1. Tom Brady, QB, New England. Stacked below Wes Welker on the Patriots receiver leaderboard, Brady's next five favorite targets this year didn't play with him last year: Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Tate, Deion Branch, Danny Woodhead, Rob Gronkowski. The quarterback has to be pretty valuable in that case, and Brady's 65-percent first half of the season, with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions, proves him most valuable.
2. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. As usual, think of the two-loss Colts with Curtis Painter playing. I rest my case.
3. Haloti Ngata, DT, Baltimore. Played like the best defensive player in football in the first half of the season.
4. Clay Matthews, LB, Green Bay. Just watching the Packers shut out the Jets, and seeing Matthews playing with such ferocity for four quarters, I thought he deserved a spot on this list -- as much for leadership and top defensive play as anything else.
5. Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego. No quarterback through eight games has thrown for as many yards as Rivers has in his first eight this year (2,649). It's tough putting the quarterback of a 3-5 team on this list, but Rivers has kept the Chargers afloat and within a prayer of surviving this awful start.
Offensive Player of the Week
Troy Smith, QB, San Francisco.
Smith hadn't started an NFL game in 34 months -- since a Dec. 30, 2007 win over the Steelers as a Baltimore Raven. And to find out you'll get the start while in London, five days before the game, when you've never worked with the first-unit offense .... Pretty amazing deal. And Smith played well: 12 of 19, 196 yards, one rushing touchdown, one passing touchdown, no interceptions, and a gaudy 115.2 rating. "I'm not looking back at what should have been or what might have happened,'' Smith told me from London, after the Niners beat the Broncos in the league's international game at Wembley Stadium. "I'm just taking this chance and running with it.''
As I said on NBC Sunday night, you'll almost certainly see Troy Smith replace Alex Smith, regardless of Alex's health, when the 49ers come off their bye in 13 days against the Rams. My take is that Mike Singletary sees Troy as the make-something-happen sparkplug he never saw in Alex -- or in backup David Carr.
Defensive Players of the Week
Ndamukong Suh, DT; Cliff Avril, DE; and Kyle VandenBosch, DE, Detroit.
What an oppressive game these three Lions played, combining for 15 tackles, six sacks (for a loss of 54 yards), two more quarterbacks hits, two more tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble returned (by Suh) for a touchdown in the 37-25 Detroit victory over Washington. The Lions are 2-5. Their defensive front is playing like it's 5-2.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Dan Carpenter, K, Miami.
"How about this damn kicker!!!'' Tony Sparano yelled to his team in his postgame remarks after the Dolphins beat Cincinnati 22-14. How about him? Carpenter, in the span of 30 minutes, kicked field goals from 38, 42, 24, 54 and 31 yards, scoring the first 15 points of the game and, with the last one, giving the Dolphins a lead they wouldn't relinquish. He did it through a nice breeze -- 11 mph winds -- without missing. And he did the five-field-goal thing for the second straight week. That's right. Two weeks, 10 field goals for Carpenter.
Coach of the Week
Norv Turner, head coach, San Diego.
For one of the few times in his 197-game NFL coaching career, Turner got ticked off at halftime. His 2-5 team was down 19-14 to the Titans, and having had ANOTHER punt blocked (the fourth in eight games), Turner had seen enough. The players responded. Second-half score: San Diego 19, Tennessee 6. That led to a win the Chargers, very slightly, needed.
Goats of the Week
The entire Dallas punt coverage team.
But specifically wide receiver Sam Hurd, linebacker Brandon Williams, tight end Scott Chandler, long-snapper L.P. LaDouceur and wide receiver Jesse Holley (and shouldn't Holley, the winner of Michael Irvin's football reality show that landed him in Cowboy camp in the first place, NEVER be seen as dogging it?). This play perfectly illustrates why the Cowboys have been the biggest disappointment by far this year in the NFL.
In the second quarter against Jacksonville, Mat McBriar dropped a punt inside the Jacksonville 10-yard line. Returner Mike Thomas, though surrounded by the onrushing and aforementioned Cowboys, did not call for a fair catch. And the Cowboys watched him take off like a rabbit being frightened by a shotgun blast. They chased Thomas, who ran for 16 yards, to the Jag 25-yard line. The picture of special-teams coach Joe DeCamillis reaming out his guys on the sidelines was worth a thousand words. Perfect.
Sam Bradford had a lot to adjust to this year. He had to adjust to playing football following major shoulder surgery last fall, which caused him to miss most of his senior year at Oklahoma. And he had to adjust to being a savior for a bad franchise, a 6-42 team over the past three years. Consider Bradford pretty well-adjusted at the season's midpoint. In his last three-plus games, covering 187 minutes, he hasn't thrown an interception, has won two of the three games, and has the Rams at 4-4 -- a half-game out of first in the absolutely winnable NFC West.
Check out the stretch of interception-free football by Bradford:
Consider the shaky group of receivers he has, and you really can't say enough good things about the job Bradford's done in making the Rams relevant again.
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