The Award Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Michael Turner, RB, Atlanta. After blowing an early 17-0 lead and seeing the Panthers rally to within 17-13 after three quarters, Turner scored three of his four rushing touchdowns in the fourth quarter to ice it. His touchdowns came from one, four, one and 16 yards, and he had 24 carries for 117 yards on the day. To rush for four touchdowns against a top-10 NFL defense is a great accomplishment, and it's even better when you do it against the division leader.
Matt Cassel, QB, New England. Two-straight 400-yard games is incredible enough. But to do it in two straight weeks, with the playoffs on the line, against pressure defenses (Jets, Dolphins) is beyond what even the most ardent Patriots fan expected.
Terrell Owens, WR, Dallas. He asked for it, he got it. Inexplicably, the 49ers put about half the defensive pressure on Owens than he'd seen in recent weeks, and they paid for it. Owens, who'd blabbed to Deion Sanders during the week that he was still great and he just wasn't getting the ball enough, put up. His seven-catch, 213-yard day was vintage T.O.
Defensive Players of the Week
Ed Reed, FS, Baltimore. He might not be the 16-week threat he once was, because years of hard-hitting have taken their toll on his endurance, but he's still one of the best combination athlete and hitter at the safety position I've ever seen. He previously held the record for longest interception return in NFL history with a 106-yard return for touchdown (obviously), and he broke it against Philadelphia's Kolb on Sunday with the game still in some degree of competition. He picked it off eight yards deep and ran it back 108 yards. It was one of two interceptions for Reed on the day, giving him three for the season.
Kris Jenkins, NT, New York Jets. In the first 40 minutes of the Jets' decisive win at Tennessee, Jenkins led a defense that held the previously unbeaten Titans to these drives: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, field goal, fumble. The Titans never established the run, and Jenkins led a relentless front seven that made Kerry Collins uncomfortable all day.
Special Teams Players of the Week
I realize I'm a little out of control here, naming five of these, but there were as many big special-teams plays yesterday as I've seen on a single Sunday.
Johnnie Lee Higgins, WR, Oakland. For the second-straight week, Higgins returned a punt for a touchdown. In Week 11 it was a 93-yarder in Miami that nearly sparked an upset. This week it was an 89-yarder up the left sideline at Denver that gave Oakland a 10-3 lead; the Raiders never trailed after that.
Domenik Hixon, WR, New York Giants. Tom Coughlin could easily have said, "I've got enough wide receivers, and I can do without a returner. I'll make Marrio Manningham or Steve Smith or Sinorice Moss return.'' But no. He did the smart thing -- he kept the best return man in training camp, and Hixon continued to pay dividends in the 37-29 win over Arizona. He had the best day of a wide receiver in football Sunday, and I include T.O. The Giants scored 30 for the fourth week in a row, and Hixon ran once for 11 yards, caught a team-high six passes for 57 yards, returned two punts for 11 yards and returned three kickoffs for 180 yards. His 83- and 68-yard kick returns gave Eli Manning two short fields with which to work.
Carlos Polk, LB, Dallas. The longtime San Diego backup linebacker signed with the Cowboys before this season, and Dallas is glad he did. With the 49ers hanging around a little too close in the second quarter, Polk burst up the middle to block an Andy Lee punt out of the end zone for a safety, giving Dallas a 9-6 lead, which led to 13 more Dallas points in the second quarter.
Quinton Demps, DB, Philadelphia. With the Eagle offense in the biggest funk of the season -- maybe of Andy Reid's decade-long career -- Demps took immense pressure off McNabb. With Philly down 10-0, Demps took a Baltimore kickoff 100 yards and provided the only offensive pulse of the day for the Eagles, narrowing the Ravens' lead to 10-7. That led to ...
Jameel McClain, LB, Baltimore. Good weekend for Syracuse. This free-agent linebacker from Syracuse bolted through the interior of the Eagles' line during a punt formation midway through the third quarter, blocking the Sav Rocca punt out of the end zone for a safety (What is this, the Carlos Polk Rerun Show?)
Coach of the Week
Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator, New England. In Week 3 at Foxboro, the New England offense was absolutely embarrassed, held to 215 net yards and 13 points in a 25-point loss to the Fins. Cassel was sacked five times. Fast-forward to Saturday night at the Patriots' hotel in Fort Lauderdale, before the rematch. McDaniels stood in front of his team and said: "We're not going to put up 13 points tomorrow. I can tell you we'll put up a lot more than that.''
Prophetic -- with a very good reason. In Week 3 Cassel was a game-manager. In Week 12 McDaniels knew he had a game-winner. He was aggressive in his play-calling, directing Cassel to gun downfield early and often. Cassel told me after the 48-28 victory: "The game plan was brilliant. His game plans always blow me away, but this one was so good. Josh is an outstanding coach. I learn from him every week.''
The Patriots, with McDaniels orchestrating the show, had 530 net yards in the revenge win over Miami. I said this on NBC last night: I don't know a lot about the pro-football landscape of 2009, but I do know this: Josh McDaniels will be one of the 32 head coaches in the NFL.
1. Kurt Warner, QB, Arizona. Ho-hum. A 351-yard day, and he didn't play very well. Not enough to move him out of the lead, though.
2. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. Fourth-and-two inches with 26 seconds and one timeout left in a 20-all tie at San Diego, and John Madden thinks Manning will burrow for the first down. Logical. Then Manning can just spike it and have a fresh set of downs to get into Adam Vinatieri field-goal range.
But when you have Peyton Manning on your team, you can gamble more than most coaches, and it looked as though offensive coordinator Tom Moore and coach Tony Dungy wanted Manning to take a shot, a safe shot, downfield to try to get into field goal range right away. He play-actioned, then found Marvin Harrison on a 14-yard cross to the San Diego 34. Three snaps later, the Vinatieri field goal broke the Chargers' spirit.
3. Kris Jenkins, NT, New York Jets. In the first 40 minutes of the Jets' game at Tennessee, the Titans managed 88 total yards.
4. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta. He had his seventh interception-free game of the year Sunday, and his eighth 60-percent-plus completion game. But the larger point to make: The Falcons, stunningly, are 7-4, a game out of the division lead with five games left.
5. Chad Pennington, QB, Miami. He can't throw it downfield, eh? Two points: Check out the first pass of the second half, which traveled 45 yards in the air against New England and landed right in the hands of Ted Ginn. And entering Sunday's game, Pennington was fifth in the NFL in average yards per attempt (7.9) -- ahead of Favre and the Mannings.