The Award Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota. Didn't Clinton Portis have a 700-yard lead in the rushing race a few minutes ago? No more. Peterson's 30-carry, 192-yard day pushed him over Portis by 20 yards, 1,015 to 995. When you watch this guy, especially in a game as big as Sunday's -- when a loss would have sent them to 4-5, close to being out of realistic playoff range -- you see the kind of talented, indomitable player Walter Payton was. What a brilliant day, and a winning, final touchdown run, for Peterson against the Pack.
Jay Cutler, QB, Denver. A year ago, when he was beginning to suffer exhaustion from the onset of diabetes, Cutler would never have been able to play a game like he played Thursday night: 24-of-42, 447 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, in a 34-30 comebacker over the Browns. Denver had three running backs dressed Thursday -- Ryan Torain, Selvin Young and Peyton Hillis. (Hillis is actually a fullback.) By halftime, Torain (torn knee ligament) and Young (groin) were gone for the game, and longer. So in the second half, Cutler had to go at it alone, with an occasional burst into the line from Hillis. Cutler threw for 254 yards in the second half and three touchdowns, without the threat of a running game. How about this: John Elway's single-game best was 432 passing yards. Cutler beat that by 15, the final 11 on the winning touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall.
Defensive Players of the Week
Ray Lewis, LB, Baltimore. The third two-interception game of his career keyed the Ravens over Houston at Reliant Stadium. Eight tackles, two picks and two passes defensed.
Eric Foster, DT, Indianapolis. Biggest moment of Colts-Steelers. Fourth quarter, nine minutes left, 17-all. Second-and-goal from the Colts one. Mewelde Moore tries to burrow through the left side. Nothing; Foster and Robert Mathis stone him for no gain. Now the game's on the line.
Third-and-one, and you figure the Steelers won't go for it on fourth down but would settle for a field goal. Moore up the middle, Foster knifes through the guard-center gap ... Splat! Moore gets leveled for no gain.
Interesting thing about Foster, who had four tackles in the Colts' win. He was a terrific playmaker throughout his Rutgers career, and coach Greg Schiano will tell you Foster had as much to do with RU's meteoric success as any other player, except maybe Ray Rice. But he didn't get drafted because of his size (6-2, 265), and he had to fight to simply make the Colts' roster. Well, they won't be trying to get rid of Foster anytime soon.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Joshua Cribbs, WR/Ret., Cleveland. See "What I Learned About Football This Week ...'' below.
Will Blackmon, WR/Ret., Green Bay. On a day the Green Bay offense was totally ineffective, Blackmon took a punt at his 35 late in the third quarter, down 21-17. You've got to see this return. Blackmon must have ping-ponged off five Vikings on his way to an electrifying touchdown, keeping the Packers in the game. I could do without the silly posing for the last 10 yards, Will. That's so 1990.
Coach of the Week
Mike Heimerdinger, offensive coordinator, Tennessee. With the Bears crowding the line to stop the run against one of the league's best running games (and it worked -- Tennessee had minus-two yards rushing through 34 minutes), Heimerdinger proved to the rest of the league he's very comfortable putting the game in Kerry Collins' hands. While the running game stalled, Collins had his best game in years. Imagine a Tennessee offense throwing for 234 yards and two touchdowns in the first 34 minutes of the game. Heimerdinger had no problem calling pass after pass ... and Collins went 22-of-28 while throwing Tennessee to a 14-7 lead.
What I Learned About Football This Week That I Didn't Know Last Week
The NFC might be the stronger conference at the top right now, but the AFC is decisively better in one area: special teams.
While in Cleveland for the Browns-Broncos last Thursday, I watched the best special-teams player in football, Joshua Cribbs, ply his trade. The way he covers punts and kicks is reminiscent of Steve Tasker, the best special-teamer ever. And Cribbs is one of the best five return men in football, hands down. When's the last time you saw the same man be a superb gunner on the punt team (the wide pursuit man most often blocked by two men), a knifing tackler on the kickoff team and a returner in Devin Hester's class?
I'll go out on a limb right now and say I've never seen a player in the kicking game like Cribbs, who is the most complete special-teams package of pursuit, blocking and returning playing today. Most often, your punt-team gunner is not your return man.
More about Cribbs in a second. But entering Sunday's games, the AFC was either prominent or dominant in just about every measure of the kicking game. The AFC entered the weekend with the only teams averaging 12 yards per punt return and 22 yards per kick return -- Buffalo, Denver, Houston, New England and the Jets. Of the five coverage teams allowing fewer than 9.0 per punt return and 21.0 per kickoff return, three (Cleveland, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh) were in the AFC.
Four of the top five punt returners and kick returners are AFC players. The top two net punters, Mike Scifres of the Chargers and Shane Lechler of the Raiders, are AFC guys. The placekickers are equally good in both conferences.
I'm not saying this is a trend toward the AFC being better at coaching the kicking game and recruiting good players at the bottom of rosters, the guys who become special-teams nuts, but here's one thing I find interesting. There are an awful lot of guys in the AFC who are nutty about field-position football -- Fisher, Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Dick Jauron, Eric Mangini, John Harbaugh. Harbaugh and Belichick are former special-teams coaches, Harbaugh for the bulk of his pro coaching career.
Finally, I would argue that the top three special-teams players in football right now are in the AFC.
1. Cribbs. In the first quarter against Denver, he hand-swiped punt-returner Eddie Royal around the ankles, undercutting him for a two-yard gain and forcing Denver to travel 86 yards for a touchdown. Cribbs returned the ensuing kickoff 37 yards, which meant the Browns had to travel only 59 yards for Brady Quinn's first NFL touchdown drive. These are yards that show up in the box score but are rarely acknowledged. Cribbs' plays made Denver have to make a long drive for its TD, and shortened the field for Cleveland's TD drive. That's what great special-team players do. For the game, he had four of Cleveland's six special-teams tackles and added 140 return yards.
2. Jacksonville's Montel Owens. The special-teams captain of the Jags, a fullback from Maine, is more than the Jags' best pursuit man. He's also scored two touchdowns in the kicking game this year -- a 41-yard scoring run on a direct snap when he was the upback on a punt against Houston, and an 18-yard return of a fumbled kickoff by the Bengals. You want to see a classic, Tim Rossovich kamikaze player? Watch Owens.
3. The Jets' Wallace Wright. With a conference-high 16 tackles, Wright also has the speed to make plays downfield. He sprinted downfield against the Chargers in Week 3 to down a punt at the five, and he smothered Steve Breaston for a zero-yard punt return in Week 4. He's been the biggest impact guys on one of the best kicking-game teams in the league.