Markus Wheaton breaks a finger in Bears practice

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The Bears signed wide receiver Markus Wheaton this offseason anticipating him being a significant part of the offense.

But he hasn’t spent much time on the practice field, and has a new issue to worry about.

Bears coach John Fox told reporters that Wheaton suffered a broken finger during Sunday’s practice. While the left pinkie fracture might not keep him out long, it’s one more thing in a list of maladies.

Wheaton had just returned yesterday from the appendectomy he had in late-July, and missed some time during spring workouts recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.

If well, Wheaton figures to be a contributor for the Bears offense, which has questions at receiver and the big one quarterback (whether they say it’s one or not).

Passing game sparks Chargers’ 33-14 win vs. Jaguars

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After a blowing a fourth quarter lead in a loss at Arizona to begin their season, the Chargers have returned to good form, and they are sustaining their quality play.

San Diego’s winning streak reached three games Sunday with a 33-14 dismissal of visiting Jacksonville at Qualcomm Stadium. In victory, the Chargers (3-1) tallied the final 23 points and held Jacksonville without a second-half point.

Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers riddled the Jaguars’ secondary, completing 29-of-39 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns. He connected with wide receiver Eddie Royal on touchdowns of 47 and 43 yards and hit wideout Malcom Floyd for a 24-yard score.

The Chargers’ triumph also marked a major bounce-back game for wideout Keenan Allen, who caught 10 passes for 135 yards on 11 targets.

Jaguars rookie quarterback Blake Bortles impressed in defeat, completing 29-of-37 passes for 253 yards and a pair of touchdowns. However, he was picked twice in the second half, leading to a pair of Jacksonville field goals.

Once again, though, the Jaguars’ defense didn’t provide enough resistance. The Jaguars have yet to hold an opponent to less than 33 points, and they have not scored more than 17 points in a single game. Overall, Jacksonville was outscored 152-58 in September.

The Jaguars host 2-2 Pittsburgh next week, while the Chargers draw the visiting Jets, who have lost three in a row after a season-opening win vs. Oakland.

Week 17 Monday 10-pack


It’s the first Monday of the year, and it’s the last Monday 10-pack of the year.

I miss the days when football season ended before December 31.

As a setup goes, that’s all I got.  Let’s get on to the 10 takes from a 32-team season-ending Sunday.

1.  Packers should strongly consider franchising Flynn.

In 2008, after the first annual Brett Favre retirement, the Packers drafted two quarterbacks.  The gesture was interpreted by some (i.e., by us) as a bolting of the door behind Favre and the blocking of it with large pieces of furniture.

Brian Brohm, who entered the 2007 college football season as one of the top prospects, slid to the Packers in round two, pick 56.  LSU’s Matt Flynn was an afterthought, with pick number 209 in round seven.  Four seasons later, Brohm is long gone — and Flynn showed on Sunday that he’ll be the hottest commodity in the 2012 free-agent market.

If he gets there.

Like Matt Cassel of the Patriots in 2009, the Packers should think about slapping the franchise tag on Flynn, in order to trade him to a quarterback-needy team.  With Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III the best options in the draft, teams like the Redskins and Dolphins and Browns and maybe the Seahawks will be clamoring for a proven commodity like Flynn.

The risk, of course, is that Flynn would sign the franchise tag but no serious offers would come for his services, given that the starting point for a long-term deal would be the one-year guaranteed salary of $14.5 million or so in 2012.  If that would happen, the Packers would be stuck with a backup earning roughly $6.5 million more next year than starter Aaron Rodgers, who is due to earn a base salary of $8 million next season.

The other side of the coin is that Flynn will walk away with plenty of coins in his pockets — and zero compensation to the team that transformed him from a seventh-round pick into a guy who’ll be the most coveted quarterback not named Luck or Griffin.

2.  Rex should be on the hot seat.

Though it’s too early to fire Jets coach Rex Ryan, who has two appearances in the AFC title game in three seasons as a head coach, he deserves the pressure that goes along with the accountability for guaranteeing a Super Bowl win (and, even more importantly in New York, a win over the Giants) and failing to deliver.  Only so many times can a head coach protect his players and assistants by saying “put the blame on me” until someone decides to put the blame on him.

Yes, his players seem to still believe.  More importantly, the owner seems to still believe.  But the players and the owner may believe a little less in 2012 — especially if Rex emerges from a disappointing 2011 season (in light of the expectations fueled by Ryan) as brash and bold as ever.

Beyond the boundaries of his team, Rex has become a caricature.  (Some would say he already was one.)  If that sense ever makes its way into the locker room, and eventually it should, it’ll be time to move on.

Apart from all the words, it’s one specific action that could, as a practical matter, put Rex in a position to be coaching for his job in 2012.  The misguided decision to make receiver Santonio Holmes a captain, given that Holmes spent much of the year not acting like a captain, could come back to haunt Ryan.

Arguably, it already is.  And now Rex has a mess on his hands, especially since a guy who spent much of Sunday acting like he didn’t want to be with the Jets signed a long-term, big-money deal before the season.

3.  Steelers fleeced Jets on Holmes.

Speaking of Santonio, Steelers fans didn’t care much for the abrupt decision to trade Holmes to New York for a fifth-round pick in 2010.  With a four-game suspension for violation of the substance-abuse policy coming on the heels of Ben Roethlisberger’s misadventures in Milledgeville, it was perceived that the Steelers’ decision was driven less by football strategy and more by public relations sensitivities.

But the Steelers were looking ahead.  With Holmes due to miss the first four games of the 2010 season and one wake-n-bake away from a one-year suspension, the Steelers opted to unload a potential headache — especially since the Steelers knew they’d never tie their hands by giving Holmes a huge contract.

And so the Steelers didn’t simply get a fifth-round pick.  The Steelers also received the peace of mind that comes from dumping a wideout who would have been a major pain in the butt for the balance of 2010, and who simply no longer factored into their plans.

Meanwhile, the Steelers traded that fifth-round pick to the Cardinals for cornerback Bryant McFadden and a sixth-round pick.  And with that sixth-round pick the Steelers found their 2011 MVP in round six of the same draft.  Receiver Antonio Brown has become almost everything Holmes was as a player, without creating any of the headaches or other issues that go hand in hand with having Holmes on the team.

Advantage Steelers.

4.  Texans-Bengals game could be the key to the AFC playoffs.

I’ve been concerned throughout much of the 2011 season that, once the Texans get to the postseason, a lack of playoff experience would keep them from being successful.  But their first opponent is the Bengals, a team with young players having no playoff experience and, by all appearances, no players having any positive playoff experiences.

So the Texans, who beat the Bengals last month after trailing 16-3 at the half and 19-10 after three quarters, will have a very good shot at holding off the No. 6 seed.  Taking a broader look at the AFC field, the outcome of that game could have a huge bearing on the determination of the eventual conference champion.

If Houston holds serve at home, it will be time for a return to Baltimore, where the Ravens’ eight regular-season wins included a trouncing of the Texans.  The Steelers, after most likely beating Denver, will head to New England.

Though Baltimore would have to face one of those two potent teams (either Pittsburgh at home, where the Ravens won 35-7 in Week One or the Patriots in New England, where the Ravens won in the playoffs two years ago, 33-14), the Ravens wouldn’t have to play both of them.  Which, for the Ravens, is nice.

If, in contrast, the Bengals upset the Texans, Cincinnati would head to Foxboro — and Pittsburgh would return to Baltimore with a burst of momentum and a shot at becoming the latest wild-card winner to catch a division rival flat-footed after a bye week and knock them out of the playoffs.  If Baltimore manages to beat the Steelers for a third time this year, the reward would be a trip to New England.

The converse is true for the Pats.  A win by the Bengals keeps New England from having to play both Pittsburgh and Baltimore.  If Houston wins, the Patriots would have to face a Steelers team that gave New England one of its three 2011 losses before inviting the Ravens back to town.

One way or the other, the outcome of Saturday’s game will make the path to Indy considerably easier for New England or Baltimore, by sending the Steelers to one place or the other.

5.  Crossroads for Daniel Snyder.

The Redskins became the property of Daniel Snyder in 1999.  In the 13 seasons since then, Snyder has employed (excluding interim hires) six head coaches.  Other than Snyder’s boyhood hero, Joe Gibbs, no coach has made it more than two seasons on the job.

Mike Shanahan has just completed his second season on the job.  Recently, Shanahan has been subtly justifying his two losing seasons by explaining that much work needed to be done to improve the bad team he inherited.  And while there’s no indication that Shanahan will be fired, there likewise was no indication that the end was coming three years ago for Shanahan in Denver.

The bigger question for Snyder is whether he’s willing to stay the course not only now but after the 2012 season.  If Shanahan and G.M. Bruce Allen position themselves to land Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III in the draft, it would be foolish to give Shanahan only one year to work with the new quarterback.

And so Snyder needs to realize that, by deciding to keep Shanahan now, Snyder essentially is deciding to keep Shanahan for 2013 — and possibly for 2014.

6.  Another Manning/Leaf dilemma coming?

Speaking (twice now) of Luck and Griffin, what once was a one-man show at the top of the draft quickly has become another Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf conundrum.  On Sunday’s Football Night In America, former Colts coach Tony Dungy explained that Colts vice chairman Bill Polian has shown a willingness to go against conventional wisdom in the draft, taking Edgerrin James in 1999 over Ricky Williams and Dwight Freeney over Albert Haynesworth in 2002.

Dungy even said he’d personally lean toward Griffin, the Heisman winner and architect of a 67-point explosion in Baylor’s bowl win.

Luck still has one more chance to create some separation, when Stanford takes on Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl.  Despite the obsession over measurables and the things a guy can do when not wearing pads, scouts seem to be influenced heavily by performances on the big stage.

What Luck does with it could ultimately determine whether Luck and Griffin will become another Manning and Leaf dilemma, which despite being a no-brainer in hindsight was a much closer call in 1998.

7.  Pay the Cruz.

Giants receiver Victor Cruz has made, in two seasons, the unlikely climb from undrafted free agent to superstar.  Nearly as shrewd as the Giants’ decision to give him a chance was their decision to sign him to a three-year contract.

And so Cruz remains contractually obligated to show up for mandatory offseason workouts and training camp in 2012, despite being slated to earn a paltry $490,000.

But the Giants need to send a message to the locker room that stellar play will be rewarded.  While they could force Cruz to continue to prove himself — and to bear the injury risk — for the final year of his rookie deal and a season as a restricted free agent, the best move would be to find a way to pay him a fair salary that reflects not only his skills and abilities but also the contributions he made during a season that seemed destined for failure again.

In each of the last two games, a long-yardage catch-and-run from Cruz gave the Giants the upper hand.  It’s only right to put a lot more money in the guy’s pockets.

8.  Broncos should get Quinn ready to play Sunday.

Tebowmania landed with a thud 15 days ago, with the Patriots providing the rest of the league with the blueprint for turning the page on the NFL’s flavor of the month.

As a result, Tim Tebow has played worse than poorly the last two weeks, with as many turnovers against the Bills and Chiefs (six) as Tebow had in his 10 prior games combined.

Enter the Steelers, who have made crafted their legacy over the past two decades by methodically building a lead and then gradually choking off the opposing offense.

As a result, if the Broncos want to have a realistic shot at advancing, it may be prudent to be ready to pull off a Rocky-style switch to southpaw, by switching from the southpaw to Brady Quinn.

This isn’t a long-term indictment of Tebow.  It’s a recognition of the fact that, at least for now, he has bumped up against his ceiling.  The goal on Sunday is to win one game, and it could be that the only way to do that will be to know when to flip the switch from the unconventional quarterback to the guy whose abilities would defy the Steelers’ preparation.

9.  MJD deserves high praise.

Every year, there’s a sense that Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew has reached the limit of his abilities, and that a regression is coming.  Every year, he simply continues to play at a high level.

This year, on a team with no passing offense to draw safeties away from the box, Jones-Drew piled up 1,606 rushing yards, more than 240 yards better than Ray Rice, who finished at No. 2.  Jones-Drew added 374 receiving yards, which gives him 1,980 yards from scrimmage.

At a time when former USC tailback Reggie Bush is still trying to become the best running back in the game, the former UCLA running back who entered the league in the same draft as an afterthought to Bush is what Bush has always wanted to be.  Unfortunately for Jones-Drew, the Jaguars may not be able to develop a decent passing game before the window closes on his prime.

10.  Packers defense is even worse than the Patriots.

All year, the media has harped on the Patriots’ porous defense, barely noticing the Swiss cheese sieve in Green Bay.

At the end of the season, the numbers don’t lie.  The Patriots gave up 411.1 yards per game, and the Packers gave up 411.6.

The Packers also finished with a worse pass defense, giving up 299.8 yards per game.  The Pats surrendered, on average, 293.9.  That’s 34.1 yards per game more than the third-worst pass defense, the Saints.

Fittingly, the three worst pass defenses are complemented by the three best pass offenses.

And so, if the top two seeds make it to Indianapolis for the Super Bowl (or if the Saints get there instead of the Packers), it could be time to reduce the field from 100 yards to 50, put up nets at either end, and just call the game what it will be — arena football.

Week 16 Monday 10-pack


All I wanted for Christmas was 14 NFL contests on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

And I got it, primarily since there was little or no danger of shooting my eye out.

The best part about it?  The ability to write 10 things about what I saw while enjoying the 14 games-a-playing.

1.   Playoff turnover trend continues.

While the final postseason field isn’t quite yet settled, it’s already obvious from the teams that made it — and the teams that won’t — that the trend of 50-percent playoff turnover most likely will once again hold true.

In the AFC, the Patriots, Steelers, and Ravens have made it back again to the playoffs.  But the Colts, Chargers, and (most likely) the Jets will be left behind.

Replacing them will be the Texans and some combination of the Broncos, Raiders, Bengals, and Titans, with the Jets having a far-slimmer-than-Rex chance of dropping the turnover rate to 33 percent.

In the NFC, the Packers, Saints, and Falcons will be back.  Dumped from contention are the Eagles, Seahawks, and Bears.  Taking their places will be the Cowboys or the Giants, along with the Lions and 49ers.

Maybe we should quit calling this a trend.  Maybe it’s now the rule, and any situations in which more than half of the playoff field makes it back the next year should be regarded as the exception.

For the NFL, it’s a great development, because it creates annual hope for the 20 teams that end up on the outside looking in.  Every year, the fans of those franchises can take some solace in the notion that nearly a third of them will be playing for a Super Bowl title the following year.

Even the Bills and the Browns.

2.  Steelers face tough decision on Ben.

It’s hard to gauge the overall impressiveness of the Steelers’ 27-0 win over the Rams, due to the quality of the competition.  But the decision to sit Ben Roethlisberger and start veteran Charlie Batch at quarterback couldn’t have gone much better.

So why not do it again?

The Steelers, after all, are playing the lowly Browns.  And while Pittsburgh’s arch-rivals from Cleveland would love nothing more than to keep the Steelers from winning the AFC North and clinching the No. 2 seed (even if it means seeing the even-more-hated Ravens pocket those prizes), the Steelers have the weaponry to handle the Browns with Batch or Dennis Dixon or even Terry Hanratty at quarterback.

On the other hand, getting a bye and securing home field advantage for at least the division round and possibly, if the Pats lose to the Bills in Week 17 or at home in the conference semifinals, the AFC title game carries with it tremendous value.  If, in the end, the Steelers indeed are on a collision course to play the Ravens again, it’s important for that game to be played in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers have beaten the Ravens twice in the last three postseasons.

The fact that the Bengals can get in with a win, which gives them even more motivation to beat the Ravens, should make the Steelers more willing to load up the cannon in order to beat the Browns.  Thus, while it was reckless for the Steelers to go with Roethlisberger only 11 days after he suffered the sprained ankle, Sunday’s game invites a calculated risk that, if it works out, could generate a great reward.

If it doesn’t pay off, the Steelers will be in no worse shape, since they’re locked in as the fifth seed.

Unless, of course, Roethlisberger aggravates the ankle with as little as six days to get ready for a game in Denver or Oakland.

In the end, it won’t be an easy call.  Maybe the answer will be to use Roethlisberger until the game against the Browns seems to be decided — or until the scoreboard shows that the Ravens are handling the Bengals.

3.  AFC playoff field is flawed.

Not that long ago, all the best teams resided in the AFC.  Now, the once top-heavy conference has teams at the top that are littered with warts.

The Patriots, currently the top seed, possess a porous defense and not much of a running game.  Last time I checked, those were two key components of any serious playoff run.

The Ravens seem to be the most dangerous team of the bunch, as long as they can put it all together.  But they seem only to put it all together when playing good teams.  Saturday’s dilly-dallying with the Browns shows that the Ravens could be ripe for an upset if/when a lesser franchise comes to town.

Not long ago, the Texans were the “it” team.  Now, many of their fans want to add an “s” and an “h” to that description.  With scant playoff experience on the roster, the Texans will need to make a quick adjustment when it’s time to play the big boys in the conference.

The Steelers have the tools to beat anyone, but they’re in danger of having to do it the hard way, with three hurdles to clear — all of which most likely will come on the road — before a earning a return trip to the Super Bowl.

The Broncos can beat anyone on any given day.  As we saw in fairly dramatic fashion on Saturday, they can lose to anyone, too.  Including a team that was riding a seven-game winning streak.  Even if the clock is striking twelve on Tebow Time, it’s hard to see this team winning in Pittsburgh/Baltimore, New England, or even Houston.

Ditto for the Raiders, who have at times looked good enough to barely win and at other times bad enough to be blown off the field.

That means the team poised to pocket the last ticket to the party — the Bengals — could be the most dangerous.  With a capable defense, a better-than-expected rookie quarterback, and a better-than-most rookie receiver, the team with the least to lose and the lowest expectations could string together one win after another, thanks to the deeply flawed field of candidates.

Of course, this could mean that the winner of the conference will end up being the sacrificial lambs for the Packers, Saints, or 49ers.  Unless, of course, the Ravens avoid playing down to the competition in their own conference long enough to earn a crack at the best teams in the league.

4.  Tough year for top two tailbacks.

Entering the 2011 football season, running backs in the NFL fell into two categories:  (1) Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson; and (2) everyone else.

And the season started very well for both men, who took two very different paths to getting paid a lot of money.  Johnson held out of training camp and the preseason, getting his big-money deal only days before the start of the season.  Peterson happily entered the final season of his rookie contract without creating any overt drama, even though it privately was known he wouldn’t react well to being subjected to the franchise tag in 2012.

Once the games started, it became clear that the holdout hampered Johnson.  Peterson performed well as usual, but he was underutilized at times by a Vikings team that kept blowing second-half leads.

Now that Peterson has suffered a serious knee injury, which seemed inevitable given his hard-charging running style, both men have a long way to go to prove that they remain the best tailbacks in the game.  Johnson needs to rediscover the explosiveness that allowed him to slide through a crease and hit the nitrous button; Peterson needs to get healthy.

Their experiences demonstrate that, unlike the quarterback position, which produces a tight nucleus of elite players who remain at that level for years, the best running backs have become a revolving door, with each year producing new guys who’ll enter the next season at the top of the league — and who’ll have only a limited window to remain there.

5.  Cruz control in New York.

In his team’s first game of the 2010 preseason, undrafted rookie receiver Victor Cruz created a major stir for the Giants, with a performance that featured 145 yards and three touchdowns against the Jets in their annual exhibition.  But then the regular season started, and Cruz disappeared from view, making zero receptions before suffering a season-ending injury.

The 2011 campaign began far more inconspicuously for Cruz, with no touchdowns in the preseason and no receptions in the regular-season opener.  In Week Two, Cruz had only two catches for 17 yards.

Then came the explosion.  In the past 13 games, Cruz has generated 1,341 receiving yards.  Combined with the paltry 51 feet from the first eighth of the season, Cruz now has become the single-season receiving yardage leader in the storied history of the Giants franchise.

And the breaking of Amani Toomers’ record came in perhaps the biggest regular-season game the Giants have had in years — a cross-town/cross-stadium rivalry with the loud-mouthed Jets, in which Cruz’s nine-yard catch and 90-yard run turned the tide of a game in which the “home” team in Green seemed to be overpowering the team that had won only one of six games.

As a result, Cruz needs to be taken seriously as one of the best young receivers in the game.  It’s a great story for a New Jersey kid who simply wanted to play in the NFL.  Cruz, through two NFL seasons, is on track not just to play but to dominate.

6.  Heaping helping of humble pie for the Ryans.

It’ll be interesting to see the relationship between the outcome of the 2011 regular season and the extent to which the Ryan twins keep talking.  For Rex, the Jets head coach, he had a chance to put up or shut up against the Giants.  Rex didn’t put up; now we’ll see whether he shuts up.

For Rob, the Cowboys defensive coordinator, another ugly loss to the Eagles and a looming winner-take-all game against the team that just beat Rex should induce caution and, relatively speaking, silence.

But guys who like to talk tend to find ways to keep talking.  Even after a season in which the Eagles scored a total of 99 points against the Ryans in three games, and with both the Jets and Cowboys facing a strong possibility of no postseason appearance for either team, it’s unlikely that they’ll change.

They can’t change; they are who they are, which is the source of their appeal to the men who play for them.  And as long as their players respond well to Rex and Rob, they’ll have a place in the league.

Besides, there’s still a chance — slim as it may be — that both men will extend their seasons past January 1.  For Rob, it’s a simple win-and-in proposition.  For Rex, the odds are longer, but it’s no huge stretch to think that the Jets will beat the Dolphins, the Ravens will beat the Bengals, the Texans will beat the Titans, and the Raiders or the Broncos will lose to the Chargers or the Chiefs, respectively.

If that all happens, Rex will find a way to quickly and completely digest his Christmas Eve portion of humble pie.  And now that the Jets have bottomed out for the third time this year, the boomerang effect could carry them deep into that deeply flawed AFC playoff field.

7.  It’ll be hard to keep Raheem.

The Buccaneers nearly made it to the postseason in 2010.  But for a surprising (at the time) home loss to the Lions, the 10-6 Bucs would have claimed the last seat at the NFC table, bouncing to the curb the eventual Super Bowl champions.

This year, expectations were higher, even though they were tempered by the reality that the Bucs compete with the Falcons and Saints in the NFC South.  A 4-2 start to the season, including wins over said Falcons and Saints, created a sense that the “yungry” team from Tampa could take over the division.

And then the bottom dropped out.

Nine straight losses later, including two to a Carolina team that won only two total games a year ago, the Bucs have clinched the basement.  With coach Raheem Morris having only one year left on his contract and receiving no public or (by all appearances) private assurances that he’ll be back in 2012, it’s safe to assume that ownership will move on.

With the Jon Gruden buyout completed and Morris being paid nowhere near the top of the coaching food chain, it’ll be no problem to pay him not to coach the team in 2011.  And with the Bucs on track to finish the year with as many consecutive losses as total victories a year ago, it’ll be virtually impossible for a team that struggles to sell tickets to bring Raheem back.

But then who will they hire to run the team?  The up-and-coming coordinator who happens to be the younger brother of the guy the Bucs fired three years ago?  Another young assistant coach with low recognition, low salary demands, and, in turn, a limited ability to put butts in seats?

Or will the Glazer family decide to spend some of the money that hasn’t been devoted to player costs over the past several years on a big-name coach whose mere presence will help market the team?

We’ll all find out the answer soon.  The end result could result in even more empty seats next year at Raymond James Stadium.

8.  Lions peaking at the right time, but will it matter?

After the Lions slumped from 5-0 to 7-5, serious questions hovered regarding the team’s true ability to compete.  The loss of running back Jahvid Best to a season-ending concussion and the decision of opposing defenses to blanket receiver Calvin Johnson took the sting out of the offense.  The Ndamukong Suh imbroglio created a torrent of negative publicity, and a sense that the Lions simply weren’t ready to compete at the highest levels of the league.

Three straight wins in a row later, the Lions have made it to the postseason for the first time since 1999, and they’re being regarded as a serious threat to make some major noise when the playoffs start.

But will they?  Though Saturday’s thumping of the Chargers arguably was the most impressive victory of the season, the Lions barely held on to beat a bad Vikings team and found a way to steal a road win over the up-and-down Raiders.

It’s entirely possible that the bolt of momentum coming from the knockout blow that the Lions administered to the Chargers will help the Lions win a game or two, or maybe more, when it counts the most.  Ultimately, the Lions’ fate could be influenced heavily by whether they enter the playoffs as the No. 5 or No. 6 seed.

If they can hold off the Falcons for the primary wild-card spot in the NFC, the Lions will play at Dallas (where the Lions won during the season) or New York (where the Giants have a hard time holding serve, at least when they’re not the visiting team).  But if the Lions slide into the sixth spot, Detroit will have to return to New Orleans, where they lost badly in early December.

The Saints seem to be unbeatable in the Superdome.  Perhaps the Lions could find a way to beat them there, but the Lions would surely prefer not to be forced to try.

And that creates an interesting dilemma for the Packers next week.  With the top seed clinched, should Green Bay rest their starters for the postseason, or should they do everything they can to force the Lions’ postseason tour to commence with the possibility of inevitable failure in New Orleans?

9.  Eventual Super Bowl teams dodged a bullet.

In less than a month, we’ll know the identities of the teams who’ll qualify for the biggest event in all of sport.  Whoever makes it should look back to Week 16, and breathe a deep sigh of relief.  (Not to be confused with the many other types of sighs.)

On Christmas Eve, two of the most potentially disruptive teams summarily were erased from postseason contention, when the Chargers saw their three-game winning streak end in Detroit and when the Eagles saw their own three-game run rendered irrelevant by the Giants’ win over the Jets.

Either team could have wreaked major havoc in January.  Just as the Packers barely made it to the playoffs as the NFC’s sixth seed in 2010 and then won the whole thing, the Eagles and Chargers could have parlayed late-season surges into postseason pillaging.

Now, none of the other playoff teams have to worry about the two teams who were the hottest in the league entering Week 16.  The Eagles have gotten even hotter, and the Packers, 49ers, and Saints should be thrilled that the Eagles won’t get a chance to extend that vibe beyond Sunday.

10.  The bloom is off the Tebow.

Eight days ago, Tim Tebow had reached the pinnacle of pro football popularity and/or notoriety.  The Broncos quarterback had become the biggest name in football, joining only a small handful of football players who can cross over into major mainstream consciousness.

Today, with a pair of ugly losses in which Tebow and the Broncos offense started strong but ultimately collapsed, the national buzz has diminished, significantly.  Though Tebow can get it back by leading the Broncos to a win over the Chiefs and former Denver starter Kyle Orton, the past two weekends prove that the flavor of the month sometimes is only the flavor of the week.

At some point, Tebowmania likely will return to the top of the non-sports news cycle.  Also, he remains the hottest thing going in Denver.

Still, his inability to deliver further heroics at home against the Patriots or to stay within 20 points of a bad Buffalo team on Christmas Eve has served as a stark reminder that the latest big name in sports is at any given time only a couple of bad games away from again becoming just another face in the crowd.

Week 15 Monday 10-pack


We’re one game short of 14 per team, and while we know plenty of things about where this season is heading, Week 15 has been a reminder of just how dramatically perceptions can change.

But that’s basically the point of the first of the 10 PFT takes from the Sunday that was.

So it’s time to shut up long enough to insert the heading for the first entry on the list.

1. What a difference a week makes.

Regardless of the number of games that have been played, one week can change so much about the manner in which we collectively perceive the state of the NFL.  And that’s precisely what happened on Sunday (and Saturday).

The Packers suddenly seem something less than invincible, giving the playoffs the same “anything can happen” feel that produced the Steelers as champions in 2005, the Giants as Patriots-slayers in 2007, the Cardinals as Super Bowl participants in 2008, and the Packers as the No. 6 to No. 1 title-winners in 2010.

With the Ravens and Jets and Broncos and Texans and Raiders and Broncos and Giants and Bears and Packers losing and with the Patriots and Chargers and Cowboys and Lions and Saints and Eagles winning, there’s a renewed sense that anyone who gets a ticket to the playoff party can run the table.

Most significant was the Packers’ loss at Arrowhead Stadium.  With an offensive line struggling through injuries and the Chiefs supplying a blueprint for beating them, it’s no longer automatic that the Packers will win two games at Lambeau Field and another one in Indianapolis.

2.  Battle for New York has higher stakes than ever.

With the Jets and Giants both losing on Sunday, their Christmas Eve get-together has something more than bragging rights hanging in the balance.  Both teams need to win the game in order to get to the postseason.

If that — and the possibility of coach Tom Coughlin not returning in 2012 — isn’t enough incentive for the Giants to snap out of a 1-5 funk, they’ll be able to consider the words of Jets coach Rex Ryan from his book, Play Like You Mean It.

“We are the better team,” Ryan wrote.  “We’re the big brother.  People might say they are the big, bad Giants, but we are not the same old Jets. . . .

“To me, it seems clear that right now we are the better team and we are going to remain the better team for the next 10 years.  Whether you like it or not, those are the facts, and that’s what going to happen.  I know it’s going to happen because our style of football is different.  We are going to take over the town whether the Giants like it or not, so those fans on the fence that like both teams are going to be Jets fans in the end.  The truth is, if I am going to watch one game, I am going to see the Jets, without a doubt.  We are better.”

Regardless of which team truly is better, each team had better win in order to keep the shot at a Super Bowl alive.

It would be fitting, then, if they play this one to a tie.

3.  Saints, Brees play contract chicken.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees won’t simply break the single-season passing yardage record.  He’ll obliterate it.

Making the accomplishment even more impressive is the longevity of the high-water mark that Dan Marino set, way back in 1984.  That year, Marino became the first 5,000-yard passer in NFL history, thanks in large part to a gradual modification of the offensive rules, which encouraged teams to throw.  Marino’s feat came just a few years after Dan Fouts of the Chargers set a new single-season passing yardage record in each of three straight seasons.

Brees’ accomplishment comes only three years after he came within 15 yards of the record, and it caps a run with the Saints in which his six years in New Orleans all will fall within the top 40 single-season passing performances of all time.  From 4,418 yards in 2006 to 4,423 in 2007 to 5,069 in 2008 to 4,388 in 2009 to 4,620 in 2010 to 4,780 and counting in 2011, Brees has put together the most prolific six consecutive seasons the league may ever see.

So why can’t the Saints see that he should be paid among the very best quarterbacks in the league?  Like Peyton Manning, Brees has one Super Bowl win.  Unlike Manning and Tom Brady, Brees can move quickly when he needs to.  Younger than both of the men who were regarded as the best in the game before Manning’s neck situation became a season-long curse (and before the full emergence of Aaron Rodgers), Brees has shown that he belongs on the top rung of the salary ladder.

Still, player and team are destined for an offseason game of chicken, in which the Saints will bank on Brees not wanting to be away from his teammates, and Brees will bank on his teammates understanding that the organization is trying to take advantage of Brees’ desire to not be away from them.  Lost in this battle of wills, wallets, and egos that could, but likely won’t, get out of control is that both sides lose if Brees isn’t fully engaged with the franchise throughout the offseason.

As a result, they need to work it out — or next year Brees may not be adding quite as much to his Hall of Fame credentials.

4.  Tarvaris turning around the Seahawks.

When the Seahawks opted not to pick a rookie quarterback in the draft and to sign Tarvaris Jackson to a short-term deal in late July, many assumed that Pete Carroll and John Schneider would simply be waiting for 2012, at which time Matt Barkley (or maybe even Andrew Luck) could be brought to town.

But something happened on the way to Tarvaris Jackson becoming irrelevant.  He has become very relevant, playing through a pectoral injury that likely will require offseason surgery and pushing the team to five wins in six games, including victories over the Ravens and Eagles at home — and a thrashing of the Bears at Soldier Field.

His total numbers aren’t stellar.  In the last three games, however, Jackson has posted passer ratings of 137.0, 96.4, and 94.4 in a 31-14 win over Philly, a 30-13 win over the Rams, and a 38-14 win over the Bears.

Vikings fans would point out that Jackson authored stretches like that at times in Minnesota, before inevitably laying the proverbial egg.  (Hard-working chickens everywhere still don’t understand why that’s a bad thing.)  With a visit from the 49ers coming up on Saturday, Jackson can put the rest of the league on notice that he finally has become consistent — and that he doesn’t plan to step aside in 2012 for a first-round pick.  If the Seahawks end up 9-7 (two games better than their division-winning performance of a year ago), Jackson may not have to worry about eventually carry a clipboard for a hot-shot rookie.

5.  Don’t dream (team) it’s over.

As a society, we love to build people up and then tear them down and then root for them to redeem themselves.  In Philadelphia, the story of the 2011 Eagles now looks a lot like the broader story of their starting quarterback’s career.

Handed the Lombardi Trophy in August, the Eagles bottomed out before finding a way out of the woods with a 45-19 destruction of the Jets.  Now, with a fairly simple combination of outcomes far less crazy than others we’ve seen connect over the years, the Eagles could still steal the NFC East crown.

One, cut a hole in a box beat the Cowboys on Christmas Eve.  Two, hope the Jets beat the Giants.  Three, beat the Redskins on New Year’s Day.  Four, hope the Giants beat the Cowboys.

Plenty of people will be shocked if that happens, but they shouldn’t be.  The Dream Team remains alive, and if they get a ticket to the playoff party, anything can happen.

If it does happen, Mike Vick deserves plenty of credit.  After three weeks of the team declining to let him play after getting a painkilling injection due to concerns about his effectiveness, Vick decided that he would do whatever needed to be done to perform.  He has taken the shots, and he has been effective enough to win two in a row.

6.  Pats kept Ochocinco for a reason.

Through weeks of poor performances and underachievement, why did Bill Belichick not cut receiver Chad Ochocinco?

The easy explanation is that Belichick didn’t want to admit that he committed a huge bungle by giving the former Bengal a $6 million signing bonus upon renegotiating and extending his contract.  The truth may be more complex than that.

I’ve spent the last 12 hours trying to think of a less nerdy metaphor for the ongoing presence of Ochocinco on the Patriots’ roster.  But I couldn’t.  So here goes.

In the first Lord of the Rings movie, Gandalf explains to Frodo that Frodo shouldn’t kill Gollum because Gollum still may have a role in the broader task of trying to destroy the ring that they spent like 12 hours of film trying to destroy.  Without spoiling the outcome for any of the 14 people who haven’t seen the trilogy, Gollum indeed plays an important role.

Ochocinco could, too, for the 2011 Patriots.  He finally scored a touchdown in Week 15, and as defenses pay more and more attention to the likes of Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski, the Pats will need to unleash Ochocinco in the postseason.

None of this means that Chad will be biting the Super Bowl ring off Aaron Rodgers’ hand, but Belichick’s decision to keep Chad around could be finally paying dividends, when it matters most.

7.  MVP moves closer to being up for grabs.

Speaking of Aaron Rodgers, Sunday’s upside-down day of action gives his candidacy for MVP less of a slam-dunk feel.  With Drew Brees threatening to best the Marino record by 10 percent and Tom Brady churning out wins for a defense held together by baked yarn and old glue, others could take a chunk out of Rodgers’ share of the 50 Associated Press votes.

Throw in the random ballots that inevitably will be cast for men like Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow, and Rodgers could end up not winning the thing.

Much of the outcome depends on what happens the next two weeks.  If Brees finishes with 5,500 yards and the No. 2 seed or if the Pats pull into the station at 13-3 with the No. 1 seed, either Brees or Brady could emerge as the winner — especially if the Packers can’t overcome a sudden rash of injuries along the offensive line.

8.  Coach of the Year becomes even more wide open.

Green Bay’s loss on Sunday also derails the inevitable anointing of Mike McCarthy as coach of the year.  If the Packers had followed Super Bowl XLV win with a 16-0 regular season, the award surely would have gone to McCarthy.  Now, its final destination is as unknown as the eventual winner of the Super Bowl XLVI.

Jim Harbaugh emerged as the early no-brainer, but his team seems to be slumping.  Gary Kubiak’s Texans have overcome obstacle after obstacle, but they stumbled badly on Sunday without defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, which tends to undermine Kubiak’s overall influence — but also underscores the wisdom of Kubiak’s decision to hire Wade.

A wide variety of others could pick up votes, based on how the season ends.  Marvin Lewis merits consideration if the Bengals make it to the postseason.  Ditto for John Fox and the Broncos.  And Hue Jackson and the Raiders.  And Sean Payton and the Saints, given that Payton has overcome a serious leg injury to push his team toward a bye.

With the Packers losing, it could be one of the closest votes we’ve ever seen — and with only 50 total votes there’s an outside chance of a three-way or four-way tie.

9.  Romeo the good cop has a good chance at keeping the job.

Last year in Minnesota, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier served as the nice-guy voice of reason under an abrasive and not-so-likable head coach.  This year in Kansas City, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has played a similar role for the Chiefs.

And so it’s no surprise then that the Chiefs have responded well to Crennel as the interim head coach, just as the Vikings did with Frazier.  With the players grateful for the role that Crennel, like Frazier, played under the prior regime and hopeful that Crennel, like Frazier, will stick around for fear of the arrival of another potential pain in the butt, the Chiefs pulled off an upset for the ages in Crennel’s first game.

If the Chiefs can keep winning — and if the four teams in the AFC West finish 8-8, the Chiefs will win the division — G.M. Scott Pioli will have little choice but to keep Crennel, since the outcry from within the locker room and beyond will be too loud to ignore.

But the rest of the story in Minnesota has, so far, not been a good one.  Sometimes, it takes a bad cop to be successful.  Yes, the Vikings players love Leslie Frazier.  But the team is 2-12 this year, and only two losses away from the worst season in franchise history.  Pioli needs to carefully consider that factor before surrendering to the mob.

10.  Gaither could gather some green.

Coach Norv Turner isn’t the only guy in San Diego with a strong incentive to see the team get to the playoffs.  If that happens, and if in turn Turner and G.M. A.J. Smith stick around, they’ll likely show plenty of gratitude to left tackle Jared Gaither.

Gaither sulked his way out of Baltimore after being moved to right tackle in deference to Michael Oher, and a false-start penalty in a key moment of a Sunday night game against the Steelers got Gaither run out of Kansas City.

But with three straight solid starts in San Diego, including a Sunday night game in which he held Terrell Suggs without a sack, Gaither could be getting himself in line for the payday that never came in Baltimore.

Even if the Chargers don’t make it to the postseason, Gaither’s stretch run will prompt someone to pay him to try to do in 2012 what he’s done for the Chargers in 2011.

Week 14 Monday 10-pack


As the regular season careens closer to conclusion, the wins get bigger and the losses trigger a steeper slide into despair.

On Sunday, no fewer than six playoff contenders suffering devastated losses, while four teams have rocketed to 10-3 records in the AFC.

And we’ll sum it all up as we always do with 10 story lines from the Sunday that was.

1.  The kicker who was iced by his own coach gets iced again.

It’s easy for a coach who bungled the closing moments of regulation in a game his team eventually lost to insist that the page is being turned and no one is looking back.  It’s harder to pull it off when the next game contains multiple flashbacks to the mistakes that were made in the last one.

In the final moments of the latest Cowboys collapse, we were reminded in two ways of coach Jason Garrett’s mismanagement of his remaining time outs during crunch time of last Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals.  For starters, Garrett waited way too long to call a time out when the Giants, down by five with barely a minute to go, moved the ball inside the Dallas one.  Even owner Jerry Jones was yelling for a time out from his suite above the stadium floor.

Eventually, the Cowboys called a time out, but not until too many precious seconds had forever evaporated.

Then, after the Giants scored the go-ahead touchdown and converted the two-pointer that put New York up by three and quarterback Tony Romo moved the Cowboys quickly into position for a game-tying field goal attempt, Giants coach Tom Coughlin called for a time out just before the snap, the hold, and the 47-yard kick that split the uprights.

Regardless of what anyone says about the mindset of a professional athlete, kicker Dan Bailey’s thoughts surely strayed back to Week 13, when it was his own head coach who called the time out that wiped out a potential game winner and forced Bailey to try again.  And just like last week, the second try missed — and the Cowboys lost.

The defeat hurt Jones so much that he didn’t show up in the locker room after the game, issuing instead a statement.  If the Cowboys can’t turn this thing around down the stretch, it’s tempting to wonder what kind of statements will be issued by Jones after the season ends.

2.  Facemask penalties should be subject to replay review.

What would have been a stunning, 21-point comeback by the Vikings was thwarted by the failure of the officials to notice Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy grabbing and pulling the facemask of Minnesota quarterback Joe Webb.  Just like an identical blown call on the game deciding sack, fumble, and touchdown in overtime of the epic 2009 wild-card game between the Cardinals and Packers, the referee undoubtedly was watching Webb’s arm, to ensure that the fumble was a fumble and not a result of the notorious tuck rule or some esoteric variation thereof.

But whether Webb had fumbled would have been subject to replay review.  Levy’s grabbing of Webb’s facemask wasn’t.

It wasn’t reviewable because it’s not among the specific list of plays that can be reviewed.  The official list reflects a menu that has grown from time to time, typically after an embarrassing outcome prompts the league to decide to add another situation for using replay the existing situations in which replay is allowed.

Some fear that an increased range of reviewable plays will make the games take too long to play.  The easy fix, as we’ve said in the past, is to eliminate the time-wasting dog-and-pony show resulting from the referee walking to the sideline, putting on the Dukakis tank helmet headset, peering under the black curtain for a minute or so, emerging from the contraption, talking on the Dukakis tank helmet headset, and then eventually telling us all the outcome.

Besides, isn’t it more important to get it right?  An obvious, game-deciding penalty was missed on Sunday, and the replay assistant could do nothing about it because the question of whether a player has grabbed another player’s facemask by rule can’t be reviewed.

That rule needs to be changed, and replay needs to be expanded to ensure that other obvious blunders can and will be corrected.

3.  T.J. Yates is getting playoff experience in the regular season.

When Texans quarterback Matt Schaub went down for the season, I was concerned about the ability of Matt Leinart to get the job done.  Not in the regular season, but in the postseason.

When Leinart went down, I was even more concerned about the ability of rookie T.J. Yates to get the job done.  Again, not in the regular season.  In the postseason.

The challenge has been and will continue to be to get Yates ready for the rigors of playoff football, where the speed and intensity and everything else are amplified. Sunday’s experience in Cincinnati will go a long way toward making that happen.

In a game that Bengals coach Marvin Lewis called the most important of his long tenure in Ohio’s Queen City, the Texans fell behind 16-3 at the half and 19-10 after three quarters.  But Yates led the Texans back, with a clutch touchdown pass late that, with Tennessee’s loss, gave the Texans the first playoff berth in franchise history.

Though Yates may still not be completely ready to face the Ravens or Steelers or Patriots in the playoffs, he’s a lot more ready today than he was before 1:00 p.m. ET on Sunday.

4.  Jennings injury could scare McCarthy into playing it safe.

As the Packers clinch a first-round playoff bye and move closer to nailing down home-field advantage throughout the NFC tournament, the question is getting louder and louder.

Will coach Mike McCarthy go for 16-0?  Or will he empty the bench and rest — and protect — his key players?

The stakes were raised on Sunday, when receiver Greg Jennings left the blowout win over the Raiders with a knee sprain.  Though the joint wasn’t blown out, the damage will be determined Monday, and Jennings could miss some time.

Without Jennings, the Packers will be fine, given the sheer number of weapons they have acquired and maintained.  But it will be fair to at least wonder who could be injured next — especially if the next injury happens to a less interchangeable part, like Aaron Rodgers.

In the end, the Packers likely will, and probably should, aim for history.  They won the Super Bowl earlier this year, and they can follow it with the unprecedented accomplishment of winning 19 and losing none.  Though Bears, Vikings, and Lions fans may strongly disagree, if any NFL team is going to pull off that feat, it makes sense for the Packers to do it.

5.  Tebowmania gets inside Marion Barber’s head.

Several years ago, a Dallas fan known as “Cowboy Chris” famously proclaimed that he had gotten inside the head of ESPN’s Ed Werder.

On Sunday, Tebowmania crawled into the cranium of Bears running back Marion Barber.

Though it’s impossible to know with certainty why Barber inexplicably ran out of bounds late in regulation or how he inexplicably fumbled in field-goal range during overtime, the most overlooked aspect of Tebowmania isn’t the contribution of Broncos not named Tim but the manner in which the impending sense that the Broncos will prevail creeps into the brains of their opponents.  When guys like Dolphins linebacker Karlos Danbsy say that he and other members of his team believed that God was working through Tebow, how can guys like Barber not sense, consciously or otherwise, that they’re simply killing time with the Washington Generals while the Great Football Fan in the Sky gets ready to throw a bucket of confetti on someone sitting in the front row?

Each week, as the Broncos finds their stride late, the would-be Anti-Tebows realize that they are supporting characters in a much bigger story.  In six days, Tom Brady and the Patriots will try their damnedest to deviate from the script.

6.  When exactly are two feet in bounds?

We had an interesting debate in the NBC viewing room regarding a catch made in the end zone by Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.

Of course, it wasn’t much of a debate because, of the dozen or so people in the room, only one agreed with me.

With the focus of the review being whether the front of Graham’s foot grazed a piece of white grass as it clamped onto the ground, I was arguing that the play should have ended once Graham’s heel truck the turf, clearly in bounds.

The rule book offers no specific help, since it says only that two feet or some body part other than a hand must land in bounds to complete a catch.  But on countless occasions we’ve seen a guy get only his toes in bounds as he falls out of play, never getting the entirety of both feet down.

So why discriminate against the heel?

I’ve asked the league of an explanation.  The answer likely will be, “Florio, you’re an idiot.”

Just like the other 10 people in the room said yesterday.

7.  The pylons should be extended.

The Titans-Saints game produced another moment that caught my ever-roving ways-we-can-make-the-game-better meter.  Last month, we suggested that the goal posts be extended, given the habit of modern kickers to put the ball well above them.  So with players now required to get the ball inside the pylon when diving toward the end zone and landing out of bounds, why not make the pylons higher, too?

Sure, it’ll look goofy.  But no goofier than the rectangular circus peanuts looked when they replaced the organ-piercing flags that previously marked the four corners of the end zone.

In contrast, the pylons can hurt no one, and it would cause no harm to double — or triple — the length of the devices.

If longer pylons were used, it would have been obvious whether Titans quarterback Jake Locker got the ball inside it when he dove past the pylon on Sunday.  Instead, it was far from obvious — prompting the ruling to be quickly upheld via replay review because there was no reliable way to know whether the ball passed inside the pylon, because the pylon is too short.

8.  The chase for the first seed in the AFC is wide open.

With three weeks to go, four teams in the AFC have a 10-3 record.  And none of them play each other over the balance of the year.

And so, in theory, four teams could finish with a 13-3 record.  Tiebreakers would then determine whether the Steelers or the Ravens win the AFC North.  (The Ravens would, via their sweep of the Steelers.)  Tiebreakers then would determine whether the Patriots, Ravens, or Texans claim the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds.

It gets confusing and complicated at that point, but the fact that the Ravens would potentially win a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Texans (since the Ravens beat them) and the Patriots (via record in common games) may not deliver the top seed to Baltimore in the event of a menage-a-tie.

It’s too early to delve into the specifics.  For now, be aware that the ultimate assignment of playoff seeds may have less to do with hitting a hole and more to do with splitting a hair.

9.  The chase for the two seed in the NFC could determine the Super Bowl winner.

The top of the playoff field has far less complexity in the NFC.  The Packers are destined to be No. 1, a year after winning the Super Bowl from the No. 6 position.  The real intrigue arises from whether the 49ers or the Saints will finish at No. 2.

Before Sunday, it appeared that San Fran coach Jim Harbaugh’s team was immune to his brother’s Ravens’ propensity to play down to the level of the competition.  After the Niners surprisingly fell in Arizona and the Saints won in Nashville, the two teams are 10-3, with three to go.

The 49ers currently hold the tiebreaker, and the location of the looming renewal of an old NFC West rivalry will be a huge factor in whether the 49ers or the Saints move to the NFC title game.  The Saints are extremely hard to beat in the Superdome, and they’re much more beatable when playing elsewhere — especially outside.

And here’s where it gets even more interesting.  With the threat of bad weather in late January at Lambeau Field, the Packers could be vulnerable.  They’d be more vulnerable to the 49ers than to the Saints, if the wind is blowing and the snow is flying and the tundra is frozen.

Though the Packers never will say it, they’re surely rooting for the Saints to finish with the second seed.

10.  A Monday night flex option.

Yes, the 10-pack focuses on Sunday’s action.  But another compelling day (and night) of games serves only to highlight the fact that the NFL and ESPN will be serving up to the American public a Monday night stinker.

It’s not ESPN’s fault.  And it’s not the league’s fault, either.  In April, it seemed reasonable to believe that the two teams who finished at the top of the NFC West in 2010 would be playing a relevant game in the middle of December.  Thanks to the 49ers, Rams-Seahawks provides intrigue only for folks who have a fantasy football interest in the game, and the hardest of the hard-core gamblers.

So what can the league do?  Flexing in the Sunday night sense simply isn’t an option, given the logistical challenges associated with team travel and lodging and, more importantly, the travel and lodging and babysitting and other issues associated with buying a ticket and showing up for the game.

But there’s a middle ground that the league and ESPN should explore.  For the final month or six weeks of the season, the official schedule should designate a pair of tentative Monday night games on an either/or basis.  Then, three weeks before the game is played, one of the two will be picked for the Monday night spot, and the other game will slide back to Sunday.

It could still create some inconveniences, but if the teams and the fans know in April that there’s a chance the game will move from Monday, folks will be well aware of the possibility.  With three weeks to prepare if a change is made, teams and fans should be able to make the appropriate arrangements.

There’s no guarantee that every Monday night game would be compelling, but after having to tolerate Chargers-Jaguars and Rams-Seahawks in an eight-day period, many would be willing to take their chances.

Week 13 Monday 10-pack


The 13th Sunday of the NFL season brought bad luck for plenty of teams.  But good luck for others.

And that’s the extent to which I’ll force a triskaidekaphobia-inspired introduction onto this week’s edition of the Monday 10-pack.

Actually, I could also expand the normal list of 10 takes to 13.  Luckily enough, I know not to take on the extra work.

1.  Packers close in on 16-0.

Many believed that, if the Packers could get past the giant-killing Giants in Week 13, the defending Super Bowl champs would be virtually guaranteed a perfect regular season.

Given the current state of the four remaining opponents, that outcome is looking more and more likely.

For starters, the Raiders looked ragged in Miami; they next come to Lambeau Field on Sunday.  Then, the Packers head to Kansas City.  Though the Chiefs possibly will avoid being blown out, it’s a stretch to imagine them beating the Packers.

Then come the back-to-back season-ending home games, which suddenly look a lot easier, given the injury-fueled implosion of the Bears and the penalty-driven collapse of the Lions.

The broader question becomes whether the Packers can win the following three games — the ones that really count.  The added pressure of becoming the first 19-0 team in league history won’t help.  The larger challenge could come, ironically, from the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.  If it’s cold, wet, windy, etc. on a January day when a team like the 49ers come to town, the Packers’ home-field advantage could be neutralized, since the Niners excel at running the ball and stopping the run.

2.  Silver lining for the Giants.

In 2007, the Giants hosted the 15-0 Patriots.  In a game with no playoff implications for either team, New York stayed within three points, losing late by a score of 38-35.  The near miss gave the Giants a surge of confidence that propelled them through the playoffs and into a rematch with the Patriots.

And if you don’t know what happened when they played again, the sport is called football.  We hope you become a fan of the game.

This time, another 38-35 home loss to another unbeaten juggernaut could provide similar confidence to a Giants team that sits one game behind the Cowboys, with two games to play against them.  Though there are many differences, the Giants could use the fact that they gave the Packers everything they could handle as the bucket of ice water to snap the Giants from yet another late-season funk.

If it doesn’t happen, it could be the last late-season funk over which coach Tom Coughlin ever presides.

3.  Bears ready to break glass in event of emergency.

When Sunday began, the always-accurate Jay Glazer reported that the Bears are “absolutely not interested” in free-agent quarterback (and Chicago native) Donovan McNabb.

When Sunday ended, our colleague John Mullin of was reporting that the Bears would now consider adding McNabb.

The change of heart demonstrated the degree of desperation that the Bears already are feeling.  Quarterback Caleb Hanie has been dreadful (three more picks on Sunday), rookie Nathan Enderle isn’t ready, and Josh McCown is, well, Josh McCown.  Although serious questions remain regarding the fitness, work ethic, and skills of the 13-year veteran, McNabb remains a better option than any of the three healthy quarterbacks currently on the roster, combined.

But even McNabb may not be enough to make a difference, especially if running back Matt Forte misses more than a game or two with a partially torn MCL.

With offensive coordinator Mike Martz already reportedly set to be dumped, coach Lovie Smith could be on the hot seat (again) in 2012, if the Bears don’t make it to the postseason in 2011.  That’s why they’re now inclined to consider giving McNabb a chance, even if there’s not much of a chance he’ll make them any better.

4.  Chargers aren’t dead yet.

It’s easy to assume that the San Diego Chargers will end up on the outside looking in when the season ends.  At 4-7 and with six straight losses, there’s no reason to believe that Chargers can turn it around.

But there’s one curious fact, based on something the Chargers accomplished three years ago.

In 2008, the Chargers lost eight of the first 13 games, and they trailed the 8-5 Broncos with three weeks remaining in the regular season.  But San Diego won the final three games.  Just as importantly, the Broncos lost the final three games.

When the dust settled, the Chargers made it to the postseason as the AFC West champs, they beat the Colts in the wild-card round, they gave the Steelers more of a fight than expected the following week, and the Broncos fired Mike Shanahan.

It’s not likely that the Chargers will pull it off again, but that one slice of history means that, for now, we can’t rule anything out.  Especially with the Raiders suddenly looking worse-than-ordinary and the Cinderella Broncos a shattered slipper away from falling apart.

5.  Team Tebow will be tough to beat in January.

It would be dangerous, however, to assume that the clock will strike midnight for Tim Tebow before the postseason.  With each passing week, the Broncos gain more and more confidence, knowing that as long as they can stay within a score of the opponent, Team Tebow can ultimately prevail.

And that attitude will serve them well in January, when confidence becomes nearly as important as talent.  Adversity eventually strikes every playoff team (except for the 1985 Bears), and the Broncos know how to overcome it because they’re doing it on a weekly basis.

Then there’s the fact that, as the media attention increases, Tebow will continue to be the focal point of it, he’ll be ready for it based on all the attention he has absorbed throughout his career, and it’ll allow his teammates to go about their business without being caught up in the distractions.

Some thought Michael Irvin was crazy to suggest Tebow can take the Broncos to the Super Bowl.  It arguably would be crazier to presume that he can’t.

And it’s even crazier to continue to assume that he’s a gimmick quarterback.  On Sunday, Tebow ran the ball only four times.  In contrast, he completed 10 of 15 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns, good for a passer rating on 149.3.

Though his mechanics remain flawed and his accuracy remains at times coincidental, Tebow’s passing numbers compare favorably to those of his predecessor, Kyle Orton.  As Football Night In America editorial consultant Elliott Kalb pointed out after Sunday’s game, Tebow has now thrown 158 passes; Orton threw 155.  While Orton has more completions and a higher completion percentage, Tebow has more yards, a higher per-attempt average, more touchdowns (10 for Tebow, eight for Orton), far fewer interceptions (one for Tebow, seven for Orton), and a passer rating more than 12 points higher.

Most importantly, Tebow has six wins in seven starts.  Even if John Elway’s body language suggests that he doesn’t like the way it’s happening, it’s impossible to argue with the results.

It’ll be even harder to do that if (when) the Broncos start knocking off some of the supposedly elite AFC teams in the playoffs.

6.  Ravens may no longer need Ray Lewis.

After Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis injured a foot three weeks ago in Seattle, rumors swirled that Lewis would not play again this season.  Coach John Harbaugh dismissed the notion that Lewis won’t be back, but he already has missed three of the final seven games.  Jason La Canfora of NFL Network suggested on Sunday that Lewis could be back in Week 15, if Baltimore needs to win the game.

Given that the Ravens, Steelers, Patriots, and Texans are each 9-3, the Ravens will need to win the game.  But here’s the thing.  They’ve shown they don’t need Ray Lewis.

And this could be the best way for the post-Ray Ravens to realize that they’ll be fine after he inevitably retires.  The training wheels came off on the fly, the Ravens kept peddling, and they’re 3-0 without him.

More importantly, they’ve found a way to win against an inferior foe on the road the week after a huge victory.  That’s something Lewis couldn’t will them to do in three prior chances this season.

Though the Ravens will find a place for Lewis as long as he wants one, the team’s success without him suggest that, if the foot keeps Lewis from playing again this year and if the Ravens can continue to thrive, it could be the right time for him to realize that it’s the right time to move on.

7.  Peyton’s place may no longer be in Indy.

Another face-of-the-franchise-type player could be leaving his team under far different circumstances.  The Colts and quarterback Peyton Manning continue to careen toward an inevitable No. 1 pick in the draft and a $28 million option bonus that comes due to Manning in early March.

In a lengthy interview on the CBS pregame show, which somehow seemed even longer than it was, Manning disputed the recent suggestion from Vice Chairman Bill Polian that the two men discussed the possibility of the team picking a quarterback, explaining that the conversation occurred two years ago.  That discrepancy suggests a deeper disconnect that could drive the two sides apart.

Then there’s the ominous explanation from Manning that the eventual decisions regarding his future will become apparent in March.  That’s a far cry from Manning’s past proclamations that he’ll never play for another team.

Don’t be surprised, then, if Manning decides to move on.  The bigger question is whether he’ll play elsewhere in 2012 or whether, like former Colts receiver Marvin Harrison, Manning won’t find an alternative destination that will pay him top-of-the-market money and that will give him the ingredients for the success that Peyton craves.

8.  Raheem is nervous, and he should be.

Bucs coach Raheem Morris has become increasingly skittish this season, most recently dropping an “F” bomb while discussing his decision to take a page from the Mike Singletary coaching playbook.  Morris is nervous for a very good reason.

Morris has a contract that runs through 2012.  While G.M. Mark Dominik received earlier this year a four-year extension, Morris hasn’t.

And so after the 2011 season, the Bucs need to decide whether to extend Raheem’s deal, to let him coach as a lame duck, or to move on.

Though there’s currently no obvious reason to believe that the Bucs will fire Morris, Morris knows that plenty of stuff can be happening behind the scenes.  He knows this because, in early 2009, he and Dominik were the guys who secretly were being lined up behind the scenes to replace former head coach Jon Gruden and former G.M. Bruce Allen.

So what’s happening behind Raheem’s back now?  He’s surely wondering about that, and that’s surely making him even more anxious than he should be.

Some would say that, by taking the job held by his former boss while his former boss didn’t know he’d be the former boss, Morris deserves a similar fate.  Regardless, his own experiences are now making him wonder what ownership may be cooking up without his knowledge.  And if ownership isn’t up to something, they need to extend Raheem’s contract sooner rather than later, in order to put the coach’s mind at ease regarding a dynamic that ownership utilized when hiring him in the first place.

9.  Chris Johnson moves closer to being Chris Johnson again.

Last week, Titans running back Chris Johnson rushed for 190 yards.  It created the impression that Johnson has finally rediscovered the magic that fueled a holdout that caused him to lose said magic.  But the tape showed a guy who still couldn’t explode like he did earlier in his career.

This week, Johnson added another 153.  And there were hints that he’s getting closer to rediscovering his ability to hit a hole and explode vertically, untouchable even by men who think they have an easy angle on him.

If Johnson can get it back this year, the Titans could be a major factor.  The No. 6 seed remains up for grabs, with a total of five five-loss teams, each of whom hold a two-game lead over the next cut of contenders.  The Titans are among that quintet, and they’re likely the most overlooked.  With Johnson churning up the yardage and getting closer to playing like his old self, maybe they shouldn’t be.

10.  Schwartz needs to get his team under control.

Much has been said about the stomping incident committed on Thanksgiving by Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.  More should have been said about the role of coach Jim Schwartz in nudging his players toward the line over which Suh leapt, and then pretending to have no responsibility when it happened.

Schwartz wants his defensive players to be salty, nasty.  It makes them more aggressive, which makes them more intimidating and thus more effective.  The mindset traces directly to Schwartz’s time in Tennessee where, despite having an influential position on the Competition Committee, Titans coach Jeff Fisher cultivated a chippy defense that wasn’t above a periodic punch or kick or, as the case may be, cleat stomp on a bare forehead.

With Schwartz enabling and/or creating Suh, other players have followed suit — on offense.  Last night, receiver Titus Young drew a drive-killing penalty for an open-handed blow to the head worse than the one that got Richard Seymour ejected in Miami.  Then, tight end Brandon Pettigrew, during a late-game drive even more deliberate than Donovan McNabb’s punt-pass-and-puke effort in Super Bowl XXXIX, actually shoved an official.  Amazingly, Pettigrew wasn’t ejected.

At some point, Schwartz needs to be held responsible for the conduct of his players.  The NFL decided this year to implement a procedure for fining teams based on certain player misconduct; the program needs to be expanded to take money out of the coaches’ pockets, too.

Then again, if enough dumb penalties contribute to enough losses, coaches like Schwartz ultimately will be held accountable, since they’ll be fired.

Week 12 Monday 10-pack


Almost 12 weeks of the 2011 season are in the books, and there are only so many things we know.

The Packers are good.  The Colts are bad.  And Ndamukong Suh is in trouble.

For the 30 other teams and 1,700 other players, who knows what’s going on?  Let’s try to make sense of some of it via 10 of the story lines coming out of Sunday’s (and one of Thursday’s) games.

1.  Texans need a proven veteran.

It’s pretty clear that the Texans have decided not to flirt with Brett Favre for the stretch run.  But that doesn’t mean it makes sense to go with T.J. Yates, Kellen Clemens, and possibly Brodie Croyle at quarterback.

While that three-headed monster could be enough to fend off the pesky Titans for the AFC South crown, it won’t be enough to advance in a playoff field featuring the likes of the Patriots, Ravens, and Steelers.

And so the Texans need a proven veteran with playoff experience.  Whether that’s Favre or Jeff Garcia or even Jeff George, the playoff-bound Texans will be a bunch of wide-eyed kids on their first trip to the amusement park, and they’d benefit from someone who has ridden a roller coaster once or twice.

Even Daunte Culpepper would be a better option than Yates, Clemens, and Croyle.  After all, Culpepper has played in four playoff games, winning two and losing two.

Texans fans defended the decision to give the keys to Leinart by pointing out the low-risk passing game, the chains-moving running game, and the brick-wall defense.  But that same reasoning applies to a veteran quarterback, too.

In the Texans offense, no quarterback will be expected to do all that much.  A veteran with playoff experience will be far better suited to do what needs to be done, when it counts the most.

2.  McNabb should pull an Orton.

After the Bears lost quarterback Jay Cutler to a broken thumb, Kyle Orton asked for, and received, his walking papers from the Broncos.  So with the Texans needing a quarterback, why isn’t Vikings backup Donovan McNabb doing the same thing?

He claims he still can play, and he believes he shouldn’t have been benched.  McNabb therefore should request his release and hope that he slides down to the Texans on the waiver priority list.

Even if he doesn’t, any chance to play is better than holding a clipboard for a 2-9 team.  If McNabb is holding out any hope of getting a starting job in 2012, he’d benefit from being on the field in the 2011 postseason.

Until then, his failure to even make a play to get out of Minnesota should prompt legitimate speculation about his actual desire to compete.

3.  High praise for A.J. Green.

Receivers taken in the first round of the draft often underwhelm at the NFL level.  Bengals rookie receiver A.J. Green provides the latest exception to that rule.

He’s Randy Moss without the attitude, making great catches via a long body and uncanny ball skills that leave players like 2010 first-round pick Joe Haden helpless when trying to stop him.

Green’s three-catch, 110-yard performance against Cleveland included a 51-yard play that set up the game-winning field goal.  After the 7-4 Bengals reversed a two-game losing streak by beating the Browns, Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis gave Green the ultimate endorsement.

“He’s the best first-round draft pick I’ve ever been around,” Marvin Lewis said, via the Cincinnati Enquirer. “He continues to amaze me, every day.”

How big of a deal is that?  In 1996, Marvin Lewis worked in Baltimore, where the Ravens picked up tackle Jonathan Ogden and linebacker Ray Lewis in the first round of the draft.

Both are headed for Canton.  In Marvin’s assessment, Green already is on the trajectory.

And Marvin is right.

4.  Chris Johnson saves his job.

The bad news for Titans tailback Chris Johnson after a 23-carry, 190-yard performance against the Bucs?  He still doesn’t have the explosiveness he displayed during the first three years of his career.

The good news?  He’ll get the chance to find it in 2012.

Although the Titans retain the ability to avoid most of the supposedly guaranteed money contained in Johnson’s new contract by cutting him after the season, Johnson has done enough to persuade the Titans to stick with him.  With the benefit of a full offseason program and training camp and preseason, Johnson could rediscover the quality that puts him a step ahead of all running backs not named Adrian Peterson.

It may not happen, but the Titans surely won’t risk that it will happen with another team.

5.  The Tebowmania effect.

Lost in the impact that Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow has on his teammates is the impact he possibly has on his opponents.  (And, no, I’m not referring to the entirely different kind of Tebowing in which Chargers kicker Nick Novak engaged on Sunday.)

Despite the obsession that some have with statistics, football remains the unique product of 22 moving parts, fueled more by intangibles than metrics, especially where the metrics tend to balance each other out.  If 11 of the players possess genuine confidence in their skills, they can perform better than the sum of their parts.  And if they lack confidence, the opposite can occur.

That’s the other side of the Tebowmania effect.  The Broncos now believe that they can keep games close and find a way to win — and teams like the Chargers believe that the Broncos will keep games close and find a way to win.

With each passing week, the team that Tebow plays will have to overcome his uncanny ability to overcome.  And that factor is far more dangerous than a rocket arm or a sub-4.4 40-yard dash or the ability to bench press 225 pounds up to 225 times.

Objectively, there was no reason that the Broncos should have beaten the Chargers in San Diego on Sunday.  The home team had lost five games in a row, the head coach occupies one of the hottest seats in all of football, and the Chargers on paper seem to be the better team.

But the Tebowmania effect allowed Denver to keep it close — and to find a way to win.  Unless and until someone breaks that spell, the Broncos will remain a serious threat not only to make the playoffs but also to do some serious damage once they get there.

6.  “Fire Andy,” and then what?

The pitchforks and torches, which have been taken out and then put away and then taken out again and then put away again, are once again out.  And this time they’re likely staying out for the rest of the season.

With the 4-7 Eagles needing to run the table and hope for plenty of help, what happens if (when) they fail to qualify for the postseason?  The home crowd has begun chanting “Fire Andy!,” an indignity that hasn’t been loudly foisted upon anyone in the NFL since Matt Millen left Detroit for good.  Given that the Eagles went “all in” for 2011, with president Joe Banner telling PFT Live that the line between success and failure resides at winning the Super Bowl, common sense suggests that failing to succeed means walking away from the table, not getting another stack of chips with which to go “all in” again.

So what happens if Reid gets fired?  Does owner Jeffrey Lurie believe he can find someone as good, and hopefully better, than Reid?

Then there’s the issue of the front office.  With Reid supposedly still in charge, Banner and G.M. Howie Roseman could be vulnerable if Lurie tries to hire someone like Bill Cowher, who would want to have the same power that Reid has enjoyed, along with the ability to hire a new set of lieutenants.

It becomes a complex and risky exercise for Lurie, making the status quo safer, and thus more likely.  Even though things haven’t gotten better under Reid lately, they could get a lot worse.

7.  Lame-duck reluctance could result in plenty of vacancies.

Through nearly 12 full weeks of the 2011 season, no teams have fired their head coaches.  Once the 2011 season ends, at least six coaches will slide into the spotlight, for one very important reason.

For coaches whose contracts expire after the 2012 season, teams must decide whether to extend the contracts, to allow them to coach as lame ducks next year, or to move on and/or move out.

That dynamic applies to at least a half-dozen men:  Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo, Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris, Chiefs coach Todd Haley, Colts coach Jim Caldwell, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, and Giants coach Tom Coughlin.  Five of the six lost on Sunday, and the last one could lose on Monday night at New Orleans.

Over the past four weeks, those teams have generated a combined record of 5-20.  Apart from the Giants, none are in serious contention for the postseason.

So when Black Monday (not to be confused with Black Friday) arrives the morning after New Year’s Day, pay close attention to those six teams.  Assuming that none of them decide before then to make a change.

8.  Niners are still in great shape.

It would be easy to assume that the 49ers’ bubble has burst, via a 10-point loss in Baltimore on Thanksgiving night.

It would be easy.  But it also would be incorrect.

Look at the schedule and the standings.  The 9-2 Niners still play four games — four games — against NFC West teams.  And they play the hapless Rams not once, but twice.

Even if the 49ers lose to the visiting Steelers in San Fran on Monday, December 19, the 49ers easily should get to 13-3, which would be enough to secure the second seed in the NFC.

Yes, at some point they may face another defense that could chase Alex Smith all over the field.  But that may not happen unless they face the Bears in the postseason — or until the 49ers take on the the Ravens again, not in Baltimore but at a neutral site in February.

Either way, the 49ers will continue to be a significant factor down the stretch.  If anything, that loss knocks them toward the edge of the radar screen in the short term, which is probably where coach Jim Harbaugh would prefer to be anyway.

9.  The DeSean dilemma.

Regardless of whether Andy Reid stays or goes, the Eagles have a significant personnel issue on the horizon:  What should they do with receiver DeSean Jackson?

He’ll be a free agent after the season.  In recent weeks, Jackson has been deactivated after missing a meeting, flagged for a taunting penalty that wiped out a 50-yard gain (thanks to a bizarre quirk in the rules), and benched in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s latest loss, following another key drop.

Once presumed the Eagles would use the franchise tag in the hopes of signing Jackson to a long-term deal, the team may now opt to make a change.  But that doesn’t mean they’ll let him walk away.  Instead, look for the Eagles to apply the franchise tag (which will cost $9.5 million in cap space), to make him available in trade, to search for a replacement via free agency or the draft, and possibly to rescind the franchise tender if they can’t move him — and if they can find another guy to return punts and run “go” routes.

The risk of that approach comes from Jackson signing the franchise tender, which would guarantee him a base salary of $9.5 million in 2012; it equates to more than 15.8 times his $600,000 base salary in 2011.  And that would be Jackson’s smartest move, if he’s tagged.  Otherwise, the Eagles could end up removing the franchise tender later in the offseason (like they previously did to Jeremiah Trotter and Corey Simon), making Jackson an unrestricted free agent well after the vast majority of the unrestricted free agency money has flowed.

For that reason alone, the Eagles possibly could decide not to apply the franchise tag at all, something that would be more likely to happen if owner Jeffrey Lurie decides to clean house.

10.  “Bowe doesn’t know football.”

Last night’s far-closer-than-expected game between the Steelers and Chiefs included a late effort by the Chiefs to drive for the winning touchdown.  Unthinkable given Kansas City’s recent inability to score offensive touchdowns but not impossible given Pittsburgh’s recent history of giving up big drives late, the Chiefs made it interesting.

Until receiver Dwayne Bowe blew it.

With the Chiefs facing first and 15 from the Pittsburgh 37, Bowe shot down the field, throwing his hand in the air — the universal football gesture that means, “I’m going deep.”

But then, right after Bowe called for a long throw, he broke to the post.  Tyler Palko already had launched toward where Bowe would have been.  And it landed where a Steelers defender was.

Making things worse for the Chiefs, and for Bowe, was a half-hearted (hoof-hearted) effort to catch the ball.  Bowe jumped but he didn’t extend, possibly wary of a rib-breaking blow to the midsection.

Bowe’s effort, or lack thereof, drew harsh criticism from NBC’s Cris Collinsworth, a former receiver who has the experience and the knowledge to justify criticism of a current player at the position.  And for a guy like Bowe, who’ll be heading to free agency after the season, a better try needs to be made in those situations.

It’s not as if a victory last night would have propelled the Chiefs back into the race for the AFC West crown or a wild-card berth, but it could have.  The loss instead dropped Kansas City to 4-7, making it difficult if not impossible for the Chiefs to qualify for the postseason and/or for coach Todd Haley to keep his job.

Week 11 Monday 10-pack

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Nine days after 11-11-11, the 11th Sunday of the 2011 regular season was played.

In the AFC, we’re no closer to knowing which teams are the best teams.  In the NFC, ineffectiveness and injuries are allowing two franchises with eight Lombardi Trophies between them to continue to separate from the pack.

But let’s go deeper than the same-old “if the season ended today” scenarios or the other fairly obvious stuff you’ll see on certain four-letter networks today.

For some reason, I always can come up with only 10 things to say.

1.  Moral victory for the Bucs.

They say there are no moral victories.  I say “they” say a lot of things, plenty of which are wrong.

In this specific case, here’s why.

Blown out 48-3 by the 49ers and 37-9 by the Texans, the Bucs desperately needed to avoid a similar fate at Lambeau Field.  It wasn’t looking good early, what with the Packers up 14-0.

But the Bucs scratched and clawed their way back into the game, making it competitive and keeping the score respectable.  For coach Raheem Morris, whose contract situation puts the team in a fire-him-extend-him-or-let-him-do-the-lame-duck-thing trilemma for 2012, avoiding an embarrassment was the next best thing to pulling what would have been a most unlikely upset.

That said, a couple of ill-advised onside kicks likely won’t help the “keep Raheem” cause.  Overall, however, the Bucs have nothing about which to be ashamed — apart from their recent effort to make excuses for their 4-6 record by pointing out how difficult their schedule is.

2.  Michael Bush, Kevin Smith prove the fungible nature of tailbacks.

On Sunday morning, an item from one of the Bay Area websites presumed that Raiders running back Michael Bush will be swimming in gold coins come free agency in 2012.  Though Bush definitely won’t be pitching a tent in Zucotti Park, he will still be earning a fraction of the game’s truly elite backs.

Bush, while talented, possesses skills that aren’t uncommon at the NFL level.  Every year, college programs throughout the country churn out men who will move the chains, with competent blocking.  Though Bush, who would have been a first-round pick but for a gruesome leg injury in the first game of his final season at Louisville, lands on the high end of the curve, he’s not in the Adrian Peterson/Chris Johnson financial district, yet.

The performance of guys like Lions’ reclamation project Kevin Smith underscores that point, and eventually will undermine Bush’s case for big dollars.  Unwanted by the Lions after three seasons with the team and drawing zero interest elsewhere, Smith hung around and hung around until the Lions decided that their running game was sufficiently bad to justify bringing back one of the lone bright spots from that 0-16 team of 2008.

Smith responded Sunday with 201 total yards and three touchdowns.

Though the performance may have given Smith a short-term assignment pending the return of Jahvid Best, Kevin Smith’s career nevertheless will be remembered more like Timmy’s than Emmitt’s.  Yes, playing the position requires speed and toughness and courage and durability.  But of all the things that NFL players are required to do (other than kicking, punting, holding, and long-snapping), those traits seem to be the most common.

That’s why only a few get paid a ton of money, and that’s why veterans like Larry Johnson, Clinton Portis, and Tiki Barber are spending the 2011 season unemployed, and flabbergasted.

3.  Percy Harvin would be special, if he got the touches.

There’s a guy in Minnesota who has those interchangeable tailback skills, but at a far higher level than most.  The only problem is that, for reasons neither known nor apparent, the Vikings don’t use him as much as they should.

Percy Harvin made a big splash in 2009 as a rookie receiver and kickoff returner.  Lost in the shuffle of last year’s disappointing season, Harvin nevertheless had more yards from scrimmage.

This year, with not even a mention of an issue with migraines that previously plagued him at the pro level, his workload hasn’t spiked the way that it should for a third-year player who has shown a ton of potential.

Maybe it’ll come in 2012, after quarterback Christian Ponder gets more comfortable and the Vikings upgrade their offensive line via free agency and/or the draft.  Maybe it’ll eventually have to come after Harvin joins a new team.

Regardless, at some point Percy Harvin deserves a chance to become the total package — whether as a full-time receiver or a part-time wideout/tailback or even as a full-time Darren Sproles-style option out of the backfield.  Harvin could be so much better than he has been, and he’s one of the few true stars that remain on the roster of a 2-8 team.

4.  Caveat emptor, quarterback edition.

Titans tailback Chris Johnson still isn’t earning his money.  A week after racking up 100-plus rushing yards for the first time since getting paid, Johnson’s average plunged to 1.1, with 13 yards on 12 carries.

The lesson to the Titans, and the rest of the league, is becoming more obvious:  Don’t pay big money to a running back who has held out for all of training camp and the preseason, especially when there are so many others who can do the job.

In Buffalo, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has provided another piece of advice for NFL teams:  Don’t pay an up-and-coming quarterback during the season in which he’s up-and-coming.

Fitzpatrick’s game has evaporated since he put his name at bottom of a six-year, $59 million contract.  Yes, the Bills celebrated the new deal with a 23-0 win against the Redskins in Toronto.  But the team, and most importantly Fitzpatrick, had their mojo (along with their Deux Deux Deuxs) confiscated at the Canadian border.

Outscored 106-26 in games against the Jets, Cowboys, and Dolphins, Buffalo now finds itself in a 2008-style free-fall, with any realistic chances of a postseason appearance riding on the ability to somehow get their groove back.

And, please, don’t point out that the 2001 Patriots were also 5-5 after 10 games.  The Pats’ arrow was pointing up a decade ago.  The Bills’ tank is, by all appearances, on empty.

By giving Fitzpatrick that big contract, it will be harder for the Bills to effectively consider all their options come January, given the money that has been tied up in the contract for Fitzpatrick.

5.  It’s time to extend the goal posts, somehow.

On Sunday, a pair of field goals created a little controversy, due in part to the fact that today’s kickers routinely blast the ball higher than the uprights extend.

In Cleveland, Phil Dawson believed a 38-yarder that would have put the Browns up by seven points late was good, even though the officials disagreed.  The lost three-pointer nearly ended up haunting the Browns, who had to hold off one final charge by the Jaguars.

In Washington, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan didn’t agree that a 39-yard try in overtime from Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey had satisfied the standard for chalking up a field goal.

In both cases, the ability to determine whether the kick was good was complicated by the fact that the ball went above the uprights.

For kicks that go over the U-shaped structure, the rule book requires the ball to pass fully within the outside edge of the uprights.  Which basically means that if an official standing directly under the outside edge of the upright looks straight up and sees no portion of the ball, the kick is good.

Good luck getting in the right spot and making the right judgment while the ball is soaring right through the air at least 30 feet above the ground.

The easy fix would be to make the uprights taller.  Sure, they already look goofy with the extra-long extensions that would dwarf the H-shaped contraptions of yesteryear.  And the laws of physics would result in much greater stress being placed on the corners of the crossbar as wind blows the very tops of even longer beams.

Still, it’s 2011.  The NFL eventually found a fake grass that performs much better than green cement, and the NFL easily could find a material that would perform well when elongated by an extra 10 feet, even in high winds.

At a minimum, the league should consider a high-tech solution that would use sensors or lasers to visibly extend the post, or that would allow the officials to determine easily whether the ball indeed passes inside the outer edge of the uprights.

As the sport grows and the importance of the outcome of each game (or, for the fantasy football crowd, each extra point and field goal) becomes more significant, the league needs to be prepared to take all reasonable steps to iron out any potential glitches in the rules.  After Sunday, it’s obvious that the league needs to address the height of the goal posts.

6.  Sorting out the offsetting penalties in Eagles-Giants.

The PFT email box and Twitter pipeline exploded on Sunday night, after a penalty for illegal use of hands against the Giants during a 50-yard pass to Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson and a post-play taunting penalty on Jackson completely wiped out the gain and gave Philly an unwanted do-over from their own two yard line.

The prevailing thought was that Eagles should have been able to decline the penalty against the Giants, and then to have the 15 yards walked off after the play, giving Philly a 35-yard gain.

But the outcome reflected the proper application of a strange donut hole in the rule book.

The process gets started at Rule 14, Section 1, Article 9:   “If there has been a foul by either team during a down and there is a dead ball foul by the other team in the action immediately after the end of the down, it is a double foul, and all rules for enforcement of double fouls apply (see 14-3-1).”

Regarding double fouls, Article 14, Section 3, Rule 1 provides as follows:  “If there is a double foul . . . without a change of possession, the penalties are offset and the down is replayed at the previous spot.”

In this case, a key exception almost applied, but ultimately didn’t.  “If one of the fouls is of a nature that incurs a 15-yard penalty and the other foul of a double foul normally would result in a loss of 5 yards only (15 yards versus 5 yards),” the rule book states, “the major penalty yardage is to be assessed from the previous spot.”  Since the penalty on the Giants entailed a five-yard penalty AND an automatic first down, the exception didn’t apply in Jackson’s case.  Even if it had (for example, if the Giants had simply been offside), the Eagles would have had the 15 yards walked off (or, in this case, half the distance to the goal) from the previous spot.

Either way, the penalty on the Giants ultimately penalized the Eagles.  Though the officials sorted it all out properly in real time, the rule book definitely needs to be tweaked to prevent such unfair outcomes.

7.  Vince Young clinches a second chance to start.

The stats weren’t pretty, especially with three interceptions and a passer rating of 69.0, but Vince Young’s performance in the clutch during a primetime game for the squad he unintentionally gave the “Dream Team” label could go a long way toward giving him a shot at a starting job in 2012.

After Young signed with the Eagles following his unceremonious exile from Nashville, Eagles president Joe Banner told PFT Live that Young wanted a one-year deal, even though the Eagles had hoped to lock him up for two.  Young’s insistence on a shorter term lets him get back to the market again in March. Even if he doesn’t take another snap this year, he has done enough to earn extra consideration in this quarterback-need league.

Young, quite simply, is Tim Tebow plus the ability to throw the ball reasonably accurately, albeit unconventionally.  Young still can perform at a high level; the challenge will be to match him up with a coach who’ll be able to shepherd Young through the adversity he’ll inevitably face as a starting quarterback.

Young faced plenty of it last night, and he did enough to keep the “Dream” alive, even if it dies for good next week against the Patriots.

8.  Eli catches the Romo disease.

Two weeks ago, many were singing the praises of Peyton Manning’s kid brother.  Since then, Eli has been playing like the evil twin of Tony Romo.

Late turnovers in losses to the 49ers and the Eagles have dropped the Giants from 6-2 to 6-4, plunging them into a tie with the Cowboys and giving the Eagles a glimmer of hope, especially since Philly currently holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over both Dallas and New York.

In each of the last three weeks, Eli’s passer rating for the season has dropped.  And last night’s 74.0 doesn’t take into account the play that killed the Giants’ late hopes for a comeback — a fumble when Eli was hit from behind by Jason Babin.

As the Giants find themselves in the midst of yet another late-season collapse, Eli needs to find a way to turn those late opportunities into something other than turnovers.  If he can’t, plenty of jobs could be turning over in New York after the season ends.

9.  Bears could be in a real bind.

Peter King explained late night for an exclusive SNF Extra video that the thumb injury to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler could be a killer for Chicago.  Contrary to the classic design of the Mike Martz offense, Cutler had been moving more out of the pocket in order to buy time behind a work-in-progress offensive line.

With Caleb Hanie getting the nod, the Bears either need to get him comfortable doing what Cutler was doing, or hope the offensive line gets a lot better.

In the interim, it could mean more reps for Matt Forte, who’ll only add to his pay-the-man case if the Bears climb onto his back while Cutler is out.

And as to anyone who thinks that my lobbying last week for the Texans to pursue Brett Favre in lieu of Matt Leinart applies to the Bears, my perceived lunacy doesn’t extend to Illinois.  The Martz offense is too complex, the Bears are too cheap, and Martz is too obsessive-compulsive to ever make Favre a potential match there, even though it would give Brett a shot at the Vikings and at least one crack at the Pack.

The best bet for the Bears is to hunker down with Hanie, and hope for the best.

Unless Marc Bulger, who ran the Martz offense in St. Louis, decides to emerge from retirement.

10.  Catching up with what’s a catch.

It had been five weeks since the last time the Calvin Johnson rule reared its head in a game situation.  On Sunday, the Bengals lost a touchdown pass to Jermaine Gresham via the application of a rule that routinely defies with the expectations of the reasonable fan.

Gresham bobbled the ball near the end zone, got possession of it in the vicinity of the goal line, took two steps, fell to the ground with the ball in one hand, and lost the ball when the hand holding it struck the ground.

This year, the league has emphasized the element of time, treating such plays as valid receptions if the receiver who, while going to the ground, had enough time to make a football move, regardless of whether a football move was actually made.  And that seems to be what Gresham did.  Or at least could have done.

Perhaps more importantly, the fact the officials in real-time called it a catch (and thus a touchdown) would require conclusive 100-drunks-in-a-bar evidence to overturn the play.  With the question of whether Gresham had enough time to make a football move a topic that strays into the realm of professional judgment, referee Ron Winter should have deferred to the ruling on the field that Gresham had possession long enough to make a football move.

The outcome reconfirms that the league needs to clean up the rule book once and for all regarding what is and what isn’t a catch when a receiver hits the ground.  The “football move” exception is a twist on the uncodified “second act” rule, which allowed the requirement of maintaining possession through the ground to be disregarded when the receiver manages to break the plane of the goal line while falling.

The NFL needs to just start over, crafting a simple rule that the officials can consistently apply — and that meshes with what a reasonable person would regard to be a catch, or not a catch.

Week 10 Monday 10-pack

Getty Images

Through 10 Sundays, the two conferences couldn’t be any more different.  The best teams in the NFC are obvious; in the AFC, the proposition changes on a weekly basis.

So let’s take the current temperature of the entire league by looking at the 10 story lines that caught our attention on Sunday.

Or at least the ones that caught my attention.

1.  Jim Harbaugh needs to teach John a thing or two.

It’s impossible to know whether the 49ers would have won their third through ninth games if they hadn’t lost to the Cowboys in Week Two.  Safety Donte Whitner recently pointed to the blown lead against Dallas as the biggest moment of the year for the Niners, propelling them to their string of seven straight wins, and counting.

Along the way, the 49ers have had plenty of chances to lay something other than a golden egg.  But stubbornly obsessive head coach Jim Harbaugh won’t let his team have a letdown.

And John Harbaugh would be smart to ask his brother how in the heck he does it.

John’s Ravens follow big wins with flat performances, losing winnable games after signature victories.  Beat the Steelers?  Lose in Nashville.  Beat the Texans?  Lose in Jacksonville.  Beat the Steelers again?  Lose in Seattle, um, ville.

Though I’ve previously blamed the inability to avoid playing down to the level of the competition on linebacker Ray Lewis, given that he’s the guy who has assumed the responsibility for ensuring that the dogs are indeed in the house, the head coach is responsible for finding ways to get grown men to take care of their business.

Yes, the Seahawks are hard to beat at home.  But when Jim Harbaugh goes there on Christmas Eve, a week after facing (and perhaps beating) the Steelers, he’ll likely make the locals feel like the unsuspecting residents of Whoville.

2.  Despite down year, DeSean’s absence hurt the Eagles.

Some Philly fans likely shrugged at the decision to deactivate receiver DeSean Jackson.  Since he’s having a down year and given that he primarily runs one route (i.e., deep), the Eagles had the weapons to win without him.

They didn’t.

After the game, running back LeSean McCoy confirmed that the Eagles missed DeSean.  “With the type of player he is, he plays a big role for this offense,” McCoy said, via comments distributed by the team.  “Any player that says we didn’t miss him is not being honest.”

Quarterback Mike Vick agreed.  “Anytime you [don’t] have one of your premier players, one of your go-to guys, it does, yeah it does,” Vick said, via comments distributed by the team.  “But we have to respect the decisions that are made.  We wish it never had to come to that, but it is what it is and you still have to go out and win the football game.”

Per a league source, Vick privately expressed after the game that his 128-yard passing effort resulted from an inability to find a rhythm early.  So can any of that be blamed on the absence of Jackson, given that he wasn’t exactly having a Pro Bowl season?

To quote one of the most famous residents of Philadelphia, “Absolutely.”

In the West Coast offense, a receiver who can run fast in a straight line and pull both a corner and a safety deep helps open up the various underneath routes for guys like Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek, Jason Avant, and Riley Cooper.  Even if Jackson doesn’t catch a single pass, his presence helps fuel the overall passing game by creating passing lanes for his teammate, and for his quarterback.

What else can explain the curious career of Todd Stinkston?

For DeSean and the Eagles, the long-term relationship took a major hit on Sunday based not on what he would have done with the ball in his hand, but based on what his presence would have meant for the ability of his teammates to get the ball into theirs.

3.  Schedule makers stick it to the Jets.

This year’s Thursday night schedule omits a quirk that had worked to the disadvantage of past teams operating on a short week.  In the past, road teams in a Thursday nighter sometimes played a road game the preceding Sunday, requiring them to travel home and then travel to another city between the end of the Sunday game and the start of the Thursday contest.

This year, every Thursday road team will have played at home the prior Sunday.  (Ideally, every home team on a Thursday would play on the road the prior Sunday, balancing out the time lost to travel on a short week.  But we’ll fight our windmills one at a time.)  The Jets, for example, played at home in Week 10 before going to Denver on Thursday night to kick off Week 11.

But the Jets still got shafted by the league office.

By playing a Sunday night game that ended close to midnight in New York, the Jets have eight hours less to recover and refocus than they would have had if the game had begun at 1:00 p.m. ET.  Though it may not seem like much, every minute counts when there are only 92 hours between the end of one game and the start of another.

Though the flexing dynamic can’t completely erase this possibility, Sunday night games should be scheduled with sensitivity to the Thursday night schedule, and decisions to slide games to Sunday night should take into account whether either of the teams in the late Sunday game will have to hit the road for another one only four days later.

4.  Deja vu for Kolb.

Last year, a concussion for Kevin Kolb in Week One opened the door for Mike Vick in Philly.  Though Kolb was assured by coach Andy Reid that Vick wouldn’t keep the job, Reid thereafter decided to stick with the hot hand — which eventually resulted in the Eagles giving Kolb the cold shoulder.

Now that he’s the quarterback of the present and future (supposedly) in Arizona, another injury has allowed another quarterback to go on another hot streak, and it could be another long year on the bench for Kolb.

Peter King of Sports Illustrated said during Sunday’s edition of Football Night in America that John Skelton will get at least another start, as the Cardinals try to topple the 8-1 49ers.  While it may be difficult if not impossible for Skelton’s redbirds to beat San Fran at Candlestick Park, the fact that Skelton has led the Cards to a 2-0 record after a 1-6 start under Kolb can’t be disregarded.

The key figure in all of this could be receiver Larry Fitzgerald.  Though the trade for Kolb surely helped Fitz decide to sign a long-term deal in lieu of hitting the market in 2012 (the Cardinals had no ability under his prior contract to use any tags to hold him in place), it hadn’t been clicking for Kolb and Fitzgerald, prompting Fitzgerald to recently complain about the absence of a high-end receiver who could absorb some of the attention.

On Sunday, operating against a defense that features Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Fitzgerald had seven catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns.  (He arguably had a third score late in the game, but coach Ken Whisenhunt opted not to challenge the ruling that Fitzgerald was touched before sliding across the goal line.)

Though it’s not Fitz’s style to make power plays, the powers-that-be in Arizona are smart enough to know that keeping their key player happy is one of the team’s top priorities.  And if Skelton, despite throwing more than a few ugly passes that looked more like volleyball serves, can deliver victory and energize Fitzgerald, Kolb will get extra time to recover from a stubborn case of turf toe.

In fact, team doctors may give the front of the foot an extra twist or two every time they examine it.

5.  Mike Smith makes a contract extension decision.

Some agree with the decision by Falcons coach Mike Smith to roll the dice on fourth and short from his own 29 in overtime.  Some don’t.  Regardless of whether Smith is compared to the genius Bill Belichick circa 2009 or the jester Barry Switzer circa 1995, the move took a lot of guts.  (Actually, Switzer had the last laugh in 1995; the Cowboys rebounded from that blown game against the Eagles to win the Super Bowl.)

It took the kind of guts that become much easier to muster when a guy has received a contract extension.

And that’s likely one of the reasons why Smith felt sufficiently comfortable to do it.  Signed to a new three-year extension in February, Smith has the kind of security that lets him take the kind of chances that would be hard for a lame duck to take.

Maybe Smith would have done the same thing if he was seven games from becoming a coaching free agent.  The point for now is that a guy who believes the front office believes in him will be more likely to take a big risk.

That said, Smith now has to persuade the locker room that he opted not to punt not because he lacks belief in his defense, especially since Smith explained after the game that the move was motivated by a fear that the Saints would put together a game-winning drive on its next possession.  Though that can be regarded as respect for the New Orleans offense, it also could be viewed as a diss of the Dirty Birds’ D.

6.  Glimmer of hope for Tebow.

Lost in the laughable stat line for the Broncos (55 runs, eight passes) is the significance of the 56-yard, on-the-money touchdown pass from quarterback Tim Tebow to receiver Eric Decker.

Apart from Tebow showing uncharacteristic, based on past performances, accuracy on the throw, Tebow delivered the ball without his characteristic catapult-style throwing motion.  The ball come out high and tight and it showed that the thousands of reps spent trying to reverse his muscle memory could be starting to work.  Though it doesn’t mean he’ll never revert to that looping Leftwich launcher, it’s a sign that, in time, Tebow has the potential to become a better passer.

And if he can become a better passer, he’ll become an unprecedented run-pass threat.

7.  Reid still needs to fear getting fired.

Three years ago, with his back pressed firmly against the wall following a dreadful performance in Baltimore that included the benching of Donovan McNabb, Eagles coach Andy Reid got it together on a short week, blasting the Cardinals on Thanksgiving night, 48-20.

With the Cardinals back in town after another sluggish, postseason-jeopardizing performance by the Eagles, the table was set for Reid to lead another late climb out of an unexpected hole.  Indeed, as the Giants faced the prospect of losing in San Fran (and the Giants did), a win would have given the Eagles a chance next Sunday night to close the NFC East gap down to one game.

In the days before what became a deflating defeat, a report surfaced that Reid basically will remain the head coach of the Eagles for as long as he wants to remain the head coach of the Eagles.

But is that really the smart approach?  Though it’s always wise to consider whether a new coach would make the situation better or worse, every football coach needs to fear the ultimate accountability that comes from chronic failure.

Without any real danger of being fired, Reid can continue to repeat the same old sound bites after every loss.

“[T]he way this team played is my responsibility,” Reid said Sunday.  “We have to make sure we get it corrected.”

But what if it doesn’t?  There’s no “or else” if owner Jeffrey Lurie isn’t willing to hold Reid responsible for failing to ever “get it corrected.”

And since there’s no way to hold Lurie responsible for failing to address the fact that his head coach is failing to correct the team’s problems, Eagles fans simply have to deal with it.

Unless Eagles fans are willing to cast their vote of no-confidence by closing their wallets and turning off their televisions.

8.  Niners may not want the top seed.

With the 49ers knocking down every opponent placed in front of them, but for Week Two against the Cowboys, a slip-up by the 8-0 Packers could open the door for Jim Harbaugh’s team to twist the road to the Super Bowl through San Francisco.

But do the 49ers really want to be the top seed?

Though Harbaugh will never entertain the possibility that anything good could come from aiming for anything less than the best possible outcome to the regular season, the 49ers match up better with the Packers in the elements.  With Green Bay relying on a finesse passing game and with the 49ers cobbling together the championship formula of running the ball and stopping the run, facing the defending champs on frozen tundra makes more sense than playing them on the relatively pristine playing surface in the home stadium where Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers dreamed of playing as a boy.

Plus, it’ll be easier for Harbaugh to weld a chip to his players’ shoulders if they enter Lambeau Field as the clear underdogs, and it’ll be far more memorable if the renewal of the playoff rivalry features an “Owens!  Owens!  He caught it!  He caught it!” moment on Green Bay’s home turf.

9.  It doesn’t take many dots to connect Jon Gruden to D.C.

It’s impossible to know whether Redskins coach Mike Shanahan is in trouble without having access to the thought processes of owner Daniel Snyder.  But we’ve seen the manifestations of his mind in the past, with no coach other than Joe Gibbs lasting more than two seasons during Snyder’s time as owner — and with Snyder pursuing Shanahan for nearly a year behind the back of former head coach Jim Zorn.

So it’s more than fair to wonder what Snyder may be doing behind Shanahan’s back as Shanahan approaches the non-Gibbs witching hour for Redskins head coaches with a 3-6 record and five straight losses.

If Snyder has fallen out of love with Shanahan, Snyder could be turning his attention to Jon Gruden.  With G.M. Bruce Allen having worked directly with Gruden both in Oakland and in Tampa, Snyder has direct access to a guy who knows what makes Gruden tick.

Given that Gruden won a Super Bowl with a quarterback that the Redskins discarded, Snyder easily could talk himself into thinking that Gruden’s single Lombardi with Brad Johnson carries greater weight than Shanahan’s back-to-back rides on the coattails of John Elway.

Throw in the fact that Philly fans will be clamoring for the Eagles to bring Gruden back to town for an assignment one level higher than offensive coordinator, and Snyder may decide that if he’s ever going to get Gruden, the time to move is now.

Either way, Shanahan has to be wondering if Snyder is currently doing what Snyder was doing when wooing Shanahan.

10.  Pay the man, Houston edition.

We’ve heard plenty this year about guys who want new contracts.  In Houston, we’re not hearing much about a guy who’ll be a restricted free agent after the season.

A year after leading the league in rushing only a year after joining the Texans as an undrafted free agent, and only two months after it appeared that a hamstring injury would relegate him to one-hit wonder status, Arian Foster looks every bit as good as he was last season.  Despite missing two games, he has 740 yards rushing, and 445 yards receiving.

He’s doing it all while getting paid the minimum salary for a third-year player.

Likely motivated by a keen awareness of the fungible nature of running backs, Foster didn’t hold out despite being an exclusive-rights free agent, which means that even though he couldn’t have signed with another team, he could have stayed away without being subject to fines or other penalties for violating his contract.

Unlike Chris Johnson, Foster showed up.  Unlike Peyton Hillis and DeSean Jackson, Foster isn’t pouting or moping or missing meetings or disappearing on a treatment day to get married.  Foster is simply lining up and doing his job, and if the Texans don’t take care of him soon, teammates will begin to wonder whether the organization is unwilling to reward the men who truly deserve it.

Week Nine Monday 10-pack


Midseason report cards and awards be damned, Week Nine is the exact middle of the football season.  And if the second half of the season is anything like the second half of Sunday’s action, it’ll be a year to remember.

So what better way to wrap up the day than by looking at 10 things we’ll remember from the ninth Sunday of the season?

Then again, we do it every week.

1.  Helmet-to-helmet hits should be subject to replay review.

It would be easy to blame the officials for the inconsistencies in the decisions to throw flags — and to not throw flags — when assessing whether an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit occurs against a defenseless receiver.  But the truth is that the players are moving far too fast to permit consistently accurate assessment of the plays to be made in real time.  There’s only so much that the men in black and white stripes can do to accurately split hairs at top speed.

So why not support the officials by making these critical calls subject to replay review?  Too much is at stake, with 15 yards of field position hanging in the balance.  In a game of inches, awarding — or not awarding — 540 of them based on whether a big hit crossed the line is too much to entrust to the naked eye, especially since mistakes are being made.

The league wants the officials to err on the side of protecting players by throwing the flag, which only contributes to fan and player discontent when an error is made.  In the Dolphins-Chiefs game on Sunday, safety Yeremiah Bell drew a flag when replays showed that it wasn’t an illegal hit.  In the Sunday night game in Pittsburgh, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis got away with an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit on Steelers receiver Hines Ward (which knocked Ward out of the game), which made even more glaring a later decision to flag Steelers safety Ryan Clark for a 15-yard penalty based on what appeared to be a clean, unavoidable, incidental helmet-to-helmet hit.

Despite concerns that games will last too long (one way to speed up the review process would be to dispense with the requirement that the referee trot to the sidelines, put on a headset, and review the play at field level), the helmet-to-helmet play has become such a hot-button issue that it makes sense to expand the list of reviewable plays to include this increasingly important and controversial call.

2.  Sometimes, press coverage prevents victories.

As the cliche goes, prevent defense prevents the defensive team from winning games.  But when the Ravens did the unthinkable and drove 92 yards in the waning moments of Sunday night’s game in Pittsburgh, it was the Steelers’ insistence on playing bump-and-run coverage that contributed to the loss.

With Baltimore facing third and 10 from the Pittsburgh 26, the Steelers ultimately weren’t defending the sticks.  They were defending the end zone.  But, as Tony Dungy pointed out as we were on the FNIA set waiting for the post-game show, the Steelers opted to play the receivers tight off the line, running with them down the field instead of giving them a cushion.

As a result, Ravens receiver Torrey Smith got behind his man and obtained redemption for a holding penalty that wiped out a Ray Rice touchdown and a dropped touchdown pass only a few plays earlier.

Though it’s too early to rule the Steelers out of anything this season, it’s a dark day for the black and gold whenever an otherwise stifling defense gives up 92 yards of turf with the game, and possibly the division title, on the line.

3.  Chris Johnson gets his yards, but something still isn’t right.

As explained early Sunday morning, the Titans can — and possibly will — walk away from running back Chris Johnson’s contract before owing him another $8 million in guaranteed money come next March.

The numbers from Tennessee’s Week Nine game against the Bengals suggest that Johnson got the message, given that he generated 110 yards from scrimmage.

But Johnson still isn’t the guy he was in past seasons.  He lacks that trademark bottle-rocket burst, which would have turned some of his modest gains from Sunday into an eye-popping highlight involving Chris Johnson sprinting past defenders who appeared to be race-walking through a muddy minefield.

Eventually, the Titans will have to ask themselves where it went, how he can get it back, and whether it makes sense to continue to pay him big money to be a good but not gamebreaking threat.

4.  Time for Pats to say farewell to Ochocinco.

After yet another disappointing performance from receiver Chad Ochocinco (he had zero catches for a third straight game), the Patriots need to begin thinking seriously about whether it’s time to move on.  Even though they gave him a $6 million signing bonus after the trade that sent him from Cincinnati toe New England, he’s simply not getting it done, as evidenced by the fact that, for the season, he has nine catches for 136 yards and no touchdowns.

After Sunday’s game, quarterback Tom Brady reportedly said regarding Ochocinco, “We’ll keep working on it.  No other choice.”   But there is another choice.  The Patriots can admit that they made a mistake, and the Patriots can rectify it by cutting Ochocinco loose.

Ochocinco told Ian Rapoport of the Boston Herald that Chad and Brady are “missing it by this much,” holding two fingers close together.  In order to be accurate in his self-assessment, Chad needs to use two hands when illustrating the disconnect, and he needs to spread them as far apart as he can.

It’s unclear why it’s not working.  The Patriots’ attempt to stifle Chad’s individuality could be keeping him from getting truly comfortable.  Or maybe he just doesn’t have it anymore.  Either way, what Chad proclaimed to be heaven has steadily become something far less perfect than that.

Fittingly, the team that Chad was so desperate to leave is now 6-2, one game better than a Patriots squad that isn’t nearly as good as past versions of the franchise.

5.  The wild, wild AFC West.

Every week, we think we’ve figured out the AFC West.  Then, a week later, it’s wide open all over again.

Two weeks ago, wins by the Broncos and Chiefs and losses by the Raiders and Chargers for the first time created a sense that it’s more than an Oakland/San Diego proposition.  Last week, the Chiefs grabbed the driver’s seat as the Broncos settled into the basement.

On Sunday, the Chiefs, Chargers, and Raiders all lost, with only the Broncos coming away with a win.  The end result?  Three teams are knotted at 4-4, and the Broncos sit only one game behind, at 3-5.

Good luck identifying a favorite.  Some still believe in the Chargers.  The Raiders could be dangerous, if/when Carson Palmer stops throwing three interceptions per game.  And the Chiefs have shown that they can string together wins, even if they found a way to get blown out by a previously winless team.

The only team that seems ill-equipped to capture the crown are the up-and-down Broncos, whose quarterback is riding broad pendulum on a week-to-week basis.  But the Broncos become their most dangerous when they’re counted out, and it’s impossible to assume that Denver won’t somehow find a away to win the division title.

6.  Eli really is elite.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning caught plenty of flak before the season for injecting himself onto the list of elite quarterbacks.  Wildly out of character for a guy who otherwise goes wildly out of his way to avoid controversy, Eli is backing it up.

On pace for more than 4,700 passing yards and with a 16-to-5 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions, Manning has become as effective as his big brother this year.  On Sunday, Eli delivered arguably his biggest win since the last time he beat the Patriots, on a slightly smaller stage.

Still, beating the Patriots in Foxborough is no small feat.  They don’t often lose at home, and even less often do they lose two games in a row.  Both happened on Sunday, thanks to Eli.

Of course, he was helped by some sure-handed receivers, including Jake Ballard’s full-speed, leaning back, one-handed grab that happened too quickly to be properly appreciated.

The end result is that the Giants now sit firmly atop the NFC East at 6-2.  Though the Eagles will continue to attempt their charge to the top on Monday night, Eli seems to be willing his team toward greater heights than anyone would have imagined for this team.

So what’s gotten into Eli?  It could be that he realizes the fleeting nature of a football career, given the health issues that are preventing Peyton from playing.  It could be that Eli finally has figured out how to replicate his incredible performances from the 2007 postseason.  Either way, it’s working for Eli like never before.  Though he may not be able to overcome Aaron Rodgers for league MVP honors, Eli could be one of the only men who can lead a team to victory at Lambeau Field in January.

Just like he did four years ago.

7.  Players still need to be careful about throwing off their helmets, even after the game has ended.

At the end of the Giants’ unlikely win over the Patriots, New York safety Antrel Rolle jumped to his feet, unfastened his chinstrap, and threw off his helmet.

There was no time on the clock, and the game was over.  But it instantly conjured memories of former Browns linebacker Dwayne Rudd, who infamously threw off his helmet with no time on the clock in a 2002 Week One game against the Chiefs.

Rudd thought the game was over, but Chiefs quarterback Trent Green had managed to unload the ball to lineman John Tait, who rumbled deep into Cleveland territory before being tackled.  Neither Tait nor anyone else realized that the Chiefs would get one more untimed down — plus 15 yards of field position — thanks to Rudd’s faux pas.

The difference in this case is that another lineman who ended up with the ball had indeed been tackled before the helmet came off.  “Game is over,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told PFT by email.  “Not a penalty.”

Though this interpretation seems to support the notion that, once the final gun sounds and any active play ends, players can throw helmets (or fists) without any fear of being flagged, the safest approach for every player is to continue to honor all rules on the books until clear of the playing field.

8.  Big tests coming for Bengals.

I’ve yet to get too caught up in the success of the Cincinnati Bengals, despite their six wins in eight games.  They’ve yet to play the Steelers or the Ravens, and we’ll all learn a lot more about the Bengals when they do.

The process gets started next week, when the Steelers invade Cincinnati for the Bengals’ first sold-out home game of the season.  Then comes a trip to Baltimore.

Split the next two games, and the Bengals will be taken seriously.  Win them both, and it’ll be time to start talking about the Bengals as a potential No. 1 seed.  Lose both, however, and the Bengals will be viewed as a group of overachievers who benefited from a fairly soft schedule in the early part of the season.

9.  Jets inject much-needed transparency into concussion diagnosis.

Early in Sunday’s game between the Jets and Bills, New York tight end Dustin Keller exited with what appeared to be a concussion.  Labeled questionable with a head injury, Keller surprisingly returned to the game after halftime.

In the hopes of getting a better understanding of the manner in which the Jets handled the delicate and, for many fans, confusing process of determining whether or not a player has suffered a concussion, PFT sent a series of questions to the Jets.  To their credit, the Jets provided substantive answers to every one.

Each question and answer appears below.

1.  Who examined Keller and what is the person’s title?

Dr. Damion Martins, team internist, sports medicine specialist trained in concussion evaluation.  The results of the testing, along with additional player evaluation, were all reviewed and cleared by the head team physician, Dr Kenneth Montgomery.

2. What tests were imposed?

The NFL League sideline evaluation form was utilized — passed. Balance testing (BESS Testing) — passed, exercise stress test — passed. Dustin returned only after all tests passed as good or better than baseline testing, and symptom free.

3. Where did the evaluation occur?

The evaluation occurred in the locker room to assure a quiet and distraction-free environment.

4. When was the decision made that he would return?

Once it was confirmed that the player passed all tests and felt absolutely normal.  If he was not perfect, he would not have returned.  We are very conservative and the players we have held out so far this year were Donald Strickland, Garrett McIntyre, and Matthias Berning.

5.  Was there any suspicion that he’d suffered a concussion?

He felt “dizzy” immediately after the play but felt fine by the time he reached the sideline. He denied symptoms on sideline evaluation and passed a simple sideline questionnaire on the bench. Out of respect for the injury, we took him to the locker room to perform a thorough evaluation to be sure. We were concerned enough to perform the testing, but all signs and tests suggest that he did not have a concussion.

6.  The was questionable to return with a “head” injury — what was the specific injury to his head?

He hit his head and was dizzy for several seconds. That is why we listed it as his head. He was questionable only during the time he was being evaluated. His symptoms cleared immediately. It happens to several players in every NFL game.

7. Was any testing conducted at halftime?  If so, by whom and what were they?

The extensive testing above occurred before half time. He participated in team meetings at halftime with his teammates. We checked on him several times after each offensive series and he remained symptom free.

8. Were further tests conducted after the game?

We evaluated him after the game and he remained symptom free. We will continue to check on him as the week progresses.

This is precisely the kind of transparency that is needed, if fans and the media are going to properly understand the manner in which teams decide whether a player has suffered a concussion.  The fact that the release of this information is not required by the league’s injury-reporting rules makes the team’s decision to share the data even more admirable.

10.  The Steelers, on the other hand, choose secrecy.

On Sunday night, Steelers receiver Hines Ward sustained a helmet-to-helmet hit.  He left the game and didn’t return, remaining on the sidelines throughout the rest of the game.  NBC’s Michele Tafoya reported at one point that Ward had suffered a “stinger,” and that he was questionable to return to the game.  Michele also pointed out that Ward’s helmet had been taken from him.

After the game, coach Mike Tomlin admitted that Ward suffered from “concussion-like symptoms,” a term that the Steelers first coined several weeks ago in connection with safety Troy Polamalu.

So PFT  sent several questions to the Steelers: (1) Was he evaluated for a concussion?; (2) If so, by whom?;  (3) Was he at any point diagnosed with a concussion?  If so, when?; (4)  Who diagnosed him with a stinger?; (5) Was his helmet taken from him?; (6) What were his specific symptoms?

In response, the team opted to provide no information beyond Coach Tomlin’s post-game comments.

Hopefully, the league office will pose those same questions to the Steelers, and maybe a few more.  Last year, the Steelers concealed a concussion that Ward had suffered during a Sunday night game, calling it a neck injury and keeping him on the sidelines for the balance of the contest.  After the season, the NFL mandated that all concussed players be taken to the locker room for the balance of the game, based in part on the Steelers’ handling of Ward’s concussion.

The Steelers apparently have now crafted a new loophole based on the use of the term “concussion-like symptoms.”

At least they didn’t try to say that Ward had dirt on his face.

Week Eight Monday 10-pack

Getty Images

It’s the midpoint of the season, sort of.  Eight weeks are in the books, but only eight teams have played eight games.  For the other 24, the season won’t hit the turn until next week.

And while we’re starting to get a feel for the good teams and the bad teams and the in-between teams, the any-given-Sunday vibe remains alive and well — and the fortunes of teams can change quickly, for good or bad.

Until we crown a champion, we can dabble only in a series of snapshots as to where teams are right now.  Here are 10 of them, plenty of which may fade to black by the time January rolls around.

1.  Super Bowl rematch coming?

In August, as teams scrambled to slap together game-ready rosters without the benefit of an offseason program or traditional two-a-day workouts, it was believed that the teams who played deep into the 2010 season would have a real benefit.

And the two teams that played the deepest presumably had the biggest benefit.

From the start, the Packers showed that they’d be able to pick up right where they left off.  For the Steelers, they needed a month to find their groove, but they’ve found it in a huge way, with four straight wins punctuated by a table-turning, trend-reversing victory over Tom Brady and the Patriots, highlighted by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s long-con rope-a-dope in which he convinced the Pats based on years of stubbornness that the defense wouldn’t change despite chronic struggles against offenses that spread things out and quarterbacks that could make decisions faster than the Steelers could get to the quarterbacks.

Now, nearly two months into the season, the Steelers and Packers appear to be on a collision course for a rematch, 18 years after the last time the two Super Bowl teams got back together for a second straight year.

Yes, everything is subject to change.  But when the dust settles on the 2011 season, there’s a chance that, at the very top, there will be no change at all.

2.  Eagles may have something to say about that.

After Sunday night’s thrashing of the Cowboys, there’s a new team that could disrupt Green Bay’s run to the Super Bowl.  And it’s the team that many were ready to hand the Lombardi without even playing the season.

The Eagles finally put it together on both sides of the ball in that 34-7 win over the Cowboys, and if the Eagles can keep it up they could beat the Packers in Green Bay in January.

Tony Dungy of Football Night in America pointed out after the game that the Eagles match up well with the Packers.  Indeed, the Eagles nearly knocked off the Packers in the wild-card round last year.

This year, the Eagles would be the underdog.  It’s a role they seem to relish much more than being dubbed a Dream Team.

3.  Ravens may have something to say about it, too.

Yes, they lost to the Jaguars a week ago.  Yes, they fell behind the Cardinals by three touchdowns on Sunday.  But the Ravens still have the pieces to put together a deep run into the playoffs, and they play up (and, unfortunately for them, down) to the level of the competition.

The Ravens match up well with the best teams in the conference, as long as they can get past the Steelers.  And they can go a long way toward getting past the Steelers if they can beat them next Sunday night in Pittsburgh.

Either way, the Steelers and Ravens seem destined to play again in January, for the third time in four years.  And the Ravens could be the only AFC team that could defeat the Steelers come the postseason, whether the game is played in Maryland or Pennsylvania.

4.  Tony Dungy said it the right way.

On Sunday, Bill Cowher said he doesn’t “plan” to coach next year, and that he “plans” to be in the same seat at CBS next year.  It’s a different twist on Jon Gruden’s approach to keeping his name out of circulation during a season.  Gruden signed an “exclusive” contract with ESPN, and ESPN won’t say whether “exclusive” means he can’t leave the network for a coaching job.

Neither man has said unequivocally that he won’t be coaching in 2012.  Tony Dungy showed them how to do it during Football Night in America, stating without doubt or ambiguity or wiggle words that he won’t be coaching next year.

So until Cowher and Gruden follow suit, they’ll be regarded as potential candidates for coaching jobs once January comes around.

5.  Chris Johnson is doing it the wrong way.

It’s hard to pinpoint the reasons for Titans running back Chris Johnson’s struggles.  Apart from the holdout and the new offense and the new offensive coordinator and the new quarterback, one thing is clear:  Johnson lacks the explosiveness that we used to see on a weekly basis.

It was obvious today when Johnson caught a pass and had some space with which to operate, after weeks of taking a handoff and being swallowed up by defenders before he could make it to daylight.  The old Chris Johnson would have rocketed to the endzone untouched.  The new Chris Johnson was swallowed up by defenders.

Something’s wrong with Johnson, and the question isn’t whether he’ll get it back this year.  The question is whether he’ll get it back ever.

6.  Time for a new position for Tebow.

I’ll admit it.  I was caught up in the Tebow story from last week.  Making the dramatic closing moments of the home-away-from-home game at Miami even more compelling was the fact that Tebow had been so terribly awful in the three-plus quarters before the offense woke up.

But Tebow managed to take down one of the worst teams in the league.  Sunday’s game at home against the Lions showed that Tebow simply isn’t ready to be an NFL quarterback.

It’s easy to say that he’s a work in progress.  But not every unfinished painting becomes a masterpiece.  Tebow, once fully developed, could be a .500 quarterback at best.

And that means it’s time for the Broncos to consider their alternatives.  The ultimate team player probably would move to a new position, especially if no other team wants to let him play quarterback.  But maybe it simply won’t work to take a guy who had been a quarterback and move him to a new spot on the same team.  Maybe the Broncos simply need to dump him after the season.

Either way, this experiment is well on its way to failing.  After a few more weeks — and a few more damning columns in the hometown paper — the Tebowmaniacs in Denver likely will agree.

7.  Temporary end of the bye-week blues.

Through Week Seven, teams emerging from byes were 3-9.  In Week Eight, the teams with byes last Sunday won five and lost only one.

It was believed that the five days off mandated by the labor agreement had been a factor in the 25-percent winning percentage.  But now, with the total success rate up to 40 percent, it’s hard to tell whether the time off actually hurts.

It definitely didn’t hurt the Eagles, especially since Andy Reid is now 13-0 after the regular-season bye.

Moving forward, count on the teams that lost to look at the things done by the teams that won in the hopes of finding a way to win after the bye week in 2012.

8.  Breaking a “Suck for Luck” deadlock.

So with the Colts at 0-8 and the Dolphins at 0-7 and their paths not crossing in 2011, plenty of readers have asked for more information about the procedure that would apply if the two teams finish 0-16.

Several times in recent years, draft order has been determined by a coin flip.  So could the ability to draft Andrew Luck be determined by a rudimentary game of chance?

In this case, that most likely won’t happen, since the Colts and Dolphins are in the same conference.

First, the strength of schedule would be compared.  That means the total wins and losses of the Colts’ opponents would be compared to the total wins and losses of the Dolphins’ opponents.  If the numbers are the same, the process would move on to the next step.

Second, the division or conference tie-breakers apply, if applicable.  In other words, the various steps that would be used to determine a wild-card berth would be employed to determine the “better” (and thus the “worse”) team.  This would ultimately bring into play the following specific and detailed factors that surely would produce a winner (i.e. loser):  best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed; best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed; best net points in conference games; best net points in all games; best net touchdowns in all games.

If each of those steps results in a tie, the final step would be a coin flip.  But, surely, the two teams won’t tie on each of those specific factors.

Coin flips for draft picks happen when the two tied teams are in different conferences.  In those cases, the factors are strength of schedule and coin flip.

So in a Colts-vs.-Dolphins showdown for Luck, someone will “win” the pick based on losing as to one of the various factors listed above.

9.  ‘Skins could make a run for Luck.

Though they have three wins, the Redskins’ performance over the past several weeks suggests they won’t have many more.  And that could cause the Redskins to plunge toward the Andrew Luck splash zone.

Even if the Redskins lose the rest of their games, they most likely won’t “earn” the top pick.  Still, the closer they are to the top of the order, the less it will take to finish the climb via trade.

And if Luck decides he doesn’t want to play for the team that finishes in the first spot, and if he determines that he’d like to play for the Redskins, who knows?  Mike Shanahan could get the best quarterback since the one with whom Shanahan won a pair of Super Bowls in Denver.

10.  League needs to expand reviewable plays.

As the NFL gradually expands its use of instant replay, the league needs to be willing to consider whether further changes are needed.  The most recent tweak to the system seems to cry out for a more radical overhaul.

Late in the Patriots-Steelers game, with New England trailing by six, quarterback Tom Brady was hit, forcing a fumble.  During the scramble for the ball, safety Troy Polamalu dove for it, deftly slapping the thing hard across the goal line.  The ball ultimately rolled out of the back of the end zone for a safety.  In real time and at full speed, it was hard to see that Polamalu whacked the ball toward the two-pointer.  The replays revealed that Polamalu had indeed pushed the ball into the end zone.

But when referee Mike Carey reviewed the play, since it involved a score, Carey had no power to overturn the non-call on the field as it related to Polamalu’s punching of the ball, because that specific action is not on the pre-set list of reviewable plays.

Though the play would have been subject to a booth-initiated review even if it had happened before the 2011 season, given that it happened in the final two minutes of the game, the league’s expanded commitment to getting it right compels the league to ditch the list of specifically reviewable actions and to make everything reviewable, with specific exceptions carved out.

If the overriding goal is indeed to get it right, the league should exempt from review only those judgment calls made based on a three-dimensional observation of the action that can’t and shouldn’t be second-guessed by a two-dimensional representation of it.  Other than pass interference and the question of whether a receiver was in the vicinity of a pass being assessed for intentional grounding, there are few (and possibly no) pure judgment calls.  Thus, once the referee goes under the hood to review a play, he should be able to change the outcome based on anything he sees that should have been seen in real time.

The concern about prolonging the game shouldn’t matter.  If, on scoring plays and all plays occurring with fewer than two minutes in each half, the referee watches the entire play for anything that could be overturned, the delay already has been injected into the process.  The only remaining question is whether the referee will be permitted to fix any error that he sees.

Week Seven Monday 10-pack


On paper, Week Seven didn’t present an overabundance of compelling contests.  But no matter how interesting, or otherwise, the games look on paper, there are always plenty of things to discuss.

For our purposes, there usually are 10.

It’s funny how it works out that way.

1.  Ross shouldn’t want Urban Meyer, and vice-versa.

It’s now a foregone conclusion that Tony Sparano, only three years after presiding over a stunning turnaround in Miami, eventually will be the former head coach of the team.  With an 0-6 start and only one win at Sun Life Stadium in 13 attempts since December 2009, it’s only a matter of time before Sparano is sent packing.

Owner Stephen Ross, whose clumsy pursuit of former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh in January significantly undermined Sparano, was spotted standing next to former Florida coach Urban Meyer on the sidelines near the end of Sunday’s “home” loss to the Broncos, sparking speculation that Meyer meets the definition of the superstar coach whom Ross covets.

Neither guy should be interested.

Meyer, who has no experience at the NFL level, quit coaching at Florida due to health concerns.  It would be no easier for him at the pro level, where the coaches work even harder — and where the inability to fully utilize the recruiting skills that make guys like Meyer great college coaches becomes a constant source of frustration.  (Also, if Meyer values his friendship with Bill Belichick, he won’t set up shop in Belichick’s division.)

Then there’s the fact that precious few college coaches ever succeed at the NFL level.  Harbaugh represents a rare exception, likely fueled by the fact that he played for years at the NFL level.

Ross, who has little experience as an NFL owner, should realize that Meyer’s success at the college level won’t necessarily translate.  And Ross should have realized that if he lingered on the sidelines for too long with Meyer, Meyer would be perceived by some as a potential candidate for the job — even if he isn’t.

Even if he is, Ross should be avoiding any actions that would advance the perception that Sparano will soon be the former coach of the Dolphins.

Of course, Sparano will soon be the former coach of the Dolphins.  But Ross shouldn’t be doing anything to create the sense that soon is coming sooner than later, especially if Ross hopes to stay the course in order to land Andrew Luck.

2.  Colts could be sucking for Luck, too.

Through the first six weeks of the season, it seemed that the Colts eventually would get their wins, given that they lost relatively close games to the likes of the Steelers, Browns, Colts, Bucs, and Bengals.  But Indy’s seventh straight loss came on a night in which they scored only seven points — and gave up a franchise record of 62.

As the losses mount and the games become less competitive, the question becomes whether the Colts will beat the Dolphins in their respective plunges to the bottom, and whether the Colts (like the Dolphins) are happy to finish last, since last will be the first when the time comes to get Andrew Luck.

If so, the mantra for Jim Irsay, Bill Polian, and company should be the same as it is (or at least should be) in Miami:  Stay the course.  Keep the coach in place.  Don’t change a thing.

Two games against the one-win Jags could ultimately decide whether the Colts get Luck.  And so the clear incentive for the Jaguars should be, if they hope to not have to have Luck twice per year, to lose those games.

Though the league surely isn’t inclined to acknowledge the possibility of owners secretly hoping to lose and/or bad teams taking subtle steps to avoid the agony of victory, the NFL needs to be monitoring the situation closely as the season unfolds.  NFL spokesman Greg Aiello previously told PFT that the league won’t pre-emptively implement a draft lottery.  The question, then, is whether the league would be willing to strip the first-round pick away from any team that is proven to be trying to lose on purpose.

The answer to that question should be yes.  The much harder question will be proving it.

3.  Peyton should get MVP votes without playing.

Every year, debates emerge regarding the proper determination of the league’s Most Valuable Player.  A reader made an excellent point on that point during the Sunday Night Football Extra live chat.

Could Colts quarterback Peyton Manning merit MVP votes by not taking a single snap this year?

It’s an intriguing concept.  What better way to prove a guy’s value than to have Clarence the Angel give us all a one-year look at what the player’s team would be without him?

We’ve seen some goofy, wild-hair Associated Press ballots over the years (in 2010, for example, rookie LeGarrette Blount received a vote for comeback player of the year), and it won’t surprise me at all if at least one voter concludes that Manning’s absence proves he’s indeed the most valuable player in the game — far more valuable than Tom Brady, whose team won 11 games without him in 2008.

4.  Whisenhunt could soon be feeling the heat.

The Cardinals went all in with Kevin Kolb in the hopes of returning to prominence in the NFC West.  Coach Ken Whisenhunt surely realized that the move could go a long way toward determining his future with the organization.

The fact that Jim Harbaugh has taken the reins of the 49ers and immediately converted them into a serious contender will make it harder for more established coaches to justify ongoing struggles.  And so, with the Cardinals sliding to 1-5 and the Niners at 5-1, Whisenhunt’s seat at some point will begin to heat up.

In early 2010, the final two years of his original deal were replaced with a four-year contract, putting him under contract through 2013.  It’s unlikely that the notoriously parsimonious Cardinals would fund two years of a buyout.  (Then again, they’ve done it before.)  If Whisenhunt survives the end of the 2011 season, 2012 could become Whisenhunt’s extension-or-extinction year with the franchise.

Here’s hoping the Cardinals give him some more time.  He’s a solid coach, and he achieved much more in 2008 and 2009 than the franchise had done since Harry S. Truman was in the White House.  Unless the Cardinals find a way to turn things around, however, the questions will begin to arise and intensify.

5.  AFC West suddenly is wide open.

In future years, when we all assume based on three or four weeks of football that certain teams will stink and that others are destined to play in late January, we all need to remember the manner in which the AFC West has unfolded in 2011.  Before Sunday, it was believed that the Chargers and Raiders would battle for supremacy in the division, and that the Chiefs and Broncos would be jockeying for the basement.

Now, the Chargers have fallen to 4-2 and the hype-heavy 4-3 Raiders stepped into a 28-0 tomahawk from the Chiefs, who had been left for dead at 0-3 and who are now 3-3.

And don’t forget the Tebow-led Broncos, who have climbed to 2-4 in advance of a visit from the suddenly limping Lions.

With 10 games left for three of the teams and nine for the Raiders, any of these four can capture the crown.

6.  It could be T.O. time for Titans.

Titans coach Mike Munchak has said that the team could be interested in receiver Terrell Owens.  With Owens supposedly healthy, the time has come for the Titans to kick his tires.

After starting 3-1 and losing their last two games by a combined score of 79-24, the Titans need a kick in the pants.  It’s apparently not coming from running back Chris Johnson, who gained only 18 yards on 10 carries, and who then deflected the blame for his performance.

If the Titans hope to topple the Texans, the only hope could come from T.O. giving the team a spark.

With no other options for coming close to replacing Kenny Britt, who tore an ACL last month, there’s apparently only one way to go.  They need to consider the man who tore an ACL during the lockout.

7.  Saints see the downside of running back rotation.

It’s a problem that doesn’t come up often for most teams.  What do you do when you’re up by 40 points with more than 20 minutes to play?

The Saints protected quarterback Drew Brees, inserting Chase Daniel late in the third quarter.  The Saints also protected Daniel, calling 11 runs for the team’s final eleven plays.

But when a team uses a three-back rotation and running plays are necessary to run out the clock, the running backs need to run the ball, in turn running the risk they’ll be injured.  That’s exactly what happened to Mark Ingram, who left with an injury to his heel.  And that required the other two backs, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, to keep running the ball.

Since the Saints have only three running backs on the active roster, they had no choice but to expose every guy in the rotation to the risk of injury.  It’s one of the rarely-realized problems with an approach that entails the presence, and regular use, of a trio of big-name backs.

8.  Forte keeps proving his worth.

The Bears and running back Matt Forte can’t agree on his value.  Meanwhile, Forte keeps proving that his value is closer to his own evaluation of it.

On Sunday in England, Forte racked up 183 total yards from scrimmage, including 145 rushing on a 5.8 yards-per-carry average.  For the season, he has 672 yards and a 5.4-yard average.

So where is this one heading?  Since Forte hasn’t held out — and surely won’t walk out — the Bears know they’ll get the most out of him in 2011, even as he continues to bear the risk of serious injury.  And if he gets through the season unscathed, the Bears can apply the franchise tag and squat on Forte’s rights for 2012 and, if they so choose, 2013, giving him a good raise but keeping him from getting a huge payday, and constantly keeping the injury risk on his shoulders.

By the end of the 2013 season, Forte will be 28 when he walks away, and he’ll be subject to an open market that is very soft for veteran free agents, especially those who are getting closer and closer to 30.

By then, the Bears will be ready to plug in a young tailback who can provide production close to Forte, at a much cheaper rate of pay than what it would take to keep him.

9.  DeMarco makes his mark.

With Felix Jones out and Tashard Choice on the trading block before Jones went down, we should have known that DeMarco Murray would get the first crack at proving he can get it done.

And he sure did.

Yes, Choice got the start.  But Murray made the most of his chances, from his first 91-yard carry to a final tally of 253 yards on 25 carries.

The question now becomes whether the Cowboys will ride Murray as far as they can, or whether Jones will step back in as the starter once his high ankle sprain heals.  Either way, the Cowboys found a much-needed boost, even if it came against a Rams team that has been repeatedly bounced around this year.

10.  Fear the Falcons?

After a home loss to the Packers dropped the Falcons to 2-3, many assumed they’d simply fall apart, especially since the reward for turning it around would be another date with Green Bay, this time at Lambeau Field.

Thanks to quarterback Matt Ryan, who has stepped up when the team needed him the most, the Falcons soar into their bye at 4-3 after back-to-back wins over the Panthers and Lions.

Ryan delivered the victory over the Panthers, and he returned from an ankle injury that looked far worse than it ended up being to cement the win in Detroit.

After a week off, the schedule features games against the Colts, Jags, Titans, Vikings, and Panthers again.  That’s a recipe for a nine-win season; this team’s ultimate fate will be determined based on its fortunes against the Saints (twice), the Texans, and a rematch with the Buccaneers.

With as many losses in 2011 as they had in all of 2010, the Falcons may have adopted a nothing-to-lose mentality.  And that could make them very dangerous, especially if they come across the Packers again.

Week Six Monday 10-pack

Getty Images

Every week, the NFL gives us something rare or unprecedented.  On Sunday, the post-game altercation between 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and Lions coach Jim Schwartz was unprecedented.

But now that something like that has happened, will it happen again?  The league’s reaction could go a long way toward deciding that.

Before going much farther with this, let’s shift from introduction to topic No. 1 in our 10-item look at the Sunday that was.

1.  Where have you gone, Tom Landry?

Not that long ago, all coaches exuded a sense of dignity toward the game and respect toward each other.  From Tom Landry to Chuck Noll to Bud Grant to John Madden to Don Shula, coaches didn’t treat each other like opponents in the main event of the next pro wrestling pay-per-view.  Even when Buddy Ryan was coaching, he was the lone exception — perhaps along with Jimmy Johnson, the man who succeeded Landry in Dallas.

One G.M. who requested anonymity blamed Sunday’s scrum between Harbaugh and Schwartz on Buddy’s son, Rex Ryan, who has introduced a new era of big talking NFL coaches.  From Rex to Josh McDaniels to Todd Haley to Jim Harbaugh to Jim Schwartz, more and more coaches are displaying confidence — and emotion — both in their words and in their actions.

It never became truly physical until Sunday, with Harbaugh exuberantly shoving Schwartz in the back and then Schwartz bumping Harbaugh.  Given that the NFL liberally metes out discipline against players who misbehave, the league shouldn’t hesitate to make an example out of Harbaugh, who unwittingly started the problem by not dialing down the celebration when shaking Schwartz’s hand, and Schwartz, who deliberately finished it by chasing Harbaugh down and bumping him.  Given that the example set by the NFL trickles down to all other levels of the sport, the league needs to make a strong statement that coaches who act like overgrown kindergartners will be dealt with swiftly and severely.

We personally like Harbaugh and Schwartz.  But we don’t like what they did today.  And we think that the league needs to quit talking about holding coaches to a higher standard and start actually holding them to a higher standard.  If the league doesn’t, the bar will keep sinking lower and lower.

2.  Niners could be in line for 12 or 13 wins.

Far more amazing than the 49ers’ 5-1 record is the fact that they’ve compiled that mark against a schedule that has included only one NFC West foe — and three games in the Eastern part of the country.

When the Niners emerge from their bye, they’ll face a slate of game that includes two against the 0-5 Rams, two against the 1-4 Cardinals, one against the 2-3 Seahawks, and contests against the Browns, Redskins, Giants, Ravens, and Steelers.

A 7-3 record in those 10 games translates to a 12-4 finish.  Based on how the 49ers have played so far, they could win eight or even nine of their next 10 games.  Which would virtually guarantee the No. 2 seed, at a minimum, in the NFC playoff field.

3.  League needs to investigate Vick’s “injury”.

In the third quarter of Sunday’s win over the Redskins, Eagles quarterback Mike Vick took off running with the ball.  He absorbed a helmet-to-helmet hit, before his head hit the ground.

Vick was motionless for a few seconds.  When he got to his feet, with clumps of sod in the top of his face mask, a la Kevin Kolb in Week One of the 2010 season, Vick seemed a little groggy and disoriented.  He eventually left the playing field, and Vince Young entered the game.

After Young threw an ugly interception on his first attempt, Vick suddenly was healed.

FOX’s Laura Okmin reported the team’s official position — Vick had the dreaded football condition known as dirt on his face (even though Vick uses a visor).  Eagles spokesman Derek Boyko separately told PFT via e-mail that Vick also had the wind knocked out of him.

Sorry, but we think someone is throwing something other than dirt in our faces on this one.  Given that Vick would have been prevented from returning to a game that the Eagles desperately needed to win at a time when the game was still in the balance, it’s hard not to be suspicious.

The league should be suspicious, too.  And the league needs to institute procedures to ensure that, whenever a player leaves a game with “dirt on his face” or the wind knocked out of him or whatever cockamamie excuse a team may offer when the video suggests a possible concussion, there will be no doubt or suspicion about the player’s condition if/when he re-enters the game.

4.  League finally gets it right with Burleson call.

Too many times over the past few years, catches in the end zone that appeared to be touchdowns ultimately were ruled not to be catches due to application of a rule that initially was intended to include within the definition of a catch those situations in which the ball touches the ground.  Setting aside for now the wisdom of ever treating a catch as a catch when the ball makes contact with anything other than the player, the officials and the league office have had a hard time with this rule when the catch is made — or not made — in the end zone.

From plays involving Louis Murphy to Dante Rosario to Mike Sims-Walker to Lance Moore in Super Bowl XLV to Calvin Johnson to various other examples, the application of the rule has at times defied common sense and/or the language of the rulebook.  The problem arises when the receiver is going to the ground.  In such situations, the receiver must maintain possession through the act of falling.  But when the act of falling includes breaking the plane of the goal line, the NFL has ruled at times (mistakenly, in our view) that the play ended as soon as the ball passed into the front of the end zone.

This year, the league has emphasized the element of time, treating such plays as valid receptions if the receiver who, while going to the ground, had enough time to make a football move, regardless of whether a football move is actually made.  Fittingly, the NFL got it right not once but twice for the Lions on Sunday, via touchdown receptions made by tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who lost the ball only after clearly being on the ground, and by receiver Nate Burleson, who caught the ball and stumbled toward the turf and, in eerie similarity to the Calvin Johnson play from a year ago, lost possession of the ball when the ball struck the ground while in his hand.

During Football Night in America, the Johnson play from 2010 and the Burleson play from 2011 were shown side by side.  Both looked like touchdowns.  The fact that the more recent one was correctly ruled to be a touchdown shows that there’s hope that the league has finally figured out how to make the ruling mesh with the expectations of the average fan watching a game.

5.  It’s Beck time in D.C.

The Shanahans supposedly love John Beck.  Now that the guy who beat out Beck has landed on the bench during Sunday’s loss to the Eagles, it’s time to see what Beck can do.

Coach Mike Shanahan said he’ll make a decision on Wednesday.  It would be shocking if the decision is anything other than Beck starting.

Grossman has had his chance.  He played better than anyone thought he would play.  But as we said back in early September, the guy who wins that job merely wins the right to lose it first.  Grossman has lost it, and now we’ll see whether Beck can keep it.

If he’s as good as the Shanahans say he is, he will.

6.  The trade deadline comes too early.

The NFL’s trade deadline falls roughly one third of the way into the regular season, far earlier than the corresponding date for the other major league sports.  As a result, not many trades happen.

They don’t happen because teams aren’t ready to fold their tents after only six weeks, which for a dozen teams this year means only five games.  There’s simply too much time left in the season to justify a fire sale, if the team hopes to keep its fan base engaged (i.e., paying for tickets and/or watching on TV).

And that’s precisely why the trade deadline comes when it does.  If it landed a month from now, some teams would dump salaries and/or unload looming free agents they have no hope of keeping, sending a clear message to the fan base not to bother with rooting — and giving contending teams a chance to fatten up their rosters in the hopes of partially mortgaging their futures for a Super Bowl run.

7.  It’s the Packers, a gap, and everyone else.

One thing we know through six weeks of the season is that the Packers are, without question, the best team in the league.  They continue to look like the team that found its groove in the 2010 postseason, and it now seems highly likely that, barring an injury to Aaron Rodgers, they’ll be the top seed in the NFC.

Which mean that the road to Indy will wind through Lambeau Field.

Which means that the Packers could end up doing what no Packers team has done since the first two Super Bowls — winning back-to-back titles.

Given the way this team is playing, it’s not too early to start wondering whether the Packers could be the first team to win three straight Super Bowls.

8.  Unlucky Texans still have a lucky draw in their division.

In coach Gary Kubiak’s make-or-break season, the Texans can’t catch a break.  Linebacker Mario Williams is gone for the year.  Receiver Andre Johnson is gone until further notice.  They drew the Saints on the fifth anniversary of the reopening of the Superdome, the Raiders the day after Al Davis died.

On Sunday, Houston had to go to Baltimore to face a rested Ravens teams.

Next Sunday, the Texans go to Tennessee, to play a Titans team that is also coming off a bye week.  Still, the Texans have to contend only with the Titans in the AFC South; the Jaguars and the Colts have a combined record of 1-11.

Though it would be ironic if the team that used to be in Houston keeps the team currently in Houston out of the postseason, the 3-3 Texans remain in great shape to win their first division title.

If they can take care of the Titans.

9.  We’ll learn a lot about the Bengals soon.

Through six games, the Bengals have beaten the 2-3 Browns, the 4-2 Bills, the 1-5 Jaguars, and the 0-6 Colts.  Cincinnati has lost to the 5-1 49ers and the 1-4 Broncos.

It’s still too early to tell whether the Bengals are for real.  After their bye, we’ll get an idea.

The Bengals go to Seattle and Tennessee before facing in consecutive weeks the Steelers and Ravens.  Then, the Bengals play the Browns, the Steelers again, and the Texans.

Those seven games will let us all know whether the first six games were a fluke.

10.  Pryor suspension hurts the Raiders.

With starting quarterback Jason Campbell gone, perhaps for the rest of the season, with a broken collarbone, the Raiders need help.  They reportedly want Carson Palmer.

They possibly wouldn’t need Palmer, or any other veteran quarterback, if the league hadn’t suspended rookie Terrelle Pryor five games to start the season.

If Pryor, who arrived late in the preseason after the league dragged its feet on the scheduling of the supplemental draft, had been able to practice for the first five weeks of the season, Pryor could be ready to play.  Given what Cam Newton and Andy Dalton have been able to accomplish as rookies, there’s no reason to think Pryor isn’t the real thing — or that he wouldn’t be ready if he had been able to prepare during weeks that he otherwise was frozen out.

If the Raiders can’t get Palmer or sign another veteran, they should try to get Pryor ready sooner.  If, as Jon Gruden supposedly believes, Pryor has a higher upside than Cam Newton, it makes sense to start finding out what that upside is.

Week Four Monday 10-pack


We’ve reached the quarter pole of the NFL season.  I don’t really know what a quarter pole is, and I’m not sure of the specific sport in which a quarter pole is used.  I think it’s horse racing.  It could be car racing.

Or maybe it’s fishing.

Either way, that’s where we are right now.  Every team has completed 25 percent of its schedule, and now the fantasy-football frustrations of the bye weeks begin.  Here are 10 takes from the largest slate of Sunday games that will be played until the last Sunday of the regular season, on January 1.

1.  Big deficit?  Big deal.

In the old (i.e., last year and before) NFL, a 20-point lead almost always translated to a victory.  In the new (i.e., this year) NFL, when a team falls behind by 20 points, the reaction of the players on the losing team apparently is to rub their hands together and say, “We’ve got them right where we want them.”

Last week, two teams clawed their way out of 20-point deficits:  the Lions at the Vikings and the Bills versus the Patriots.  This week, two more teams came back from 20 or more behind:  the Lions at the Cowboys and the 49ers at the Eagles.

It’s not as if the Vikings, Patriots, Cowboys, and Eagles are each constructed like the Oilers of the early ’90s.  (OK, the all-pass, no-defense, weak-running-game Pats are close to being the Oilers of the early ’90s.)  But in this throw-happy NFL, it seems as if teams have lost the formula for holding a 20-point margin when fewer than 30 minutes remain to be played.

For the teams that have pulled off what was once unthinkable, the jury remains out on the long-term value of that extra shot of confidence.  The Bills followed their feat by laying an egg in Cincinnati.  The Lions clawed out of a 20-point hole one week only to see the 20 and raise it by four the next.

Regardless, what we’ve seen this season is great for the game.  What once was enough to get fans to change the channel no longer can be regarded as a done deal.

In other words, it truly ain’t over until it actually is over.

2.  Roughing the passer should be subject to replay review.

During overtime of the first round of the 2009 playoffs, referee Scott Green was so focused on the question of whether Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ arm was moving forward on a fumble that resulted in the game-winning touchdown for the Cardinals that Green didn’t notice a blatant pull of the face mask of Rodgers’ helmet.

During the second quarter of Sunday night’s game between the Jets and Ravens, referee Mike Carey was so focused on the question of whether Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez’s arm was moving forward on a fumble that resulted in a touchdown that put the Ravens up by 20 that Carey didn’t notice a blatant placement of defensive tackle Haloti Ngata’s helmet into Sanchez’s back.

It shouldn’t have happened that way.  The flag should have been thrown, and the touchdown should have been wiped off the board.  Ngata engaged in a clear violation of the rule against hitting defenseless players with a helmet, even though he didn’t hit Sanchez in the helmet.  (Last year, Steelers linebacker James Harrison was fined $20,000 for a similar — but less forceful — hit on Saints quarterback Drew Brees.)

So when the play was being reviewed, why didn’t Carey throw a flag then?  It didn’t happen because whether or not roughing the passer occurred isn’t something that is subject to the replay rules.

That needs to change.  Apart from what should be a stubborn desire to “get it right,” the NFL should have an even keener interest in ensuring that the safety rules are enforced.  Since the question of whether a defensive player hit the quarterback in the helmet or with a helmet isn’t a matter of judgment or discretion, this important aspect of the league’s efforts to protect defenseless players should be added to the litany of passing-game particulars that can be reviewed via replay.

3.  It’s time to bid farewell to McNabb.

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier isn’t ready to bench quarterback Donovan McNabb.  Frazier may be resisting because Frazier knows that, if/when McNabb is benched, he’ll also have to be cut.

McNabb won’t want to play second fiddle to a rookie on a rag-tag team.  If Donovan is going to be a backup, he’d rather be a backup on a team that has a chance of playing in January.  Or maybe he simply won’t be able to accept the fact that he’s no longer good enough to be anything more than a backup.

Either way, having McNabb around won’t help the development of Christian Ponder.

And even though plenty of blame can be placed on plenty of people in purple other than McNabb, the reality is that McNabb has led the team to zero wins in four tries — and in each game McNabb has presided over a blown lead.

Though the lead blown on Sunday was never very sizable, he still failed to hold it.  Then, when there was a chance to win the game late, he threw four straight incomplete passes in Kansas City territory.

With the Vikings possibly on track to pick quarterback Andrew Luck, the Vikings need to figure out whether they need him.  And the only way to do that is to figure out whether they want Ponder.

4.  Luck sweepstakes feature a team that doesn’t need a quarterback.

If the 0-3 Colts end up with the first pick in the draft, they may or may not take Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.  The presence of the first pick in the 1998 draft, Peyton Manning, will be a major factor in the decision-making process.

If the 0-4 Rams — who are now destined to go 0-7 with upcoming games against the Packers, Cowboys, and Saints — finish in the top spot, they surely wouldn’t take Luck only two years after landing Sam Bradford.

Or would they?  Widely regarded as the best quarterback prospect since Manning (if not even better), a complete meltdown in St. Louis could cause owner Stan Kroenke to re-evaluate every job in the organization.  If Kroenke decides to hire a new head coach and/or G.M., all bets would be off on Bradford, the last of the draft-day lottery jackpot winners.

Of course, Luck has some say on this one.  With another year of eligibility remaining at the college level, he could decide to renew his disability insurance policy and wait one more year before jumping to the next level, if he’s not happy with the prospect of playing for the team that holds the first overall pick in the draft once the 2011 season ends.

5.  League’s concussion procedures continue to cause skepticism.

Time and again, we see a player who apparently has suffered a concussion, but whose injury receives a different label altogether.  Whether it’s neck or head or jaw, teams know that mere utterance of the “c” word knocks a guy out for the entire game.

On Sunday, the Steelers said that linebacker James Harrison suffered an eye injury.  Harrison insists that he didn’t suffer a concussion, claiming that the forehead pad in his helmet hit him in the eye after he made a tackle.

The only problem with this is that the injury appeared to happen on a helmet-to-helmet hit from Texans left tackle Duane Brown, and the video doesn’t show any padding sliding into Harrison’s eye.  And he didn’t make the tackle on the play.

Though it could be a matter of semantics, a football player’s desire to play football — coupled with a team’s reluctance to apply a tentative diagnosis that could shut him down automatically — surely influences the handling of borderline cases.  Mild concussions can’t be diagnosed with an X-ray or any other medical instrument.  It’s a judgment call, and it would be naive to assume that decades of the exercise of medical judgment in a manner that allows football players to play football would go completely out the window, especially in close cases.

As a result, truly independent neurologists should be making the assessment of players who may have concussions, and all doubt should be resolved in favor of keeping the player out, unless and until there is clear evidence that no concussion has been suffered.

Of course, that procedure should apply only during a game.  At some point, a lucid player who is suffering some post-concussion symptoms should be permitted to assume the risk of incurring another concussion.  But in the heat of the battle, any player who possibly has had a concussion should be yanked from the game and prevented from returning without proof that he’s indeed concussion-free.

6.  Cris Carter was right, after all.

When ESPN’s Cris Carter inadvertently omitted Lions receiver Calvin Johnson from an off-the-cuff list of the top five receivers in the NFL and then opted to dig in his heels instead of admitting his error, Carter was right.  Sort of.

Johnson isn’t one of the top five receivers in the NFL.  He’s in the top one.  He’s the best, without question.

In his first three seasons, Johnson’s talents had been obscured by the fact that he was the lone bright among Matt Millen’s cruel joke of a football roster.  But there was no denying his potential, even though the Raiders haven’t received nearly the level of criticism they deserve for passing on the guy who already is better than Fred Biletnikoff, Cliff Branch, Tim Brown, and every other standout Raiders wideout combined.

Johnson now has four straight two-touchdown games, tying Carter’s record and putting Johnson on pace for 32 in 2011.  And yet he still sees periodic single coverage.

Then again, it may not matter.  Single, double, triple.  It doesn’t matter.  He’s Randy Moss with more meat on his bones and a better attitude.  (Can you imagine how Moss would have pouted and moped and metastasized his way through a 0-16 season?)

Johnson is, simply put, the new standard for NFL receivers.  We all want to witness something historic.  Right now, in Detroit, we are.

7.  Giving thanks for Thanksgiving.

For years, the early game on Thanksgiving has featured the Lions playing at home.  For years, the game has been inconsequential.

This year, it could be the biggest game of the season.

The 4-0 Packers and the 4-0 Lions won’t meet until the fourth Thursday in November.  There’s a chance (slim, but a chance) that they’ll both be 10-0.  Even if they aren’t, there’s a good chance that they’ll both have a lot more wins that losses — and that their pair of holiday games (Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day) will be the difference between the No. 1 seed in the NFC and a wild-card road trip to San Francisco.

Speaking of San Francisco, the Harbaugh family reunion set for Thanksgiving night should be a pretty good game, too.  If only the Dolphins weren’t playing at Dallas, it would be the best tripleheader the NFL has ever seen.

8.  So much for the Romo re-set button.

After Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo led his team back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit against the 49ers in Week Two, I said that I wanted to see him do that against an eilte team before I’d declare his late-game demons exorcised.

He got his chance against the Lions.  And what happened was so much worse than failing to deliver in the clutch.

There would have been no need for clutch play at all if Romo hadn’t collapsed under the weight of a 24-point lead.  Even then, he had a chance to save the day, and he didn’t get it done.

Romo surely will have more good days and bad days over the course of the season, but it’s impossible to shake the sense that they’ll win just enough times so that he can deliver defeat when the chips are down in the postseason.

9.  Bengals end a long streak of Buffalo futility.

The last time the Bengals beat the Bills before Sunday, the man who wears No. 14 in Cincinnati was only 14 months old.  Between January 8, 1989 and October 2, 2011, the Bills had beaten the Bengals 10 straight times.

It was the longest streak of futility by one team against another team.

Of course, it only became the longest streak last Sunday.  After the Bills beat the Patriots.

What could be more fitting in this crazy, upside-down season than the Bills beating the Pats for the first time in 16 tries than the Bills then losing to an inferior team that had previously lost 10 straight to Buffalo?

10.  Victor Cruz call was the right one.

Sunday’s most controversial call came in Arizona, site of one of the biggest wins in Giants’ history.  Receiver Victor Cruz fell down, got up, and left the ball behind.

Cardinals defenders, who foolishly failed to touch Cruz while he was down given that he could have gotten up and kept running, recovered the ball.

Though many disagree with the decision (some, like Tony Dungy of Football Night in America, strongly), the rules support the decision that was made.  A play ends when a runner “declares himself down by falling to the ground, or kneeling, and making no effort to advance.”

That’s what Cruz did.  He fell to the ground, and he made no effort to advance.  Play over.