The best 16 minutes of the season
End of 1 p.m. games highlighted an amazing Week 17 slate
The inside story on Peyton Manning's knee and why he's MVP
Thoughts on potential coaching changes, the Fine 15 and more
NEW YORK -- Take a bow, Howard Katz. This was your schedule. The other day, Roger Goodell told Katz, the NFL's schedule-meister, that if he had to take the public slings and arrows when the slate for the week was a clunker, "you should take a bow now.''
I will get to my topics of the week in a moment -- most notably my pick for Most Valuable Player, my take on how to fix the Cowboys, and how the roadies should be favored across the board on Wild Card Weekend. But this was a week for the ages. And lucky me -- I got to see it all in NBC's fifth-floor viewing room at 30 Rock, with nine high-def TVs enthralling the cast of our Football Night in America show.
Ten early games ... six with playoff meaning, and two others with intrigue. (Pittsburgh-Cleveland, with Ben Roethlisberger going down, and Detroit-Green Bay, because of the prospect of 0-16). Five late games, three with playoff meaning, one of those with the passion play of Chad Pennington versus Brett Favre. And a night, winner-take-all game for the AFC West title.
Sixteen games, 16 minutes. A quick, little cram-job to kick of this week's column. But please, and I don't mean to be a tease, I implore you to stay tuned for some Peyton Manning news you won't find anywhere else. All times Eastern, with my favorite 16 minutes of the 2008 NFL season:
3:54 p.m.: In New Orleans, Drew Brees hits Lance Moore in the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown, bringing the Saints all the way back to a 31-30 lead over Carolina with three minutes left ... Brees is 16 yards from breaking Dan Marino's all-time passing-yards record. It's 5,083 to 5,069 ... Surely the Saints will get the ball again ... If they don't, blame Jason Baker, Carolina's punter, for ruining Brees' shot at the record. Baker shanked a 21-yard punt to set up the Saints' measly 45-yard TD drive. If it'd been a 37-yard punt, Brees would have been throwing for the record.
3:55 p.m.: How is St. Louis beating Atlanta 27-24? If the Falcs win and Panthers lose, Atlanta's got the second seed in the NFC. Michael Turner runs his fourth up-the-gutter in a row to the Atlanta 42 ... Falcons coach Mike Smith, already white-haired, looks white-faced on the sidelines.
3:56 p.m.: In Orchard Park, Matt Cassel sprints off the field after doing his CBS postgame interview. Pats 13, Bills 0. How is this kid 11-5? How is this team looking for massive 4 o'clock help instead of beginning scouting reports on its playoff foe next week?
3:57 p.m.: In Atlanta, Jerious Norwood up the middle! He's gone! Falcons, 31-27.
3:58 p.m.: A couple hundred miles from Atlanta, the Panthers gulp. Uh-oh. They're losing their grip on the two-seed. Imagine going from playing one Sunday night for the top seed through the NFC playoffs, then nosediving to fifth seven days later ... Jake Delhomme says, "Not on my watch.'' He rainbows a 39-yard go route to Steve Smith ... First and 10, Saints' 43, 2:21 to play, Carolina down one.
4:00 p.m.: Steven Jackson to the Falcons' 37! What is wrong with you Rams?!
4:02 p.m.: In Minnesota, Giants, up 19-17 with five seconds left, call a timeout to freeze Ryan Longwell ... Uh, it's Minneapolis. Gotta be a hearty lad here. Nineteen degrees outside ... No Vikes kicker will be frozen today.
4:03 p.m.: Rams get the hint. Not their year. Bulger throws incomplete to Donnie Avery with 1:10 to go, giving the ball up on downs. Falcs, momentarily, in play for the second seed.
4:04.40 p.m.: Kasay lines up for the winning field goal. But no! False start, Jordan Gross. Now it'll be a 42-yard attempt, not 37-.
4:04.46 p.m.: Minnesota: Longwell ... from 50 ... GOOD! The Vikings are in. Tom Coughlin looks like his dog just died.
4:05.24 p.m.: Atlanta: Matt Ryan kneels, Mike Smith pumps his fist, Falcons are one more kneel-down from winning ... And will it be a second seed or fifth? In 30 seconds we'll see.
4:05.57 p.m.: New Orleans: Kasay looks down, the ball is snapped, it's spotted, it's up, it's a line drive down Broadway! Or Bourbon Street, as the case may be. While Arthur Blank celebrates a win in Atlanta, the Panthers mob Kasay. He's just given them a week off ... But wait.
4:07 p.m.: There's one second left in New Orleans. Kasay squibs ... It goes out of bounds! Brees will have one more chance -- for the win and for Marino's record -- from the Saints' 40.
4:08.30: "Delay of game, New Orleans. Five-yard penalty. Still first down.''
4:08.56: Brees fades back, chucks an incut to Moore about 20 yards downfield ... it's overthrown! Panthers the second seed! Marino's record intact! ... In the CBS studio a few blocks uptown, we all hear Marino sighing contentedly.
4:09.10: Garcia sacked. Clock running out. Bucs lose fourth in a row. They're out of it. They've lost four straight to send Monte Kiffin to Knoxville with his defensive tail between his legs.
4:09.31: Joe Buck, on Eagles-Cowboys: "All of a sudden, this is a playoff game.''
4:10 p.m.: In Green Bay, the Pack's up 31-21, but here come the Leos, trying one last time to make it a game. From the Green Bay 47, Dan Orlovsky -- who I might maintain caused this whole mess in the first place by blindly running out of the back of the end zone for two vital lost points in a 12-10 loss to the Vikings on Oct. 12 -- gets picked by Nick Collins. The Lions will be perfect. Or imperfect.
Vikings in, Bears out. Panthers two seed, Falcons five. Brees on the verge of hallowed record but fails. Lions the worst team of all time. Cowboys and Eagles playing for a certain bid.
"Is that all there is?'' I say.
"What else do you want?'' Cris Collinsworth says.
There are few things in this job I take more seriously than my National Football League MVP vote for the Associated Press. I value my Hall of Fame vote a little more, but being one of 50 voters for the all-pro team and postseason awards, including the MVP, is big because it goes down in history. The MVP winner doesn't get bronzed, as Hall of Famers do, but there's no single-season award that means more to a player. To be part of anointing one man as the most indispensable, the most important, the most valuable for a season in the biggest sport in the country is a cool task.
We voters are human, so we're going to approach the voting differently. My criteria have never changed. The inclusion of the word "valuable'' differentiates this from a player of the year award. If I'm voting for Offensive Player of the Year, for example, I'm likely voting for the individual who had the best season of anyone on offense; if a player on a 6-10 team set the single-season rushing record, I'd likely vote for him for the offensive player award. But it's highly doubtful I'd vote for him as MVP. For MVP, I ask myself this question: Which player, removed from his team, would have the biggest impact on the team's record?
That's a tough call this season on premier teams like the Giants, Tennessee and Pittsburgh because they each had so many outstanding players. By season's end, I might have voted for Brandon Jacobs over Eli Manning on the Giants, and maybe Kerry Collins over Albert Haynesworth or Chris Johnson as Tennessee's MVP, and James Harrison over Roethlisberger (though that would be close) or Troy Polamalu in Pittsburgh.
I liked Pennington immensely because he was the clear keystone to a team improving from one win to 11; but the Dolphins got big contributions from the defense (they won five games scoring 17 points or fewer) and the Wildcat Formation. DeAngelo Williams made a late charge for Carolina, scoring 11 touchdowns in four late-season games, but check out the pedestrian first half of his season: The Panthers went 6-2, and Williams rushed for 468 yards and three touchdowns in the six wins.
Matt Ryan? I love him, and I love his candidacy. I can't argue with a soul who'd name him MVP. Imagine stepping into Team Turmoil for Michael Vick, with the racial division of Atlanta to overcome as well, and having to learn to play quarterback at the NFL level, which rookies never do well. I'll never forget being in Atlanta on draft weekend and listening to veteran sports anchor Gil Tyree, who is an African-American, tell me about the Vick shadow that would be so hard for Ryan to escape. "Michael's a messiah here. No matter what Matt Ryan will do, he'll never be accepted,'' Tyree said. Talk about a tough road for a young kid.
But Ryan led the Falcons to the playoffs, with only 25 negative plays out of 480 pass-drops -- nine interceptions, 16 sacks. He walked into the NFL throwing superbly downfield, which is always one of the last traits a young quarterback perfects. His 7.9 yards-per-attempt was better than good downfield throwers Jay Cutler, Kurt Warner and both Mannings.
I'm going with James Harrison at five, DeAngelo Williams four, Chad Pennington three, Matt Ryan two. And Peyton Manning one.
I have been leaning toward Manning for the past four or five weeks, because I've felt the Colts would have been well below .500 without him, particularly if he hadn't rallied them from 15- and 17-point late-game deficits to beat Minnesota and Houston, respectively. Manning never had a running game all season to help him; the Colts' 3.4-yard average per rush was their lowest this decade. He started the season more hurt than we knew (at least until now) and without his redoubtable center. The Colts went 3-4 through the end of October, but it would have been 1-6 without those comebacks over the Vikes and Texans. Then, with Manning finally getting his legs under him, the Colts rode a classic 9-0 Manning stretch to finish 12-4 and earn the fifth seed in the AFC playoffs.
The story of Manning's 11th season is a good story, one he hasn't told this season to anyone else in my business -- to the best of my knowledge. As usually happens with Manning, the conversation was going to be 10 or 20 minutes, and then one thing led to another, and by the end, I had enough stuff for a couple of chapters of a book.