Offensive Players of the Week
Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago
Under the circumstances, this might have been the best win of Cutler's young career, and he completed but 14 balls. Under duress for most of the game (and sacked four times), Cutler went 14 of 21 for four touchdowns and no interceptions in the Bears' victory over Philadelphia. Cutler has had to get used to never having a steady pocket and to the new offense of coordinator Mike Martz. What was impressive about Cutler's game Sunday was how he battled through the kind of adversity that would have frustrated him early in the season, when he seemed resigned to sacks. Not Sunday.
Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Pittsburgh
This was the kind of game the old Steelers won -- not playing well offensively, smothering the other guys on defense, and surviving because of a grinding running game. Mendenhall's 36-carry, 151-yard day (plus some significant help from the Bills in overtime) beat Buffalo on a blustery day in Orchard Park. Remember early in his career when the book on Mendenhall was that he wasn't a tough inside runner. Those days are gone.
Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta.
Completed 86 percent in one of the biggest games of his professional life. Completed his first 14 throws of the second half in one of the biggest games of his professional life. Though a 197-yard passing day isn't going to go down in anyone's top stat days, there's something about making plays when plays needed to be made, and about dueling one of the best quarterbacks in football when Aaron Rodgers is on, and coming out on top. Ryan's a quarterback to be reckoned with on the top shelf of NFL quarterbacks.
Defensive Players of the Week
Kevin Burnett, LB, San Diego
The Chargers play Peyton Manning better than any other team (4-1 in the last five meetings entering Sunday night's duel), and Burnett showed why in this game. He baited Manning into a first-quarter interception in front of Reggie Wayne, returning it for a touchdown to give the Chargers a 10-7 lead, and San Diego never trailed again in a 36-14 rout. In games of this magnitude, that's the kind of play that turns a season around.
Chris Long, DE, St. Louis.
Repeat after me: The Rams enter December in first place in the NFC West. The Rams enter December in first place in the NFC West. And as much as the team deserves credit, and as much as Sam Bradford has been incredibly important to getting the Rams to 5-6, this 36-33 win over Denver on the road had one Mariano Rivera: Long.
With 60 seconds to play, and Denver down by three with the ball at its 34, Long sacked Kyle Orton for a six-yard loss on first down. Then, on fourth-and-16, he rattled Orton and changed the direction of a last, desperate, incomplete pass. He keeps playing like that and he won't be known as Howie Long's kid much longer. Howie will be Chris Long's father.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Alfred Malone, DT, Las Vegas Locos (UFL).
The backup defensive lineman burst through a soft Florida middle on the final snap of the second season of the United Football League, blocking Florida kicker Nick Novak's 45-yard field-goal attempt as time expired, ensuring the second consecutive title for the Locos, 23-20. "We just crushed the middle of their field-goal team,'' coach Jim Fassel told me. "Crushed 'em. What a way to win.''
Coaches of the Week
Mike Heimerdinger, offensive coordinator, Tennessee.
Heimerdinger found out he had cancer Wednesday morning, and immediately decided to help coach his latest quarterback project, sixth-round rookie Rusty Smith of Florida Atlantic, in his first NFL start instead of starting his chemotherapy regimen. (He'll begin his treatments this morning in Nashville.) He was with Smith on the bench often, trying to help him navigate his way through, but Smith threw three interceptions and the Texans won 20-0. To me, that doesn't lessen the significance of what Heimerdinger did, wanting to make sure he did his job in a high-pressure week.
Jim Fassel, head coach, Las Vegas Locos (UFL)
Got Fassel on the phone a couple of hours after he won his second straight UFL title, and he was as emotional as if he'd just beaten the Vikings 41-0 in the NFC Championship game. "I have such an appreciation for the work these guys put in, and what good guys they've been to coach,'' he said. "It's been a tremendously rewarding experience.''
When Fassel got passed over for Jim Zorn as Redskins coach in 2008, he could have been a quarterback coach somewhere in the NFL, or an offensive coordinator somewhere in college football, or maybe a head coach somewhere in college. But he chose the UFL, the tenuous second pro league that gives NFL wannabes another chance to play and coach the game they love. And now he's won the only two titles in league history.
Goat of the Week
Steve Johnson, WR, Buffalo
Edged Roy Williams of the Cowboys for this prestigious award. Johnson had one of the big upsets of the year in his grasp, and it was like he had oil on his hands when it happened. With 10 minutes left in overtime against Pittsburgh, Ryan Fitzpatrick dropped one of the most beautiful throws you'll ever see into Johnson's hands. It slid right through his hands. "I am devastated,'' said Johnson. As, I'm sure, was all of Western New York, being one excruciating drop from beating the big, bad Steelers.
St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford may be on his way to being voted the unanimous NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, a rarity when fractious sportswriters vote for awards. That's because he's been one of the best quarterbacks in football -- not just one of the best rookie quarterbacks -- since the middle of October. Reprising his terrific six-game stretch:
Stolen from reader Jim Connolly of Reading, Mass., and one I could not refuse: Tom Brady wasn't the only Patriots quarterback to have a good week. Drew Bledsoe's new winery, Doubleback, had its Cabernet Sauvignon place 53rd overall in Wine Spectator's Top 100 wines.
Jim, I couldn't have come up with a better factoid myself. Unless it's this one ...
Buffalo safety Bryan Scott rides his bike 2.5 miles to work each day. In Buffalo. Still did it all last week, even as the temperatures dipped into the low 30s. "I guess I'm spearheading the 'green' initiative for the Bills,'' he said. "I'll be riding 'til the first snowfall. There's been some mornings where it's been 34, 35 degrees, but I enjoy the scenery, and it makes me feel like I'm doing a little good. There's only one Planet Earth. We've got to take care of it.''
Good for him, especially since his car is a Cadillac Escalade (in-town gas mileage: 12 mpg).
Saturday morning, 11:45, No. 1 train headed downtown, New York City Subway:
On my way to a lower east-side lunch, I boarded a train at Penn Station and immediately smelled a powerful combination of man-stink, B.O., and a portopot. The doors closed, and I looked over, and there, in the back of the car, stretched out over the equivalent of four hard bench seats, was a 40ish man, maybe 375 pounds, with half of his distended gut pushing out of a worn T-shirt and above the belt of filthy sweatpants. The man was snoring like a steam locomotive. I was on the train for seven or eight minutes and he never stirred. You could hear him snoring in Pennsylvania. I never talk on the subway, but I did make eye contact with a man across from me who, too, was incredulous. "I've never seen anything like that in my life -- how can you sleep that soundly on a moving subway?'' I said. The stranger said: "That's better than I've slept in 10 years.''
I got off the train to transfer to the L train. Waiting for the Brooklyn-bound L, I saw a seven-inch rat scurry along the tracks and look up as if to say, "Got any Jujubes up there for me?''
Gotta love New York. I think with this story and the JFK Airport story of a couple weeks ago, I could be doing quite a bit to slow the Manhattan population explosion.
"To T.O. calling Ben soft all I can say is "That's my teammate, that's my quarterback" As i cry and my lips quiver. Wait that was him. Lol''
--@ryanclark25, Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark, on Wednesday, in response to Terrell Owens questioning the toughness of Ben Roethlisberger for being knocked down by Richard Seymour, and referring to the time when Owens, then with Dallas, defended his quarterback, Tony Romo, emotionally from what he perceived to be attacks from the media.
It was a good tweet week for Clark, who also tweeted this after Cam Newton's remarkable performance in Auburn's 28-27 comeback win over Alabama on Friday: "I tell you what. Auburn's #2 is a grown man. You can judge him, criticize him, but you have to respect his God given ability and will to win.'' Newton wears number two.
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