The Award Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Andre Johnson, WR, Houston. At various points this year, I've considered Brandon Marshall or Larry Fitzgerald the best receiver in football. Not the past two or three weeks. In the first 20 minutes of Sunday's game against the best team in the conference, Johnson had five catches for 129 yards and a touchdown. He finished with 11 for 207 and the TD. In the first meeting between the teams, in Nashville, Johnson dropped two touchdown passes, so he made this game his personal shot at vindication. He succeeded and went over 100 catches for the season in the process. Johnson is big, fast, acrobatic and, though he doesn't have the soft hands of Fitzgerald, his hands are plenty good to be a superstar for a long time.
Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego. What odds would you have given the Chargers of winning a game in which they were down 21-10 with five minutes left, taking the ball at their 11 on first down? Here's what would have to happen: a quick 89-yard touchdown drive, followed by a successful onside kick, followed by a very quick touchdown drive. And that is exactly what happened. Rivers capped an 89-yard drive with a four-yard TD throw to Malcolm Floyd. Kasim Osgood recovered the onside kick, and Rivers capped a four-play, 61-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson. Two touchdown passes in the last 80 seconds of the game for Rivers, who was 34-of-48 for 346 yards on the day. Doesn't get much crazier than that.
Defensive Player of the Week
DeMarcus Ware, LB, Dallas. He might retire this award. He moved with within 3.5 sacks of Michael Strahan's NFL record with his 17th, 18th and 19th sacks of the year against the beleaguered Eli Manning on Sunday night. He added three tackles for loss, seven tackles and two forced fumbles, helping hold the Giants to a paltry 218 net yards and Manning to a 43.9 quarterback rating. What a competition for the defensive player of the year award. Albert Haynesworth? Kris Jenkins? Ray Lewis? Troy Polamalu or James Harrison? Or Ware?
Special Teams Players of the Week
Bernard Berrian, WR, Minnesota. It took nine minutes for Berrian to permanently change this game. On the Cards' first punt of the day, Berrian took it back 82 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 Viking lead. On the next Minnesota possession, Berrian caught a 41-yard touchdown pass from Tarvaris Jackson, and the rout was on. Funny thing: Berrian touched the ball only one more time in the game -- a one-yard rush -- but his damage was done early.
Coach of the Week
Mike Mularkey, offensive coordinator, Atlanta. I bet when Mularkey's son, at 5, first got on a bike, dad would not let son use training wheels. Because that's how he's coached Matt Ryan this year. Third-and-one, Atlanta 28, three minutes left in the first half. Interesting opportunity here. The Falcons had been running the ball well, and I assumed he'd send Michael Turner up the gut. Which he did ... but he had Ryan make a phony sideways tossing motion toward Jerious Norwood before faking play-action to Turner up the middle. Then, in almost the same fluid motion, Ryan rainbowed a pass in the left flat to Norwood, who had no one to beat for 17 yards and a first down.
This was not a vintage day for the Atlanta offense -- 373 yards and 13 points in 71 minutes (including 11 minutes of OT) -- but Mularkey has done such a terrific job in inculcating Ryan into the NFL way, and this play was the perfect illustration.
Goats of the Week
Dick Jauron, coach, Buffalo, and Turk Schonert, offensive coordinator, Buffalo. Not quite a Miracle of the Meadowlands redux, but a dunderheaded call late in the fourth quarter probably cost the Bills a stunning victory and led to a loss that will jeopardize the jobs of the entire coaching staff.
Buffalo was protecting a 27-24 lead with 2:06 left in the fourth quarter. The Jets had two timeouts left. The Bills had run the ball well all day, and their last four carries had gone for four, five, three and five yards. On second-and-five, Jauron called for J.P. Losman to roll right and look for fullback Corey McIntyre, and if that wasn't there, just run. Jauron figured that the even if McIntyre wasn't open, Losman could either run or throw it away, and because the clock would stop at the two-minute warning, a run play wasn't essential. Schonert agreed.
Here's the problem this creates: Owner Ralph Wilson doesn't want to change coaching staffs again. He doesn't want to hire another coach and his SEVENTH offensive coordinator of the decade. But if the Bills fall at Denver and at home to New England in the next two weeks, that would mean they'd finish the year losing nine of 10. Wilson is 90. He is impatient. You connect the dots.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. I wouldn't call it Manning's to lose just yet, and I give him no credit or debit for Sunday's win against the Toledo Mud Hens. But the Colts are 10-4 with him, and I maintain they'd be 4-10 without him, and he's getting stronger as the season goes on: In his past three games, he's a 75.4-percent passer.
2. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta. Merril Hoge, on the State Farm NFL Matchup Show on Sunday (I give them so many plugs that State Farm is There is my personal anthem), called Ryan the NFL MVP, which seemed to stun his panel pals. Not stunning here.
3. Brian Westbrook, RB, Philadelphia. He has raised Philly from the graveyard in the last two weeks.
4. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota. Had a 160-yard day in September, 139-, 192- and 131-yard days in November and a 165-yard day Sunday against Arizona. Biggest reason Vikes are 9-5 is this man.
5. (tie) Troy Polamalu, S, Pittsburgh; Ray Lewis, MLB, Baltimore; James Harrison, LB, Pittsburgh. The two Steelers guys are here because the stingiest defense in points and yards allowed has to get its due. And Lewis, with a sack and a tackle for loss and another virtuoso performance of running the Raven defense, is playing like he's 25, not 33.
Stat of the Week
In 2007 the New Orleans Saints signed Illinois running back Pierre Thomas, undrafted after 255 players were chosen. The Saints paid Thomas a $5,000 signing bonus.
Since Bush returned from arthroscopic knee surgery Nov. 30 against Tampa Bay, here are the three-game totals of each back:
Average per touch: Thomas 7.42 yards, Bush 4.69.
I still believe Bush will be an effective, point-producing player. But he needs to learn that one cut is the way to go. If you can't find a hole after one cut, you've got to burrow ahead and be happy with a three-yard gain -- in both running plays and punt returns -- instead of trying to hit the home run.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
So you want to know why Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, boss of the league's stingiest defense, has had so much success over the years?
I'll give you a clue: At 7:28 p.m. Thursday, while the team, coaching staff and front-office staff was at a 5:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m. holiday party at Heinz Field, LeBeau was finishing up practice review for the day and practice preparation for the next day. Then he made a short phone call to me and made it to the party for the last half-hour or so.
When I'm 71, I pray that I have the energy that man does for his work.
Enjoyable/Aggravating Travel Note of the Week
Friday afternoon, Montclair, N.J., four-way stop, and I'm at the western stop sign. I have the right of way. No car is at either the north or south stop sign, and a blue Maxima approaches the stop sign across from me.
I know I'm at a dead stop because I have to shift the car back into first gear, which I do only when the car is stopped.
I proceed straight into the intersection, and the Maxima, which only slowed down and never came close to stopping, turns left, in front of me, with no signal. Now, we can count the traffic tickets right there on three fingers -- stopping at a stop sign, not signaling on a turn and I think there's also a statute about really ticking me off. So I lean on my horn and the guy driving the Maxima waves me off. Like: You didn't really expect me to stop there, did you?
I'm a bit of a driving hypocrite because I do my share of law-breaking driving. But I've always thought that these municipalities struggling so mightily with reduced budgets could make big dough by simply posting unmarked police cars around town and pinching drivers for rolling through stop signs and going 43 in a 25-mph zone. It might even make people drive the way they're supposed to.