The Fine Fifteen
1. New York Giants (11-2). What a weird way to clinch a division, licking wounds at home while Dallas choked in frigid Pittsburgh. G-men are 19-4 in the last 53 weeks. But one thing they have to be concerned with is how they struggled without the deep threat of Plaxico Burress. And that's not going to change. They've got the formidable, and angry, Dallas secondary to contend with next week, deep in the heart of Texas.
2. Tennessee (12-1). Titans not only clinched the division with the rout of the Browns. They also clinched a first-round bye. Now Jeff Fisher -- who told me earlier this year he's going to play the 16-game season all-out -- will have to make the same decision Tony Dungy's made for years: Do you take the foot off the gas in the last couple of weeks to avoid the risk of injury? No, coach, no. Don't do it.
3. Pittsburgh (10-3). My in-laws are from Pittsburgh, so I know what I'm talking about here: DeShea Townsend will never have to buy a shot and a beer in that town again.
4. Indianapolis (9-4). Haven't lost since the night of that weird rainout in Game 5 of the World Series.
5. Baltimore (9-4). Six minutes into what we all thought would be a good game, everyone's reaching for their clickers. That was the varsity against the JV last night.
6. Philadelphia (7-5-1). I know it's only two games, after a succession of bad ones, but this is not a team you want to be playing right now. Not with Brian Westbrook producing 166 yards a game over the last two weeks, not with Jim Johnson's defense playing superbly.
7. Tampa Bay (9-3). Lost at New Orleans, lost at Denver, lost at Dallas. Play at Carolina tonight. It's schneid-busting time. The Bucs are going to win a big roadie.
8. Denver (8-5). Broncs are 4-1 in their last five, with a three-game lead on San Diego with three to play. They're shaky, and frightfully young, but they could give somebody a tough game in January.
9. Atlanta (8-5). Tampa Bay comes to the Georgia Dome next week, so Sunday's loss has to go in the rear-view mirror soon.
10. Carolina (9-3). The NFL did a good job on the schedule this year, though I'm sure John Fox might argue. I say it's good because all the contenders in the NFC have tough tests left. Check out the Panthers quartet: Tampa Bay, Denver, at the Giants, at New Orleans. Whoa.
13. Miami (8-5). The Dolphins are the winningest NFL team in history on Canadian soil. Or Canadian FieldTurf.
14. Arizona (8-5). Still, don't ask me if they can beat anyone in January.
15. (tie) Minnesota (8-5). I have to hand it to Jared Allen: He is one gutsy football player, the kind who could have played on the same field with Gino Marchetti or Deacon Jones or Joe Greene and been an asset. He got a sack on a bum wheel Sunday, giving him 12.5 for the year, the most by a Viking since Jon Randle in 1997.
15. (tie) New York Jets (8-5). Two weeks ago they were America's sweethearts after whipping Tennessee. Today they're ... they're ... well, bordering on awful. One third-down conversion at San Francisco, 20 minutes of possession time? They'll be lucky if the AFC East comes down to the winner of the Week 17 game between them and the Dolphins.
Quote of the Week I
"People get too preoccupied with style points. That was a beautiful football game.''
-- Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, after the Steelers scored 17 points in the last eight minutes to shock the Cowboys.
Quote of the Week II
"Win or lose, this ain't over. I can promise you that. You can't put the genie back in the bottle. We will fight this battle for a long time if need be.''
-- Attorney David Cornwell, to me Saturday night, on the fate of the five players facing suspension for four weeks for violating the NFL's steroid policy. (A Minnesota judge blocked the punishment Friday, saying he needed more time to study the arguments in the players' fight to have the suspensions dropped.
This is a very complicated story, and I don't think it's a story worth 1,000 words here because there's no indication we know anything this morning that might not change by tomorrow. As Sean Payton told me last night: "I can honestly say I know absolutely no more about this story than you do.''
I do know one thing: Cornwell thinks he has proof that the NFL did not suspend a player who tested positive for Bumetanide in 2006, and it's a major part of his appeal. The league, on the other hand, will argue that the terms of the steroid-testing program will call for the appealing players to have no access to prior medical testing records -- something in the drug-testing agreement with players. And around and around it goes.
"I'm playing football until I'm told otherwise,'' one of the players who tested positive, Minnesota defensive tackle Kevin Williams, said after playing Sunday in Detroit.
Quote of the Week III
"There's nothing to be afraid of ... It's been a wonderful ride so far. I think I'm a lifer. I love the city of New York. I love New Jersey.''
-- Plaxico Burress, in an enlightening interview last July with Leonard Lopate of the WNYC, the public radio station in New York.
Lopate, a superb interviewer, got some interesting stuff out of this 18-minute talk with Burress.
On whether he was intimidated in facing the Patriots last year: "It's football, not poker. There is nothing to be intimidated about.''
On how much he wanted to win the NFC title game and get to the Super Bowl: "When you actually lose the game, it's a lifetime scar. ... I always said to myself if I ever had an opportunity to get back to another championship game, I would just leave it all on the field and I wouldn't have any regrets after that game.''
On staying warm during the playoff game in Green Bay: "We weren't serving any Gatorade on the field. We weren't serving any water. We were serving chicken broth on the sideline. It has a high salinity. I don't want to drink water or Gatorade when it's minus-23 degrees. It was so good at the time you want to keep drinking, drinking, drinking it.''
Quote of the Week IV
"It's a pleasure to be in the presence of so many Giants' fans, all of whom I believe are unarmed.''
-- NBC News anchor Brian Williams, a native New Jerseyan and Giants fan, at a March of Dimes luncheon on Wednesday honoring NBC executive Ken Schanzer and Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber in Manhattan.
Quote of the Week V
"I've heard about the billboards. I don't rush out to pillory myself and look at them.''
-- Bengals owner, president and GM Mike Brown, on the four billboards put up around Cincinnati by a protesting group of fans called whodeyrevolution.com. The group is asking for donations of $18, or $1 for every year of Brown's stewardship of the team, and says on its Web site: "Einstein's famous quote, 'Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,'' should be framed and put above the door to Mike Brown's office.''