Revenge, thy name is Pennington: QB has chance to stick it to Jets
Dolphins-Jets showdown in Week 17 will determine AFC East title
Philip Rivers and the Chargers are getting hot at the right time
The Fine 15, Slingin' Sammy, 10 Things I Think I Think and more
NEW YORK -- First, perspective. One of the 10 best football players in history died the other day in Texas. It's important you know about him. There will be no forgetting Slingin' Sammy Baugh in this column. No sir. I'll write about him a bit later, but here's a tease: He had the best year a football player ever had, and there can be no possible argument on that from any Jim Brown fan, any Walter Payton fan, any Unitas, Montana, Marino, Brady, Butkus or Lawrence Taylor fan. Sixty-five years ago, in 1943, on a Redskins team with shrunken 28-man rosters because of the great war, Baugh led the NFL in:
Passing, throwing for 1,754 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Punting, averaging a Lechler-esque 45.9 yards per boot.
Interceptions, picking off 11 passes playing safety as a two-way player for the Redskins.
On Nov. 14, 1943, in a 42-20 win over Detroit, Baugh threw four touchdown passes -- and intercepted Lions quarterback Frank Sinkwich four times.
One last note before getting to the other news of a very, very significant weekend: Throwing a football rounder in the middle and less aerodynamically pleasing than the ball of today, Baugh in 1945 completed 70.3 percent of his passes.
On Thursday night against the Jaguars, Peyton Manning, who knew Baugh from a photo shoot in the nineties (See page 5), wore a wristband with "SB 33'' on it -- Baugh's initials, and his number with the Washington Redskins -- and had the best game of his season. "I was slingin' it tonight,'' said the respectful Manning. "I hope Sammy got a smile out of that game.''
How could you not love this weekend if you love football?
Unless you're a Jets fan, of course.
Sandwiched by winning games from the Manning brothers, Week 16 had it all -- a playoff clinch from a team we left for long-term rebuilding last summer (Atlanta), a team continuing a rise from the coffin (San Diego) while another sinks into despair (Denver) , the weirdest turnaround in the star-crossed history (and this is saying something) of the New York Football Jets, the amazing and deep Tennessee defense beating almighty Pittsburgh with a front not including Vanden Bosch and Haynesworth but with guys named Hayes, Brown, Jones, Ball and Gordon, and the emotion of
But my favorite thing of Week 16 is what it leads to: the ultimate revenge game, from the most gentlemanly NFL player of our time, Chad Pennington. He kicks off my little review of the week that was.
You saw this happening on that dark August night in Cleveland, didn't you, Chad? "I have to say this,'' Pennington said, and it was hard to hear him above the din from the Dolphins' happy voices on the charter as it prepared to leave Kansas City last night. "My wife and I talked about this around midseason. We said to each other: 'It's going to come down to the last game. It has to. There's really no other way.'''
Miami (10-5) needs to win at the 9-6 Jets on Sunday for the strangest division title in its history. Strange, because Miami was 1-15 last year, and because the Jets had this division copped a month ago after they won at New England and Tennessee in successive weeks, and because the Jets have lost three of their last four -- three games they were favored to win. And because Sunday brings Pennington back to Giants Stadium, where he quarterbacked the Jets for much of eight seasons before being benched for Kellen Clemens in midseason last year, and before being released by the team this year to make way for Brett Favre.
I'll tell you the most amazing thing: In the last week or so, I've actually heard callers to New York sports-talk radio saying they wish they had Pennington back. Instead of Favre. And if you'd heard the same callers (or from the same ilk, at least) shoveling dirt on him last season and preparing the ticker-tape for the Welcome Brett parade in August ... well, let's just say this is one of the most interesting stories, and turnarounds, in recent sports history. Favre under-throwing receiver after receiver in Seattle and playing mediocre football for the past month while the Jets burned, with Pennington piloting an 8-1 Miami run to the doorstep of the playoffs. Now, if Miami wins Sunday at East Rutherford, the Dolphins win the AFC East and host a wild-card game. The only way the jillionaire Jets make the playoffs is with a win and either a New England loss in Buffalo or a Baltimore loss to Jacksonville.
"Only fate would have it this way,'' Pennington said. "It what's great about sports -- it always comes to something like, or at least it seems that way. To have it come down to the final game, in New York, well, it's amazing.''
Pennington was released by the Jets when GM Mike Tannenbaum engineered the trade for Favre. He was told about the release at 11:30 on a Wednesday night at the Jets' hotel in Cleveland before the preseason opener he was going to start. He was on a plane home to New York the next day, and in Miami 48 hours later, a Dolphin.
He told me he hadn't been back to the New York area since that Saturday in August. His wife handled all the house closings and business aspects of his move. "My wife is absolutely amazing,'' Pennington said. "She took care of everything on the move. We'd just bought a house in New Jersey because the Jets were moving the complex out there [from Long Island], and we had to eat some cash on that move, but we were able to sell. This will be my first time back.''
Pennington said he would "try everything in my power to stay calm and focused Sunday. The first game we played against them, in Miami, helped me out a lot because I got the chance to see a lot of people who I'd known for a long time.''
Bitterness? He's got to have some, but he's never let it bubble to the surface. He won't now. "Well, if you rehash it and think about it, getting released definitely hurts,'' Pennington said. "You're on a team for a long time, and it's always one for all and all for one, and one day you realize they don't want you anymore after being on that team for so long. There's an emotional part to football and a business part, and the emotional part hurts, but I understand the business part. But instead of throwing a pity party about it, I choose to go play football and move on.''
Pennington had no choice midway through the third quarter at Kansas City, as the somnambulant Chiefs woke up for a weekend and took a 31-24 lead with nine minutes left. The 15 or 20 friends and relatives in the stands got excited. Then Pennington and that Wildcat Formation took over. The Dolphins went 60 yards in five plays to tie it, and in the fourth quarter, Pennington went seven-of-seven on a 13-play, 85-yard drive covering more than eight minutes. His 14-yard pass to new BFF Anthony Fasano (Pennington, in New York, and Fasano, in Dallas, were both drafted by Bill Parcells) made it 38-31.
Only in the NFL. Now Pennington, making a late run at the MVP, plays the game of his life. I was surprised the NFL made Denver-San Diego the prime-time game in Week 17 for NBC. Miami-New York, and Pennington-Favre, is the game of the week.
Philip Rivers is going to win the 2008 passing title. But it's another title he wants. Rivers cannot be the MVP, not on a team that will finish .500 at best. But there is only one MVP of December. On Dec. 1, the Chargers were 4-8 and everyone except A.J. Smith was firing Norv Turner. Nobody thought Turner would make it to Dec. 2. Since then, here's what Rivers has done:
"I'm playing well,'' he said over the phone before boarding the plane home from Tampa Bay on Sunday. "I've just been way more consistent this year. But that's not what matters to me now. I want to play a few bonus games. We're playing well, and we want to make it to the postseason to keep this thing going.''
In the last three weeks, the Chargers have put up 34, 22 and 41 points. With a struggling defense, Rivers had no choice but to fire away. At the beginning of the month, San Diego was three games behind 7-5 Denver. The only way the Chargers could win the division was to go 4-0 while Denver went 0-4 or 1-3 ... and the latter has come to pass. Denver (8-7) travels to San Diego (7-8) Sunday night on NBC, and the winner will take all; San Diego is 4-1 in division games, Denver 3-2. Of course the happiest man on the planet at this turn of events is Ed Hochuli, whose blown call in Week 2 that helped Denver win the first game between the teams won't matter now -- if San Diego wins Sunday.
Rivers has a 7.6-rating-point lead over Pennington (104.0 to 96.4) for the passing lead. More important, he's a league-best plus-21 in touchdown-to-interception differential (no one else is better than plus-14), and he's been a 65-percent passer, essential in Turner's precision-passing offense. Winning the West would give San Diego a wild-card rematch of their Nov. 23 meeting with the Colts, when San Diego was in the middle of a horrid 1-5 stretch. I'm sure Tony Dungy looks forward to another weekend in San Diego the way he looks forward to a really deep cavity being filled.
"Every year you see what happens when a team gets hot at the right time,'' Rivers said. And what happens when a player gets hot.
No wonder Tennessee wins every year. The Titans have the best defensive depth in recent NFL history. No Albert Haynesworth 'til the playoffs? No Kyle Vanden Bosch 'til the playoffs? No worries! We'll just trot out a second-round pick from Eastern Michigan, Jason Jones, to get 3.5 sacks and force three fumbles in a game for AFC home-field advantage through the playoffs. We'll just start a free-agent from UCLA who didn't even play football in 2007, Dave Ball, for Vanden Bosch, rotate him with Jacob Ford and get four quarterback hits out of them. And when Jevon Kearse, the left end, goes down early in the second half, we'll throw a fourth-round pick from Winston-Salem State, William Hayes, in the game, and he'll get a sack of Ben Roethlisberger, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Tennessee 31, Pittsburgh 14. The score is surprising enough, seeing that the Steelers had been playing like the '65 Packers. But it's who the Titans won with. For much of the second half, this was their six-man rotation on the defensive line:
Fourth-round rookie, 2006 street free-agent, second-round rookie, 2008 street free-agent, sixth-round pick in 2007, practice-squad addition last week.
"First of all, these players are good, solid NFL players,'' defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said over the phone afterward. "Second, we have a great defensive line coach, Jim Washburn, who gets them ready to play, no excuses. And our GM, Mike Reinfeldt, doesn't get enough credit for knowing what we do on defense and going out and getting players who fit what we do. We get injuries, and we've got players to plug in -- and if you don't have that in the NFL today, you're not going to win.
"In our defense, we don't blitz much, maybe 15, 16 percent of the time. So the defensive linemen have some freedom to play their games, instead of worrying that there's going to be a blitzer coming through the gap to their right so they've got to avoid going in that direction. When you don't blitz, the defensive ends can use all their skills.''
Schwartz is a thinking man's coordinator. He's not afraid of relying on inexperienced players to get pressure because he knows his secondary can cover. He knew entering Sunday's game that he could get a few pile-pushing rushes from a 305-pound practice player, Gordon, who pressured Roethlisberger into one of his sacks and fumbles. "Roethlisberger was holding the ball so long because of the superb coverage in our back end,'' said Schwartz. "That allowed our front to get to him.''
Winning home-field, Schwartz said, is a nice reward. But he thought it was more important to beat a great team, wherever the game was player and whatever it meant for January football. "Coach Fisher told the team this was all about being battle-tested,'' said Schwartz. "We'd rather play at home, obviously, in January, but it doesn't tilt the field totally in your favor. What helps is knowing how we can play when we come up against a really good team like Pittsburgh.''
There are several logical projections for the AFC title game. I'd like to see another rock-ribbed Baltimore-Tennessee, or Baltimore-Pittsburgh game, or even Peyton Manning going to Pittsburgh or back home to Tennessee to go to his second Super Bowl. But after watching the Steelers and Titans beat each other up Sunday, there wouldn't be a better championship game than Titans-Steelers II on Jan. 18.