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Eagles disappoint late again while Broncos, 49ers continue to surge

Week 2: Up 31-21 at Atlanta with 14 minutes left. The Matt Ryan-led Falcons twice drive 80 yards to touchdowns. Eagles lose, 35-31.

Week 3: Up 16-14 over the Giants at home with 10 minutes left. Eli Manning takes the Giants on 54- and 56-yard touchdown drives. Philadelphia offense snoozes again. Eagles lose, 29-16.

Week 4: Up 23-17 over San Francisco at home with six minutes left. Alex Smith drives the 49ers 77 yards to a touchdown. Jeremy Maclin fumbles with the Eagles on the doorstep to win late. Eagles lose, 24-23.

Week 9: Up 24-20 over Chicago at home with 14 minutes left. Jay Cutler drives the Bears 51 yards to a touchdown and 54 yards to a field goal. Eagles lose 30-24.

Week 10 (Sunday): Up 17-14 over Arizona at home with five minutes to go. Arizona's third-string quarterback last year (behind Derek Anderson and Max Hall) and its second-stringer this year, Fordham Ram John Skelton, drives the Cards 87 yards in 11 plays. On third-and-10 from the Eagle 38, rookie safety Jaiquawn Jarrett, making his first career start, is left alone in coverage on Larry Fitzgerald, and Skelton rainbows a pass to Fitzgerald to the one-yard line. The Cards score three plays later. Skelton throws for 166 yards in the fourth quarter. Eagles lose 21-17.

That, folks, is how to blow a season right there.

***

The stories of week 10:

1. Tim Tebow came, he saw, he ran the Veer, he conquered. On a gorgeous 67-degree day in Kansas City with weather being no factor, the Denver Broncos completed two passes, never trailed and forged a three-way tie for second place in the mighty AFC West. Denver 17, Kansas City 10. Victories since Oct. 23: Tebow 3, Tom Brady/Michael Vick/Philip Rivers (combined) 2.

2.Mike Smith makes a curious call, and the Saints take command of the NFC South. The Falcons coach channeled his inner Belichick, went for it on fourth-and-inches from his 29 in overtime, didn't make it, and the Saints kicked a field goal a couple of minutes later to win 26-23. "First we were going to punt the football,'' Smith said, "then we had a change of heart and I wanted to go for it.''

Don't read the papers today, coach.

3.The 49ers might never lose again, but don't you dare call them good. "The longer we can keep the players from knowing they're good, the better,'' Jim Harbaugh told me over the din of the Niner locker room after San Francisco held off the Giants 27-20 at Candlestick. Interesting little turnaround the 8-1 Niners have coming up: home with Arizona Sunday, then at Baltimore four days and three time zones later.

4.The Bears are eating teams alive, and the Texans cannot lose without two of the best players in football. Chicago pulverized the reeling Lions. The Bears have gotten back in the playoff race by winning four in a row by 65 points. The Texans have also won four straight -- by 90 points. Wasn't supposed to be this easy without Andre Johnson and Mario Williams, but it sure looks it.

5.Get the ticker-tape ready, Indy: The 2012 Draft is 23 weeks away, and you can't lose Andrew Luck now. The Colts are one of the worst offensive teams the league has seen in years. Proof: They went to Dan Orlovsky Sunday for a spark. More proof: They've been outscored 137-27 over the last four weeks. But as I said on NBC last night, Indy's all but clinched the first pick in the April draft. The Colts have 10 losses, with games at New England, Baltimore and home with Houston remaining. No other team in football has more than seven losses. It's almost inconceivable that the Colts could lose the first pick now.

6. And more: New England all but wins the East (is this some tape loop?), the Steelers make it a very bad day in Cincinnati (what else is new?), and Dallas creeps to within a game of the Giants (have you looked at their schedules?).

***

How do you not love what the Broncos are doing?

We media geniuses have had our fun in the last few weeks. Tebow will never make it. Tebow can't transition to the NFL. Tebow's game is a college game. The Broncos are playing the guy just to show the fans it can't work, and then they'll move on to a real quarterback.

"After a while,'' coach John Fox said from the Broncos locker room Sunday, "you come to the realization that Ernie Els' golf swing is different than Lee Trevino's, but it's what they're comfortable with, they both work, and they both win.''

When Tebow took over as quarterback four games ago in Miami, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy tailored a few things to him, but the Broncos basically ran their regular offense, the one Kyle Orton used to go 1-4. They lucked out in that win at Miami, then tried their luck against Detroit, with McCoy calling 46 pass plays and 30 runs in the 45-10 loss to the Lions. "We got shellacked,'' Fox told me. "We were so one-dimensional, and we were banging our heads against the wall. I remember back in '06 in Carolina, we had a bunch of injuries, we were losing and we had to go play a really good Atlanta team. We basically invented the Wildcat for Chris Weinke that week and went into Atlanta and won the game. So here, we just figured let's try to do what Tim's comfortable with. It's just coaching. Doesn't matter if you coach JV, high school, college or the pros -- when you've got different kids, you need to do different things. Figure what your players can do, and adjust to them.''

So in the last couple of weeks, practices have been different for the Broncos. "Lot of dive options, pitches, play action, trying to get Eddie Royal the ball wide,'' Fox said. "Practicing what Tim does well, and oh yeah, I'd say that part [of the gameplan the last two weeks] has grown.''

In Oakland eight days ago, the Broncos ran it 39 times (for 299 yards) and called 22 passes; Denver won 38-24. In Kansas City Sunday, the ratio was out of control: 55 runs, eight passes ... and that was after losing the top two backs, Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno, to injury, and running a third-stringer, Lance Ball, 30 times. The offense is not necessarily designed to get Tebow running; of their 94 runs in the last two weeks, Tebow's had only 22. The offense uses Tebow the same as at Florida, as an option pilot. As Tebow said after the game Sunday, he doesn't care how often he throws or passes or hands off -- his job is to survey the defense and make a judgment how to attack as the play, millisecond by millisecond, develops.

Can it work long-term? Doubtful, but who knows? Who'd have ever figured, in the Aerial Era, a team going 2-0 running it 76 percent of the time? That's what Denver's done the last two weeks. Tim Tebow hasn't completed 50 percent of his throws in any of the five games he's played this year ... and he's lost only once.

I expected to hear the "yeah but'' at some point from Fox -- like, This is great, but it can't last long-term. Instead, I heard in Fox's voice, Why can't we win this way?

"The division has come back to us,'' Fox said. "We've got a great opportunity here, and that's what I've told the players.''

"So,'' I said to Fox, "is Tebow your quarterback the rest of the way?''

"At this rate,'' he said, "I would say yes. Now, who knows? But he's running the offense well, and he's not turning it over.''

The Broncos are a game behind Oakland, the team they clobbered last week. The battered Jets come to town for a Thursday-nighter this week, and the advantage for Denver is simple: The Jets have a short practice week to figure out a new offense and have to travel. Who knows? Ride the wave.

***

One of my favorite statheads loved what Mike Smith did in the New Orleans-Atlanta game at the Georgia Dome. As did his players, apparently. "All of the talking-head dummies and Monday morning quarterbacks will second-guess but I still think it was the right call,'' tackle Tyson Clabo told Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. (I think I am both.)

The situation: Overtime, 23-23, Falcons ball, fourth-and-a-foot at the Atlanta 29. Smith sent out the punt team. Then he changed his mind and decided to go for it. He had a 245-pound back, Michael Turner, and an interior line he trusted to get a foot. Smith knew, of course, that if the Falcons failed, the game was over. If they gained nothing in the next three plays, the Saints would send out John Kasay to win it with a 46-yard dome kick; just a few yards would put him in the lock zone. Kasay was 15 of 15 from inside the 40- this year. So Smith knew the consequences of a miss. Miss equals loss, basically. Which is exactly what happened. It was reminiscent of two years ago, when Bill Belichick went for it, with a lead, on fourth-and-two from his 37- at Indianapolis, failed, and watched Peyton Manning march down the short field to beat New England. That's where we first got to know Brian Burke, a former Navy fighter pilot and huge football fan. He runs a website called AdvancedNFLStats.com, and he was the first to say Belichick actually made the right call based on the performance of teams in similar down-and-distance-and-game situations over the previous decade. So I called him to ask what he thought of Smith's move.

"I thought it was smart,'' Burke said. "It just didn't work.''

According to Burke, judging Smith's call by using data of all similar game situations over the past 11 years found:

• If Atlanta punted the ball, the numbers say New Orleans would start its drive on its own 33-yard line, and the Falcons would have a 42 percent chance of winning the game. If they went for it on fourth down, they had a 47 percent chance of winning.

• If Atlanta went for it on fourth down, they had a 74 percent chance of making it. But, as Burke pointed out, that includes all fourth-and-one calls, including fourth-and-inches and fourth-and-a-yard-and-a-half.

• If Atlanta went for it and got the first down, they had a 57 percent chance of winning. If they went for it and failed, an 18 percent chance of winning.

I guess where I fall on this is simple. I'd rather make Drew Brees drive the ball 45 yards into comfortable field goal range, with all the risks that entails, instead of taking the 26 percent risk that I wouldn't make the first down. Making the first down, by the way, would mean exactly this: a little better than 50-50 chance the Falcons could drive the ball for a touchdown or into field goal range.

Quick hits around the league:

You don't want to play the Bears right now. The defensive front is voracious, and even though they gained only 216 yards, the Bears scored in typical Bear fashion: three field goals, a Devin Hester punt return, two interception returns (by Charles Tillman and Major Wright), one Matt Forte run. The offensive line got hit again Sunday with the loss of left guard Chris Williams, but you just figure they'll plug-and-play Lance Louis there when Gabe Carimi comes back from his knee injury in a couple of weeks, and they'll muddle through.

"The way we're playing now is what we're capable of,'' Brian Urlacher told me last night. "We're playing fast, the way our defense needs to play. One of the reasons we've turned it around is our coaches wouldn't put up with mistakes; they held us accountable and we cleaned them up.'' Chicago, 6-3, is tied for second with Detroit now, 2.5 games behind Green Bay. I asked Urlacher if the Packers could be caught. "I don't see anyone beating them twice,'' he said, meaning he didn't see them losing two games. "It looks like a fight for the Wild Card for us, but that's fine. We just want to get in.''

The 49ers are suffocating people. San Francisco's very quietly putting together a Pittsburgh-type of run-defense season. Through nine games, the Niners haven't allowed a rushing touchdown. Think of that. Tampa Bay allowed three -- yesterday. Foes have gained 64, 45, 79, 108, 86, 66, 66, 52 and 93 yards rushing in the Niners' nine games. "It's all about our front, and about our two inside linebackers [Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman] being very active but very physical too,'' said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. "Our stoutness up front has been a big part of what we do.'' Imagine some of the playoff matchups. Niners against Matt Forte. Niners against Michael Turner ... or the Niners shutting down Green Bay's run and making Aaron Rodgers throw it 45 times. I might pay to see that one.

***

Belichick catches Parcells

The Patriots' victory over the Jets Sunday meant Bill Belichick tied his old New York (Giants and Jets) boss, Bill Parcells, for ninth place on the all-time coaching victories list (including playoffs) with 183. It'll be tough to catch No. 8 this year -- Chuck Knox, with 193. How Belichick and Parcells compare historically:

Brady/Belichick pass Marino/Shula

Fitting that in the Year of the Pass, one of the new legends passes one of the old ones. Tom Brady and Belichick became the winningest quarterback-coach combination of all-time, beating a familiar couple of faces.

GALLERY: NFL's WINNINGEST COACH-QUARTERBACK TANDEMS

***

How much should you be worried about that defense, Packer fans?

Let's ask the guru, Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers, heading into the Monday-nighter against the Vikings.

"I don't like the way we're playing,'' Capers told me the other day. "I like the way we're taking it away, but I don't like all the big plays we're giving up, and we need to communicate a lot better going forward if we're going to fix this. But the one thing I remember about last year was it was just about this time when we started playing well on defense. We went to New York and shut out the Jets, we held the Cowboys to seven points and the Vikings to three. Then we won our last six [including postseason] and played pretty well on defense using a lot of people. We found our niche. Now we've got to do that this season.''

So it's been done. But not since mid-2009 have the Packers given up this many points (65) in consecutive games. According to ProFootballFocus, the trio of corners who helped the Packers win the Super Bowl last year (Tramon Williams, Charles Woodson, Sam Shields) allowed nine touchdown passes all of last season; they've allowed eight this year through eight games.

I watched the tape of the Packers-Chargers game, and two or three times one defensive back would turn around after a play and yap to another. Williams, on one play, lit into a couple of his mates, presumably for not providing the safety help he thought should have been there. From talking to Capers, that's what he meant by the communication problems. I saw a defense bothering the quarterback enough but breaking down badly in the back end. "Not up to our standards, but that's sort of been the pattern this season,'' Capers said. "Their long run of the game was nine yards, which is good. But they had seven pass plays of 20 yards or more. That we can't allow.''

Capers, in piloting two expansion teams, said the plan for great NFL teams hasn't changed. Build a defense, find a quarterback. In Carolina, he did it with Kerry Collins and a stingy defense built through the draft and free agency. In Houston, he tried to do it with David Carr and defense, but both weren't up to NFL averages. He looks at the Packers now and sees a team with a great quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, and what should be a good defense. And he knows it's foolish to expect Rodgers to put up 40 points every week, because sometimes great offenses (see: New England, Super Bowl, 2008) have an off day. He understands the impression fans have: If the Packers are going to stay unbeaten, they're going to have to have Rodgers win shootouts.

"I understand why people would think that,'' Capers said. "We just have to stress communication with the guys, everybody being where they're supposed to be, because when they are, we definitely should make the plays. But we've done it before. Last year, Tramon and Sam covered as well as any two corners in the league. We can get back to that level. I've seen it.''

You'll get an excellent indicator tonight, with rookie Christian Ponder coming to Lambeau Field with all the distractions and noise attendant to that experience for a visiting quarterback. If the Packers struggle holding the Vikings down, you'll know it's going to be pretty tough to keep this undefeated streak alive in the coming weeks.

Retired players not pleased with Legacy Fund

The NFL and the NFL Players Association announced Thursday a plan, pursuant to the July labor agreement, to distribute $620 million over 10 years to the men who played before 1993, the players who had been getting pittances for their pensions. "Nothing the league can do can ever full express our appreciation to the players who helped build our league,'' commissioner Roger Goodell said in the league's release. "However, the Legacy Fund is a significant step, especially as the benefits apply to the older players.''

I put pen to paper over the weekend to figure out the increases for long-retired players. Hall of Fame running back Leroy Kelly, for instance, played 10 seasons, retiring in 1973. He is 69. Kelly had been receiving a monthly check for $176. (So low because he'd chosen to take his monthly pension at 45 instead of waiting 10 or 15 years for it to mushroom.) Under the Legacy formula, a 10-year vet who retired before 1975 will now get $1,840 per month. That's a 945 percent increase. Now, instead of getting $2,112 a year in pension, Kelly will receive $22,080 annually.

So I expected Kelly to be pretty pleased when I reached him at his home in Willingboro, N.J., Saturday.

"No comment,'' he growled. "I really have nothing to say.''

A minute later, Kelly finally said: "Anything is better than nothing, I guess. I think the [retired] guys are happy to get something more, but it's just not enough. The NFL takes in, what, $4 billion more than baseball in a year? Baseball players have a great pension. I can't understand why we can't get at least $60,000 a year for the work we've done in making this sport what it is.''

Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure, who has become a spokesman for retired players, said he's heard from 12 players since the announcement, and the retirees felt the same as Kelly.

"We still have sub-poverty pensions in the NFL, and I don't just blame the league -- I blame the union too,'' DeLamielleure said. "You talk about $22,000, but that's before taxes. I emailed Roger Friday and said, 'I'm very disappointed to say the least. You told me you'd make this better. Why do you continue to punish the pre-'93 guys?' ''

DeLamielleure said the players he's spoken to are "disillusioned, angry and totally depressed'' that the pension isn't more generous. "There are days I could cry, listening to their stories,'' he said. "And now it's worse, because they were waiting for some hope, and even though this is more than they were getting, it's still nothing compared to what other sports do.''

I spoke with a baseball union lawyer, Rick Shapiro, on Sunday, and he told me a 10-year veteran baseball player who retired any season in the '70s would be getting a pension of between $112,000 and $200,000, depending on the prevailing rate of return on the pension plan's investments. Let's use $112,000. That's still $90,000 more per year than a similar NFL player would get.

An NFL spokesman emailed me Sunday and called the Fund "an unprecedented and substantial increase'' for the retirees, which it certainly is. But it still pales in comparison with baseball, and that's something that will always irk football players because football is a much more popular sport today. And I should also reiterate that DeLamielleure is as angry with the union as he is with the NFL; he believes both should be more generous with the retired players.

***

A few words about Penn State from a student I know well

I asked Emily Kaplan, a friend of mine from New Jersey, a Penn State junior, and a writer for the campus paper the Daily Collegian, to write something about how the campus was dealing with the Sandusky/Paterno crisis. Her report, filed Sunday night from State College, Pa.:

The origin of the iconic "We Are ... Penn State" chant, the school's signature slogan on and off the football field, is believed to have occurred the same year Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. In the pre-Paterno year of 1947, SMU didn't want to play Penn State because of PSU's two African-American players and wanted to negotiate a compromise. "We are Penn State," said captain Steve Suhey. "There will be no meetings."

So began the battle cry of unity, as all Penn Staters, to this day, consider ourselves part of a special family. Suhey's son Matt starred at Penn State in the 1970s, and Matt's son Joe played fullback for the Lions Saturday against Nebraska. Walk into a crowded room and shout, "We are ... " and any Penn Stater would know how to respond. The chant represents pride, respect and tradition.

Today, we are Penn State ... but we are ashamed. We are ashamed that our leaders who preach doing the right thing and "success with honor" dishonored all of us with their inaction over an alleged child-abuse scandal. We are embarrassed by the way we are being portrayed, as a football-centric school that would let a child molester walk if that meant our name would stay clean. We read the grand jury report and we are just as disgusted as anyone -- if not more. We are praying for the victims and hopeful they will find justice. We are heartbroken that this could happen here.

But as a Penn State junior, I can tell you this: We are going to be OK. We are not going to let an assistant football coach, apparently a very sick one, or a few university suits define us. For a moment, we lost our identity. We felt sorry for ourselves. We sulked that we were the victims of media scrutiny and that this scandal tarnished our school. But we are not the victims. The children are. So we will move on, working on repairing our school, while honoring those kids along the way.

Already the scandal's ramifications are swirling around campus. Four students apparently lost their spring internships because companies didn't want to be associated with Penn State. Corporate sponsors are supposedly pulling out of THON, Penn State's annual dance marathon, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, which has raised more than $78 million for pediatric cancer. If all true, it's sad. If people don't want to wear their Penn State garb anymore, it's their decision. But this I know: We are a school with a glorious tradition, a school dedicated to doing things the right way. Our longtime father figure, Joe Paterno, taught us that.

Look, I'm no Penn State apologist. I can't condone the stupid tantrum some of my classmates threw Wednesday night after Paterno's dismissal. Nobody condones the arrogant decisions some of our leaders made. I've also heard the criticism against my school. Happy Valley is in a bubble. Penn State is too image-conscious. JoePa is too deified. The riots give some credence to that. So did the presence of 100 students at Joe Pa's modest off-campus home, many teary-eyed, waiting for him to come out Wednesday night so they could say goodbye and thank him. On the surface it seemed ridiculous. How could students still support this man who didn't do enough to help abused children?

Truth is, if not for Paterno's philanthropy and moral code (until his fatal lapse of judgment), I and thousands of others wouldn't be here right now. If not for Paterno and his grand experiment -- creating a national powerhouse football program with high academic standards -- Pennsylvania State might still be an agriculture school and State College might be lucky if there were a Wal-Mart within a 30-mile radius. Paterno made a huge mistake, but that doesn't mean he's not a good man. When he emerged from his house Wednesday night, I was there when he addressed the gathering. One of the first things he said was, "Go study."

So we will study at Paterno Library, a place Joe and his wife made happen, we will eat Peachy Paterno ice cream and we will remember the lessons he taught us about integrity and honor. We will also remember his mistake, and make sure we never repeat it.

We will fund raise harder than ever for THON, we will work harder than ever in the classroom. Our president, our athletic director, our football coach, will not be around anymore. But we will be, and we will start to rebuild our university's shattered image. Whoever our next football coach may be next season, we will stand behind him and our players. Because we are Penn State. And like the hundreds of thousands of alumni around the country, we always will be.

1. Green Bay (8-0). Minnesota comes to Lambeau Field tonight. Remember when Vikes-Pack was a game of the year? John Randle-Brett Favre ... Randy Moss-LeRoy Butler ... Dennis Green-Mike Holmgren ... Brett Favre-Aaron Rodgers. And now? It's an interesting game because of the color of the uniforms. But Christian Ponder versus Rodgers at Lambeau has the feel of Idaho versus Alabama at Tuscaloosa.

2. San Francisco (8-1). Faithful column reader Doug Kelly point out how amazing it is that Jim Harbaugh is 20-2 in his last 22 games coached -- 12-1 at Stanford, 8-1 with the Niners. The guy might be able to coach.

3. Houston (7-3). I underrated the Texans too long. They lead the NFL in point differential at +107 entering Monday night.

4. New Orleans (7-3). Sean Payton being on the field didn't happen just because he felt antsy and hated being upstairs. It happened because Drew Brees needs him there. They need to be talking and seeing each other after plays and after series. They have the best head coach-quarterback relationship in football.

5. Baltimore (6-3). I give up. Wins over the Steelers, Jets, Texans and Steelers. Losses to the Titans, Jags, Seahawks (combined 11-16). You figure out where to put the Ravens. I can't. But I can't put them behind a team they've beaten twice.

6. Pittsburgh (7-3). They won one of the biggest tests of their season -- beating a 6-2 team on the road after a disheartening loss to the archrival Ravens. The Steelers might not be able to protect Ben Roethlisberger well enough to get to the Super Bowl, but they'll be a tough out if they make the playoffs.

7. New York Giants (6-3). Two losses in the last two months. Nothing to be concerned about, losing a close game to the Niners.