NFC Is About to Get Real

The Lions and Panthers are making strong pushes for the playoffs, just as we all predicted in August. (Right?) But first things first: All of the NFC’s top teams are on the brink of what should be a wild final seven weeks
Publish date:

One non-Incognito point to ponder this morning, prompted by non-stat-geek Mike Florio and based on 2013 NFL history: If Indianapolis is 20 points better than San Francisco, and San Francisco 24 points better than St. Louis, and Indianapolis plays St. Louis, then Indianapolis obviously should beat St. Louis by 44.

St. Louis beat Indianapolis by 30 Sunday, which apparently was any given Sunday.

On the field, I’d say Week 10 in the NFL belonged to the 1995 expansionists. Jacksonville won its first game of the season, while Carolina won its fifth in a row, a there-are-no-ugly-wins win at San Francisco that left many in Ninerdom wondering, “All right. Who kidnapped Colin Kaepernick, and what have you done with him?” I’ll give you Gus Bradley, Luke Kuechly and Steve Smith, and lots of playoff speculation fodder, soon.

But we have to start with the Incognito in the room. A Beverly Wilshire Hotel room, where Richie Incognito was interviewed by FOX’s Jay Glazer as part of his football and human-being rehab tour. Incognito has been suspended by the Dolphins for his role in the bullying and harassment of his offensive linemate, Jonathan Martin.

Most of what Incognito told Glazer was predictable: I am not a racist, I had no idea I was offending Jonathan Martin, he gave the rough stuff back to me. He said Martin’s departure from the team stunned him. "I never saw it," he said. "I never saw it coming." But the three most interesting parts of the interview were tangential to it.

1. To prove his point about their close friendship, Incognito showed Glazer what Glazer said were 1,142 text messages the two men had exchanged in the 19 months they’ve known each other. One from Martin to Incognito, sent last week after Martin bolted from the team, went this way: "It’s insane bro but just know I don’t blame you guys at all. It’s just the culture around football and the locker room got to me a little." This, a source who knows Martin told me, was a continuation of how Martin continued to respond to a man he felt was his tormenter. He didn’t want to upset Incognito, and sending the it’s-not-your-fault text would avoid making the leader of his position group angry. And I’d bet that’s how Martin will explain the string of friendly texts and exchanges when he’s interviewed by league investigator Ted Wells Wednesday.


2. Glazer said Incognito wouldn’t answer whether Miami coaches ordered him or anyone on the team to "toughen up" Martin because he was playing soft. By not answering, of course, Incognito said plenty.

3. To prove Martin was an equal participant in the bawdy exchanges, Incognito told Glazer that Martin sent him a text saying, “I will murder your whole effing family.” That’s not true, according to a tweet from Martin’s lawyer, David Cornwell. The tweet showed an internet meme of a woman and an odd-looking dog with the caption, “I will murder your whole f------ family” (the picture from the text is to the right, though we've censored the language). Hardly the same thing as sending a text with those words. But this is typical of this entire story: Nothing is ever exactly as it seems.

What is real? What is exaggeration? Did Incognito torment Martin to the point of near-mental breakdown? That’s up to Ted Wells to determine. Martin and Incognito need to tell the whole truth when they meet with him.

Image placeholder title

The Lions can’t really win a first-round bye. Can they?

Divining the last seven weeks of the NFC pennant race, starting with the round-robin tournament that will determine whether Seattle can hang on to home-field advantage:

Whoever did the schedule last spring was smart. Five teams have six or more wins in the NFC this morning: Seattle (9-1), New Orleans (7-2), San Francisco (6-3), Detroit (6-3), Carolina (6-3). Until Carolina began to sprint to the finish, we all thought Seattle, San Francisco and New Orleans, in some order, were the cream of the conference. Let’s see how the Seahawks, Niners and Saints will try to beat the crap out of one another in the next 28 days:

Nov. 17: San Francisco at New Orleans.

Dec. 2 (Monday): New Orleans at Seattle.

Dec. 8: Seattle at San Francisco.

Carolina isn’t home free … yet. The Panthers play New England next Monday night at home. They also have a tough three-game stretch in 15 December days: at New Orleans, Jets at home, Saints at home. The best sign for the Panthers is a 6-2 conference record. That’s more NFC wins than any other team in the conference except Seattle, which also has six.

Detroit has the most favorable schedule down the stretch. As of this morning, the Lions are a game back of the Saints for the second first-round bye, and while the Saints have four games left against teams at least two games over .500, Detroit has none. Check out the remaining Lions slate.

Nov. 17: At 3-6 Pittsburgh.

Nov. 24: 0-8 Tampa Bay at Ford Field.

Nov. 28: The 5-4 Packers, with Aaron Rodgers’ status very much in doubt 23 days after breaking his collarbone.

Dec. 8: At 5-4 Philadelphia.

Dec. 16: 4-5 Baltimore at Ford Field.

Dec. 22: The 3-6 Giants at Ford Field.

Dec. 29: At 2-7 Minnesota.

It’s always dangerous to draw conclusions about the playoffs with seven games left (particularly in a league in which the Rams beat the Colts by 30), but if you’re a Lions’ fan, you have to be very optimistic this morning. Not only do you have a one-game lead in your division and a sweep of the Bears this year, but also your schedule looks like it was drawn up by the ghost of Bobby Layne.

Image placeholder title

Carolina is relevant … finally.

Good story out of Carolina’s 10-9 upset of the Niners Sunday at Candlestick Park, about the Panthers finally doing something to get America to notice them.

I was more impressed by their defense, frankly. Entering Sunday’s game, the 49ers were a hot team, averaging 27 points and 343 yards per game. But Carolina held San Francisco to three first-half field goals and just 151 yards for the game. In the last 35 minutes the Niners had the ball seven times. Never scored. The results of the drives: end of half, punt, lost fumble, punt, punt, punt, interception.

In the second half, six drives netted 45 yards. This was no fluky win. The Panthers used the smothering presence of outside rushers Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy to neutralize Colin Kaepernick, who was sacked six times. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards shut off the run for much of the day. And Carolina left San Francisco with the biggest win of the Ron Rivera Era—and the Panthers' fifth straight victory.

“We came in needing to stop the run, obviously,’’ Kuechly told me afterward. “But after that, we had to know where 85 and 81 [Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin] were on every play. And we had to be sure we kept the option offense under control. We couldn’t let Kaepernick get outside."

Frank Gore did do some damage, rushing 16 times for 83 yards. But Davis and Boldin caught four balls for 25 yards. And Kaepernick had a brutal day: 46 net passing yards, 16 rushing yards.

"We have a chance to be as good as we want to be," said Kuechly. "There’s no doubt in our minds we can play with these teams, and we proved it today."

Image placeholder title

The Jags aren’t quite relevant, but they had a good day

"You know me," coach Gus Bradley was saying over the phone from Nashville, where his formerly 0-8 Jags hung on to beat Tennessee 29-27. "We don't talk about wins. We talk about steady improvement every week."

Bradley gave every player a game ball, and he said it was because of the improvement of so many players in so many little things. "We came back from the bye this week,'' he said, "and the attitude at practice was unbelievable. It wasn't like an attitude you'd see around the NFL very much. I had a couple of people in to watch practice this week and they told me, 'Gus, it's like a high school.' You'd never know we were 0-8."

I told him the play in the game that most impressed me was cornerback Will Blackmon breaking through to steal the ball from Tennessee quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and run it back for a touchdown. It was a strange play, Blackmon charging in from the secondary and ripping the ball from a shocked Fitzpatrick, scoring what turned out to be the winning touchdown.

"I mean, how great is that?" said Bradley. "Will Blackmon was playing nickel for us for the first time today, and he makes such a huge play to help us win. It was a designed blitz from the nickel spot, and he executed it perfectly. That's what I mean—we're starting to do things right, to make the corrections we need to make to play winning football."

This is what you always heard about Bradley. He's a teacher. He didn't let the team get depressed after so many dispiriting losses. There's still a huge talent gap between Jacksonville and the rest of the league, but if they're going to work this hard at 0-8, imagine how they'll be when they're playing a game that counts for something significant?

Image placeholder title

I really liked Shannon Sharpe’s outrage Sunday, and other things Incognito.

Four takeaways after a week of the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin story:

 I don’t understand how African-American players look on passively or encouragingly while a white player calls a fellow African-American a "half-n-----." Neither, apparently, does Shannon Sharpe, who is black and who said this on The NFL Today Sunday: "The Miami Dolphins locker room probably consists of 75 to 80 percent blacks. If you allow Richie Incognito to walk around in an open locker room and to use a racial epithet that most black Americans, all black Americans, know the … hate and the vitriol that comes with that word, you are encouraging him to do that. I read, and I don't know, this is alleged, that some black players said Richie Incognito was an honorary black. There is no such thing. This tells me everything I need to know about the Miami Dolphins’ locker room.

"Maybe it's me. Just ask your parents. Ask your grandparents. The mountain that they climbed so a black person in America could have respect, could have dignity, and you allow this in an open locker room to take place is unacceptable. I'm so disappointed … Because if you're black, you know what that word means." Brilliant, and high time a high-profile football player called out idiots who think it’s okay to use hugely hurtful words in jest. Football players will read this and say they were just kidding around. You don’t kid around with the n-word, and if it takes an NFL investigation to stop it, good for the NFL investigation.

I hope Incognito is telling the truth when he says (as he did with Jay Glazer on FOX Sunday), "I’m embarrassed by my actions." As I reported Sunday on NBC, I believe if Incognito is released by the Dolphins he has a good chance to find a home down the stretch with a playoff contender. Now, for that to happen, the team would have to have executives and a head coach with thick skins, a locker room that could see past the controversy and a team with eyes on the Super Bowl that could withstand the distraction Incognito would bring. I see a few of those teams that could tune out the outside world if they felt a good guard was worth it: New Orleans. Seattle. Denver. Detroit.

I can’t see Martin ever walking back into the Miami locker room, even if owner Stephen Ross cleans house—and if Ross is embarrassed by the Ted Wells report when it’s finished and made public (likely around early December), I could see him cleaning house. Where will Martin land? I can’t see him finding a home until next year, if indeed he wants to continue playing football. I don’t think that’s a sure thing, by the way. But if he does choose to play, and the Dolphins let him go, the Colts are probably the most likely landing spot. There he’d work under his senior-year offensive coordinator at Stanford, Pep Hamilton. He’d work with his Stanford quarterback and tight end, Andrew Luck and Coby Fleener. And a GM not afraid of the bold move, Ryan Grigson, would make it fit. I think Martin would have to find a place he wanted to be.

Now, it’s also possible the Dolphins could try to deal him, because he’ll have two years left on his contract after this year. Would anyone give anything substantive for the former second-rounder? No way. A smart deal would be a low 2015 pick that could rise based on Martin’s performance or number of starts in 2014. If Grigson wants Martin (and, given his track record with project-type players, I bet he’d look into it), he’d find a way to get it done.

So why does this story have such legs? Because it has subject matter everyone in America, and not just football fans, can grasp. Race relations. Bullying. (And Incognito’s kidding himself when he says this has nothing to do with bullying.) Workplace harassment. Locker room politics. The culture of tough-guy sports. If you’re Incognitoed-out this morning, brace yourself. There’s another month of this coming. At least.

Image placeholder title

So … this is how you define “culture change” in Kansas City.

This is from my story on the Chiefs in Sports Illustrated this past week, about how Andy Reid has engendered a new way of team-think among veterans who, quite frankly, we never saw have this kind of impact on the team:

One play in the Kansas City Chiefs’ 9-0 start illustrates why the players like playing for new coach Andy Reid.

It happened late in the first half of an Oct. 27 home game against Cleveland. Kansas City had a first down at the Browns’ 28. As the offense broke the huddle, the Chiefs lined up in trips right: three receivers in a row outside the right tackle—wideout Dwayne Bowe, slot receiver Dexter McCluster and tight end Anthony Fasano, left to right.

Before you learn what happened, you need some history. The Chiefs had run this play earlier in the half, and Bowe noticed one of the Cleveland defensive backs clapping his hands twice and nodding toward Bowe. When the ball was snapped on this play earlier in the half, two defenders blanketed Bowe as he sprinted up the right seam, and quarterback Alex Smith had to look elsewhere. So when Bowe went to the sidelines after that series and Reid saw him, the coach said, "Hey 82, what do you see?" Bowe told him on this play, Z Out Zebra Post, he thought if Reid called it again, McCluster should do what Bowe had done on the first play, run a deep seam route, and Bowe, instead of streaking downfield, should run a short out, to take two cover men with him. That way, McCluster would be singled and, with his quickness, get a step on his man.

So here came that chance, late in the half. Coaches told Bowe and McCluster to switch their routes, and Z Out Zebra Post was Reid’s call. At the line of scrimmage, Bowe got the double-clap again and he knew he’d get doubled, and at the snap of the ball, Bowe ran an out-route with safety T.J. Ward and corner Buster Skrine bracketing him. Streaking straight downfield, McCluster got two steps on corner Joe Haden. Smith threw. McCluster stretched for the ball at the goal line. Bingo. Easy touchdown.

"Hey 82 … 82!" Reid said to a grinning Bowe when he returned to the sideline. "You got a job doing this coaching thing someday."

That touchdown made the score 20-7. The final was 23-17, Kansas City. Dwayne Bowe, as it turned out, designed the winning play to make Kansas City 8-0. And his head coach called it.

"I’ve never had input like that as a football player," said Bowe. "Some coaches have an ego. Some coaches want to win. Andy’s that [second] kind—he just wants to win."

Dwayne Bowe, assistant coach. Quite a change out there in Missouri.

Image placeholder title

Requiem for a Dog

On Friday morning, my wife, Ann, and I woke up in our Manhattan apartment. I put my feet on the floor and looked around. No Bailey. We’d put our 14-year-old golden retriever to sleep the day before. I started to do the math …

I don’t have a dog. I’ve woken up every day for the last 23 years owning a dog. Until today.

And I had to catch myself before I broke apart again. You wouldn’t have wanted to see me Wednesday, the day we knew it was coming, or Thursday, the day it happened. I was not a pretty sight. Our second golden retriever (Woody, our first, died in January 2002, when Bailey was 2) was euthanized at 9:14 a.m. Thursday.

So many thoughts. So many reverential thoughts about a great dog. But a little history first:

Did you know Daniel Snyder was responsible for the King family owning Bailey?

Did you know if the King family hesitated in the adoption process for just a single day 13 years ago, Bailey would have been Darrell Green’s family dog? That’s the Darrell Green, the famous Washington cornerback.

Bailey! I am sorry! You could have been a Hall of Famer’s dog! You could have been on the stage in Canton with Darrell Green and his beautiful family!

I’m not saying history would have shown me to be a better owner. But I do know no one threw more tennis balls to a dog than I threw to Bailey, and so I hope she was happy where she landed. In Montclair, N.J., her third home in her first 10 months. Bailey was born in Champaign, Ill., to a breeder, and given as a gift to a friend of our family. I’d met Doug Green when he was an assistant PR man with the Bears, and he’d moved on to be Ron Turner’s director of football operations at Illinois. Then Doug moved to Washington to study for the bar, and while in Washington heard that Snyder was looking for a PR man. (A common occurrence in those days.) Doug applied, got the job, and soon realized he couldn’t keep a dog with the demands of an NFL PR guy. For a while, Bailey lived at the home of former Washington GM Joe Mendes, but when training camp ended and Doug had to take Bailey, it just wasn’t feasible to keep her. So one day in August 2000, with our Woody in his golden years, we offered to take Bailey. Doug and I met on his lunch break at an exit on the Beltway around Washington. "This is something I really don’t want to do," Doug said, and I could see how sad this made him. And here came this fireball, reed-like retriever, a 2.7-in-the-40 sprinter with the longest tongue, and she bounced into our Ford Explorer, and off we went.

I didn’t know about Darrell Green’s interest until last week. Doug told me the star corner asked one of Doug’s PR aides the day after the handoff if the dog was still available. Nope, Darrell was told; missed it by a day.

That was our great fortune. Bailey fell right into the suburban family life with us and our two high school daughters. Field hockey, ball-chasing, softball (she was the mascot for three teams I coached), and learning the ropes from Woody. One day, a sliver in the front door allowed her to escape, and she sprinted onto busy Bellevue Avenue in Montclair … and I thought, This dog is dead. She leaped into the side of an Astro Van. BANG! The poor minivan driver stopped and jumped from the vehicle. “I am SO SORRY!” the distraught (and faultless) woman said. How did Bailey survive? Who knows. She got off the tar, shook herself as though leaving a lake, and sprinted back up to the house. I’ll say this: Bailey never ran into traffic again.

Actually, she was a chicken dog. When my wife put a vinyl beach bag by the front door one summer day, the bag made a crinkling sound. Bailey’s tail went far between her legs and she ran out of the room. And for the first three or four years with us, Bailey had one maddening habit: She had to be touched in every waking moment, or she was miserable. If we sat and watched TV, Bailey had to snug up against one our legs. I remember peering in at daughter Mary Beth doing homework one day, writing left-handed in a notebook with her right hand on a sleeping Bailey’s head.

I was traveling one time when we lived in Jersey, and Ann was home alone with Bailey. She went to bed, and after about 10 minutes heard a loud crash downstairs, jumped up and turned on the lamp. Bailey jumped up too. Ann went into the hallway and turned on all the hallway lights in the house, and she looked at Bailey in the doorway of the bedroom and said, “Come.” Bailey didn’t move. Again Ann said: “Come!” Bailey turned around and went back to her dog bed, leaving Ann to investigate by herself. Turns out a framed photograph had fallen from a wall and crashed to the floor. But the chicken dog couldn’t bear to go see.

I’ve never seen a dog that loved running as much as Bailey. We had a hill in Montclair, above a stately iris garden, and I took her there three or four times a week, throwing the tennis ball far down the hill so she could retrieve and run. Mike Martz, at the time coaching the Rams, returned a call during one such session and asked me what was that loud panting noise in the background. Bailey would ride home in the back seat of the car, drooling down the side of it; when we sold the car in 2007, try as we might, we couldn’t get the drool stains out. That was okay. All in all, Bailey was a piece of luggage. She went everywhere. She stayed at Tufts for a week in daughter Laura’s senior-year house.

I used to wash Bailey in our front driveway because the hose was convenient. On one May day in 2008, in mid-lather, my phone rang. It was Brett Favre. Not loving retirement. Having second thoughts. I was trying to talk to him and wash the dog at the same time, and finally I had to tell Bailey to lay down and wait—for about 40 minutes. There she lay, all soaped up, just doing what she was told, as she always did.

Mostly, she was just an incredible companion. Didn’t bark much at all. Never whined. Went nuts when any of us came home, as dogs do. (She saved her going-craziest for Doug’s occasional visits over the years. Ten years after we adopted her, a Doug visit still prompted Bailey to go into orbit. Amazing how dogs remember so well.) And that’s why the last few days have hurt so much. My wife and I wake up and look on the floor; no Bailey. We walk back into the apartment, and we look down in our foyer; no Bailey. What an empty feeling. I assume we’ll have that empty feeling for a long time. A month, two months … I don’t know. I wish I didn’t have to feel that pain in my heart for the next month or two or three.

But by my calculations, we had Bailey in our lives for 159 months. I will endure a few weeks of the occasional dark thought, and I will think: Pretty good trade, 159 months of companionship and friendship and unconditional love for one or three months when sadness creeps in. In fact, that’s a fantastic trade. I feel the same as I did when Woody died: The easiest way to not feel this grief is to never have a dog. And what an empty life that would be.

In her final days, Bailey had been given some steroid pills to treat a bad limp. She had arthritis, and we had to lift her to stand, and she couldn’t put much weight on her right foreleg. So we’d take her out for her regular trip to the sidewalk four times a day, and by Wednesday, it was unbearable to watch her struggle to make it outside. First thing Thursday morning, when I approached her to tell her it was time to go outside, she wagged her tail so hard it hit the wooden floor like it was a drum. This dog was still into life. But the limp ... just too painful to watch. We went to the vet a couple hours later. I had to carry her more than half of the three-and-a-half-block walk. We told the vet, Keith Manning, about her trouble, and he was nice and avoided our beseeching looks about the next treatment, and said her longstanding bulging disk was pushing on her spine and preventing her leg from working and, well, there wasn’t much he could do, and …

“Give us five minutes,’’ I asked him. He left the room, and Ann and I said our goodbyes.

Ann gave Bailey her last milk bone. “Good girl!’’ she said one last time, through her tears.

Then Dr. Manning came in, with his assistant, and we lifted Bailey up on the table. Ann and I held Bailey as Dr. Manning shaved her left forepaw. He took the long silver needle with the red poison, found the vein and pushed it in.

I whispered into Bailey’s ear: “Go play with Woody."

Image placeholder title

Fine Fifteen

1. Denver (8-1). If Kansas City’s offense was just a little better, I wouldn’t put Denver here; I’d have kept K.C. No. 1. But in the last 11 quarters, Denver has 12 offensive touchdowns and the Chiefs three. Now, if Peyton Manning’s MRI comes back bad today, I’ll change my tune.

2. Kansas City (9-0). K.C., idle Sunday, has to play better on offense than three offensive touchdowns in its last 30 possessions. It’s going to be very close Sunday in Denver because of the stingy K.C. defense. I just need to see the offense score more.

3. Seattle (9-1). Russell Wilson: 19 of 26 with two touchdown passes two weeks in a row.

4. New England (7-2). Seven weeks left in the season. Two-game lead in the AFC East. Anyone surprised?

5. New Orleans (7-2). On a night like last night the Saints looked like the best team in football. Eight days ago they lost to a team on the road that was coming off a 40-point loss to Cincinnati. So, I’m not sure

6. Carolina (6-3). Panthers D breathing down Kansas City’s neck. Carolina allowing 12.8 points a game, K.C. 12.3.

7. Indianapolis (6-3). Enough of the fourth-quarter magic wand stuff. The Colts are falling behind too much and looking to get bailed out by Andrew Luck too much. In the last two weeks Indy’s fallen behind two teams that won’t make the playoffs, by 21-3 and 28-0 at halftime.

8. San Francisco (6-3). I don’t know who Colin Kaepernick is anymore.

9. Detroit (6-3). A short trip from Goat of the Week to near-Defensive Player of the Week for Nick Fairley.

10. Philadelphia (5-5). Nick Foles in 2013: 16 touchdown passes, no interceptions, 132.5 rating. This is getting ridiculous.

11. Chicago (5-4). Jay Cutler added a sprained ankle to a strained groin Sunday. The Bears are 0-2 against the Lions and wounded now, and Cutler doesn’t know if he’ll be healthy enough to face the Ravens Sunday at home.

12. New York Jets (5-4). A stat you never thought you’d read on Nov. 11: Bilal Powell/Chris Ivory, 783 yards; Chris Johnson/Shonn Greene, 574.

13. Green Bay (5-4). In the last seven days, by not playing, Aaron Rodgers has made a heck of a case for being the NFL’s MVP.

14. Arizona (5-4). When the Cards rush the passer the way they have the last two weeks, you start to think: Maybe those last two games of the year (at Seattle, San Francisco at home) really might mean something.

15. Dallas (5-5). Dallas’ hopes for the postseason might have gone limping off the field with Sean Lee and DeMarcus Ware Sunday night. That Lee hamstring injury didn’t look like a two-week job. He’ll be lucky to be back for the four-game home stretch, beginning four weeks from tonight against Chicago.

The Awards Section

Offensive Players of the Week

Mark Ingram, running back, New Orleans. Is it possible that was the first 100-yard game of the former first-round pick’s NFL life? Let’s check. Going into Sunday night against Dallas, he’d had a 91-yard game and a 90- in his 29-game NFL career, but never 100. And against Dallas, in a beatdown of 2009 proportions, Ingram ran 14 times for 145 yards and you thought: So that’s why they picked him in the first round in 2011.

Golden Tate, wide receiver, Seattle. The stat line from Tate’s role in the Seahawks’ rout of Atlanta was just okay—six catches, 106 yards, one touchdown—but his six-yard touchdown catch in the left corner of the end zone was the prettiest grab of the day. The one-hander while getting both feet down near the end of the first half gave Seattle a 23-3 lead at crestfallen Atlanta.

Calvin Johnson, wide receiver, Detroit. I’ve run out of words to describe his greatness. Some historical perspective: Sunday’s 21-19 win over Chicago was Johnson’s 100th career game. He has 8,740 yards, which is the most in NFL history for a player in his first 100 games. (Lance Alworth had 9,019 yards in his first 100 games, and though it counts as a record, Alworth’s first 100 games came in the American Football League.) The average of 87.4 yards per game is an NFL-best, and Johnson added to his lore with two terrific touchdown catches while keeping his feet inbounds in the end zone at Soldier Field Sunday.

Defensive Players of the Week

Luke Kuechly, middle linebacker, Carolina. This could have gone to so many: Charles Johnson or Greg Hardy, who penned in Colin Kaepernick so well; Drayton Florence, whose late interception killed the final Niners chance and helped hold San Francisco to 46 net passing yards; or Thomas Davis, the turnover-inducing linebacker. But give me Kuechly, with 11 tackles, a sack, another tackle for loss, a pass defensed and two quarterback pressures. This Panthers defense is absolutely legit.

Will Blackmon, cornerback, Jacksonville. In the grand scheme of things, a Jacksonville victory is scintillating and fun but has little impact on the football world. However, the play by Blackmon to seal this victory is one of the best individual plays in the league this year and deserves major props, particularly since it clinched the first win by the last winless team in the AFC. With 2:32 left and the Jags nursing a 22-20 lead, Jacksonville sent Blackmon on a corner blitz, and he strip-sacked quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, recovered the ball at the Titans' 21 and ran it in for what turned out to be the winning score.

Chris Long and Robert Quinn, defensive ends, St. Louis. What a combo platter Long and Quinn have become. The Colts saw it first-hand in the ridiculously lopsided St. Louis win Sunday. Long and Quinn had three sacks for a loss of 33 yards, added four quarterback pressures, forced a fumble and Long returned a fumble 45 yards for the first touchdown of the day. Name a better bookend combination of pass rushers in the game today. I don’t think you can.

Kevin Williams, defensive tackle, Minnesota. Williams’ dominant days are nearing an end (he’s 33), but he had a very good night against Washington: seven tackles, 2.5 sacks, two more quarterback pressures. He exposed the poor guard play of Washington. Think of Williams getting in on three sacks of the well-rehabbed Robert Griffin III, whose speed and quickness should have been too much for him. A great night—maybe Williams’ last one. If it is, he can put that in the time capsule to show the grandchildren one day.

Special Teams Players of the Week

Tavon Austin, punt-returner/wide receiver, St. Louis. I could have given him Offensive Player of the Week, too. In a 12-minute span on the game clock, Austin high-wired a 98-yard sprint down the right sideline with a Pat McAfee punt for a touchdown, caught a 57-yard strike from Kellen Clemens for another touchdown, and then made an 81-yard catch-and-run of a short Clemens pass for a third TD. When the Rams traded up to get Austin in the draft last April, they did so with performances like this in mind. For the day, Austin caught two balls for those 138 yards, and returned four punts for 145 yards and one kickoff for 27 yards. Not bad: 310 yards for the rookie.

Shane Lechler, punter, Houston. Seven punts in the desert Sunday: 53 yards, 61, 62, 55, 60, 65 and 56 yards. No touchbacks. Fairly hard to have a better day at the position.

Coach of the Week

Gus Bradley, head coach, Jacksonville. See above. The Jags lost to fall to 0-8 two weeks ago in London, and they lost decisively. Coming off the bye, Bradley focused on what he’s hounded the team about all season—personal improvement, not winning or losing. "This team loves playing for Gus," said Maurice Jones-Drew, the veteran running back. It showed in Nashville, in the first win of Bradley’s NFL coaching career.

Goat of the Week

Houston play-calling on the last series in Arizona. I assume offensive coordinator Rick Dennison should wear the goat horns. With a first down at the Houston 28 at the two-minute warning, down 27-24, Case Keenum threw deep down the right side on the first play (incomplete), then deep down the left side on the third play (also incomplete) in an incongruous four-play series against heavy pressure that showed Houston’s over-reliance on Andre Johnson. Plenty of time to use underneath throws or the screen game, and the Texans looked like all they wanted to do was go for it all instead of being patient.

Quotes of the Week


"I may … have taken stuff too far. I did not intend to hurt him … My actions were coming from a place of love."

—Richie Incognito, interviewed by Jay Glazer on the FOX pregame show Sunday, on his relationship with Jonathan Martin.


"I’ve always said that I want to be a Steeler for life. I love it here. I’m happy here. I don’t want to go anywhere. No one in my family, our camp, agents, no one has ever said anything about that."

—Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, after the Steelers’ win over Buffalo, refuting an NFL Network report Sunday morning that said Roethlisberger isn’t happy with the Steelers and that the club expects Roethlisberger to ask the team to look into trading him in the offseason.


"I joke—it's kind of half-joking—I wouldn't mind being an area scout where you just hit the road, check into your Marriotts and scout people up, and if you happen to catch the game on Sunday in a bar somewhere on a beach, that's cool, too. That'd be a really good scouting job."

—Green Bay GM Ted Thompson, to Tom Pelissero of USA Today, in an excellent interview by the way, when asked whether he intends to be the GM for three more years, which would equal the time on the job (nine years) Ron Wolf spent.


"It tore at the fabric of the place, through no fault of anybody. I don't think it was the fault of us. I don't think it was the fault of Brett. It just was one of those car wrecks that you could see coming, but it wasn't like you could dodge. It just happened. That was a shame."

—Thompson, on the retirement, unretirement and trade of Brett Favre to the Jets and later his defection to the Vikings, also in the Pelissero interview.

Stat of the Week

Remember way back when—around Labor Day—when everyone associated with football was quite sure that we had seen the last of the running back?

There is one branch of the NFL tree that believes in the running game. That tree grows in Palo Alto. And the men on the Jim Harbaugh tree will run the ball. Check out snapshots from the 2013 coaching practices of three of the men who worked together on the 2010 Stanford coaching staff: San Francisco head coach Harbaugh, Stanford head coach David Shaw and Indianapolis offensive coordinator and play-caller Pep Hamilton.

(One small pet peeve before I begin, about “coaching trees.” Because Pep Hamilton coached one year on the Harbaugh staff at Stanford doesn’t mean his biggest influence is Harbaugh. And because Shaw worked for Harbaugh for five seasons—he worked under Jon Gruden and Brian Billick for four apiece—doesn’t mean Harbaugh taught him everything he knows. But they worked for Harbaugh and undoubtedly were influenced by him. Just wanted to make the point that if someone said the Gruden coaching tree had a Shaw branch, that would be correct too.)

Anecdotes from the counter-culture:

• On Sept. 22, Hamilton called 40 run plays out of 67 offensive snaps, and Indianapolis upset San Francisco 27-7.

• On Oct. 20, 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman—also on Harbaugh’s staff at Stanford, and now working for him in the NFL—called 41 run plays out of 64 offensive snaps. Niners 31, Tennessee 17.

• Last Thursday, in shocking No. 2 Oregon, Stanford ran the ball on 66 of 79 plays. That’s a Woody Hayes-like 84 percent rushes. Stanford won, 26-20.

For the season, Stanford is running 66 percent of the time, San Francisco 55 percent and Indianapolis (I guess Hamilton didn’t get the memo) 40 percent.

One last note: Brian Polian was Stanford’s special teams coach in 2010 under Harbaugh, and in 2011, under Shaw. Polian is the rookie head coach at Nevada. His team has run on 57 percent of its offensive plays this year.

Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me


Of the 559 rushing/receiving/punt-return/kick-return yards produced by the Rams Sunday at Indianapolis, 540 came from rookies and second-year players.


Eagles last 10 at home: 0-10.

Eagles last six on the road: 5-1.

Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week

No travel last week, but another New York story for you: The lights are timed on Second Avenue in Manhattan, as they are on many of the main streets in New York. So, walking a lot here, you get in the habit of looking a couple of cross-streets up to see when cars slow down, or to see cars from the cross-streets begin to cross Second Avenue. Then you know the “walk” sign you’re waiting for is about to change. So, as I’m looking up the street and beginning to cross, I bump into a guy to my left. Sort of a hard bump. I quickly apologize, and he looks at me. I thought he’d say, "Hey, no problem," or "Hey, buddy, come on." Something like that. Instead, he gives a two-handed pushing motion and says, "Fifteen yards. Pass interference." And we both move on.

Tweets of the Week


“Eat. Get to stadium early. Poop. Warmup 1 hr before I'm out. Simple routine RT @kalenhosier: what's your Sunday routine before game time?”

—@geoffschwartz, offensive lineman for Kansas City.


“ ‘@Seahawks have released WR Bryan Walters and sign DT Michael Brooks to the active roster’

Day before the game? At the hotel?

‘Business’ ”

—@DougBaldwinJr, a Seattle wide receiver teammate of Walters. Or should I say, "an apparently peeved Seattle wide receiver teammate of Walters," tweeting Saturday from Atlanta, where the Seahawks were preparing to face the Falcons and where, apparently, Walters got the news he was finished.


"Doc Gooden was too nervous to wait for the team bus prior to his first start with Mets 4/7/84 in Astrodome. Walked 8 miles to park. Won, 3-2."

—@JayHorwitzPR, the esteemed veteran New York Mets PR man.

That’s the kind of tweet that makes Twitter fun.


"The NFL-NFLPA CBA has 127,112 words. Bully, bullying, haze, hazing, harassment, steal, extort are none of them. #JonathanMartin #Incognito"

—@McCannSportsLaw, Michael McCann, SI legal analyst, Massachusetts lawyer and University of New Hampshire professor.

Ten Things I Think I Think

1. I think this is what I liked about Week 10:

a. What a great player Andre Johnson is. His two touchdown catches in Arizona were miraculous displays of keeping feet inbounds on the last blades of end-zone grass.

b. Robert Griffin III, who played very much like he did a year ago Thursday night, and had no business losing.

c. Christian Ponder, who played like a real, live NFL starter in the 34-27 win. Suddenly, that quarterback job is very complicated.

d. I love the instincts of Eddie Lacy. Did you see the lunging, desperate, successful dive for a first-quarter first down, with third-string quarterback Scott Tolzien in the lineup?

e. The St. Louis pass rush. Robert Quinn and Chris Long are just killing it the last few weeks, and they punished Andrew Luck at Indy.

f. Nick Foles, picking up where he left off.

g. Linebacker Rocky McIntosh of the Lions, stoning Chicago back Michael Bush on a 4th-and-four-feet early at Chicago.

h. Terrific touchdown catch by Reuben Randle, with a Raider draped all over him.

i. And a terrific effort play by Oakland wideout Andre Holmes, sprinting from way behind the play to catch up to Terrell Thomas returning an interception inside the Raiders’ 10-yard-line. Holmes forced a fumble, but Thomas was saved by being down an instant before the ball was jarred loose.

j. DeAndre Levy, who makes a big play every game for Detroit. The Bengals have a guy seven percent of the American football public has heard of, defensive end Wallace Gilberry, playing better than 70 percent of the players in the NFL.

l. Seattle cornerback Walter Thurmond, playing for the groin-addled Brandon Browner, looked like he could start for about 31 other teams against Atlanta.

m. The Arizona pass rush. The Cards really have some good building blocks.

n. Julius Thomas. That’s a guy who was hurt all week and questionable?

o. The all-around excellence of Darren Sproles.

2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 10:

a. The hands of Washington’s receivers. The final three passes thrown by Robert Griffin III in Minnesota hit his receivers in the hands. Two were dropped/missed, and Santana Moss couldn’t get both feet down in the end zone on the third.

b. Washington loses, despite three touchdowns and no picks from Griffin, and 191 yards rushing, and holding Minnesota to 307 yards. That’s quite a feat.

c. Jerrel Jernigan fumbling the opening kickoff for the Giants and handing the Raiders seven gift points.

d. A rookie mistake by a veteran: Reggie Nelson, the Cincinnati safety, face-guarding on a 48-yard pass-interference penalty.

e. And a horrible field-goal try by Mike Nugent of the Bengals, kicking it so far left with the Bengals down 10 that it missed the net behind the goalpost.

f. A ridiculous interception thrown by Joe Flacco. You’ve got a 10-point lead, and you take a risk that that, throwing a wounded duck under heavy pressure?

g. Darrius Heyward-Bey (surprise!) with a drop of a perfectly thrown Andrew Luck pass.

h. What the Packers did late in the first half. First, Mike McCarthy called pass on 3rd-and-1 with Scott Tolzien at quarterback—not a conversion run by Eddie Lacy. Then Mason Crosby missed a field goal wide right.

i. An absolutely preposterous pass by Eli Manning, thrown right to Tracy Porter for the easiest interception-turned-touchdown you’ll ever see.

j. So Clay Matthews hits Nick Foles hard in the left shoulder pad and gets 15 yards for it? Football rules: I give up.

k. Andrew Luck, who threw a bad end-zone interception to Trumaine Johnson and, in general, had one of the roughest starts of his young career.

l. What a stupid personal foul by Nick Fairley, flinging Josh McCown to the ground near the game’s end, keeping Chicago in it a while longer. Good thing he made up for it with a great stop of Matt Forte on the Bears’ last offensive snap.

3. I think Jay Glazer handled the interview with Richie Incognito well. That’s not an easy interview, people. Every eye in America is on you, first of all, so you’re going to be under the microscope in a big way. FOX should have shown Incognito ducking the question about whether he was told to toughen up Jonathan Martin by the coaches; Glazer said Incognito wouldn’t answer the question, and his no-comment was a part of the story we should have seen. And the allegedly joshing text about Martin saying he’d murder Incognito’s family wasn’t a text at all, but rather the forwarding of a piece of internet gallows humor.

“How do you expect anyone in America to believe you’re not a racist?” Glazer asked Incognito, and it was a good question, one that had to be asked. We haven’t seen the whole Q&A, nor how it was edited for TV, but from what I saw, Glazer asked what needed to be asked, with the proper gravitas.

4. I think the one question I’d have for Incognito is this: "Do you think there’s something wrong with a locker-room culture that has a white man talking derisively to a black man and calling him a half-n-----, and the other black men in the locker room chuckling instead of being outraged?"

5. I think Ted Thompson is one of the best GMs in football. Hands down. But why an unemployed Matt Flynn is not on the Packers right now boggles the mind, whether he’s got a sore arm or not. To refresh your memory, the last time Flynn started a game for Green Bay, he threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns. It was the greatest passing day in the history of the Packers. He is healthy. He will come relatively cheap. And this team is playing Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien while in a dogfight for the playoffs?

6. I think it’s stunning how awful Atlanta is.

7. I think the Saints’ performance Sunday night reminded me of one of those road-grading performances in 2009, when they ruled the NFL world. Forty first downs? Crazy. Outgaining a division leader by 433 yards? Crazier.

6. I think there’s not an NFL coach who knows Gus Bradley who isn’t very happy for the relentlessly optimistic teacher of football this morning.

7. I think no one in Colorado will exhale today until they hear these words out of Broncos headquarters: “The MRI on Peyton Manning’s knee and ankle shows no structural damage.”

8. I think this says it all about the state of the NFC East: If Washington beats Philadelphia and the Giants beat quarterback-depleted Green Bay Sunday, no team in the division will be over .500 after 11 weeks, and first and fourth place would be separated by one game.

9. I think the Ravens are as flawed as any contender can be (Ray Rice: 2.5 yards per carry ... for the season) but they bought themselves a reprieve Sunday. A game back in the AFC North loss column, Baltimore plays three of the next four at home, and none of the foes (at Chicago, Jets, Pittsburgh, Minnesota) is a super team. Baltimore will probably need to win three of those four, seeing that the finish of their schedule is brutal: at Detroit, New England, at Cincinnati.

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

a. This is the best video I’ve seen in a while. It’s Minnesota coach Jerry Kill—who has had to miss time due to bouts of epilepsy—with his team following the 24-10 win over Penn State Saturday.

b. Good to see Leigh Montville back writing a weekly column at the Boston Globe after 24 years away. From his first effort Sunday: “I am a Mike Napoli type of free agent, a veteran catcher/first baseman with possibly bad hips who might be able to help a little bit. I will do what I can do. I might even grow a beard, add some tattoos, maybe take off my shirt and go for a midnight stroll down Boylston Street if everything works out.”

c. The more Montville in our lives, the better.

d. I suppose we shouldn’t laugh at Toronto mayor Rob Ford, but every time I hear the tape of him talking about smoking crack, I can’t help it. Ford: “Have I tried it? Probably in one of my drunken stupors. Probably approximately about a year ago.” And then, basically, apologizing, wanting life to go on as before.

e. Rob? That’s sort of a big deal.

f. Doesn’t Rob Ford look exactly like Chris Farley’s slightly older brother?

g. Penny for Their Thoughts Dept.: Chris Berman and Dan Patrick together in the dressing room of the Eagles’ Glenn Frey, Friday night at Madison Square Garden, at the Eagles concert.

h. Wishing you the best after your little heart procedure last week, Bill Keenist. Get well soon.

i. Good luck in your little procedure Thursday, Ken Fost. (Ever notice it’s “a little procedure” to others, but not when you’re having it?)

j. Coffeenerdness: Fantastic recognition by the barista at the 51st Street Starbucks Sunday morning. I walked in the door in a quiet moment between rushes and she looked at me and said: “Triple grande hazelnut macchiato.” And this is a store I go in once a week. I said, “You must have been good in school. Great memory.”

k. Beernerdness: Happiness is finding Allagash White in the local Whole Foods. I am a simple man, except when it comes to expensive beer and coffee.

l. Glad to see Charlie Batch's Best of The Batch Foundation getting some attention Tuesday night on NFL Network (10:30 p.m. ET). His literacy work with kids in his Pittsburgh neighborhood is a good example for players who want to give back.

Who I Like Tonight

Miami 24, Tampa Bay 13. If I thought the Bucs could take advantage of the leaks on the Miami offensive line brought about by Incognitogate, I would predict otherwise. But I don’t.

The Adieu Haiku

A heaven for dogs?
If there’s one, Bailey’s there now.
She was a good dog.