After signature playoff weekend, labor cloud hangs heavy over NFL

Publish date:

National Football League owners are due to lock out the players in 46 days, on March 4.

The last full meeting between players and owners was 56 days ago, Nov. 22.

While owners meet in their monthly labor-strategy session Tuesday in Atlanta, about 35 new player representatives and alternate player reps (Patrick Willis, Aaron Kampman, among others] will meet for orientation in Washington at NFL Players Association headquarters, then move on to meet and lobby key politicians on Capitol Hill, in case they need friends in high places when the two sides are at impasse and Congress debates getting involved. The sabers are rattling.

Playoff fever! Catch it!

I want the men in suits to meet Pittsburgh Phil, a 40-year-old claims adjuster from Monroeville, a few burbs east of Pittsburgh, and friend of a very good friend of mine. They watched the Steelers-Ravens game together Saturday in a bar in Monroeville, drinking Stout. In the fourth quarter, when it was anyone's game, Pittsburgh Phil, who is one superstitious guy, whipped out his cell phone and called up a photo of Steelers founder Art Rooney, The Chief, a black-and-white job of him ... he's smoking a cigar. And he began to chant to the photo. "Please Chief,'' Pittsburgh Phil said to the visage on his phone, his voice pleading. This was no joke. "Do not let us down! You built where we are! You were Pittsburgh! Your legacy endures now and forever! DO NOT LET US LOSE THIS GAME! PLEASE!''

I want the men in suits to meet Rob Bonatucci, a supplier for Bombardier Transportation, a Pittsburgh-based company that builds train cars. Bonatucci, traveling for business in China, watched the game at a Steelers bar in Shanghai, at 5:30 in the morning Sunday. "There's a bar in Shanghai called The Camel where I'd say about 125 of us watched the game,'' Bonatucci said from China. That's right: There's a Steeler bar in Shanghai. "Chinese girls dressed as cheerleaders, Terrible Towels and all these expats or people traveling on business dressed in Steeler stuff. If you're a Steeler fan, you're not missing this game. When they came back in the second half, it was just like you'd get in the states -- people jumping up and down, high-fiving, going crazy. These people live for these moments.''

I want the men in suits, and the players, to know that's what they're fooling around with here.


Many things on the docket, from the games to what is really worrying Congressman Runyan to my Gumby Player of the Weekend to the Power of Seven to just how ridiculously good Aaron Rodgers is to the Patriots' Super Bowl drought reaching Year Six, to this: If you think the 33rd meeting between the Ravens and Steelers was pretty good, what do you think the 182nd meeting between the Packers and Bears will be like?

But we can start in one place only this morning: with the New York Football Jets, and their coach, who is unlike any other.

Rex Ryan and his Democratic form of government.

"I knew I'd get one shot to do this in my life,'' the man of the hour said from one of the Jets' team buses Sunday night, on the way to the airport and a joyous flight back to New Jersey. "One opportunity. I'm just an average guy. I'm not for everybody. The only thing I know how to do is coach. For a while, no one had the guts to give us a shot. But [owner] Woody Johnson and [GM] Mike Tannenbaum did, and you know it hasn't been easy. I'm not perfect. I've put them through some hard times this year; you know that. I'm not going to apologize for who I am.''

You are what your record says you are. In two years, Ryan is 24-13. That includes a 4-1 record in the playoffs, with postseason wins at a No. 1 seed (New England, 2010), at a 2 seed (San Diego, 2009), at a 3 seed (Indianapolis, 2010) and at a 4 seed (Cincinnati, 2009), all in the last 54 weeks. And it now includes two consecutive conference-championship game appearances, the first time in the 50-year history of the franchise that's happened.

Since Ryan has taken over as coach, the Jets and their arch-rivals, New England, each have 24 wins. Playoff wins in the last two seasons: Ryan 4, Bill Belichick 0.

What I thought was the most telling part of Sunday's 28-21 win in Foxboro was watching Tom Brady stand in the pocket (when Shaun Ellis wasn't chasing him) and look at his options --1, 2, 3, 4 and maybe back to 1 -- and pat the ball, and then throw it away or dump it for a miniscule gain he didn't want. I have never seen Brady, at least for the first three-plus quarters, survey the field and take so much time and see so little open. It was stunning, really.

"Did you know,'' GM Mike Tannenbaum said this morning from New Jersey, "we dressed 11 defensive backs for this game? Eleven out of 45 players. That's pretty amazing.''

Let's count them. The Jets started in nickel. Eric Smith and Brodney Pool at safety, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie at corner, with Drew Coleman the extra corner. That's five. Three extra corners dressed: Kyle Wilson, Dwight Lowery and Marquice Cole. That's eight. Three extra safeties: James Ihedigbo and United Football League refugees Isaiah Trufant (the UFL defensive player of the year this season) and Emanuel Cook. They all played, combining for 36 tackles, and they contributed to clogging the lanes and forcing Brady to pat, pat, pat and throw gopher balls.

It was no secret that Ryan felt the Jets lost the AFC title game last year because of poor depth in the secondary, particularly at corner. It didn't take him long to lobby for help -- just 24 hours. On the day after the season, he and Tannenbaum were standing at the baggage carousel in Mobile, Ala., waiting for their luggage; they were in town to scout players for the draft at the annual Senior Bowl. "If we're going to beat Indianapolis and New England,'' Ryan told Tannenbaum, "we're going to need more speed and athleticism. It's that simple. If we don't have more speed and athleticism, all the other stuff won't matter.''

"Mike took it on himself,'' Ryan said Sunday night. "He went and got us what we needed.'' Cromartie, a risk, in exchange for a second-round pick from San Diego; and Kyle Wilson in the first round of the draft.

One other thing came into play Sunday, and that's a goulash form of game-planning. Last time these teams met, Tom Brady threw for four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 45-3 win. "We listened to every suggestion known to man about scheme and coverage,'' Ryan said. "When I hire coaches, I want coaches who work with me, not for me. Last week, I challenged every coach. Come up with a plan. Help us find a way.

"We got help from players too. Jimmy Leonhard [a starting safety now on injured-reserve] even came up with a concept we used tonight involving quarters coverage and a little wrinkle we used. I really leaned on [coordinator] Mike Pettine and [secondary coach] Dennis Thurman to get it all straight. We kept mixing 'em all day. Sometimes we'd play standard stuff, then we'd change up. We probably were more multiple than they'd seen, by anybody.''

The Jets seemed content to put Revis and Cromartie out wide, mostly in single coverage all day, and Deion Branch and Brandon Tate didn't do much against them until semi-garbage time. They didn't blitz much, preferring to bring a safety down to stop the Patriots from doing what they do so well -- get Welker or one of the rookie tight ends the ball on a quick route of some kind, then make a bunch of yards after the catch.

Since trading Randy Moss in October, the Patriots haven't had the kind of big receiver to threaten the edges; and Branch, Tate and Welker didn't do that Sunday, nor did they grow to be 6-3. The Patriots kill teams with the catch-and-run plays, and if Brady couldn't get the ball to the good after-the-catch guys, or if they got felled immediately by the omnipresent Eric Smith down near the box, that way of moving the ball down the field all of a sudden won't work. Those 11 defensive backs just made the picture cloudy for Brady underneath all day.

The hue and cry around Ryan this year almost seems to bring the best out in his players. He says he's put Johnson through a lot this year, flipping off a fan at a fight in Miami, being hugely off-color in HBO's Hard Knocks and, of course, the whole foot-fetish thing, which -- and this is just an educated guess -- will never, ever die. See the front page of the New York Post Sunday, prior to Pats-Jets? Picture of Ryan, a huge bare foot with toenails painted "GO JETS'' and the headline, "LICK 'EM.'' But if anything, stuff like that just makes his players more defensive about him. I do believe Bart Scott is still yelling in defense of him at this hour.

It was a brilliant day for Ryan and Pettine. Now they've dispatched Manning and Brady. Next is Big Ben Roethlisberger, the third straight Super Bowl winner who will get to play the Jets at home. Those who've bet against the Jets have lost a lot of money and a lot of face this year. Roethlisberger had better do his homework this week -- not that it will do a lot of good with the changeup pitches Ryan's going to plot for him.

It's not over for the Patriots, but they need some help for Tom Brady.

New England's past three playoff games: 0-3. Brady's quarterback rating in those three: 74.3. Pats' points per game: 16.3. The Ravens embarrassed them in Foxboro a year ago, and the Jets undressed them Sunday. The Patriots got the game to within 14-11 late in the third quarter Sunday, but did you ever feel they could do enough right to win the game on offense? I didn't.

The blame has to fall on lots of shoulders. But a great quarterback just has to play better than Brady's played in the past four postseasons. I thought there were an alarming number of throws -- four, maybe five -- he made Sunday when the intended receiver either never turned around or the ball was thrown to a side the receiver wasn't expecting. That might happen once or twice late in the year. It happened too much Sunday. It shouldn't happen with a quarterback that good. Maybe it was the Jets frustrating him, but Brady's got to make more plays, even against a brainiac defense, than he made Sunday.

New England will have three picks in the draft between the 17th and 33rd picks to reload. I expect they'll be in the market for a big receiver (or two); a DeMaryius Thomas-sized young receiver's a desperate need. And I expect Belichick will fortify his offensive line. He may look to replace 10-year-vet left tackle Matt Light and fortify the guard spots, where age, injury and free-agency are issues.

Much will be made of the Patriots missing Randy Moss in this game, but they didn't miss Moss. They missed the player Moss used to be. Belichick, as it turns out, was wise to dump him for a third-round pick three months ago to Minnesota. But you can be sure they won't enter 2011 -- whenever the season begins -- without a threat at wide receiver.

Brady will turn 34 in August. He's healthy and says he wants to play into his 40s. Unlike Peyton Manning, who's a year older and has one title in 13 years, Brady (three in 10) doesn't have to worry about his legacy. He has to worry about getting more potent on offense.

This could be the year of the six seeds.

A new playoff format (six teams per conference, 12 in all) was instituted by the league in 1990. In the first 20 years of the system, only one six seed made the Super Bowl -- Pittsburgh in 2005. The Steelers won the Super Bowl that season. Now, the NFL's final four has two six seeds, the Jets and Packers. Judging by their dominant wins over one seeds over the weekend, could this be the year the sixes shock the world?

What makes Green Bay's performance in Atlanta more impressive is that the Falcons were rested, coming off a bye, enjoying the fruits of being the top seed in the NFC. Green Bay played the late game in Philly last Sunday, traveled home, then had a short week to prepare for a Saturday game against a fast team with a secondary growing in star power and confidence.

So what does Aaron Rodgers do? Completes 86 percent of his throws for 366 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He threw from the pocket, threw on the run, threw across his body, threw under duress (but not much), threw deep and threw short. Five incompletions. 48 points. No Green Bay quarterback has had a better playoff game. The franchise is 90 years old and -- this just in -- it's had some decent quarterbacks.

"You never think you're going to come into an environment like this, in a dome this loud and on the road, and do something like we did,'' wide receiver Donald Driver told me postgame. "But we have five receivers who are dangerous, and for Aaron, when he's got a lot of places to go with the ball, he's going to be extremely productive.''

I find this amazing: Rodgers threw 28 passes Saturday to his top four wideouts on the team -- Greg Jennings, Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones. He completed 26, for 331 yards. Each of the four produced at least 75 receiving yards. That is incredible balance.

I asked Driver if he's been surprised how seamlessly Rodgers has adjusted to his role since taking the job in 2008. No matter how much training a kid has to prepare for the moment, no one expected him to be this great so fast. His arm, his accuracy, his movement in the pocket, his ability to throw to either shoulder to a receiver in stride downfield ... There aren't many like Rodgers playing today, obviously.

"I saw Aaron, when he first came into the league, play so well in practice,'' Driver said. "He played so well against our first unit on defense. I just always thought all he needed was a shot. He got it. I'm not surprised at all.''

While we're on the subject of incredible, how about Driver? He's 35. At 6-feet and about 192 pounds, he's never shied from contact, yet never has had a serious injury. He's got a body like Gumby. He simply won't slow down, even with a knee that's been giving him trouble late in the season. Six passes from Rodgers on Saturday, six receptions. I remember him once showing me his hands, maybe four years ago, and they were gnarled in spots from years of catching fastballs from Brett Favre. I thought, there's no way he'll last much longer, at his size and with those hands. But somebody on the Bears had better cover him Sunday. He's still a threat, as the Falcons found out Saturday night.


Charles Tillman watched a good movie Saturday night. He didn't need to see a horror flick.

Before shutting down Seattle wideout Mike Williams for 50 minutes Sunday in the Bears' divisional playoff win, Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman sat in his hotel Saturday night and watched Red, the Morgan Freeman/Bruce Willis movie. He figured he'd have time later to watch tape of the team Chicago would face for the NFC title if the Bears were so fortunate. No need cluttering his head that night with different football thoughts than the ones he had to focus on against Seattle.

"When I found out what Green Bay did, I thought that was a heck of a job, putting up 48 on Atlanta down in that dome,'' Tillman said. "That's a really good offense. The media's going to hype up this game, but the way I approach it is it's a game against a division opponent. You can't make the game bigger than it is.''

Packers-Bears for the title, though. Pretty irresistible. Two big-armed quarterbacks, two defenses playing well. When they met in Week 17, Chicago held Green Bay scoreless for 42 minutes. "Our D-line played really well that day,'' Tillman said, "and all the stars aligned.'' Chicago lost 10-3. Just think if the Bears had won that day -- Green Bay wouldn't have made the playoffs, and the Pack wouldn't be pillaging through the playoffs.

"What's the most important thing about playing Rodgers?'' I asked Tillman.

"Not letting his receivers get over the top, get past you,'' he said. "Rodgers is just too accurate.''


The Steelers are flawed, but isn't every team?

"Had 'em all the way,'' Steelers president emeritus Dan Rooney said, walking through the locker room after the 31-24 win over the Ravens. It was easy to chortle after such an emotional win, one that put the Steelers in the championship game of the AFC for the fifth time in 10 years. That's good. What's not so good is how much Ben Roethlisberger got hit Saturday evening -- Terrell Suggs sacked him twice and forced the fumble that the Ravens returned for a touchdown -- and how shaky his offensive line is. I can just see Rex Ryan this morning, watching video of the Baltimore defense and watching its five sacks of Roethlisberger and four more significant hits. We can do that too, he'll say, and he'll be right.

I hadn't seen the Steelers, nor been around them, since training camp. What interested me most was the depth of contributors. The top two were Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison, as it often is.

Third on the list: Safety Ryan Clark. With Troy Polamalu staying off the line of scrimmage all night, missing two tackles and generally being invisible, Clark forced two third-quarter turnovers that led to touchdowns. He played his best game as a Steeler.

Fourth: Ziggy Hood. The Steeler run defense was supposed to collapse without the best 3-4 defensive end run player in football, Aaron Smith. But Hood, the 2009 first-round pick out of Missouri, continued to show how quickly he has taken to the run-stuffing portion of his job. He was third on the team in tackles (5) and added a sack of Joe Flacco.

Fifth: Antonio Brown, the sixth-round rookie from Central Michigan who converted a third-and-19 with a 58-yard bomb from Roethlisberger. Brown had to get past the Ravens secondary, and incredibly, he did. Can't believe Baltimore would let anyone get behind the last line of defense, because the Ravens are so smart. That's a major gaffe, but one Brown took advantage of.

Sixth: Center Maurkice Pouncey. The center of a problem area, but certainly not the problem. Pouncey was terrific Saturday, ranging all over the field. The play's never over 'til it's over. That has to be his mantra, because he was blocking in the secondary and near the sidelines on several extended plays.

"Coach Tomlin put names on the board of all the guys playing big roles for us now who weren't around for our last Super Bowl [two years ago against Arizona],'' said Clark. "Antonio Brown, Ziggy Hood, Emmanuel Sanders, Rashard Mendenhall. He said he knew what guys like Troy Polamalu and James Farrior would do. But the difference was going to be what those young guys would do. Like tonight -- you know what Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are going to do for Baltimore. But what are their young guys going to do? I believe tonight we won that battle.''

They'll have to have a few of those guys win battles Sunday in the AFC title game for the Steelers, 6-1 in their Super Bowl history, to go for number seven.


Three quick coaching points.

Denver. John Fox was a natural in an organization of football neophytes. As a nine-year head-coaching vet, he earned points in his interview with Bronco brass for describing Chuck Noll as his coaching mentor. Fox was Noll's final secondary coach, working for the four-time Super Bowl winner from 1989 to '91. Why was that good? Because Brian Xanders is a young, unproven GM. John Elway is even more unproven as director of football operations. Not only did Fox lead the Panthers to the Super Bowl six years ago, but also he knew his audience. And his audience knew a veteran hand was needed to help give the front office the experience it lacks. Smart.

Carolina. Smartest thing Ron Rivera did to get the job? Bring up how he'd prepare his team in the event of a job action. Or, I should say, in the event of a likely job action. "What I stressed,'' Rivera told me, "is that the teams that stayed together when job actions happen are usually the teams that have great success. Look at the Redskins in 1982 and 1987. There were strikes both years, and they won the Super Bowl both years, and one of the things they always pointed to was how close they were as a team.

So I presented a proposal in the event of a lockout -- how I saw us adjusting in the event of one. I want our players to be together as much as they can so when we come back, I hope we'll be a closer group.'' That'll be tough, particularly with Rivera being a first-time head coach unable to hold any team meetings or practice during a lockout -- scheduled to begin March 4 unless there's a resolution to the conflict between players and owners. But the idea was a smart one for Rivera to raise. It shows he's thinking ahead in what's going to be a very difficult year potentially.

Cleveland. Pat Shurmur will run what he calls a "traditional West Coast offense,'' which I think is good news for Colt McCoy. Shurmur told me he's got three quarterbacks he likes -- adding Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace -- which he has to say. But I'd be surprised if McCoy doesn't win the job. What's not to fit in the West Coast scheme? He was a 70-percent passer at Texas, very smart, competitive, and he'll work hard to learn it.

"I was very impressed with Colt when I studied him last year,'' Shurmur said. "I predicted he'd be a tremendous worker in whatever system he got drafted into. I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to work with him.''

This is going to be a weird year, but the worker bees, particularly in a new offense, will do best.


The Last Word.

I hadn't heard much from Jon Runyan, the longtime Eagles tackle, since his election to Congress out of New Jersey's third district in November. He rode the Republican wave into office and wants to do something significant about what he considers runaway spending by the government.

Now he finds himself worried about something else in the wake of the Tucson shootings. Security. And not so much his own -- but his constituents'.

"I was walking back from our memorial service in Washington for the victims of the shootings,'' Runyan told me over the weekend. "I was with [Republican congressman from Indiana] Mike Pence, and he said something that resonated with me. He talked about how the scary part is, as congressmen, we signed up for this. Those killed in Arizona, they didn't. And at an event like that, you can take precautions, but you can't insure against everything. That's what bothers me -- the people we need to see are our constituents, and we don't want them to be scared away from coming out to see us. In our society, we are the closest most people will get to the federal government. It's vital that we reach out to them, and they be able to talk with us. That's the job. If that's affected by this, it'll really be sad.''

Runyan said he's walked into crowds that "were totally hostile and intimidating. We can take precautions -- like I have with local law enforcement and the New Jersey department of homeland security -- but the people who are there to meet us, what can they do?"

I am befuddled. I don't know which team is best. Here's my best shot at it.

1. Green Bay (12-6). Mike McCarthy's calling plays like Sean Payton last year, and Aaron Rodgers is executing them the way Drew Brees did. And the defense can pressure and cover.

2. Pittsburgh (13-4). I really like those young receivers, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Seven catches, 129 yards Saturday night. Not bad for sixth- and third-round draft picks, respectively. But now Pittsburgh has to find a way to beat the cloud-covering Jets secondary, which Tom Brady just couldn't do.

3. New York Jets (13-5). Has any team beaten three Super Bowl-champion quarterbacks in the span of 16 days, all on the road? The Jets, having dispatched Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, are about to find out if they can make it three with Ben Roethlisberger Sunday in the 'Burgh.

4. New England (14-3). They're 0-3 since Super Sunday three years ago, scoring 14, 14 and (a soft) 21 in those three games. I know, I know. A lot of people would want the Patriots' problems. But they'll start 2011 seven years removed from their last Super Bowl title, and that's not good enough for Bill Belichick.

5. Chicago (12-5). If Jay Cutler plays the way he did Sunday, and if the defense plays the way it did against the Pack in Week 17, the NFC Championship Game will be one of the best of all time.

6. Baltimore (13-5). I don't blame Joe Flacco in the vociferous way many Raven fans do. If Anquan Boldin catches a ball that hits him in the numbers in the end zone, Baltimore leads 28-24 with four minutes left; instead the Ravens kicked a field goal to tie it. With one minute left, Flacco should have converted a fourth-and-18, but a perfect pass bounced off T.J. Houshmandzadeh's chest at the Steeler 24. Those balls get caught? Very well could be a different game. But in a series like Baltimore-Pittsburgh, those type of mistakes decide games.

7. Atlanta (13-4). You don't win a lot of games -- home, road, on the North Pole -- when you get outgained 442-194. "They were the better team tonight,'' Mike Smith said afterward about the Packers. Coach, I think they'd be the better team on eight of 10 tonights.

8. New Orleans (12-5). Not sure how tough a call it is for the Saints on Reggie Bush and his $11.4-million contract for 2011. To stay, Bush will have to agree to take a mega-cut.

9. Philadelphia (10-7). Sean McDermott replacing Jim Johnson turned out to be like Dave Van Gorder replacing Johnny Bench. Didn't quite work out.

10. Indianapolis (10-7). I wonder how many collegiate offensive linemen the Colts watched video on last week. For their sake, I hope about 100.

11. Tampa Bay (10-6). Do you realize what a gift LaGarrette Blount was this year? For free? On waivers from Tennessee? To get 1,007 yards and 5.0 yards per rush? Amazing pickup by GM Mark Dominik -- and nice usage by Raheem Morris and the coaching staff.

12. Kansas City (10-7). Now we now Mike McCoy (who chose to work for John Fox in Denver) won't be Matt Cassel's third offensive coordinator in 18 months. But who will be replacing Charlie Weis?

13. San Diego (9-7). Should have hired Rob Ryan. At least pursued him.

14. New York Giants (10-6). The healing process for Eli Manning begins: 4,002 passing yards, good. Thirty turnovers, bad.

15. Seattle (8-10). The Pacific Northwest shed a tear Sunday, but let's face it: The Seahawks won last week with the best game we've seen Matt Hasselbeck play, and a major homefield edge. You've got a good home field when the earth moves because the fans are going wacky so often. Imagine what'll happen when Pete Carroll gets another offensive weapon, two more offensive linemen and another good rush end.

"All we hear is about their defense! They can't stop a nosebleed!''-- New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott, in a 48-second rant to ESPN's Sal Paolantonio on the field in Foxboro after the Jets' 28-21 playoff win Sunday. He apparently believes the New England defense is overrated.

"Special day. This probably was my best performance. The stage, the importance of the game. It was a pretty good night.''-- Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, after going 31 of 36 (.861), the most efficient playoff game for a quarterback in club history.

That means better than Bart Starr and Brett Favre, people.

"Luck.''-- Ben Roethlisberger, asked why he has a seven-game winning streak over his arch-rivals, the Ravens.

Not buying it, Ben. You're pretty good, especially on third-and-19.

"It's incredible. If we said words back when I was playing, we'd have to stand up in front of the team and take about a one-minute berating from the coach. Now, it's coming from the coaches.''-- CBS NFL analyst Phil Simms, on the volume coming from teams critical of other teams in football these days.

"I am finishing my 45th year with my law firm as a labor lawyer. I have been the primary negotiator, which I am not here -- here I am counsel to the negotiators -- I have been the primary negotiator, the chief spokesman, in hundreds, and I can't even tell you how many hundreds, of collective bargaining agreements over those 45 years. Many hundreds. Of those many hundreds, I have had literally a handful of strikes, and as best as I can determine, two or three lockouts. All of the rest have been successfully and quietly negotiated peacefully. I am successful at what I do because I am a deal-maker, not a lockout artist. I make a very good living, and I am very successful, because I avoid problems. I don't create confrontations.''-- NFL legal counsel Bob Batterman, who was counsel to the NHL when the hockey league locked out the players and resulted in the ultimate cancellation of the season. Batterman told the Washington Post last week that the players association leadership wanted a lockout.

"Any suggesting that we want a lockout is coming from outer space.''-- NFLPA general counsel Richard Berthelson.

Offensive Players of the Week

Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay.

Bart Starr and Brett Favre have played for the Packers, in case you missed it. And on Saturday, Rodgers had a better postseason game than either of them ever had: 31 of 36 (.861), 366 yards, three touchdowns, no picks, 136.8 rating. It's amazing that a sixth seed can embarrass a first seed, but that's what the Packers did to Atlanta ... and they did it because Rodgers might well have been as dominant as any quarterback has ever been in a playoff game. The Packers' two highest-scoring offensive games in history have been 45 points (last year against Arizona) and 48 (Saturday night). Rodgers quarterbacked both of them. He's pretty good.

Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago.

Only one quarterback ever -- the great Otto Graham -- has thrown for two touchdowns and run for two in a playoff game, and Cutler did such a thing in the first one he ever played. He threw 58- and 39-yard touchdown passes to tight ends, and ran for scores of six and nine yards against a much softer Seattle front than the one that attacked him in October. Cutler's had some rough days since the Bears traded a king's ransom for him, but the decisive win over Seattle exemplified all the good reasons Jerry Angelo dealt for him 21 months ago.

Defensive Players of the Week

Shaun Ellis, DL, New York Jets.

I could have easily named David Harris or Eric Smith here, but I'm going with the man who was drafted with one of the four first-round picks the Jets had in 2000 -- the year they acquired one first-rounder from New England for Bill Belichick. Upset about a poor performance in New England the last time these kissin' cousins met in December, Ellis played with a vengeance in New York's 28-21 win in Foxboro Sunday. He had five tackles and two sacks of Tom Brady, supplying three more pressures. "That's the best game I've seen Big Shaun play,'' Rex Ryan told me Sunday night. Can't argue. How about the irony.

Tramon Williams, CB, Green Bay.

It is now officially a crime that he didn't make the Pro Bowl. (Which, by the way, no one outside of the Williams family should care about, because the Pro Bowl's such a dud.) But Williams got his second and third interceptions of the postseason, including a 70-yard touchdown on a pick return as the first-half clock expired.

Understand the situation late in the second quarter at Atlanta. Matt Ryan had the ball, down 21-14, at the Packers 35, with 10 seconds left in the half. Mike Smith wanted to get a few yards closer for Matt Bryant to attempt a field goal. So the Falcons took a chance, throwing to Roddy White at the sideline. Williams stepped in front of White, picked it off, and ran it back for the touchdown. Instead of potentially being down four at the half, Atlanta was down 14, and the game was getting out of hand.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Eric Weems, KR/WR, Atlanta.

This rising-star returner, one of the most dangerous of the young-guy returners in football, took a second-quarter kick back 102 yards against the Packers, bursting through the first wave of coverage and never being seriously threatened. For the game, he returned six kicks for a 32.5-yard average.

Coach of the Week

Rex Ryan, head coach, New York Jets.

"Same old Jets, going to the championship game two years in a row,'' Ryan said Sunday night, needling all those who've called these your father's Jets, who will always let you down in the big moment. He and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine put together a defensive game plan that had Tom Brady pat-pat-patting the ball endlessly, rarely being able to find an open man. Ryan's not like any other coach in the league, and maybe that's a good thing. Not many coaches can beat Manning and Brady, in eight days, on the road. "Game plans are useless without great plays from your players,'' he said, and he got a lot of those Sunday.

Goat of the Week

Lardarius Webb, CB/T.J. Houshmandzadeh, WR, Baltimore.

Webb did the unforgivable, allowing a rookie sixth-round speedster, Antonio Brown, to get behind him for the 58-yard pass play that keyed Pittsburgh's divisional playoff win. And T.J.? With 63 seconds left, on fourth-and-18 at the Baltimore 44, Joe Flacco threw as perfect a pass as a quarterback can throw, right in the gut to Houshmandzadeh at the Steelers 34. Would have been a first down, 34 yards shy of the tying touchdown with a minute to go. Instead, Houshmandzadeh dropped it, and the game was over.

It's obviously premature to make any long-term judgments about how great a career Aaron Rodgers will have. But maybe one way to look at how well he hit the ground running in his first three seasons as a starter is how those three stack up against the three best seasons in succession by the two greatest quarterbacks in club history, Bart Starr and Brett Favre. Not the first years for either of the Packers greats; the best three years in a row.

Interesting to note that Rodgers, in his first three years, threw for more yards than Favre did in the run he had of three straight MVP seasons, 1995-97.

Standing in the Steelers locker room Saturday night, and radio analyst and former NFL player Craig Wolfley approaches. He has something he wants to tell me about Ben Roethlisberger and this team.

"Number seven,'' Wolfley said, which, of course, Roethlisberger is. "Seventh straight win over Baltimore, seventh season in the league, trying to get the Steelers to their seventh Super Bowl [title], won by seven tonight. Power of seven, brother.''

Consider that stolen, Wolf.

On a 34-degree afternoon Saturday, I walked the 35 minutes from my downtown hotel, the Omni William Penn, to Heinz Field for the Steelers-Ravens game. I decided to do a little referendum to see just how much Ben Roethlisberger has been welcomed back into the Steelers family by the fans.

I would count the number of Roethlisberger jerseys I saw and compare it to the number of Troy Polamalu jerseys. Is Roethlisberger back in the good graces of the fans? By this ridiculously rudimentary process, I would say not, though I did see two women wearing number 7.

Number of Polamalu 43 jerseys seen: 58.

Number of Roethlisberger 7 jerseys seen: 9.

"Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! Look like tommy wll be with me.''--@untouchablejay4, Baltimore pass-rusher Terrell Suggs, minutes after the Patriots and the quarterback he loves so much, Tom Brady, lost Sunday night to the Jets.

"the fact that people voted DeAngelo Hall into the pro bowl over Tramon Williams is the biggest joke since the arrival of snooki.''--@MJThrill, M.J. Gill, of Long Island, echoing what more than a few football watchers were thinking after watching the Packers play over the last eight days.

"Someone please tell blabbermouths T.Suggs & A.Cromartie that without the Tom Bradys of the NFL no one would pay 5 cents to see them play D.''--@jonnysaraceno, USA Today's Jon Saraceno.

1. I think this is what I liked about divisional playoff weekend:

a. Good job on the Patriots' sideline-tripping story by Jay Glazer of FOX. It'll be interesting to see if the league believes there's clear-enough evidence to fine New England for that Zapruder-like, grainy shot of the New England player the way they fined the Jets when Sal Alosi tripped the Miami gunner.

b. Whatever you think of Rex Ryan, I like TV guys who say what they really feel. Like Terry Bradshaw on Rex Ryan: "I wouldn't want to play for Rex Ryan. I don't like guys like that.''

c. As the "How You Like Me Now?'' song, by The Heavy, plays in all of our heads.

d. Ed Reed's missile tackle on the goal line, stopping Rashard Mendenhall on the first drive of the game by the Steelers. Perfect textbook tackle.

e. Ray Rice trucking Troy Polamalu. He'll put that one on the personal highlight film back in New Rochelle.

f. Aaron Rodgers has started three playoff games ... and averaged 38 points per game.

g. The Green Bay defensive front. Intrusive. Impressive.

a. Trent Dilfer was on fire Saturday night on ESPN. I mean, very good. On the vet Ravens wideouts not catching easy balls to catch: "This is about guys with big mouths, big contracts, big expectations not making the plays.''

h. Chicago tight ends. Thought Mike Martz was supposed to bury them in this offense, not throw them two touchdown passes in a playoff game.

i. Tommie Harris. He lives.

j. Julius Peppers. I think in his sleep overnight, Russell Okung dreamed of backpedaling.

k. Rod Marinelli, the Bears defensive coordinator. Seattle's first eight possessions ended thusly: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt.

l. Eric Smith. How many plays can one safety make? In the Jets defense, a lot.

m. The unassuming Jerricho Cotchery. He might have been written out of the New York big-play story for 2010, but that doesn't mean he can't be a good teammate and contribute one or two plays a game instead of four or five.

n. LaDainian Tomlinson. Happy to see he has a little burst and the hands most of us thought might be gone.

o. Braylon Edwards' hands. Much improved.

p. Pats going for two while down five late in the third quarter. If you've got a good play, and New England did, why not?

2. I think this is what I didn't like about divisional playoff weekend:

b. "Divisional Playoffs.'' The name. Dumb. Who thought of it? Joe Divisional? How about "Conference Semifinals?''

c. Hines Ward wrestling Ed Reed to the ground on the first snap of Steelers-Ravens. You think the officials aren't going to be calling this one closely? Bad decision by Ward.

d. Joe Flacco's air ball up the right seam, an easy pick for Ryan Clark.

e. Mike Tomlin using one of two replay challenges to gain 14 yards on the opening kickoff. Not important enough play to use one of your two precious challenges, coach.

f. Rashard Mendenhall running laterally. Get upfield, man.

g. Matty Ice. Time to retire the name.

h. Atlanta's secondary. Too many big plays.

i. Matt Hasselbeck's touch. If he played like he played last week every week, he'd be Marino. Didn't have as many guys open Sunday in Chicago as he did last week either.

j. Chris Kemoeatu diving into piles late. Not good. Cost the Steelers 15 yards that could have been very hurtful late in Pittsburgh-Baltimore.

k. The fake punt in the Pats-Jets game, run horribly by Patrick Chung. No way I would have called it there, down 7-3 with 74 seconds left in the first half, knowing I was getting the ball to start the second half. Bad call, I thought ... though I know what Bill Belichick said postgame about it being a mistake.

l. No urgency by Tom Brady on a seven-minute, 45-second drive in the fourth quarter, with the Patriots down 10. Maybe it's New England getting the plays in late there, but the pace of the play-calling made Donovan McNabb in the Super Bowl a few years back look like Usain Bolt.

3. I think there's something about Mark Sanchez that isn't measurable in stats, though his numbers were good Sunday in Foxboro after he started the day throwing the ball off-target. What he's shown this year -- in overtime in Detroit and Cleveland, and Sunday in the second half in Foxboro -- is the ability to make a big throw or two at the biggest of moments. There's something to be said for being able to perform at your best when it's most important. That's the moral of the Sanchez contribution to the first two games of the Jets' playoff run.

4. I think the best news of the day for Seattle, other than the fact they didn't raise the white flag when down 28-0, is that Marcus Trufant and John Carlson, taken off the field at Soldier Field on stretchers, both had feelings in their extremities and were held overnight for observation. Sounds like both will be OK.

5. I think I have one quibble with the FOX-NFL marketing campaign for the Jan. 30 Pro Bowl, with the "Super Bowl week kicks off with the Pro Bowl'' marketing thing. I know FOX has to do it because of the broadcast contract with the NFL, but we're not buying it, FOX. Nobody cares about the Pro Bowl. It might get some ratings, because of general week-before-the-Super-Bowl boredom, but the game ... meaningless.

6. I think Rashard Mendenhall, two touchdowns Saturday and all, is just not a big-time back.

7. I think one of the arguments that makes the most sense about NFL Films founder Ed Sabol's Hall of Fame candidacy came to me the other day from Washington GM Bruce Allen, who has a unique view into the impact of Sabol on football history.

Bruce was at his dad George's side when NFL Films came into being as the sixties dawned -- and as NFL Films began to get embedded with some of the best teams of the day to tell the real story of pro football. I'll let him tell the story because it elucidates the reasons I think Sabol belongs in the Hall, and why I hope he, as one of the 15 finalists, gets in when we 44 selectors meet in Dallas on the morning of Feb. 5.

"When my dad got to the Rams as coach in 1966, he saw the value of promoting the game and trying to fill the stadium,'' Bruce Allen said. "They were averaging about 40,000 fans a game, and Dad wanted more. He knew Ed, because Ed had made movies about the championship games before that, including the one when he coached in Chicago and they beat the Giants in 1963.

"Now, Dad was a square, and he viewed Ed as kind of a Hollywood guy. But Dad knew how good Ed was at making films. He let him inside the team, and he just wanted him to get deeper, get inside the game.

"Now, people would always ask me what it was like to be on the sidelines and what it was like to be around the team in the locker room, and I felt like I was so lucky to have a window into this football world that everyone wanted to know about. I wasn't able to really express words about how special it was to be inside. Then I watched what NFL Films did about our team -- and I watched what they've done for years after that -- and I say to people, 'That's the world I'm in! They showed the inner sanctum as it is!' ''

Says it all.

8. I think this is my this-just-in note of the week: The union doesn't trust Bob Batterman. At all.

9. I think my favorite press-box moment of the night Saturday -- I was sitting between Michael Vega of the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News' Rick Gosselin -- came when Ravens defensive end Paul Kruger got a half-sack on Ben Roethlisberger on the Steelers' final drive. Kruger. Hmmm. "It's a Festivus miracle!'' I said. Didn't take long for Vega to say: "He's airing his grievances against Ben.'' And that's why we make the big bucks, me and Vega.

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

a. The new Oregon basketball court is the weirdest-looking basketball floor I've ever seen. How can you watch Oregon play on TV and not look more at the floor than at the game?

b. Wow. The Yankees are paying $12.3-million a year to a guy to pitch the eighth inning. Ridiculous.

c. But Rafael Soriano is worth it. That is a great signing by the Yankees. Imagine a one-run lead after seven, and Soriano and Mariano Rivera pitching the final six outs. Absurd to pay a non-closer that money? Maybe. But it won't be if he and Rivera are healthy and pitching the way they did in 2010.

d. My thanks to the management at The Claddagh, the Irish pub on Pittsburgh's South Side that hosted my little Tweetup Friday night. Tremendous job on the hosting and the space and the hospitality. Which brings me to ...

e. Beernerdness: Had one of the strangest and most interesting beers of my life at The Claddagh -- Vanilla Java Porter (Atwater Brewing Company, Detroit). Imagine a Guiness-textured beer with a slightly smaller head, smelling of espresso and vanilla latte, that goes down like a light beer. One word for it: unique. Enjoyed it a lot. And thanks to the two fans who brought Fat Head's Head Hunter India Pale Ale (North Olmstead, Ohio) for me to try. Very nice, A little potent for me, but tasty.

f. Coffeenerdness: While it isn't true that I choose hotels because of the adjacent coffee venues, let's just say I was enormously please that the Omni William Penn had the only sub-$200 nightly rate of the hotels my travel agent could find in downtown Pittsburgh over the weekend. And in the lobby is a full-service Starbucks, open early so I can nerdily get an early Sunday head-start on this column. Also love the old hotels with the grand lobbies, which this Omni has. Feels like you might see Big Daddy Lipscomb come walking around one of the huge columns in the lobby.

g. Going to see True Grit this week. Really want to see The King's Speech.

h. Anything happen in the Golden Globes? Missed it. Just know Melissa Leo was winning something when I looked up at the TV at one point.

i. And I'll leave you with this last thing. Last week, I wrote about the Tucson shootings peripherally, and asked, in a naïve way I suppose, for people to stop yelling at each other in the media and in society. And I came across this nugget. Thursday will be the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's inauguration. In his speech that day, he asked the countries America was in conflict with -- the Soviet Union and Cuba, without mentioning them by name -- to be able to start over in discussing how to control the arms race.

"Let us begin anew,'' he said, "remember on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.''

That's not exactly what's happening in our world today, obviously. But I do think JFK's words 50 years this week have value for us. We can be strident without verbally slapping people around, critical without screaming. That's all.