The new year will begin without clear-cut Super Bowl XLIV favorite
San Diego has turned a 2-3 season around by winning 10 in a row
Steve Smith may be toughest in NFL; Darrelle Revis probably top defender
Colts' decision analysis, weekly awards and 10 Things I Think I Think
NEW YORK -- Five things I want to hit right at the top:
1. Best team in football? We don't have one right now.
2. I don't like what Indy did Sunday, but we knew it was coming. Why all the outrage?
3. Steve Smith, the Carolina Steve Smith, leads the NFL in guts.
4. Darrelle Revis looks like the Defensive Player of the Year.
5. Bengals-Jets was the only real choice for the final Sunday night game of the year.
There's more to this last MMQB column of 2009 (including The Odyssey of Referee Bill Leavy, the longshot that 2011 football is becoming, Mike Shanahan and Bill Cowher and jobs) but let's start with those five earlier landmarks.
It's going to be a wide-open January. At this point of each of the past six years, we thought we knew the best team in the game as the regular-season drew to a close. It looked like New England in 2003 and '04, the Colts in '05 and '06, perfect New England the next year, and Pittsburgh or Tennessee last year. My money would be on San Diego this season if I were a betting man this morning, but I'm glad I'm not.
The problem: Every good team is flawed. New England can't rush the passer. You can score on Philadelphia. Dallas, other than on plays to Miles Austin, isn't explosive on offense. The Saints are psycho; I don't know what they are anymore. The Vikings' offensive line is a real quagmire. The Colts can't run, though it hasn't seemed to hurt them much. And San Diego is beat up on defense, with a sputtering run game too.
Maybe an Arizona will pop up this year, a surprise team that rides the wave. This year, that team might be Green Bay or Arizona ... or maybe even the Jets because of a run game that always seems to find 175 yards of production somewhere. But the fact is, there's no lock in either conference. That means the next month will be fun and maddening.
San Diego might be a killer because Philip Rivers has been as clutch a player as there's been in the league over the past two months -- and because he has the best set of offensive weapons in the game right now. It's been a long, strange trip for San Diego. Think back to the Chargers losing by 10 at Pittsburgh and 11 at home to Denver in October. They were 2-3. The Greatest Team on Paper was dissolving -- again. Norv Turner was 12 weeks from the unemployment line.
Since then, San Diego's won at Denver, at the Giants, at Dallas, and by 25 against a Tennessee team that had won seven of eight, playing on a short week. Turner's done this while juggling offensive gameplans with a running game averaging a paltry 3.3 yards a pop, and subbing most of the season for a center, Nick Hardwick, who's as important a pivot as on any other line in the league, with the exception of Jeff Saturday in Indianapolis. Turner, who is more often a punching bag in the media than a praised coach, deserves some props for his role in the Charger revival.
I spoke to Turner Sunday -- he had given his team and staff the day off, the benefit of the Christmas night game robbing them of their holiday -- and he said the difference in the season came when his team didn't allow the 2-3 start to snowball. "Sometimes, I think if a good team loses a few, like Tennessee this year, it's important to not overthink what's going on,'' he said. "We played one bad game, against Pittsburgh. Against Baltimore, we lost but threw for 430. Against Denver, we had 280 yards at the half. We were going to be fine, and the players just had to believe that. When we lost to Denver to go to 2-3, I told the team, 'It's not physical, it's mental.' We're a good team.''
Three other interesting nuggets from Turner. He said tight end Antonio Gates "is playing his position as well, as consistently, as any guy I've seen at any position in my years of coaching.'' High praise for a guy who coached Aikman, Emmitt and Irvin in the Cowboy glory years. He said he'd rest Shawne Merriman (plantar fasciatis) against Washington in the meaningless regular-season finale Sunday, which would give him about 22 days off between the game at Tennessee Christmas night and the first playoff game Jan. 16 or 17. "I can't say enough about his effort,'' Turner said. And he said "he's confident'' he'll have a contract extension soon, which has been a foregone conclusion with the team on a 10-game winning streak.
San Diego could have a bear of a run to the Super Bowl -- New England at home in the divisional game, then at Indianapolis. The Chargers, though, have beaten both. They're 3-3 against New England over the past seven years, and 4-1 against Indy in their past five meetings, including two straight playoff wins. Both would be great games.
Steve Smith says his broken forearm is "a minor nuisance.'' Right away in the NBC viewing room at Rockefeller Center Sunday, when Smith got slammed by Giants safety Michael Johnson as he gathered in a pass from Matt Moore near the goal line, Rodney Harrison said, "His arm's broken.'' Harrison knows about broken arms. He broke his in the Patriots' third Super Bowl game this decade, against Carolina, and stayed on the field for the rest of the series though he knew it was broken.
"Toughest wide receiver in football,'' Harrison said of Smith.
Toughest player, I'd say.
The play came two minutes into the second half, from the Giants' 21-yard line.
"When I came out of my break to catch the ball,'' Smith told me from the Panthers' locker room, "I knew I didn't have long to go up and make the catch before I was going to get hit. I felt him [Johnson] coming. But that happens all the time. You catch the ball, you take the hit, you hang on. And so the ball came and I caught it, and he slammed into me. I felt it [break] right away. The bones were moving, shifting in there.''
"How'd you hold onto the ball?'' I asked.
"There was no chance I'd drop it,'' he said. "I'd die before I'd drop that ball. Then I fell into the end zone, and when I got up, I knew it was broken.''
He went to lift the left arm to help him cradle the ball, but the left arm wasn't working; he couldn't use it for support. So he went to the sidelines -- without grimacing -- and said to the trainer who came to meet him, "It's broken, man.''
"I didn't want anybody to touch it,'' he said.
He said he recalled in college colliding with BYU linebacker Rob Morris and breaking a neck vertebrae. He said it's part of the game.
"He gave me his best shot,'' Smith said, "and I must be a pretty good player. Because I broke my arm and still scored the touchdown.''
When Smith was getting the arm X-rayed, the doctor told him he'd have to have it set in surgery this morning. Smith wanted the doctor to cast it so he could play Sunday in the season finale against New Orleans -- a game that means nothing because Carolina's been eliminated from the playoffs. GM Marty Hurney told him that would be impossible, obviously. Bones set in three months, not five days.
"You in pain right now?'' I asked.
"Sort of,'' he said. "It's more of a minor nuisance.''
Football players are different than the rest of us.
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