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Captain crunchtime

Peyton Manning's heroics headlined a wild playoff weekend

Posted: Monday January 5, 2004 10:51AM; Updated: Monday January 5, 2004 4:13PM
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GREEN BAY -- Ah, the playoffs in Tundraville. There's nothing better on the NFL planet. One quick observation from here: Matt Hasselbeck had his coming-out party for America to see. To go 25 of 45 with, by my count, six drops (FOX had the 'Hawks with eight) in 7-degree wind chill, with no real mistakes for the first 64 minutes, was a command performance that put Hasselbeck solidly among the NFL's top 10 quarterbacks. Afterward, someone asked him: "What hurts?''

"Just my feelings,'' he said.

On with the headlines of the weekend:

So Peyton Manning CAN win The Big One. After a Simmsesque 22-of-26, 377-yard, five-TD rout of the Broncos, what's the next Peyton-Can't-Doism? He can't win a big playoff game on the road? That'll be this week's saw. I hope at some point people will sit back and stop picking at this player who, before it's over, will challenge the Dan Marino/Brett Favre numbers. For the record, Manning joined a 3-13 team in 1998 and this has been his average season as a pro: nine wins, 4,147 passing yards, 28 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, .629 completion percentage.

Green Magic Strikes Again. I'm not saying I believe in it, because I don't. But there is something about Green Bay's run to the Final Eight -- starting with Brett Favre's triumph over grief in Oakland, running through the Pack's 4-0 finish of the regular season, aided by the Nate Poole miracle catch that knocked the Pack into the playoffs, and continuing Sunday when Al Harris made the play of the weekend to beat Seattle -- that would make me not want to be Philadelphia this weekend. No atmospheric conditions will confound this frigid-weather-accustomed team, and no crowd will baffle 13-year veteran Favre. If I'm the Eagles, I fear this team coming in Sunday afternoon.

Manning, Steve McNair Tie for MVP. One word comes to mind: befuddling. I'm missing something. McNair had a top-notch year. He's a great, great player. He would have been my MVP choice after 11 games. But in the Titans' last five games, he was 1-2 and sat out two contests with injuries. Backups Billy Volek and Neil O'Donnell won those two games -- crucial ones -- down the stretch, when McNair was hurt. You say Manning had so many more weapons, with Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James? I'll grant you Harrison, obviously, and I'll give a slight edge to James, but let's not confuse the Edge of 2003 with the Edge of 2000. James was 13th in the league in rushing this year, Eddie George 15th. Manning led the NFL in touchdown-to-interception ratio (plus-19), in passing yards (by 228, throwing for 4,000 for the fifth straight year), and completion percentage (67.0, by 1.6 percentage points over Brett Favre). No quarterback other than Tom Brady won as many big ones on the road as Manning has this regular season: the 21-point storm in the last five minutes to tie, and eventually win, at Tampa Bay in overtime; the division-title showdown -- in effect -- at Tennessee; and the win at Miami. He laid 48 points on New Orleans in 45 Superdome minutes. Manning also was 2-0 versus arch-rival Tennessee. I think the MVP has to a be a 16-game award. In order, my final five would have been: Manning, Brady, Jamal Lewis, Priest Holmes, McNair.

The Redskins Adjust After the Spurrier Swindle. In the end, Steve Spurrier was a fraud. He signed a five-year contract and vowed to give the job three years. In my business, that would be called entering into an agreement while knowingly planning to cheat your employer. Then he quit after two years. This is charlatanesque. An offensive player on the Redskins told me: "The job was killing him, and killing his wife.''

Here's the thing, Steve. In football -- real football, not the kind you played at Florida, where week in and week out your players were better than 80 percent of the opposition -- I've got an apt cliche for you: When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Spurrier thought the Washington personnel department was awful. Maybe it is; the bottom of that roster is hungry, which usually happens when the personnel staff is more focused on making LaVar Arrington a jillionaire than getting a deep roster in place. So if the personnel staff is the problem? Then  roll up your sleeves and go out scouting, Steve,  for crying out loud. Dan Snyder would have loved that. One more thing: Spurrier simply didn't adjust to the pro game. I'll never forget the game at the Meadowlands last year, a rainy, sleety day fit for a plow horse, when Spurrier let terminally mediocre Shane Matthews pass 36 times while handing the ball to one of the best 10 backs in football, Stephen Davis, only 19 times. Washington lost in overtime. After the game, I asked Spurrier about the disparity, particularly on such a bad day to throw. "I don't know,'' Spurrier said. Good answer.

The Carolina Panthers know how to use the running game. John Fox is Bill Parcells Jr. Davis struggled some early against the best defense in football Saturday night. He ran for 4, 3, 0, 0, 6, minus-2, and 1, then broke one for 23, then went for 4, 3, 2, 0 and then busted the game open before halftime with a 23-yard touchdown run. That's how the running game works in football -- good ones, anyway. The kind Joe Gibbs used to have in Washington. I don't quite buy what Bobby Bowden said on Sporting News Radio the other day -- "Steve went up there for the money'' -- but Spurrier did make $10 million for 24 months of work and a 12-20 record. From what I hear, Snyder is looking for an organized coach (which Spurrier isn't), who can work with Vinny Cerrato and the front office better than Spurrier did. This job has Jim Fassel written all over it.

Coaching Searches Round Up the Usual Suspects. I don't draw the logical conclusion from the fact that the same names -- Fassel, Dennis Green, defensive coordinators Romeo Crennel and Lovie Smith -- have been interviewed or will interview for at least four of the seven opening NFL coaching jobs. The logical thing would be that those guys are premier guys and everyone wants them. No. General managers are fawning over them because the overall crop is so weak and they're worried about missing out on one of the only gems of a paltry group.

Jon Kitna wins Comeback Player of the Year. One word comes to mind: ridiculous. In 2002, Kitna started 14 games, completed 62.2 percent of his passes, threw for 3,178 yards and had a rating of 79.1. In 2003, Kitna started 16 games, completed 62.3 percent of his passes, threw for 3,591 yards and had a rating of 87.4. What exactly was Kitna coming back from? An offseason cold? His team won six more games, and he threw a few more touchdown passes. He was better, overall, this year, and I'd have had him in my top 10 in the MVP vote. But to be a comeback player means you're coming back from a serious injury or some horrendously ineffective season, neither of which was the case, remotely, with Kitna. My pick was Jevon Kearse, but a number of guys -- Ray Lewis, Courtney Brown -- would have been fine selections.

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Offensive Player of the Week

Indianapolis QB Peyton Manning. Completing 85 percent of his passes with five TDs and no picks in his first playoff win makes Manning the most feared player of this postseason, even with a date at Kansas City looming this weekend.

Defensive Player of the Week

Baltimore FS Will Demps, whose 56-yard interception and return for touchdown helped the Ravens avert what might have been a disaster against Tennessee. The Titans led 7-0 on a surprisingly easy drive, and they were beginning their second possession when McNair, one of the most accurate postseason quarterbacks ever, threw a pass that was tipped near midfield by linebacker Ed Hartwell. Demps, center-fielding, picked it off and made a marvelous run through the entire Titans offense. 

Special Teams Player of the Week

Tennessee K Gary Anderson. At 44, his outer limit is about 45 yards now, but Jeff Fisher went to him with 29 seconds left in the wild card game against the Ravens with the score tied. Anderson's kick was perfect. Morten Andersen wants to kick till he's 50, but there's another Anderson who might beat him to it.

Coach of the Week

Carolina coach John Fox. Not only did his Panthers rout the Bill Parcells-coached Cowboys, but Carolina had no turnovers and no penalties. I mean, does anyone remember that this team was 1-15 in 2001? What an incredible job Fox is doing.

Goat of the Week

(tie) Collectively, the 11 Texas Tech offensive players, for their actions after scoring against Navy last week in the Houston Bowl. After a Tech touchdown, the Red Raiders players gathered in a circle in the end zone. The ball was thrown in the air and when it hit the turf, all the players fell to the ground, as if the ball were a bomb. A pretty stupid and unfeeling celebration regardless, but against Navy? When the seniors on that team, some of them anyway, are about to be sent into the conflict in Iraq? That was bush-league all the way.

Baltimore RT Orlando Brown, for his two unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties that handed the Titans 30 invaluable yards in Saturday's Titans' win. How fitting. Brown blew a gasket in a game worked by referee Jeff Triplette, the official who threw the flag that hit Brown in the eye and caused him to melt down so radically four years ago.

Stat of the Week

Baltimore had no first downs in the first 25:15 of its game against Tennessee and three in the next minute.

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In the fall of 1974, I was a senior at Enfield (Conn.) High School, and one Saturday afternoon a friend of a mine took me to see his brother play a football game for Central Connecticut State, in New Britain. That day, unbenknownst to me, I watched a freshman defensive end get spot duty for the Blue Devils: Mike Sherman.

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"If you want to see why he's the co-MVP, wait until you see what he did in this playoff game!'' --ESPN's Stuart Scott, teasing the highlights of Tennessee's 20-17 win over Baltimore. McNair threw for 159 yards, with one touchdown and three interceptions. Scott later said McNair had "an efficient day.'' Lord help us.

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Last Tuesday night, around 10, after a day spent working on a story about Mike Holmgren and the Seahawks for HBO, accompanied by ace producer Brian Lockhart I boarded a Continental redeye in Seattle, bound for Newark.

"Yip yip yip yip yip!''

I heard a yippy dog in the hold below me. For 25 minutes, until the plane taxied out, it yipped. Piercingly. Unendingly. Without pause. "Yip yip yip yip yip!'' With paws, I guess, but without pause. No doggie drugs, I guess. Surely it would go to sleep, or the drugs would take effect. Right?

Lucky for me, I slept probably 90 percent of the flight home. I woke up over Bemidji, maybe. Muffled now, but distinct. "Yip yip yip yip yip!''

Unbelievable. Fell asleep again. Woke up over South Bend. "Yip yip yip yip yip!'' Incredible, the staying power and lungs of this dog! Slept some more, almost to Newark. "Yip yip yip yip yip!''

Still yipping when we deplaned. The guy across the aisle said to his travel-mate: "It sounds like a tape somebody keeps playing over and over.'' Lockhart said he had a dream of a barking dog while sleeping on the flight, woke up, and realized it was no dream. "Yip yip yip yip yip!'' Doggie madness.

I am a big dog fan. On New Year's Day morning, we took Bailey (the 4-year-old Golden Retriever) to the Atlantic Ocean in Spring Lake, N.J., for 40 minutes of intense tennis-ball throwing. So I have less hatred for Yippy than I have sadness for the poor thing. What kind of uh, person, would put a dog in a hold for six hours without sedating it, or sedating it far too lightly?

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1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of the NFL weekend:

a. Don't you love how ref Bernie Kukar says, "First down?'' He pronounces it, "First don!'' Sounds like he's from Monongahela, or maybe Dormont.

b. I bet Brian Billick would like to have some of those playcalls back. Carries by Jamal Lewis: 14. Throws by Anthony Wright: 37.

c. Steve Smith's a heck of a player. I could see him using the carpet in St. Louis to his advantage Saturday.

d. One thing I really appreciated Saturday night: Smith broke away from the Dallas defense and looked like he was going in for a cinch TD to open the scoring. From all the way across the field came Dallas nickelback Pete Hunter, sprinting like he was trying to save a life. Hunter tripped Smith up short of the end zone, and Dallas held with a classic goal-line stand. Pete Hunter saved the Cowboys four points.

e. Joe Buck is really, really good.

f. So is Bill Belichick.

g. Strap it up, Pats center Dan Koppen. You're one of New England's most important players, with Robaire Smith and Albert Haynesworth lining up across from you Saturday night in Foxboro.

h. Caught Mike Ditka on his Chicago radio show Friday night saying this about David Boston: "He's a coach-killer. Here's a guy more worried about his piercings than his football. C'mon! Wake up!'' Yeah! You tell 'em, Coach Dikka!

i. I watched a half of the high school all-star game from San Antonio on NBC Saturday, and I really enjoyed it. Anyone who watched that game might say some of those kids really could come out in the NFL draft and have a chance. How about the 6-foot-9, 360-pound lineman?

2. I think Jim Fassel may have a terrific offer, with complete control, coming from Arizona pretty soon.

3. I think the owners of the Red Sox should fly to Green Bay after the thaw, inspect the new Lambeau Field, and model a refurbished Fenway Park after some of the ideas at the comfy new home of the Packers.

4. I think I have quite a bit of respect for Chicago GM Jerry Angelo. I was bullish on him getting the Bears job three years ago, and I still think he'll get the thing right. But he sounded absolutely foolish last week when he announced the firing of Dick Jauron. "Simply put, expectations weren't met,'' Angelo said. "We're in a bottom-line business. Looking at Dick's overall career record, I just didn't feel that the hope that we need to move on to the next level was there.'' Let's check overall career records. The Bears' winning percentage in Angelo's three-year stewardship is .490 (24-25). Jauron's record in five years was 35-46, a winning percentage of .432. Jauron gets whacked. Angelo gets his contract extended through 2008. Jauron's sin was empowering John Shoop to run the offense and coach the quarterbacks when his resume suggested he was fit to do neither. Angelo has made some wise draft picks (cornerback Charles Tillman), but he's also had a few that look like busts right now (most notably first-round T Marc Columbo). Michael Strahan had more sacks than the entire Bears defense this year (18.5-18), and Angelo let the team's best pass-rusher, Rosevelt Colvin, go in free-agency last winter. Angelo also gave the Bears' coaching staff consistent Pittsburgh disappointment Kordell Stewart as a bridge to questionable quarterback-of-the-future Rex Grossman. In my mind, Jauron coaxed a 7-9 year out of a pretty bad team. I wouldn't have minded those quotes if Angelo had included himself prominently in them. But those are the kinds of statements that should make good coaches wonder about the wisdom of going to work for Angelo.

5. I think Seattle will win the NFC West next year and get a home playoff game.

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

a. Last year, on the first weekend of January, at the Residence Inn in Green Bay, I watched an Ohio State bowl game on Friday night and a UConn women's basketball game on Saturday afternoon, then covered a Packers playoff game at Lambeau Field. Same drill, exactly, this weekend.

b. Coffeenerdness: I know I should be turning over a lower-caloric leaf in 2004, but on the first day of the year I succumbed to a grande hazelnut latte in the morning and a grande caramel macchiato in the evening. Of course, there was one interesting Starbucks moment on my brief jaunt to Seattle. At the airport Starb's, the man in from of me ordered a half-decaf skim no-foam no-whip peppermint mocha in a double cup.

c. I experienced a great movie -- Mystic River -- on New Year's Eve. I can't believe I almost missed this one. Sean Penn was brilliant. Clint Eastwood, I didn't know you had all that in you. And how good is Tim Robbins as a hard-luck, stoop-shouldered schmoe? It's a terrific portrayal of life in a tough Boston neighborhood.

d. Those back-page headline writers at the New York Daily News are good. Last Thursday, the day after David Wells reneged on a verbal deal with the Yanks to sign with San Diego (in part because the Pads weren't insistent on a weight clause), the News ran a picture of Wells looking like he weighed about 290 pounds with the words: "FAT'S ALL'' and "Wells leaves Yanks for Padres ... and all he can eat.''

e. Matt Leinart's pretty good. Think of a kid, in a high-pressure environment, going from not playing a single down in 2002 to throwing 38 touchdown passes in 2003.

f. Memo to ESPN: The commercial of the Ohio State-Michigan couple making out just doesn't work for me.

7. I think you can forget about Pete Carroll jumping on the NFL coaching carousel. As one of his best friends tells me, there are three reasons for this. One: Carroll has already been a head coach in the NFL; he is, in effect, both a head coach and GM at USC; and he doesn't like the thought of going back to pro football business without controlling his own fate. What teams would allow him to do that now? I can't see one among the franchises with current openings. Two: He loves his current job and environment. His son's on his coaching staff. His family's all nearby. And he's just a better fit as a college, rah-rah guy. We can all see that. Three: This USC team is going to be a powerhouse for years, from all appearances. Carroll is dominating California high school recruiting. The bottom line: Why leave, unless a great NFL team offers him the moon? That's not going to happen this offseason.

8. I think this is sometimes why telecast of football games drive fans crazy. In the first half of the Tennessee-Baltimore game, Eddie George was surprisingly effective, the best Titan on the field in the first 20 minutes. On an Ed Reed interception, George tackled George and came up holding his wrist, like there was something wrong with his wrist or shoulder. Instead of focusing on the injury to this vital cog, Paul McGuire prattled on about Reed, and then ABC went to a commercial. No mention of George. It was like the crew never saw him holding his wrist in obvious pain. A couple of minutes back from the commercial, George was gone with a separated shoulder.

9. I think I have no idea how much longer Brett Favre will play, even though I spent more than an hour with him Friday. My guess is three years, which would bring him close to Dan Marino's career mark. He's 74 touchdown passes behind Marino's 420 now. "When Dan was here early in the season to interview me for HBO,'' Favre said, "I told him, 'I promise you I will not stick around just to break your records.' If it happens in the course of competition, fine. But I won't come back for one year if I'm close just to break a record.''

10. I think not only are you going to see the unusual step of an NFL team sending two quarterbacks in one offseason to NFL Europe when the Dallas Cowboys dispatch Tony Romo and Chad Hutchinson, their backups to Quincy Carter, across the pond. But Bill Parcells is also planning to send two assistant coaches with them, to make sure the QBs work on the fundamentals the way the Dallas staff wants them to. Interesting. Look for the Cowboys to investigate veteran quarterbacks in free agency as well. The best guy for them? I say it's Mark Brunell.

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1. New England (14-2). During their bye week, a Patriot finally lost. Tom Brady broke his 12-game winning streak by standing on the sidelines during Michigan's Rose Bowl defeat.

2. Philadelphia (12-4). I talked to Andy Reid a few days ago. He pushed Brad Childress, his offensive coordinator, hard for a head-coaching job. I mean, a couple of verbal paragraphs on the virtues of Childress. Maybe that's why the Brad Childresses of that staff are so loyal to Reid.

3. Indianapolis (13-4). I only saw the highlights, but it seems to me the defense choreographed by Ron Meeks and Tony Dungy didn't let Jake Plummer breathe.

4. Tennessee (13-4). What a gallant effort in Baltimore. Eddie George gets my vote for man of the weekend.

5. St. Louis (12-4). During his bye week, Kurt Warner apparently got a confidence transplant from Tony Robbins.

6. Kansas City (13-3). No one really thought this was Dick Vermeil's last season. I say he and Carl Peterson and Bill Kuharich, the braintrust, find two pluggers for the front seven -- just a guess, but Ted Johnson and Dan Wilkinson -- and make one more run with this nucleus in 2004. For now, I move them up from nine to six because of one big thing: the Arrowhead factor.

7. Carolina (12-5). I give the Panthers a real shot in St. Louis. I think they can do just enough on offense to keep the ball away from the Rams and make it a really good game.

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8. Green Bay (11-6). One hour after the game, Al Harris was cradling the game ball, the very one he'd intercepted and run into the end zone to win the wild card game over Seattle. Packers coach Mike Sherman came up to Harris and hugged him. "Uh,'' Sherman said after telling Harris what a great play he'd made, "the next time you do that, and you hold the ball up in the air running down the sideline, could you please not do that?'' Cute scene.

9. Seattle (10-7). Yeah, maybe it did take Mike Holmgren five years to do it. But he's got a heck of a team now, and America saw it yesterday.

10. Baltimore (10-7). Eight seasons in Baltimore, and still the quarterback position is an unsolved mystery. Brian Billick had better be right about Kyle Boller.

11. Denver (10-7). Seasons since John Elway left: five. Playoff wins since then: zero.

12. Dallas (10-7). Of all the things that struck me about what Dallas needs in the wake of that fairly pathetic display in Charlotte, the one that really stuck out was running back. Troy Hambrick's JAG (just another guy).

13. Miami (10-6). Uh, Wayne? What's the hurry? Free- to meet Scott Pioli?

14. New Orleans (8-8). Axing Ax Alexander, the receivers coach, hasn't exactly inspired the French Quarter into a season-ticket-buying binge.

15. San Francisco (7-9). Speaking of binges, my anti-Terrell Owens tirade continues unabated. Right now, Brandon Lloyd is a better football player than Terrell Owens. Just wait. You'll see.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King covers the NFL beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Monday Morning Quarterback appears in this space every week.

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