The Award Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Derrick Ward, RB, New York Giants. Ward had a once-in-a-lifetime night at bone-chilling Giants Stadium on Sunday, rushing for 215 yards on 15 carries (15, not 35) as the Giants, who had struggled mightily in the running game over the past two weeks, roared to a 34-28 win over the Panthers to clinch home-field supremacy in the NFC playoffs. Ward ran 51, 17 and 14 yards in OT against a Panthers defense beaten up by the Giants offensive line, setting up Brandon Jacobs' winning one-yard touchdown run. "We had our doubters,'' Ward said afterward, "that maybe we hit our peak too fast and all that, but we knew that we could run the ball. That's what the New York Giants are. We run the football.''
Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. Completing 85.3 percent of his passes on the road in the game that qualified the Colts for the playoffs, and playing with the rapidly declining Marvin Harrison, Manning led the Colts back from a 14-0 first-half deficit to win at Jacksonville 31-24. Manning's had some big December games in his life, and he's probably had more important ones, but with the worst running game he's played with this decade, completing 29-of-34 in a game the Colts had to have is pretty significant.
Derrick Mason, WR, Baltimore. His effort at Dallas Saturday night will go down as one of the heroic performances of this or any other season. Playing with a dislocated shoulder he aggravated twice during the game, Mason had the shoulder numbed with medication and made it through four quarters -- catching the third-quarter touchdown that gave the Ravens the breathing room they needed to control their playoff destiny.
"It hurts a lot right now,'' Mason said 90 minutes after the 33-24 win, trying to rest on the Ravens' plane. "It's going to hurt a lot more once this mediation wears off. But we were in a two-game playoff race starting tonight, and if you can run, you can play. I could run, so I played.''
Mason's line for the night: six catches, 66 yards, one touchdown. Hardly player of the week stuff. But Mason was an inspiration, playing the second half with his left arm looking like a wing, running downfield mostly with one arm churning like a piston and the other held tight against his body. "It's not going to get any worse, so I'm going to try to keep playing,'' Mason said.
The Ravens need him; he's become Joe Flacco's security blanket, and a playoff-clinching game against Jacksonville awaits Sunday in Baltimore. I sung Mason's praises a couple of weeks ago, but get this: He's 40 yards from his seventh 1,000-yard receiving season (Steve Largent had eight), and 16 yards from 10,000 career receiving yards. Considering that only 30 men have 10,000 career receiving yards, that's a heck of a feat.
Justin Blalock, G, Atlanta. There's no SI jinx when you're the big story in Monday Morning Quarterback: Tuesday Edition! In fact, it's good luck! Blalock last week was my Tuesday subject because he had stolen a lost fumble at the bottom of a pile against Tampa Bay from Buc linebacker Barrett Ruud, and the Falcs -- on this very overtime drive -- finished the game with a winning Jason Elam field goal.
Sunday in Minnesota, with the Falcons up 17-7, Matt Ryan went sprinting toward the end zone and tried to catapult for the touchdown, and he fumbled -- and there was Blalock again. He recovered the ball for the touchdown that turned out to be the game-winner in a 24-17 Falcon victory. How amazing: Blalock has touched the ball twice in his NFL career -- and the touches either led to the winning points or scored them.
Defensive Players of the Week
Jason Jones, DT, Tennessee. Jones, a second-round rookie from Eastern Michigan, had one start and just 1.5 sacks entering Sunday's battle for AFC home-field advantage through the playoffs versus Pittsburgh in Nashville. Starting for the injured Haynesworth, Jones just might have given Tennessee brass cause to wonder if they really need to make Haynesworth a $9-million-a-year free-agent after the season.
Jones, playing Haynesworth's interior spot in the Titans' 4-3 scheme, had five tackles and 3.5 sacks (three of which forced Roethlisberger fumbles), leading to two Pittsburgh turnovers.
Josh Wilson, CB, Seattle. His clutch 13-yard sack with seven minutes to play against the Jets -- with Brett Favre driving New York to a possible tying touchdown in a 10-3 game -- was his first big play of a fourth quarter that probably doomed the Jets' playoff hopes. The second: an interception of Favre with 1:23 left, his second pick of the day, driving the final stake into the Jets hearts. "Now I can go tell my kids I had two picks and a sack against Brett Favre,'' an emotional Wilson said after the game.
This game meant everything to the Jets, and it showed how much it meant to the long-lost Seahawks, playing without their starting quarterback and best pass-rusher. Wilson and mates wanted to win for departing coach Mike Holmgren, and did.
Leon Hall, CB, Cincinnati. This one needs an asterisk, because Hall played against Ken Dorsey on Sunday. Hall picked off Dorsey three times and returned the interceptions 50 yards (for the game's winning touchdown), 10 and 27 yards, leading the Bengals to an absolutely meaningless 14-0 win over the pathetic Browns.
Coaches of the Week
Tony Dungy, coach, Indianapolis. On Thursday night, Dungy became the first man to coach 10 straight teams to the playoffs. (Amazing but true: Tom Landry made it nine years in a row, and an incredible 17 out of 18, with Dallas. The only time he missed was an 8-6 season in 1974. Imagine having a run of eight straight years, and a separate run of nine.) But Dungy has this team -- shaky at times, but very good in fourth quarters -- on a nine-game winning streak heading into a meaningless game (sound familiar) to end the season, at home against Tennessee on Sunday. For the second year in a row, by the way.
John Harbaugh, coach, Baltimore. Imagine being Harbaugh Saturday. You walk into Texas Stadium for the last game in the 38-year history of the place, into a staged show for America's Team, with 100 Cowboy alums on the field before the game. You look across the field and see Jason Garrett, the Dallas offensive coordinator who was the No. 1 choice of your owner, Steve Bisciotti, for the job you now have. Your brother Jim, the fast-riser of the Harbaugh boys, the former NFL quarterback and now the Stanford coach, is at your side for the biggest game of your rookie coaching season in the NFL. Big night.
So here you are, up 9-7 with five minutes left in the third quarter, with a fourth-and-six from the Dallas 22 and having a hot field goal kicker, Matt Stover, on the field. It's a field-position game, and your defense is bottling up Tony Romo effectively, so the easy choice is to keep kicking field goals.
But you weren't a special-teams coach for nine years in Philly for nothing. You have empowered the holder, Sam Koch, to make a special fake field-goal call when you see a specific overload by the rush team. You see the Cowboys preparing to max-rush over the right side of your line in a field-goal-block formation, and the play is put on, and Koch, a former high school fullback, takes the snap and runs left. It works. Gain of nine. Two plays later, a touchdown pass makes it 16-7.
I also loved the timeout called to glean some intelligence as Dallas kicker Nick Folk was just about to approach the ball, Dallas trailing 26-24 with 96 seconds left. You wanted to see if Folk was going to onside kick or kick it deep, and you got your clue -- he sprinted hard to the ball, and after the whistle he still kicked the ball all the way downfield.
You're proud of your team, and rightfully so. The Ravens went 4-12 last year. They're 10-5 now, and a win Sunday against the Jags clinches the sixth seed in the playoffs and a winnable matchup against the AFC East winner on wild-card weekend, Jan. 3-4.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Sam Koch, P, Baltimore. Guts of a burglar, and a pretty good leg, too. He had the presence of mind to execute the fake punt and run nine yards for a first down, leading to the third-quarter Raven touchdown that gave Baltimore a 16-7 lead in the final game at Texas Stadium. He also punted five times for a 52.2-yard average ... and an impressive 46.6-yard net.
Goat of the Week
DeSean Jackson, WR, Philadelphia. It was either Jackson as goat of the week, or the 45 men who dressed for the New York Jets in Seattle. I choose the singleton. Jackson is never shy about jumping up and down when he thinks he should have been the intended receiver on a play. Well, it'll be a long time before Donovan McNabb looks at him with the kind of confidence a quarterback must have in a receiver. With the Eagles trailing Washington 10-3, McNabb found him with a slight lead on a Redskin corner and let fly into the end zone ... and Jackson dropped the tying touchdown pass with 1:05 left in the game. Eagles lost.
Stat of the Week I
Quarterback rating over the past four games of the two passers whose careers will be forever intertwined and who will meet Sunday at the Meadowlands:
Stat of the Week II
The angry receiver on the Cowboys shouldn't be Terrell Owens. It should be Roy Williams. Since being traded from Detroit to Dallas in mid-October, Williams has watched Owens get five more passes a game thrown to him.
Saturday night was a perfect example: In the first 42 minutes, Tony Romo threw eight balls intended for Owens and one intended for Williams. No wonder when Williams caught a short pass to the left and fought for a first down in the final seconds of the third quarter, he got up and gestured (angrily, I thought) toward the bench as if to say: "Why'd you bring me here if you never use me?''
If I were Jerry Jones, I'd be wondering why I paid first- and third-round draft picks, and $54 million over six years, for a receiver who's getting four balls thrown to him, on average, every week. (And no, it's not an excuse -- anymore -- that Williams hasn't had a training camp in the offense. This is throwing and catching a football, not learning Mandarin.) The nine-game totals of the top three Dallas wideouts since Williams began suiting up for Dallas:
This says a few things to me. Most importantly, Owens goes batcrap now if he thinks Jason Witten is getting too many balls. Imagine if in 2009 he sees the offense doing a three-way in divvying up the attempts between himself, Witten AND Williams. The Cowboy chemistry experiment in 2009 is not going to be pretty.