Summing up the drama with 17 games left in the NFL season:
NFC: One playoff spot left -- the NFC East title game Sunday night at the Meadowlands. The winner of Cowboys-Giants is in, the loser's out ... The Packers locked the No. 1 seed last night ... San Francisco clinches the second seed with a win at Rams Sunday, or one Saints loss in their last two games ... The lesser of Niners-Saints is third seed ... NFC East winner is fourth seed ... Falcons, Lions have clinched last two seeds, in some order. Battle for fifth seed between Atlanta (9-5 entering tonight's game at New Orleans) and Detroit (10-5) is significant -- and Atlanta has the tiebreaker -- because you'd much rather play a Wild Card game at the Giants or Cowboys than at either of the two teams in play for the third seed, San Francisco or New Orleans.
AFC: Pats clinch top seed with home win over Buffalo -- and they haven't lost to Bills in Foxboro since Tom Brady was a third-string rookie in 2000 ... Ravens (8-0 at home, 3-4 on road) clinch the second seed with victory at Cincinnati, which would make Pittsburgh the fifth seed. But a Ravens loss and Steelers win at Cleveland makes Pittsburgh two and Baltimore five ... Houston is locked in as the three seed ... Denver wins the West and fourth seed by beating KC at home. Oakland wins the West and fourth seed with a win over San Diego and Denver loss ... The sixth seed? Only 943 possibilities, give or take a dozen, but the Bengals clinch it with a home win over Baltimore (anyone in Cincinnati care?), and beyond that, the Raiders and Jets and Titans are still alive.
Now on to everything else, including a personally historic day by Mr. Discount Double-Check, a rewarding day for Detroit (as a team and a city), an emotional day in New England, my annual harangue about the prospect of an 18-game schedule, why John Fassel and Richard Seymour are the heroes of the weekend (and why the left side of the Kansas City field-goal team is decidedly not), how we are watching draft history change before our eyes, my take on Tony Romo's status for Sunday, Jerry Richardson loves him some Cam Newton, the unexpected MVPs of the Giants behind Eli Manning, Adrian Peterson's Christmas nightmare, and Minnesota's enduring Christmas gift, beginning with the night Chicago died.
Well, that's the last time I doubt Bob McGinn. The trustworthy longtime Packers beat man told me last week on my podcast he wasn't worried about three Green Bay tackles being out with injuries, with Marshall Newhouse and T.J. Lang set to protect The Franchise against the Bears' formidable front. Combined defensive stats, via the NFL gamebook, for Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Israel Idonije: seven tackles, zero sacks, zero quarterback hits. Rodgers wasn't sacked. He threw five touchdown passes, an NFL-best for him ("In junior college I threw six against Shasta in 2002; since then, no'') and made next week's finale against Detroit meaningless. Meaningless, too: the whole Kansas City-gave-the-league-a-blueprint-on-beating-the-Packers thing. I'll tell you the blueprint -- keep the Packers defense on the field and keep Rodgers off it.
Now for the talk show topic of the week, the NFL MVP, and whether Rodgers' night clinched the deal. I look for Mike McCarthy to sit Rodgers for most if not all of the final regular season game. And I look for Sean Payton and the soon-to-be-record-shattering Drew Brees to give Rodgers a counterpunch tonight against the Falcons. And if the Saints have something to play for next week (like the second seed), I look for Brees to duel Cam Newton in Week 17 and finish an intergalactic offensive season in which some of the numbers (yardage, completion percentage) could far exceed Rodgers' stats. But the MVP is more than stats, of course. By Rodgers piloting the Packers to one of the best seasons in wins and numbers a quarterback's ever had, it's going to be hard for anyone to catch him -- Tom Brady included.
I remember back in 2009, when Brees and Peyton Manning were in a brawl for the MVP award, I wrote I thought Manning deserved it because his cast of supporting characters wasn't as good as Brees'. I got a call on New Year's Eve, just before the Saints' final game, from Brees' coach, Sean Payton, making a very strong case for Brees. I loved what Brees had done, and I admired Payton for being so passionate about his guy, but I just thought Manning had done the most with a lesser cast (like the worst running game in football that year). I stuck with Manning.
I'll bet a lot of money that, in the spirit of the game tonight in New Orleans, Payton's playsheet holds a big game for Brees. So these numbers will change. I'm including Brady here, because he deserves consideration too. Problem is, the 50 media people who vote for MVP (me included) don't have the ability to vote 1 through 10 on a sliding scale (as in the baseball MVP). We vote for one -- though I've occasionally split my vote in the Associated Press' awards categories.
Comparing the top three, as I did last week:
It'll be interesting to see whether, in the minds of the 50 voters, Brees breaking Dan Marino's yardage record -- and maybe breaking it by a lot -- is a deciding factor.
One last point: Rodgers' year, by most or all measures, is a better one than Brett Favre had in any of his three MVP years, 1995, '96 and '97. Favre was, in touchdown-to-interception ratio, 38-13, 39-13 and 35-16, and Rodgers' completion percentage, yards and rating this year were better than in any of Favre's three years.
Appears to me Brees is going to have to do something incredible in the last seven days of the regular season to win the MVP.
Many of us were skeptical of Cam Newton's ability to transition to the pro game so quickly, and without a full offseason program. But he's done a fabulous job in all ways of adjusting to the NFL. His confidence is off the charts for a young player. His hatred of losing, as I've written about before, is surprising for such a young player; after a loss, he's nearly inconsolable, even by respected opponents. He's more accurate in a complicated offense than anyone had a right to expect. And though he clearly wants to establish himself as a strong pocket passer with awareness to see the whole field, he knows when to take off too. And the results have been strong since the Panthers, on Thanksgiving Day, stood 2-8. Carolina is 4-1 since then (thanks, Bucs), and here are Newton's numbers: eight touchdown passes, two picks, five rushing touchdowns, 60 percent passing.
He already owns the rookie record for passing yards (3,893), and, obviously, will be the first rookie to pass for 4,000 with 107 yards against the Saints next week. Newton passed Peyton Manning's record with his 478th throw Saturday; Manning threw 575 passes as a rookie in 1998. Newton's rushed for more touchdowns, 14, than any quarterback in any season ever. The NFL mark for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback is 43, by Steve Young ... and Newton's a third of the way there already.
Listen to these strong words from owner Jerry Richardson to me the other day: "As far as I'm concerned, he'll be the last quarterback we ever draft high in my lifetime. He is a very unusual young man, and I say that in a highly complimentary way. He does not complain. Ever. He's never in the trainers room. You watch him get hit out there and you think, 'He got to be hurting,' and then you see he's never with the trainers. The way he has adapted to our team and to the NFL has been tremendous. We couldn't be happier.''
GM Marty Hurney said before the draft that in order to compete in a quarterback-strong division, the Panthers had to take a quarterback and develop him quickly. He could never have imagined this. Who could? The most amazing thing is Newton having seven weeks of pro coaching before the real games began, and having a season like this one. Imagine when he has an offseason to work on the things he needs to improve. Which, from watching him, is not much.
Now, many of you will ask (and have asked), "Why couldn't the NFL put another game in the Sunday night slot? Why not Cincinnati-Baltimore, for instance? Or why not Kansas City-Denver, with Tim Tebow playing for a playoff spot?'' I can tell you this: The NFL would have preferred to not take the second Giants-Cowboys game and give it to NBC. But blame the left side of the Kansas City field-goal unit for that. I believe Kansas City-Denver, which would have been an AFC West title game Sunday had the Chiefs beaten Oakland Saturday, would surely have been NBC's game Sunday night. But when the Raiders caved in the left side of the field-goal team -- Jon Asamoah, Barry Richardson and Steve Maneri, if my eyes were right on the replays I saw -- to block Ryan Succop's potential game-winner at the close of regulation (more about that in Special Teams Player of the Week), that eliminated this game.
Why? Because the league wants to play all Week 17 games in which division races or Wild Card spots are on the line at the same time. Say the league put Kansas City at Denver on Sunday night. If Oakland loses to San Diego in the afternoon, Denver wins the AFC West before it'd kick off at night. Same things, though as it turns out a bit more complex in Cincinnati-Baltimore. If Pittsburgh loses at Cleveland, and several other teams lose earlier, Baltimore could be locked at the No. 2 seed and Cincinnati at No. 6, with nothing to play for. Giants-Dallas moved because it was the only true win-and-you're-in game, whenever it was played, with no other game having any bearing on the outcome of the NFC East. That won't make FOX any happier, but it's a fact of NFL TV life. The league's going to put the game with the most on the line as the final Sunday-nighter of the year.
"Wes Welker's rare,'' Vikings coach Leslie Frazier told me Sunday. "But I talked to Adrian on the plane on the way home last night. He's down, of course. But he will attack his rehab viciously. He is such a strong-minded guy. We won't know everything about the damage until the surgery is done, but we think if everything goes perfectly, Adrian will be back to play at the start of next season. I think he'll turn out to be one of those case studies people look at when they want to see how a guy rehabbed to come back strong.'' Carroll made an interesting point about the rehab. "There's no reason to believe Peterson won't be able to come back at or near the same level,'' Carroll said via email. "The biggest issue will be confidence. Peterson will have to believe in his knee the way he did on every step before that last one Saturday. That's the biggest issue, but one I believe he can overcome.''
When the Patriots scored 27 second-half points to rally past Miami Saturday, they were probably going to be emotional enough in their locker room afterward. But Bill Belichick gave the game ball to owner Robert Kraft, who's had a difficult year with the summer death of his wife, Myra. Belichick said a few words about the significance of the Krafts, and then tackle Matt Light got up and pulled out an oil painting the players paid to have commissioned for Kraft. The painting show a group of Patriots players in a huddle raising their hands and an index finger, pointing to the initials "MHK,'' for Kraft's late wife. Light said the players wanted to do something to commemorate the season that had been dedicated to Myra Kraft. An emotional Robert Kraft told the players there wasn't a player on the team he wouldn't be proud to have at his dinner table with his family, and how important the players were to the community. One of those present said it was the most emotional thing he's seen in a Patriots locker room in the Kraft era. Good for the players, good for Belichick, and very good for Kraft.
Consider this my annual harangue about the stupidity of the 18-game schedule, and my congratulations to DeMaurice Smith, his player reps, and all union and rank-and-file player leaders for fighting the league on this issue.
Houston played Indianapolis Thursday night on national television. Houston and Indy, combined, had 34 players from their 53-man rosters on the injury report. With Peyton Manning, Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart out for the season, the quarterbacks in the game were Dan Orlovsky and T.J. Yates. The two best players -- arguably -- on the Texans missed the game; Andre Johnson's missed nine with hamstring problems, and Mario Williams is out for the year with a torn pec. Dallas Clark missed it with a neck injury, and on the other side, Gary Brackett, the Colts' defensive leader, is out for the year with a rotator cuff injury.
Think of the 10 most famous players on the two teams. I'd say they're, in order, Peyton Manning, Andre Johnson, Dwight Freeney, Mario Williams, Arian Foster, Matt Schaub, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Robert Mathis and Gary Brackett. Six of the 10 missed this game, the 15th of the season. You could give me another game with a fraction of the injuries. And I'd give you both starting quarterbacks missing from Oakland-Kansas City, and both starting running backs missing from the same game. All adding more games will mean is more teams will be short more players in them.
And here's where I'll note the 11 current lawsuits (that may morph into one large class-action suit sometime this winter) by players claiming the NFL hasn't done enough to address the issue of head trauma and concussions in the game. Two more suits got filed last week -- one led by Jamal Lewis, the other by Leon Searcy and some Dolphins -- claiming the league knew the dangers of head trauma and wasn't proactive in assessing the risks. My theory is these cases are not going away. Why tempt fate by adding more games to a sport that already is risky enough, and making 10 tons of money?
"It's time to shut up, fat boy."
"The man told me, 'Hue, we'll win it in the end.' I believe that. I don't know how it's going to happen. I don't care how it's going to happen.''
"The Executive Committee of the NFLPA stands firmly united behind Executive Director DeMaurice Smith and what has been accomplished under his leadership. Today, we made an affirmative decision on his discretionary compensation. We look forward to having him serve our membership long into the future.''
With 17 games to play in this pass-happy regular season, nine wide receivers have been true deep threats, averaging at least 15 yards per catch with at least 60 receptions. How amazing is it that No. 2 on this list -- both in yards and yards per catch -- is Victor Cruz, the kid from UMass who walked into New York Giants camp in 2010 as an undrafted free agent and made the team ... after a three-touchdown performance against the Jets in a preseason game. A pulled hamstring ruined his zero-catch 2010 season. To say he's exploded onto the NFL scene in 2011 would be an understatement. There's no way the Giants would be playing for the NFC East title Sunday against Dallas without him. Charting the best and the most dangerous of the deep threats in 2011:
The following men have been head coach of the football team at the University of Pittsburgh in the last 13 months:
1. Dave Wannstedt (resigned after 7-5 season in 2010).
2. Phil Bennett (interim coach for 2010 bowl game).
3. Michael Haywood (dismissed after being charged with domestic battery).
4. Todd Graham (carpetbagger who left after one season for Arizona State).
5. Keith Patterson (interim coach for 2011 bowl game).
6. Paul Chryst (Wisconsin offensive coordinator named new coach Thursday).
Just curious whether the Chryst family is renting or buying in greater Pittsburgh.
City-Living Note of the Month:
Travel time from Manhattan, via car, 125 miles to my niece's winter concert in Connecticut, late in the afternoon on a mid-December Thursday: 3 hours, 43 minutes.
Travel time from Manhattan, via car, 133 miles to my family's Christmas-noon gathering in Connecticut, on Christmas morning: 2 hours, 2 minutes.
"I have nothing good to say, so I'm just keeping quite.'' (sic)
-- @RealJoeNamath, early in the fourth quarter of the Jets' loss to the Giants.
"@AdrianPeterson one of the best to EVER ever to play the game. I wish you well brother. You've never given anything but your best.''
-- @arianfoster, the outstanding Houston back, in a message sent to Adrian Peterson after he wrecked his knee Saturday in Washington.
Three from @MerrilHoge, who has had quite a bit to say about Tim Tebow:
"Just finished watching Bronco O, I have been very critical of Tebow after watching tape of his flaws, so let me share what i see now''
"i see the work is paying off for Tebow, as i watched tape this week his development reminded me of someone that was developed very similarly''
"That player was Steve McNair. the titans did a lot of run action play action for several years before he developed into an NFL MVP.''
For the record, Hoge made those comments before Saturday's Tebow debacle. Which you probably could have figured.
a. Everything about the Lions.
b. Kahlil Bell, and, surprisingly, Josh McCown. How was McCown out of football and coaching high school five weeks ago?
c. Reggie Wayne, in perhaps his last home play as a Colt, caught his 854th professional pass -- the winning touchdown in the stunner over the Texans.
d. Sione Pouha. A vastly underrated interior run defender for the Jets.
e. You're earning a future, Graham Gano, with kicks like that go-ahead 53-yarder for Washington.
f. Great story by the Associated Press, getting 23 of 44 players interviewed to admit they would try to hide the effects of a concussion rather than voluntarily leave a game. Sounds right to me.
g. C.J. Spiller -- maybe for the first time in two seasons -- justifying with 111 rushing yards his high draft standing.
h. Chris Kelsay, for catching and sacking Tim Tebow twice.
i. Leodis McKelvin, for making an 80-yard punt-return TD look so incredibly easy.
j. Glad to see a good player and person, Tennessee tight end Jared Cook, break out with an eight-catch, 169-yard game.
k. Great throw in the clutch, Carson Palmer.
l. Joe Webb looks better every time he plays.
m. Marshall Newhouse, I underrated you. Sorry.
n. David Akers, who broke the NFL mark with his 42nd field goal at Seattle ... with a game left.
a. Hakeem Nicks, who drops too many balls.
b. Nick Folk, who misses too many field goals average kickers should make.
c. The Houston defense. Don't tell me it's all missing Wade Phillips either.
d. Tim Tebow. Did he use up all his professional football karma in two months?
e. "My confidence is just fine,'' Tebow said after throwing four second-half interceptions, two returned for touchdowns within 18 seconds. His accuracy, well, that's another matter.
f. Fix the field goal team this week, Romeo.
g. Rex Ryan. America's got Ryan fatigue.
h. The Jags, allowing Matt Hasselbeck to throw for 350 in a steamroller game for the Titans.
i. The Bucs. Shameful performance again.
a. Still a sucker for
b. Michael Jordan is neither charismatic or effective in his Hanes commercials.
c. Ditto Jennifer Lopez in the Fiat ones ... because no one believes she's driving a Fiat, alone, in sketchy New York neighborhoods.
d. Mike Tirico, did you really say last night, "World Peace with the bucket'' in the Lakers-Bulls game? I am extremely impressed you can say that without laughing out loud.
e. Metta World Peace, formerly Ron Artest.
f. I know I'm prejudiced, and I get a paycheck from NBC, but that was
g. Congrats, Bentley Weiner and your HBO hockey 24/7 crew, for the fun and inside view of the Rangers and Flyers. Highlight for me in the second episode the other night: the focus on concussions, and on the exam of Flyers top scorer Claude Giroux. You see the team doctor asking Giroux if he's having any trouble texting. Cool stuff. That's the kind of stuff that makes these shows must-see TV. On the Rangers' side, John Tortorella seems like the kind of coach all players would want to play for -- he puts his team in the best position to win.
h. Coffeenerdness: You're too homogenized already, Starbucks. And now you make your packaging on the pounds of coffee all the same now, with only the words on the front different. Why? The bags used to be distinctive and recognizable. Now you've done what you do with the boring pastries, making them the same in San Jose as they are in Manhattan.
i. Beernerdness: Can I give a wine shoutout? Had a glass of the Rubicon Captain's Reserve cab with Christmas Eve dinner. And I'll be back for more, Mr. Coppola.