSU, Bowman was asked by Arrington to wear his old No. 11, which hadn't been given out since he left the school. Bowman played well enough to be a third-round pick by the 49ers last year.

"I take pride in seeing things before they happen,'' Bowman told me. "I run well, and I think I diagnose plays well. LaVar helped me with that, and now, playing next to Patrick, it's like having another teacher on the field with me.'' Pupil is fifth in the NFL with 56 tackles. Teacher has 47.

About the name "NaVorro:" "I was named after my Godfather, who is Cherokee Indian. When my mom sees the name misspelled, she always corrects people, even the capital 'V.'

Have a feeling we'll all be learning that name over the next few years. On Sunday, in Detroit, Bowman was as much of a sideline-to-sideline factor as Willis.


Road trip!

The 49ers are in the midst of one of the most challenging travel schedules I have seen in 27 years covering the NFL: five trips to the Eastern Time zone in a 61-day span. The first four trips (the third of which happened over the weekend, to Detroit) are 1 p.m. Eastern Time games, 10 a.m. on the body clocks of the players. The fifth trip, a 2,431-miler from San Jose (the Niners' home airport) to Baltimore, will be for a Thanksgiving night game.

The fifth never would have been scheduled if San Francisco had hired Jeff Fisher as head coach last winter. But the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh, and suddenly San Francisco-Baltimore became a made-for-TV, feel-good story, with brothers Jim and John the two head coaches in the game.

The 49ers played their third Eastern Time game in 22 days against the Lions Sunday. The two-month Odyssey they're in the midst of, along with a little color from each trip, is listed below:

Just for fun, on New Year's Day, the Niners will play another morning game on their body clocks, 10 a.m. Pacific Time, at St. Louis.

Give Steve Young an assist for how Aaron Rodgers handles the "F" word.

But I'm not sure he needs much help. You haven't heard all that much about the relationship between Steve Young and Aaron Rodgers, and both men probably like it that way. They are not everyday texting or calling friends, and I believe Rodgers would have handled the last six years of his landmine-turned-golden life pretty well without Young's occasional advice, because Rodgers was raised by parents with excellent perspective.

But Rodgers and Young do have one very important thing in common: They took over for all-time great quarterbacks, and the succession in both cases was not smooth. But Young learned enough in the awkward years aside Joe Montana, and then replacing him, to be a good sounding board for Rodgers, particularly in the rough times when a) it seemed like he'd never have a chance to play and b) mayhem swirled around the 2008 Brett Favre retirement/unretirement and distracted Rodgers and the Packers daily.

And when Rodgers would seek Young out, the advice would be the kind of sound stuff that hit a home run with Rodgers. Paraphrasing, this was the kind of counsel Young gave Rodgers over the years: Never, even to your mother, say something that makes you a victim. Human nature being what it is, you'll want people to know your side of the story, and you'll want them to know how hard it all is for you. But if you complain publicly even one time, you'll be a crybaby. That's how people will see you. And they'll remember.

Instead, if you just hold it in, and you just focus on football, it may take a few years, but respect will come back to you a hundred-fold. And when you begin to have success, people will look at you with tremendous respect because you didn't fall into the trap of complaining about your circumstances.

Is that exactly what happened or what? I mean, what tremendous advice. I was reminded of this last week when I had Rodgers on my SI podcast (a 34-minute talk you can hear on iTunes: or and, in prepping for the conversation, knew how fruitless it would be to talk about Brett Favre.

Rodgers doesn't take questions about his relationship with the man he took over for in 2008, because they basically have no relationship. I figured, why throw ice cubes on the conversation? If it came up in the conversation, so be it. And it did, sort of. I asked him what he thought he'd learned from Favre in his three years as his backup. There was a pause, and I thought he would say some version of no comment, but he said something educational. "I think his eye control,'' Rodgers said. "He was great with his eyes, moving defenders and throwing look-off passes all the time. If you watch film on other quarterbacks, there's not a lot of guys in the league who are consistently using their eyes to move players. I think it's a learned trait. It's something you have to work on. The top guys in the league are doing it just about every play. But that was something I watched, I saw, and I really tried to incorporate into my own game."

Interesting. But back to Young. I gained a lot of respect for him after the Super Bowl 17 seasons ago, when he threw six touchdown passes to crush the Chargers. In his suite a couple of hours after the game, one of his relatives or friends in the back of the room, with some giddiness, called out, "Joe Who?'' And Young, who could have said something to stick a dagger into Montana, instead said, "No, don't do that. Don't worry about that. That's the past. Let's talk about the future.''

Sounds like something his protégé would say.


Speaking of positive things about Aaron Rodgers ...

No player in history has had six straight games with a passer rating of 110 or higher -- until now. Rodgers (119.6 in the 24-3 win over the Rams) is the man, and as he continues to put up transcendent numbers, consider this: He is on pace to throw 45 touchdown passes and eight interceptions, and to challenge the holy trinity of single-season quarterback records. How Rodgers lines up against the best single seasons in three major passing categories:


What exactly is Andrew Luck worth?

Not a lot of people would know, because there have been very few times in NFL history when a relatively sure-fire quarterback prospect such as Luck comes out in the draft. So I asked the only general manager in history (I believe) who has been in position twice to take the top quarterback in a quarterback-heavy draft: Ernie Accorsi. In 1983, he was the rookie GM with the Baltimore Colts who set a high price tag for John Elway. In 2004, he was the veteran GM of the Giants and juggled Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger at the top of the draft, considering all and trading for Manning.

Accorsi told me he has seen Luck on TV but would be doing an injustice to scouting by having an opinion on Luck, the player. But he did tell me if Luck is in league with Elway as a prospect -- which is the widely held view of many scouts; not better, and maybe not as good, but in the same league -- then the Elway situation is a good barometer. Accorsi set a price tag of three first-round picks and two second-rounders for the first pick of the '83 draft, which certainly would be used on Elway. He never got the deal he wanted, so the Colts picked Elway No. 1.

But Baltimore owner Robert Irsay commandeered the trade negotiations for Elway once he found out signing him would cost $5 million over five years. (Exorbitant at the time, ridiculously reasonable in retrospect.) Irsay dealt Elway to Denver for the fourth pick in that year's draft (tackle Chris Hinton) plus Denver's first-round pick in 1984 and marginal quarterback prospect Mark Herrmann. Two ones and a backup quarterback, basically, for Elway. Turned out to be dirt-cheap compensation. Elway led the Broncos to five Super Bowls, winning two. "Five Super Bowls? You can't overpay for that,'' said Accorsi. "It's like overpaying for Joe DiMaggio. In retrospect, three ones and two twos would have been very fair. A bargain, really.''

I think three first-round picks for the first selection in the 2012 draft is more than fair if the team that earns that right is in a dealing mood. One of those picks would have to be in the top 10 of the 2012 draft. "If he's as good as everyone says he is, absolutely it's a realistic price,'' Accorsi said.

In 2004, Accorsi traded for Manning's rights with San Diego in a deal that essentially was two firsts, a third- and a fifth-, with one of the firsts being the fourth overall pick in that draft. (The picks were made, Manning by the Chargers and Philip Rivers by the Giants, and then swapped by the teams.)

But that's not a bad template for a Luck trade. Let's say the Rams have the first pick in the draft next year, but because they've got Sam Bradford, don't feel a need to take a quarterback. The Dolphins, let's say, are picking fourth. The negotiations would have to start with two ones, a three and a five, but I think they'd have to be ratcheted up in value. Luck, in 2012, will likely be much more of a sure thing than Manning or Rivers were in 2004.

But if I were the GM of any bad 2011 team, with any current or near-future quarterback need (and that includes Indianapolis, where the owner is already talking about a Peyton Manning-Luck tag-team for three or four years), I wouldn't take any offer for Luck. I'd sit there and pick him. When you don't have a quarterback, and you're in position to take the surest of things probably since Peyton Manning himself came out, you have to take Luck.

One last point: Pete Thamel of TheNew York Times asked Luck the other day about the rise of "Suck for Luck'' sentiment around the league. In other words, root for your team to lose so you'll be in position to take him. (Judy Battista wrote smartly about it Sunday in the Times.) Luck has another year of eligibility left at Stanford, but those close to him, and most NFL people I speak to, are virtually certain he'll come out for the 2012 draft. "I am aware of it,'' Luck told Thamel, regarding the sentiment of fans who want their teams to lose to have a shot to draft him next April. "I think it's stupid -- simply put.'' It may be, but that's not going to stop fans in Miami and Seattle and other locales from rooting for their teams to lose.


Now for the rest of Sunday's headlines:

In the galaxy of Eagle stars, Kurt Coleman is not one -- but he did save their season in Washington. Three weeks ago, Coleman, Philly's seventh-round strong safety from the 2010 draft, was benched after allowing Victor Cruz of the Giants to beat him for a 75-yard touchdown. He didn't even know he'd be starting Sunday until a couple of days before the game. And all he did was intercept three Rex Grossman throws -- at the Eagles' 3-, 5- and 30-yard lines in the Eagles' season-saving 20-13 win ... the first time in 45 years an Eagle had three interceptions in a game. Think of the points he saved. Think of what might have happened without his triple intervention, even if the Redskins converted the three drives into field goals and not touchdowns. Washington 22, Philadelphia 20. He'd had only one pick till Sunday, and he was thrilled to get the start in this game because, as he told me, he felt he knew Grossman as well as he'd known a quarterback entering a pro game. "I had a great feel for Rex,'' said Coleman. "For some reason, after scouting them on tape, I had a great read on him and on their pass concepts. I just felt like I knew where he was going with the ball all day. It's a pretty humbling feeling, to get three in one game.'' Coleman claimed the messaged pounded into the Eagles defense all week was stopping the run, and they held Washington 42 yards on the ground.

The Bengals are 4-2. Knock Mike Brown for not trading Carson Palmer, for not building a consistent winner, and for ignoring the bleatings of generations of Bengals who have begged for him to hire a real general manager. His draft last April was as patient as it was productive. First the pick of A.J. Green in the first round; that surprised no one, and his production (29 catches, 15.6-yard average, four touchdowns) has been consistent with where he was drafted. But the drafting of Andy Dalton, especially where he was drafted, was a risky move that turned out to be a home run. Think of it. Starting around the 20th pick in the first round, there was a drumbeat for Dalton. Indianapolis liked him a lot at 22; Seattle loved him at 25, and Buffalo, one pick ahead of Cincinnati at 34th overall, had a quarterback need. Right behind the Bengals, San Francisco and Arizona both liked Dalton. But Brown stayed where he was and got Dalton. The Dalton-to-Green combo, plus a top-five defense with eight defensive linemen who play almost willy-nilly interchangeably, have the Benglas, next to San Francisco, the biggest surprise team in the league entering their bye.

Scattershooting. I know Matt Ryan has had a disappointing year -- very good quarterbacks should lift their team, and he hasn't -- but he made two great throws in the fourth quarter to keep Atlanta in the pennant race with a 31-17 win over Carolina ... Cam Newton is starting to look like a rookie. That's not an indictment, merely an acknowledgement of how incredible he was early and how young he looks now ... I thought the Saints looked out of sync at times at Tampa after Sean Payton suffered the broken tibia and MCL tear. But the Bucs and Raheem Morris deserve the lion's share of credit for that, and for the 26-20 win. Tampa Bay lost by 45 last Sunday, flew back across the country and prepared for one of the best offenses in football after the 49ers put up 48 on them. There's something you learn about your team when confronted with the kind of doubt that has to creep in when you lose a game by 45 points. Morris, obviously, didn't let it ... I don't know who the Giants are, but when they rely on the run game and rush the passer the way they did Sunday, they can play with anyone -- and I mean Green Bay too. They were buzzing around Ryan Fitzpatrick all day, and Ahmad Bradshaw outran the Bills for three touchdowns ... Fred Jackson is, by far, the most under-appreciated running back in football. It wouldn't surprise me if he becomes a star for the Bills the way Thurman Thomas was. Sixteen for 121 Sunday. Just another day ... The Raiders need a quarterback now, and if I were them, I'd go pay a fourth- in 2013 (they don't have their 2, 3, 4, and 7 from the 2012 draft) and try to wrest Kyle Orton from Denver. The Broncos are having an everything-must-go sale (kidding, sort of) and they know Orton's not anything now but insurance ... The Rams need to deal for Brandon Lloyd -- and would give a higher pick than San Francisco.

1. Green Bay (6-0). Look on the bright side, Rams: You held the Pack to their lowest point total of the year, 24. Green Bay still won by 21.

2. San Francisco (5-1). I believe in the hip-world vernacular the right way to talk about the Niners right now is: These guys are no joke.

3. Baltimore (4-1). Should be 6-1 entering Week 9 showdown at Pittsburgh, with Jacksonville and Arizona on the slate the next two weeks.

4. New England (5-1). Good to know you can call on the two-minute drill when you need it. The Patriots have been laying waste to so many teams they haven't needed to convert a crucial two-minute drive in a while. "We haven't had really a true two-minute situation at the end of the game where we needed a touchdown in a long time,'' Tom Brady said. But he had the 80-yard game-winner in him.

5. Detroit (5-1). Bobby Carpenter has been reborn in Detroit. Notice that? This is the player Bill Parcells made a first-round pick in Dallas five years and two teams ago.

6. San Diego (4-1). On the bye Sunday, Antonio Gates prayed to the god of plantar fascia, "Why have you forsaken me?''

7. Pittsburgh (4-2). I agree with Mike Tomlin, who says of his team, which moves in mysterious ways: "The jury is out on us.''

8. Tampa Bay (4-2). A 45-point loss one week, a division win to take the NFC South lead the next. The race isn't over, but Tampa had lost to the Saints at home for two straight years. Sweet redemption, in many ways.

9. New Orleans (4-2). It's so strange to see Drew Brees make a foolish throw, which he did with the game on the line when he gave Quincy Black a gift in the waning moments.

10. Oakland (4-2). Oakland drops because of the injury to Jason Campbell (broken collarbone). That was a classy halftime celebration of Al Davis' life, highlighted by the football person Davis trusted most, John Madden, lighting an eternal flame that will burn at the Oakland home field. Forever, I assume. What happens if the Raiders move to L.A., I wonder.

11. New York Giants (4-2). Who can figure out the NFC East? Washington beats the Giants by 14. Giants beat Philadelphia by 13. Philadelphia beats Washington by seven. I am clueless what the order is in this division. My choice is New York on top, followed closely by the other three. In some order. I guess. Maybe.

12. Buffalo (4-2). Naaman Roosevelt scored a touchdown for the Bills Sunday, which continues the weird parade of Bills no one's ever head of scoring touchdowns in games meaningful to the AFC playoff race.

13. Philadelphia (2-4). I know it's ridiculous to put a 2-4 team ahead of those with much better records. But I defy anyone who watched the first half of the game at Washington to say the Eagles aren't one of the best teams in football. Of course, NFL games are two halves long.

14. Dallas (2-3). They'll play in a bowl game at the end of the year. The Continually Almost Done It Bowl.

15. Cincinnati (4-2). Andy Dalton (15 of 19 in the first half against the Colts) doesn't know he's not supposed to be a mid-range (15th-best, 18th-best, somewhere in there) quarterback in the NFL right now. But he's playing like he is.

Offensive Player of the Week

New England QB Tom Brady. I knew facing Rob Ryan would be his toughest test of the season, and for 57 minutes, it certainly was. "They make you earn every yard,'' Brady said after the game. "There are no gimmes against them.'' With three minutes left, the Dallas defensive coordinator had held the Patriots to 13 points and Brady to a 19-of-32, 211-yard, one-TD, two-pick day on his home field, where Brady hadn't lost a regular season game since the Truman Administration. But then, down by three and starting from his 20, Brady came out firing, completing 8 of 9 for 78 yards and ending the drive with an eight-yard strike to Aaron Hernandez with :22 left. That's the kind of drive the great ones make.

Defensive Players of the Week

Philadelphia FS Kurt Coleman. And not just for his three important interceptions -- one when FedEx Field was rocking and the Eagles were trying to hand the game back to Washington. But for his two additional passes broken up at critical times when the Redskins were fighting to get back into the game, and his team-high seven tackles. Not bad for a guy who's been in and out of the lineup for inconsistent play.

Baltimore LB Ray Lewis. He is 36. I am convinced he will play this way at 46. The man refuses to admit there is a clock on his career, and maybe there isn't. With 12 tackles and one sack in the 29-14 win over Houston, he became the first player to have 40 sacks and 30 interceptions in the 92-year history of the NFL.

Special Teams Players of the Week

Chicago KR/WR Devin Hester. His 17th career kick or punt return for touchdown -- a 98-yard kickoff return for a score to ensure a rout of the Vikings Sunday night -- was just one example why every fan rooting against the Bears says when a kickoff or punt falls into Hester's hands, "Nooooooooooooooooooo!!!'' Hester is 28. He's two touchdown returns from the NFL record for returns of all kinds (including INTs and fumbles). That record is 19, held by Deion Sanders. I like his chances to get to 20. Maybe even this year.

Oakland P Shane Lechler. He's been in this spot plenty of times for being the best punter of this generation. He makes it today for throwing a 35-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Boss, giving the Raiders their clinching touchdown in a 24-17 victory over Cleveland.

Oakland KR/WR Jacoby Ford. With the game against Cleveland tied at seven in the second quarter, Ford took a kickoff one-yard deep in the end zone and tiptoed most of the way down the right sideline for a touchdown the Raiders desperately needed. On this day, the Raiders scored 14 points on special teams, and I would be remiss in not crediting the Raiders' young special teams coordinator, John Fassel. Yes, the son of Jim.

San Francisco P Andy Lee. In a field-position game, Lee's punts landed at the Detroit 33, 18, the end zone, 11, 9, 28, 9 and 8. A superb day, whether the Niners won or not, and the fact they won made it an easy award to give.

Coaches of the Week

Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. For the fifth time in six games in an offensively explosive NFL this year, the Bengals allowed 20 points or fewer in their 24-17 victory over the Colts. They're among the league leaders in opponents yards per rush (3.3 per carry), and they're holding foes to 58.6 percent completions in a league gone wild with passing.

Immense credit goes to Zimmer for cutting a touchdown a week off the Bengals' defensive totals and for refocusing a no-name group to playing playoff football again. I just hope the owners in position to make coaching hires after the season will do the smart thing and at least interview Zimmer to be a head coach. Long overdue, in my mind.

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh. Forget whatever the league makes of the postgame exuberance with Jim Schwartz. Any coach who can have a team of new players for seven weeks, players he's never coached before, and boast of a 5-1 record in his first NFL coaching job, with win three Eastern Time Zone games in 22 days ... well, that guy can coach for my team any time.

Goat of the Week

Washington QB Rex Grossman. The voters for "The Award Section'' in this column have been unanimous on none of the players/coaches/goats of the week ... until now. Throwing four interceptions in 43 minutes will win the Goat of the Week most weeks. All weeks, quite honestly. The 20-13 Philadelphia victory was a game there to be won for Washington, until Grossman got his hands on the ball.

Think Jimmy Graham's become Drew Brees' go-to guy? He's not only Brees' key receiver now, he's the most-used receiver in recent weeks of the best passing teams in football. Look at the top five passing teams (in yards per game) and where Graham ranks related to the favorite targets on the other four teams in their last three games:

"Somebody went after Jim? Lemme put it this way: I've been in fights with Jim before myself. I won a few early. Then it got slanted the other way after a while.''

-- Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, on his brother's confrontation with Jim Schwartz.

"When you stink, they're gonna let you know you stink. And I'm all kind of all right with that.''

-- Eagles coach Andy Reid, the embattled one, on the Philly fans. The Eagles, of course, came back from a four-game losing streak to win their first of many proverbial must-win games, at Washington on Sunday.

"As we look at the one-year anniversary, we can say it's a pretty happy anniversary. As we have studied it over the past year, there is no question in our minds that players have adjusted their target areas. There is no question they are aiming lower. I think we have a safer game than we had a year ago.''

-- NFL vice president Ray Anderson, the league's discipline czar, to me on the one-year anniversary (today) of the day the NFL experienced a barrage of major helmet hits and increased the fines on them drastically. I can tell defensive players don't like it still, and many have not changed a thing about the way they play. But some have, as Carolina linebacker Jon Beason told me: "Officials have told us to aim lower. We know it's their way or the highway.''

"Kind of like going from the Wood Memorial to the Kentucky Derby.''

-- San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh, on the difference between coaching in college and in the NFL.

The attendees at former Broncos, Titans and Jets assistant Mike Heimerdinger's memorial service Friday night in Nashville: Former Titans head coach Jeff Fisher; Head coaches Mike Shanahan, Gary Kubiak and Jim Schwartz; club execs John Elway, Mike Reinfeldt and Rick Smith; assistant coaches Alan Lowry, Sherman Smith, Bobby Turner, Kyle Shanahan, Bob Slowik, Frank Bush, Dave McGinnis, Chuck Cecil, Rick Dennison, Alex Gibbs and David Gibbs.; players Benji Olsen, Brad Hopkins, Donnie Nickey, and Zack Piller. The wife of longtime friend and fellow Titans coach Jim Washburn drove to the service from Philadelphia.

Friends and relatives packed the church Friday, and I've mentioned only the ones you might know. But it's a pretty good sign of a man when that many people fly in during an in-season game week to pay their respects.

Lived in Jersey for 24 years, and in all those years I never actually walked in the Meadowlands. (Not many people do and live to tell about, I suppose.) Finally did on Saturday, taking my dog Bailey for a 90-minute walk on the roads and paths near the tall reeds and grasses in the area around the stadium there. My wife and I were in the area for a few days while waiting for the closing on our apartment in Manhattan; the timing of this move didn't exactly work out in a golden way, as you can tell. Have to say it was a very nice walk. At one point, Bailey ducked off a path and spent a good two minutes sniffing at one specific spot. I had to cajole her to come out of there.

"Jimmy Hoffa?'' I said.

Bailey had no comment. Smart dog. She knows what's good for her.

"Somehow, I'd never stood next to Calvin Johnson before. Jesus. Built like Karl Malone.''

-- @albertbreer of NFL Network, reporting from the floor of Ford Field Sunday morning.

"Derrick Mason: Rexiled."

-- @NYPost_Serby, columnist Steve Serby of the New York Post, after the Jets gave away wide receiver Derrick Mason (for a conditional seventh-round pick to Houston, following a Daily News story that some receivers went to Rex Ryan to complain about offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Mason is rumored to be the one who leaked the story.

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

a. Are you trying to imitate Dwayne Bowe, Brent Celek? What a catch, tipping the ball to himself twice and catching it while on the ground.

b. Devin Hester. Said the same thing about Wes Welker last week: There's a good chance we'll be sitting in judgment about Hester for the Pro Football Hall of Fame some year.

c. Fred Jackson is so good. You know what's so impressive about him (and I knew this before his 80-yarder against the Giants)? His instincts. Such great feel for when he has tacklers around him.

d. Lots of tackling the right way Sunday -- like Terrence McGee of the Bills on Mario Manningham of the Giants.

e. Not Donovan McNabb's fault. Not at all. But Christian Ponder showed enough Sunday night that, if I'm Leslie Frazier, five games out of first place with 10 to play, I'm playing the kid. "I've got a lot of things to think about Monday,'' Frazier said after the 39-10 embarrassment in Chicago Sunday night.

f. Michael Irvin's right: Never thought I'd see an Eagle back as good and as versatile as Brian Westbrook for a while. Shady McCoy is.

g. What a hit by Nnamdi Asomugha on Chris Cooley, preventing Cooley from converting a third down into a first.

h. Loved the CBS iso-camera on Fred Jackson as he changed fields.

i. Didn't know you still had that leap in you, Kellen Winslow. What an athletic play, leaping a Saint in crunch time.

j. Brett Keisel: six tackles, two sacks, a tackle for loss, a pass defensed. Thought he was just a run-stopper.

k. Paul Posluszny: 16 tackles.

l. Michael Turner: 27 carries, 139 yards.

m. Rashard Mendenhall: 23 for 146. Is the run making a comeback? Some good days on the ground Sunday.

n. Corey Peters, that's one of the best big-man interceptions we've seen in years. You're a Wilfork.

o. Can't get over another Fassel making his name as an NFL coach. You go, John Fassel.

p. Looks like NFL Network might have good-fortuned its way into a great game in the Nov. 10 debut for Thursday night football: Oakland-San Diego.

q. I see Dallas Clark has rediscovered his hands.

2. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 6:

a. What happened to your man coverage in the red zone, Colts?

b. Saturday, noon, college football, Louisville at Cincinnati. Attendance: 40,971. Sunday, 1 p.m., pro football, Indianapolis at Cincinnati. Attendance: 52,068 -- and it absolutely didn't look like that many.

c. Notice that every screen is now called a "bubble screen'' by every announcer?

d. Hey, Jermaine Gresham: A.J. Green's on the team now, and if you drop many more like the wide-open drop you had in the second quarter against Indy, Andy Dalton's going to throw the ball elsewhere.

e. It's always something with the Cowboys late in games.

f. What a bizarre, idiotic throw by Vince Young.

g. "Dirt on the face'' of Michael Vick? That's the reason Vince Young was in the game long enough to throw one of the silliest interceptions of the year?

h. I'm not exactly Joe TV, and I definitely learn something when I speak to him about football, but I really don't like all the screaming Steve Mariucci does. It's a communication business, not a circus.

i. I'm not writing a lot about it, and I don't fault Mike Carey for making the replay call he made allowing the touchdown catch by Nate Burleson. But we at NBC showed the Burleson catch and last year's Calvin Johnson catch side-by-side, and I don't know how you watch both of those catches -- with receivers stumbling after the catch, steadying themselves on the ground with the ball, the ball laying on the ground instead of in the receivers' hands at the end of the play -- and say one's a touchdown and one isn't.

Now, the league has made it more a point of emphasis this year that if there's significant time between the ball being possessed by the receiver and the ball leaving his grasp, and the player is able to make a football move in the process, then it should be a catch. Watch those two catches side-by-side. Other than the fact Burleson put the ball down out of the back of the end zone and Johnson put it down in the end zone, tell me the difference.

3. I think Mike and Kyle Shanahan will play John Beck at Carolina Sunday. Why would they not? They liked Beck a lot in the summer, and when Grossman won the job in September, it was by a sliver. I think they're anxious to see what they've got.

4. I think the reason Andy Reid wouldn't be on the hot seat, yet, is because not only hasn't his team quit on him yet, but also the players remain doggedly loyal. "We could be 1-13,'' Michael Vick said after the win at Washington, "and everything he tells us, we'd do.''

5. I think, if you're reading this between 8 and 11 Eastern Time Monday morning, you're reading while Sean Payton is under anesthesia and under the knife in a New Orleans hospital. He's having surgery to repair the medial collateral ligament, torn when Jimmy Graham plowed into him on the sidelines in the first half, and to mend the top of the tibia near the knee cap.

Ironic: Last week at practice, Payton was bragging to some players about how he never had to have surgery while he played college and pro (briefly) quarterback in the '80s. Days later, he'll miss the two game-planning days for the Sunday night game against Indianapolis because of the surgery. Expect him back at work sometime Tuesday or Wednesday.

6. I think you'll see an interesting new commercial on the air next Sunday. (You'll probably be so sick of it in two weeks you'll never want to see it again.) But it's one of those NFL Play 60 commercials, with players from one team getting on a yellow school bus to the tune of "The Power Is On,'' by The Go! Team. (I had to look that up. There's no way I would know who The Go! Team is -- the band is from Brighton, England -- as you well can figure.) But the song's catchy, and this commercial is pretty good too.

It's the Carolina Panthers on the bus with kids, then getting off to exercise with them. There's Cam Newton, nodding in tune with the song, and Steve Smith, and Ron Rivera, and Jon Beason, and other players ... and -- spoiler alert now -- when the front door of the bus opens up to let everyone out, you see the driver. Jerry Richardson, the Carolina owner. In a spiffy blue suit. "When we heard Mr. Richardson would be the driver, we were all like, "Whoaaaaa,'' said Beason. Beason agrees with me: "The music is very catchy.''

7. I think the reason Denver wideout Brandon Lloyd should go somewhere -- my choice would be the Rams, for a fourth-round pick -- is pretty simple. The acquiring team would owe him only $1 million for the rest of the year, and it would get a supremely motivated player because he's got to play for a new contract. And even if the acquiring team doesn't sign him, it would probably get a compensatory draft choice in return in 2013. So trade a four in 2012, get Lloyd to use for 10 games, and get a fifth-rounder, in all likelihood, in 2013 if you don't sign him.

8. I think Mike Florio and I are getting the hang of nailing each other pretty good on Friday night, when we argue about various and sundry football things on Versus on our NFL preview show. The other night one of the topics was a list of the top five receivers in football. Calvin Johnson was a pretty easy No. 1, and our lists weren't too different except for one thing: I had Wes Welker three, he didn't have Welker on the list. Florio's of the anyone-can-be-a-slot-receiver-for-Tom-Brady school. On Twitter, I see about half of you agreed with him, and half agreed with me. Fair enough.

But for those who say, "Anyone can do that with Tom Brady throwing the ball,'' I would say this: In 2007, with Brady his quarterback, Welker caught 112 balls for 1,175 yards, a 10.5-yards-per-catch average. In 2008, with Matt Cassel his quarterback, Welker caught 111 balls for 1,165 yards, a 10.5-yard average. Now, if you want to argue that slot receivers don't have the value of outside receivers, I'd almost get that one -- except that in many offenses, the slot receiver is as important as the outside receiver.

Look at what Peyton Manning did with Dallas Clark in the slot, following what Brandon Stokley had done. In today's offenses, the slot receiver is a vital chain-mover. If the Patriots have had one of the two or three best offenses in the game over the last half-decade -- which they clearly have had -- the most valuable receiver for them over that time (save for 2007, with Randy Moss) has been Welker.

9. I think I have graduated from the Tony Dungy School of Never Kick to Devin Hester. Ready for my graduate courses.

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

a. What a week it was for birthdays: Favre 42, Steve Young, 50, Jerry Rice, 49, Jerry Jones, 69.

b. Ernie and Cheryl Johnson: saints. Nice job, Mike Lopresti.

c. And very nice job, Gary Myers, on Al Toon's son Nick, a wideout prospect at Wisconsin, with a good look at the history of concussions that affected Al, who will be inducted into the Jets Ring of Honor tonight in New Jersey.

d. I see the Big East is interested in adding Boise State. Boise is east, after all. Of Walla Walla.

e. Air Force at Central Florida. Now that's a great Eastern rivalry.

f. Almost as good as SMU versus Boise State.

g. Imagine a year when Boise State has road trips to play UConn and South Florida. That's 2,578 miles to Storrs, 2,629 to Tampa. That's what I call conducive to great regional rivalries.

h. My reaction to the Bob Hohler's Boston Globe story on the downfall of the Red Sox: superb story -- with an asterisk. If there's a reason to write about Terry Francona's use of pain medication, other than to say team sources "expressed concern'' that Francona's job performance "may have been affected'' by the use of pain medicine, it needed to be stated in the story. Without any hard and fast examples of him being affected -- slurring words, tardiness, aberrant behavior -- that's the kind of kind of thing I would have kept out of the story, because there's no reason to think it had anything to do with the Red Sox's 2011 performance.

But overall, the story was very good. So good, in fact, that it drove my brother-in-law (and I assume quite a few others) to say he was finished with paying a dime to the team. He told me he'd be dropping out of our little season-ticket consortium. I'll be very curious to see how much company he has.

i. Hooray for Curt Schilling on WEEI, ripping the players involved, particularly the three pitchers named (Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Jon Lester) for often staying in the clubhouse when they weren't pitching to drink beer, play video games and eat fried chicken. (Nice bit of detail there, Bob Hoehler.) I wondered how common it was for players to not be on the bench during baseball games when they weren't playing. It seems wrong, unless they're getting some sort of medical attention or taking extra batting practice to prepare to pinch-hit.

Evidently, it's not common, and in fact, it's frowned upon. Which makes the added insult of beer-drinking even worse. (My other question: What if Lackey pitched three innings Monday, got shelled, threw only 58 pitches, and was in the clubhouse after five beers Thursday ... and the game went long. In the 15th inning, what if the manager called for Lackey to warm up, which starters once or twice a year have to do in extra innings -- and learned he was tanked? That's a good use of $16.5 million a year, which is what Boston pays Lackey. Is it too much to ask for the beer to stay unopened until after the game?

j. Anyway, here's Schilling on WEEI: "The amount of disrespect that the players involved here showed to each other, to the organization, to Tito [Francona], to the game, is staggering to me. Probably as staggering are some of the names that are on that list. I'm blown away. I'm incredibly disappointed. Things have changed here for a long, long time, and I think it's for the worse. I think the way that this was handled by the organization is pathetic and embarrassing. Why would you want to root for this team?"

And Schilling on what to expect next April: "This could be the most abysmal Opening Day in the history of sports. These guys are going to get booed. They are going to get booed. No matter what they say in the winter time, can you imagine John Lackey jogging onto that field? . I'm saying, John is going to get a Yankee-like reception.''

k. Deservedly.

l. Really happy, by the way, for the Midwestern teams in the baseball playoffs. Tony LaRussa should be a miniseries. Or a reality show.

m. Congrats, Jon Daniels. Good man from New York who followed his dream of constructing a major-league baseball team and got it done in Texas.

n. Coffeenerdness: Green Mountain Keurig Cups, I'm getting used to you at Versus on Fridays. I use the French Roast pods, flush six ounces of boiling water through one, and then another, and have a very nice 12 ounces of bold-roast coffee.

o. Beernerdness: Had the Flying Fish Exit 4 American Trippel Ale the other night. Though you don't want to drink just one, the alcohol content (9.4 percent) almost forces you to. (Me, at least, because in the middle of the second one I was practically nodding off.) Mindful of the Dogfish Head 90 in taste and impact. Delicious and bold. But drink it slooooow. Hey, how about a really good beer from Jersey? Good job, Flying Fish.

p. Help out a good man, Buster Olney. The ESPN baseball writer is organizing a roundtable discussion in November in Vermont to help the flood victims of that suffering state. He's got a great event scheduled, plus an auction of some terrific baseball stuff.

q. And this, much to my delight, came in this morning at 2:51, from St. Louis native and Army First Sergeant Mike McGuire, the biggest Cardinals fan I know: "Peter, how about them comeback Cardinals? They come from 10.5 games out to make the World Series! Last time they won, I was deployed in Ramadi, Iraq. I will take a World Series title for this deployment! Take care, Mike."

Well. I can see MMQB has a rooting interest in the Series now. Thanks for writing, Mike.

Miami 23, New York Jets 20. Desperate times, desperate team, desperate win. By the Dolphins, I mean. Regarding the best thing that happened to the New Yorkers on Sunday: On the Sabbath, the Jets shutteth up.