So this week I'm writing about Miami-Kansas City.
Actually I'm writing about what in the world has gotten into the Chiefs, who started the season 0-3 and now co-lead the AFC West at 4-3 with Oakland and San Diego. With all the good stories in the league this week, I find the Chiefs the most compelling, because any team that rebounds as well from losing its first two game by a combined 89-10 to, in the last two weeks, beat their two division rivals 51-20 ... well, there's something amazing going on here.
I wasn't able to speak with coach Todd Haley this week (unavailable, his PR man said) about this good-news story, but I did reach a guy who is playing himself into the Pro Bowl, and maybe even All-Pro teams: inside linebacker Derrick Johnson. He's been fabulous the past two weeks, with a pair of 13-tackle games against Oakland and San Diego -- and three goal-line tackles in Oakland, and a sack of Philip Rivers, and an interception of Rivers. I picked Ray Lewis and NaVorro Bowman as my two midseason All-Pro inside/middle 'backers, but if I had to pick today, as much as I've loved Bowman, I'd almost have to flip a coin between Bowman and Johnson.
I asked Johnson what Haley and the coaching staff did after the two-game debacle opening the season, and after starting 0-3. I mentioned a story about Haley's mentor, Bill Parcells, often going easy on the team at times of crises when players expected a royal butt-chewing (that just sounds gross, doesn't it?), reinforcing the fact that they're good players. Johnson laughed and said that's basically how Haley handled it.
"We thought there was going to be a lot of yelling,'' said Johnson. "We thought we'd get ripped. But actually, the coaches just went back to teaching. I think Todd has grown a lot as a head coach. He's patient, easier to listen to now. He's still a disciplinarian, but there's a different aura about him. Everybody's bought into him.''
It would have been pretty easy, mentally, for the players to check out after season-ending injuries to three of the five or six most important players on the team by the middle of September: tight end Tony Moeaki, Matt Cassel's versatile security blanket; safety Eric Berry, the young leader of the defense; and running back Jamaal Charles, who coaches were relying on to produce 1,500 yards of offense, minimum, this year.
"They're probably our best players,'' said Johnson. "But it just goes to show you what a team sport football is. It's why I love the game so much. Football's just too hard, and it takes too much out of you, to say after two bad games and all those injuries, 'That's it. We give up.' As a football player, you just can't do that. We didn't.''
Johnson said the change actually began at San Diego in Week 3, in a narrow loss to the Chargers ("We got our life back,'' he said), then continued with a win at home against the Vikings. But in Week 5, trailing to Curtis Painter and the lowly Colts, the seminal moment of the season, at least for the defense, may have occurred in a halftime locker room. Indianapolis 24, Kansas City 14. Twenty-four points in two quarters to the Peyton-less Colts!
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, normally the most mild-mannered of coaches, had tried every way he could think of to cajole his players to play better. Now he lit into them. "WE'RE THE WEAK LINK!'' he said, according to Johnson. With a few other particulars thrown in, such as: It'd be one thing if you weren't good enough, if we were playing with a bunch of backups. But this is a good defense here! And it hit the players in that room that they were good enough. "I've never see him [Crennel] like that,'' said Johnson, chuckling at the memory. "He got everyone's attention. Not like he was throwing chairs, but we realized what he was saying was right.''
In the next six quarters, the Chiefs' D held the Colts and Raiders scoreless. Cassel threw two second-half touchdowns to beat the Colts. In the 28-0 win at Oakland, the defense picked off six Raider passes; Haley called a smart Wildcat direct-snap to Javier Arenas for a seven-yard touchdown. And last week, the miracle weirdness of the Rivers fumble in the last minute of regulation led to a 23-20 overtime win. In the last 10 quarters, the defense has forced 10 turnovers.
"When you have a crisis like we had,'' said Johnson, "it can't be all what the coaches do. It has to be the players. They can teach us the best schemes in football, but we have to go out and play.''
Johnson entered the league as a first-round pick in 2005. I remember seeing him in his first mini-camp under Dick Vermeil. Speed guy. Outside rusher. Vermeil thought he could lead the league in sacks one day. It wasn't until late in the 2008 season, Herman Edwards' last, that Johnson was thrown inside full-time. And late that season, coordinator Gunther Cunningham told him he should have been playing middle linebacker all along.
The middle, or inside, linebacker prototype 15 years ago was a run-stuffer on first and second downs who spent most third downs on the bench. Not anymore. Ray Lewis, among others, changed that. The inside guys are now more liable to be all-over-the-field playmakers. San Francisco's Bowman and Patrick Willis never come off the field. Neither does Johnson.
"It's quite a big responsibility to play all three downs," Johnson said. "I'm pretty fast on my feet. You can make more plays in the 3-4, like we play now than in the 4-3 because there are more gray areas where you can play on either side of the block. You're not head-up on a guy every time. In this defense, I feel like I can make some havoc."
In the last couple of weeks it's hard to imagine an inside guy playing the position better than Johnson has. "That Raider game was one of the best games of my life," he said. "I can watch that game over and over again."
It's the kind of game a lot of Chiefs can watch over and over again, a 28-point beatdown of the Raiders in the black hole. The way Kansas City is playing now, there may be more where that came from.
Blast from the past this week on the ninth podcast of the season: Ryan Leaf, the infamous second pick in the 1998 NFL Draft (one pick behind You-Know-Who), who has been through fame, failure, drug addiction, rehab, brain surgery ... and now faces six weeks of radiation starting later this month after having a golf-ball-sized tumor removed from the base of his brain in May.
The podcast on iTunes. The podcast on SI.com.
Failing with the Chargers: "I'd never really failed at anything before, and this was at the highest possible level, something I had wanted to do since I was four-years-old. So, dealing with that in a positive way, it wasn't in my cards ... Everything that I physically did I take full responsibility for. But I do believe there is some fault that should be taken by the Chargers organization ... For a long time I wouldn't [take responsibility]; I would say it's somebody else's fault. But that stuff is mine to own.
Being a draft bust: "It took a long time to deal with it. You're in denial first, and then you resent everybody and everything that went along with it. But when you are able to spend time really working on yourself in an introspective way you realize that it really isn't that important ... If I was only going to be a football player, that would have been tragedy, it truly would have.''
Rehab, and being a complete person: "The fact that they said I didn't have to do anything associated with football ever again was like a huge weight being taken off me. I felt like that might be the only thing I was ever going to be able to do and to have such a rock that I lugged around for so long, being the bust of all time or whatever, that was just too consuming for me, I think.''
Atlanta left tackle Will Svitek (number 74). Always a pleasant task to keep Dwight Freeney from nipping at your quarterback's heels. Or worse. With incumbent left tackle Sam Baker gone for a month with a back problem, journeyman Svitek has the job of keeping Matt Ryan's blindside clean from Freeney's speed. Now, Freeney's had a quiet season so far (four sacks, five quarterback hits in 372 snaps, according to ProFootballFocus.com), but that's like saying in June that Albert Pujols is hitting .265 with only nine homers. That doesn't make the pitcher he's facing the next day sleep any better.
1. The Peyton Hillis story. It's just strange. I've heard that some teammates are starting to question Hillis' desire in his contract year, in the wake of some strange developments. In the last two weeks, Hillis missed a game against Seattle with a strained hamstring, skipped treatment on his hamstring to fly to Arkansas to get married, was spotted on the field at Candlestick Park before last Sunday's game having a pass-throwing contest and then missed that game with the hamstring injury ... all on the heels of standing up in front of the team before a game in Oakland telling them he was all-in -- and then lasting a quarter of that game. Hillis had a superb 2010 season, groused about a contract paying him $555,000 this year and now appears to be blowing a chance at any big contract, with any team. So much was going to be on the line for Hillis Sunday in Houston, but reports Friday said he reinjured his hamstring in practice. Regardless of what happens in the final nine weeks of the season, why would anyone pay him big money with the soap opera season he's had?
2. Manningmania. Peyton, I mean. This morning, the fine Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz writes, "The greatest quarterbacks, the greatest dynasties, they have expiration dates.'' The frenzy of reporting on and around Manning will continue this weekend, though there's really nothing anyone can know until he's healthy enough to practice for the Colts (they hope by sometime in December), or until they have to make a decision about paying him a $28-million bonus a month after the Super Bowl. Manning told reporters Thursday, basically, that there's nothing new to know right now about his physical condition. Manning had his third neck surgery in 16 months eight weeks ago.
3. Manningmania, Eli Division. The last time little brother Eli faced the Patriots in a game that counted, there was a Velcro catch and a famous upset. Four years later, he's a better player. Pats and Giants in the late game at Foxboro, in a really fun duel between Eli and Tom Brady.
4. "Put Up or Shut Up.'' The back-page headline on both New York tabloids this morning, concerning running back Brandon Jacobs, who, when not, picking up a "fast-a** car", has been complaining about his role behind Ahmad Bradshaw in the Giants' backfield. This week, he should get his chance. Bradshaw has a stress fracture in his foot and may not play Sunday against New England.
5. The health of San Diego running back Mike Tolbert. With the Packers coming to town, and with Philip Rivers leading the NFL in turnovers (14), the Chargers have to have a running game to pull off the upset Sunday. Starter Ryan Mathews (groin) and third-stringer Curtis Brinkley (concussion) will likely be sidelined, and number-two back Tolbert isn't fully healthy with a hamstring problem. I still see Tolbert running it 20 times, and he'd better be good. The key for San Diego is to have a ball-control offense, and so Tolbert, in many ways, is the most important player of this NFL weekend.
6. It can only be Jared. (Unless, of course, it's DeMarcus). Jared Allen and DeMarcus Ware are on pace to break Michael Strahan's single-season sack record of 22.5. Since Allen's on the bye this week, let's focus on Ware. The Seahawks are the second-worst team in the NFC in sack percentage, allowing their quarterback to be dropped on 10.1 percent of pass attempts. Could be a multi-sack Sunday for Ware.
7. "I'm guaranteeing the world will stop for this game.'' Ravens-Steelers. In Pittsburgh. That's from Terrell Suggs, the quotemeister, on the Sunday night game. This is the most fun matchup in the NFL right now. And if you'd have told me after the Week 1 Ravens' beatdown of the Steelers that the Steelers would be ahead of the Ravens after eight weeks, I'd have said you've had too much Iron City.
8. Go East, young men. The 49ers play their fourth game in the Eastern Time Zone in 43 days, at Washington. Stat of the Week: San Francisco has three wins in Eastern Time this year. Philadelphia has two.
9. Pacman goes home, sort of. Adam Jones of the Bengals returns to Tennessee, where Pacman Jones got to know the local cops intimately. Someone cares about that somewhere, I imagine.
10. Forte vs. McCoy. Weird this year: At the season's midpoint, you could argue that the top three backs in 2011 performance are Matt Forte, Fred Jackson and LeSean McCoy. No Adrian Peterson. No Chris Johnson (and he's not in the top 30 as far as performance). Forte (1,091 rushing-receiving yards) and McCoy (10 touchdowns) square off Monday night in Philly.