8. Brandon Marshall saw the best game of his life coming. He was stretching with strength and conditioning coach Rich Tuten before the game and said to him, "This is gonna be the best game of my life. I can feel it.''
The 6-4 Marshall liked his matchup against the rookie Indy cornerbacks, he liked the spotlight of playing an unbeaten team, he liked the Denver game plan that had Kyle Orton looking for him early and often, and he liked playing in a weatherproof environment in the Indianapolis dome. It turned out to be a perfect storm. Marshall caught a record 21 passes, for 200 yards and two touchdowns; the Colts zoomed to a 21-0 lead early, but staggered under the weight of Marshall's play, seeing the lead cut to 21-16 before Peyton Manning threw his fourth touchdown pass of the day.
Marshall had several little incuts and seam routes designed to simply move the chains. It's a ball-control record, really, not an explosive-play record.
"When you're trying to establish yourself as one of the great players, you know when you play the great teams, you've got to play great,'' he told me after the game, "and that's the feeling I had coming to the stadium today. These are the games that can put you into the elite class.''
It's been an interesting turnaround for Marshall, who petulantly tried to talk and act his way off the team in training camp when he felt he got misled about being traded. He wanted out. Coach Josh McDaniels wasn't going to let him go. Once he saw he wasn't going anywhere this year, Marshall decided to make the best of it, and the best has been pretty good -- 86 catches (third in the league), nine receiving touchdowns. "My love for the game took over,'' he said. "At the end of the day, I knew I just wanted to play football.''
Denver has the inside track to the fifth seed in the AFC playoffs, which could make for a fascinating wild card match for Marshall against the green Patriot corners if the Patriots continue to stumble to the AFC East title.
9. The Pack got lucky with Aaron Rodgers Sunday. As soon as Aaron Rodgers got bent back on the turf at Soldier Field Sunday, his right foot disappearing beneath him and his back bending almost Gumby-like too far back, Rodney Harrison said in the NBC viewing room, "Oh, this is bad.'' It's the kind of thing that could be a high ankle sprain, a serious foot injury, or maybe a hyperextended knee -- or worse.
"I could feel it happening,'' Rodgers said over the phone from Chicago after the 21-14 Green Bay win. "I was able to spin out of it at the last second. But that might have been bad.''
Rodgers didn't have one of his best days -- 16 of 24, 180 yards, no touchdowns or picks -- but he had the kind of day Mike McCarthy wants his quarterbacks to have. McCarthy used to stress to Brett Favre that he could have a good day by not making the big mistake. And Rodgers made only one of those Sunday, on a cold, breezy, raw day on the lake, getting strip-sacked and losing the ball on the first drive of the third quarter.
The Packers won with the kind of game they'll need to win with if they play a cold-weather road playoff game (at Philly, perhaps) in January -- with a good game from Ryan Grant and a defensive beatdown of the Bears, holding Chicago to 254 yards. The Packers would have to stumble badly to miss the playoffs now, with the Giants, Cowboys and Falcons all struggling mightily. They're fortunate that Rodgers has become a top-10 quarterback and not had the kind of painful adjustment to starting life in the NFL so many young quarterbacks do.
10. Demarcus Ware is fine, relatively speaking, after that scary collision. His agent, Pat Dye Jr., texted last night that Ware passed all his tests at a Texas hospital after his on-field collision with San Diego tackle Brandyn Dombrowski left him with a sprained neck, and he'd been released. Fortunately, Ware has feelings in all his extremities and he'll be fine. Playing? I don't know. Living's what I was worried about when I saw that one.
11. Someone throw a life preserver to Wade Phillips. For Phillips to keep his job, he's going to have to win a game (or two) he's not supposed to. Like this Saturday night's game in New Orleans, or a wild card game on the road. I don't think it's likely. So if we're looking at the tea leaves, it means Mike Shanahan and Bill Cowher will be left to duel for jobs in Washington, Dallas, Buffalo, maybe Carolina and maybe Chicago -- though I can't imagine Chicago will pay in Dan Snyder's or Jerry Jones' league if the Bears decide to make a change.
12. Ndamukong Suh is the best defensive player to come out of college football this decade. As I said on "Football Night in America'' last night, I spoke with the GMs of both one-win teams this weekend -- Billy Devaney of the Rams, Mark Dominik of the Bucs -- and there's little doubt that Suh will be at the top of the draft boards of both teams. Usually there's some doubt who the premier player in the draft will be four months out, but not this year.
"He's got to be at the top, or very near the top, of every team's draft board,'' Dominik said of Suh, the Nebraska defensive tackle who finished fourth in the Heisman race (Lord knows why). One GM of a losing team who has scouted Suh told me he has "Richard Seymour strength and Warren Sapp quickness.''
Said Dominik: "The only thing that worries me is living up to the hype. If he gets six sacks as a rookie playing defensive tackle, someone's going to call him a bust because of the high expectations. How's he going to handle that?'' Logical question ... but every top pick who ever gets picked has to deal with the weight of expectations. The book on Suh is he's a mature kid. He's just going to have to take it.
13. I owe Jerry Jones a mea culpa. Remember back in August, when Tennessee punter A.J. Trapasso hit the low-hanging video board at Jerry Jones' new stadium in Arlington? And I said afterward the punters in the NFL would use the thing for target practice, and it'd be a nightmare for the league?
Jones told me and anyone who'd listen at the time, basically, to just give the board a chance, and judge it after a season, and then we'd see if the board needed to be lifted higher. Well, Jason Baker came in, the Carolina boomer, and he didn't hit it in six tries, and their own punter, Mat McBriar (who may have known what was good for him) hasn't hit it all year, and in the last two home games, the most prolific punting legs in the country, Shane Lechler of Oakland and Mike Scifres of the Chargers, haven't hit it. Since Trapasso nailed it (and then bragged it would happen often), visiting punters have had 48 punts and McBriar 38. That's 86 punts. And nothing.
Mind-boggling but true: NFL punters have missed the video board 86 times in 86 punts. "That's a shock,'' Trapasso said Sunday night. "I thought maybe guys wouldn't hit it square, but I'm stunned it hasn't even been grazed.''
One theory: Because most teams directional-kick now and only rarely boot it high and straight into the air, punters can avoid the board by kicking to a spot. Whatever the reason, my preseason alarm bells , with one home game at the new palace to be played, were out of line.
14. Stadium blues in Minnesota. Want to know why the Minnesota Vikings have a tough fight on their hands to get a new stadium built? Politics. And one of the biggest budget deficits in the United States.
For the first time in more than 20 years in Minnesota, the governor, lieutenant governor, 134 state representatives and 67 state senators will all be up for election in the same year, 2010, without a presidential or U.S. Senate election next November. That means the focus of the entire state will be on the state, not divided between Washington and Minnesota. Those 203 politicians are in no mood to foot much of the bill for a new sporting venue.
The state has just overseen the opening this fall of the new 50,000-seat stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and the Twins' new Target Field will open downtown next April. Combined total of those two projects: $578 million. The state is projecting a $1.2-billion budget deficit next year. Add all those factors together, and you understand how tough it's going to be for the Vikings to get a new stadium anytime soon.
I don't think it'll be in 2010, which will raise the threat level of a franchise shift to Los Angele to orange. When, or if, they do build, I can tell you that people on the football side -- players, coaches -- aren't crazy about an open-air stadium. A retractable roof would add about $200 million to the cost; a fixed roof would add about $125,000. It'll be a homefield edge at this time of year, but that doesn't mean the locals used to playing inside and sitting inside for the past 28 football seasons want to go back to playing in the elements.
I was at the Vikings facility Thursday, and it was minus-1 with a wind-chill of minus-12 at 11 in the morning. As one player told me, "A whole generation of fans grew up without ever sitting outside to watch the Vikings. What's it been, 30 years? How are you going to get all those people used to being warm for a game to sit outside when it's below zero?'' Good question. But the Vikings would be happy to get any new stadium, inside or outside.
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