The Award Section
Offensive Player of the Week
Michael Turner, RB, Atlanta. With a 25-carry, 208-yard rushing performance against St. Louis, Turner put the cap on one of the best offensive seasons in football. The workhorse back led the NFL with 376 carries. He finished second to Adrian Peterson in the rushing race with 1,699 yards, and finished second to DeAngelo Williams with 17 rushing touchdowns.
Defensive Players of the Week
Brian Dawkins, FS, Philadelphia. The savvy veteran forced two fumbles, the second resulting in the icing on the cake in an incredible 44-6 mauling of the Dallas Cowboys. That forced fumble led to a Joselio Hanson recovery and 96-yard romp for a touchdown. Dawkins, the career leader in games played for Philadelphia, will remember this one for a long time.
Ed Reed, FS, Baltimore. I marvel at his ball skills. Two more interceptions in the 27-7 rout of the Jaguars gave Reed the NFL interceptions title with nine. Did you see his incredible ball-handling in the pitch to defensive tackle Haloti Ngata after one of the picks?
Special Teams Players of the Week
Landon Johnson, LB, Carolina. When you're running up the gut on the kickoff team, you're taught not only to tackle the kick returner but also to try to jar the ball loose when you can. And that's what Johnson did midway through the second quarter ... on a play that looked like rubbing it in at the time, but was vitally important later. With a 16-3 lead, Carolina kicked off, and Johnson sprinted downfield like a missile, stripping returner Skyler Green at the 12 and allowing Panther Dante Wesley to run in a gimme touchdown for a 23-3 lead. The Panthers needed a late John Kasay field goal to win 33-31 and grab the No. 2 seed, but they'd have been the fifth seed without the Johnson play.
Chris Hanson, P, New England. In the middle of the third quarter, with the Patriots nursing a 3-0 lead at Orchard Park and the wind whipping alternately in his face and across the field, Hanson lined up for a punt at about his four -- on fourth-and-12 from the New England 18. The Patriots had to be hoping to get the ball to their own 40. Instead, Hanson nailed a 46-yarder, putting the Bills back at their 36, and the Bills didn't threaten for the rest of the quarter.
Coach of the Week
Mike Singletary, San Francisco. Singletary won five of his last seven to cop a five-year contract Sunday night. And he won most of those games in the fourth quarter. The 49ers looked composed and played with a sense of urgency Sunday in the 27-24 win over Washington, and now they'll head into the future with Singletary and some new coaches -- likely one of them to take over for offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
Goats of the Week
Danieal Manning, CB-KR, Chicago. Manning cost the Bears, in a veritable playoff game, 14 points in the first half -- seven on a bad coverage of Andre Johnson that went for a Houston touchdown, and seven after fumbling the ensuing kickoff ... which led to another Johnson touchdown catch. So a 10-0 Chicago lead became a 14-10 deficit in the span of four minutes on the clock.
The Cowboys. All of Them. Self-explanatory.
Stat of the Week
When the Patriots let the best kicker of his day -- Adam Vinatieri -- leave via free agency in 2006 after 10 stellar seasons, they were widely derided for allowing a few bucks to get in the way of keeping one of the best clutch players of the Super Bowl era. That year, they drafted kicker Stephen Gostkowski from Memphis in the fourth round.
As usual, the Patriots are having the last laugh on the fourth estate -- and the rest of the NFL too. In the last three years, Gostkowski, kicking outside most often, has been more efficient in field goals, with more touchbacks on kickoffs, for a quarter of the cost of Vinatieri, who's been kicking inside most often. Gostkowski was named to his first Pro Bowl this year. And Gostkowski is 24 years old. Vinatieri is 36.
"Nobody ever said anything to me here except be the best you can be,'' Gostkowski told me. "That's what I've seen around here since I got here. The only thing they're concerned about is what you can do now.''
Gostkowski, a very good pitcher in high school, is used to pressure. He threw 92 mph, once outdueled Matt Cain in a high school baseball game, and was a two-sport player at Memphis. Stunned to be picked so high in the draft -- he was expecting to sign as a free-agent -- he's responded well, as these numbers of the two kickers since 2006 show:
One more thing: Average cap numbers over the past three years: Gostkowski $470,000, Vinatieri $2,036,000.
This is not to say Vinatieri has not been very good for the Colts. In their Super Bowl season, his first in Indy, he scored every Colts point in a divisional playoff win at Baltimore and was 14 of 15 in field goals in a four-game playoff run. Rather, it's a tribute to Gostkowski being able to kick in high-pressure and weather-affected situations so early in his career, and to the Patriots for recognizing that change is essential in pro football for teams to stay on top.