Déjà vu for the Giants. Four years ago, the Giants got hot at the end of the year, beating Tampa Bay and Dallas on the road in the playoffs, then went to heavily favored Green Bay for the NFC Championship Game with a hot quarterback -- and stunned the Pack in Brett Favre's last Green Bay game. This year, the Giants got hot at the end of the year, beating the Jets and Cowboys in the regular-season finales and Atlanta in a wild-card game ... and now go to heavily favored Green Bay for the NFC divisional playoff game with a hot quarterback. Only this time, it should be about 40 degrees warmer than four years ago.
After the Giants clubbed Atlanta 24-2 Sunday (who'd have guessed James Sanders would outscore Matt Ryan for the Falcons), linebacker Chase Blackburn, who was on that Giant team four years ago and had an impressive game against the Falcons with nine tackles, said one of the things the two teams have in common is confidence. "There are similarities,'' he said. "I can't say we'll have the same playoff run, but I can say we have the same character, and we have a lot of confidence in our quarterback.''
The Giants are rushing the passer as well as they did in the 2007 postseason, and Eli Manning, sharp Sunday, looks as hot. Should be a good game.
The other matchups: It's New Orleans at San Francisco (combined record: 27-6) Saturday afternoon, then Denver at New England Saturday night. Houston is at Baltimore early on Sunday, the Giants and Packers at Lambeau late. The best game might be Saints-Niners, with the rested 49ers likely to have hamstrung linebacker Patrick Willis back to full strength to help chase the hottest passer in the land, Drew Brees. The ratings giants: Giants-Packers at 4:30 Eastern on Sunday and Tebow-Brady (under the watchful eye of McDaniels) in prime time Saturday.
A shaky weekend for the zebras. In the Lions-Saints game, a ball flew out of Brees' hands and was ruled a fumble by referee Tony Corrente. It flew forward and was recovered by the Lions. At the same time, another official on the field ruled an incomplete pass. That should have rendered the play dead with possession reverting to New Orleans. But the game crew gave possession to the Lions, mistakenly.
In another weird play, Brees, on a 4th-and-a-foot call, leaped over the line, stuck the ball out long enough to get the ball past the first-down marker, then pulled it back as he was swarmed by the Lions. Looked like he voluntarily pulled it back, which, of course, would have meant he didn't have the forward progress for the first down. But the officials on the field gave him forward progress.
The Steelers looked very old Sunday. At one point Sunday in Denver, 35-year-old wideout Hines Ward was nailed to the bench in what might have been his last game as a Steeler; defensive linemen Brett Keisel (33) and Casey Hampton (34) were out with injuries; James Harrison (33) and James Farrior (37) were trying to give the Steelers some sort of pass-rush, and Ben Roethlisberger, who turns 30 in March, was hobbling around on his bad ankle like he was 45. Ugly way to end a season.
To give up 447 yards to the Broncos, who couldn't buy a first down the last couple of weeks, had to stun Pittsburgh into the realization the Steelers need some youth on defense and some bodies on the offensive line, a unit that is just awful.
Houston, however, looked young and spry. After losing its last three, Houston bounced back with the kind of defensive game and running attack coach Gary Kubiak would draw up as a perfect plan. The Texans held Cincinnati to 300 yards and were in Andy Dalton's face all day.
What impresses me about the Texans is the young defensive talent. Defensive end J.J. Watt is the prototype 3-4 defensive end, shifty and athletic enough to maneuver around tackles, and strong enough, at 290 pounds, to hold the point on the run. Late in the first half against Cincinnati, Watt made the second interception of his life when he somehow corralled a line-drive throw from Dalton and rambled 29 yards with the interception for a touchdown.
"I had no intention whatsoever of catching it,'' he said. "I'm just taught to put my hands up to block passes, and when this one hit me, it just stuck. Never had one like that before. I was a little bit amazed, a little crazed.''
In fact, his other pick came last season when he played at Wisconsin, taking a tipped pass back against Michigan. "I probably made it maybe 15 yards, and Denard [Robinson] caught me,'' said Watt, speaking of the Wolverine quarterback. "He's a little bit better athlete than me.''
After Saturday's game, Watt got a hug from defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. "We've been working on disruptive plays like that all year, and when he hugged me, he said, 'Practice makes perfect,' '' said Watt.
Expectations shouldn't have gotten Turner and Smith fired, Spanos says. The Chargers seemed on the verge of firing coach Norv Turner last week, but president Dean Spanos, after a few long days of consideration, decided not to -- even though the Chargers sandwiched one 13-3 season with an 8-8, 9-7 and 8-8 over the past four years, with but one playoff win in the four seasons despite an explosive offense.
I was leaning toward thinking the whole place should be blown up myself, because I thought it was a better team than it showed on the field; I'd picked the Chargers to win the AFC, and they finished .500, with a six-game losing streak in midseason. A lot of that was an uncharacteristically bumpy year for Philip Rivers, and a defense that just didn't have enough playmakers; Cincinnati, Arizona and Seattle were all stingier on defense.
Look at the defense. Where are the difference-makers? Eric Weddle, the safety, and linebackers Shaun Phillips and Antwan Barnes. But where else? The drafts have been poor.
"I thought the expectations here got out of control,'' Spanos told me the other day. "We did not have good drafts in '07, '08 and '09, and so we've been set back a little by that. I thought we had a good nucleus with a great quarterback who Norv has done a great job with. But I didn't think we had a great team. Should I blow it up, get rid of the coaches and the general manager, with no guarantee on anything coming in here? I thought that would have been a mistake, and I thought they deserved another chance. This is all a guess. It's a big bet. But I think I'll be right.''
For the short term, Spanos knows the Chargers need to fix major problems on the offensive line -- health issues may force stalwarts Marcus McNeill and Kris Dielman to retire, though McNeill says he will try to continue playing. "We need to find out why we've had such an inordinate number of injuries,'' Spanos said.
Join the club.
Tony Corrente's story.
Today's a big day for Corrente. Less than two days after serving as ref and crew chief at the game in New Orleans, Corrente is beginning his second course of debilitating chemotherapy at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
To this day, Corrente is still blown away by what might have saved his life: a mini-brawl in the season-opening Baltimore-Pittsburgh game.
Corrente, a trim, veteran referee, felt fine and was in excellent physical condition entering the season. In the second half of the game at Baltimore, he stepped in the middle of some pushing and shoving between two Steelers and two Ravens, and he found himself shoved hard out of the scrum. He landed on his back and hit his head, and he felt it the rest of the game.
Afterward, with pain in his head, back and buttocks, Corrente had a choice in the referee's room -- Tylenol or Motrin. And he remembered a former member of his crew saying Motrin was better for pain, so he took 800 milligrams of Motrin and flew home to California.
At home, he noticed he was coughing up blood, and still was the next day. More Motrin. The next week, after doing the Kansas City-Detroit game, Corrente was still taking Motrin, and noticed when he woke up Monday after the game there was blood on his pillow where his mouth had been. His doctor in California, Susan Sleep, set him up with an ear, nose and throat specialist, who snaked a camera through his nose to look at everything.
The camera spied a mass at the base of his tongue, where the tongue led into the throat, extending down the throat slightly. The mass was about the size of a full male thumb.
"What is that?'' Corrente asked the doctor.
"Sir, that is cancer,'' said the doctor, whose specialty was apparently not bedside manner.
"Excuse me,'' Corrente said. "I've got WHAT?''
After more tests and seeing a second expert at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Corrente would have a choice: get the tumor removed surgically, which carried some significant risks about future speaking ability and throat damage; or shrink it and eliminate it through chemotherapy and radiation. "The doctors believed the survival chance was about equal,'' Corrente told me Sunday afternoon. "So that made it a fairly easy choice.'' In late October, after returning from reffing the Tampa Bay-Chicago game, he began a seven-week course of chemotherapy.
"Every doctor I saw would look at me and tell me how lucky I was,'' Corrente said.
"Getting knocked down and hurt in that Baltimore game might have saved my life,'' he said. "Then I started taking Motrin, which I found out causes your blood to thin. It broke through blood vessels and would come out when I coughed. Obviously, you've got to find out why that's happening. Had I not done anything, or had I taken Tylenol, which doesn't cause your blood to thin, I probably wouldn't have discovered this for a while -- and by then, I'd have needed massive surgery, and who knows what chances I would have had.''
At first, the chemo did little to him physically. But he began to lose his hair and look pale; at one point he had a bad skin rash. The Colts found out what ailed Corrente, and Peyton Manning, before the Nov. 27 Colts game against Carolina, gave Corrente a hug. "We heard,'' Manning said. During a TV timeout, Corrente was told Colts coach Jim Caldwell wanted to see him.
"He took both my hands, right there on the field,'' Corrente said. "And he said, 'I just wish you all the best. Our whole organization is praying for you.' ''
After that game, the treatments weakened Corrente to the point where he had to miss three weeks of work. Five days after he finished his last chemo treatment, he said he felt good. "A hundred percent,'' he said. "So I called [NFL officiating czar] Carl Johnson and told him I felt fine and I was ready to work. I said, 'I wouldn't come back unless I felt 100 percent.' ''
So he worked the last two weekends of the season, Minnesota at Washington on Dec. 24 and Baltimore at Cincinnati eight days ago.
"Before that game, I went to coach [John] Harbaugh of the Ravens, and told him I'd like to talk to a couple of his players if it wouldn't be too much of a bother before the game. I told him the story, and he was in disbelief. So they brought the two players who were in the scuffle with the Steelers that first week, Michael Oher and Matt Birk, out to talk to me. I told them, 'I just wanted to tell you that you actually may have saved my life.'
"I could see they were shocked as I explained it. This crazy ref was thanking them because they knocked him on his butt.''
Postseason assignments are made based on performance during the season. Corrente was told his crew would be working one of the wild-card games, and he was thrilled -- as much for his crew as for himself. He thought of his umpire, Fred Bryan, who collapsed late in the season with a blood clot in his lung and wouldn't be able to work the playoff game. "It would have been his first playoff game,'' said Corrente. "That really bothered me, that he'd miss it.''
It bothered Corrente that he wouldn't get to work another playoff game, even if his crew's performance warranted it according to the grading scale the NFL uses. He told them he wouldn't be available. Several weeks of arduous treatment lay ahead.
"There's going to be some dark days ahead,'' Corrente said.
Corrente found it interesting that he made it through the Saints-Lions game with no pain, no sore throat, no lack of energy. He had the presence of mind to -- correctly -- rule the Brees fumble/no-fumble a fumble when Brees was hit before he tried to throw the ball, though the play was incorrectly ruled because another crew member ruled an incomplete pass. But Sunday, he had a sore throat. His body felt sore. It's like he'd conditioned himself to make it through the game, knowing a tough regimen was ahead, and when the game was over, his body stopped protecting him.
As well as the chemo, Corrente will begin a new round of radiation treatments. He described it as being bolted down on a table and shot with radiation from 10 different angles for between 15 and 35 seconds. His throat will blister. He won't be able to talk. He'll have a very hard time swallowing. He'll lose all sensation of taste, which won't be much of a change. "Food, to me, is repulsive right now,'' he said.
Ask him about the future, and he can't tell you. His doctors say he came through the first two-plus months of treatment well, but they don't know what the future holds. As a former high school baseball coach, Corrente's been given some baseball allegories by one of his chemotherapy docs. "He told me, 'We just scored a couple of runs, but we're only in the sixth inning -- and the other guys have some good hitters coming up,' '' said Corrente.
He's heard from coaches, players, league officials, fellow officials, all wishing him well. "You hear it's the No Fun League, or it's Not For Long,'' said Corrente. "I'll tell you what the league is -- it's the National Family League. I've learned my glass isn't half-full. It's been full my whole life, and it's full now.''
And he's looking forward to next season, if for no other reason than to look up Ryan Mundy and LaMarr Woodley of the Steelers. They're the two players who jousted with Birk and Oher. Corrente can't wait to tell them how they might have helped save his life.
My All-Pro team. As promised, here's the All-Pro team I filed to the Associated Press last Monday, the day after the regular season ended:
Receivers: Calvin Johnson, Detroit; Victor Cruz, New York Giants. Very tough to leave off Wes Welker, who won the receptions crown by 22 catches, but Cruz was just so dominant late in the year.
Offensive line: LT, Joe Thomas, Cleveland. LG, Carl Nicks, New Orleans. C, Scott Wells, Green Bay. RG, Marshal Yanda, Baltimore. RT, Eric Winston, Houston. Brian Waters of New England was close at guard, but I love the year Yanda had, and how he played so well in pain late.
Tight end: Rob Gronkowski, New England. As great as Jimmy Graham was this year, Gronkowski's one of the best all-around tight ends to come into the league in decades.
Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay. Stunning that Rodgers got 47.5 of the 50 votes, as good as Drew Brees has been.
Running back: Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville. When your foes know you're the only even remote offensive threat on the team, and you win the rushing title by 242 yards, that's impressive. (I'm supposed to name two backs, which I never do. The AP wants two, and I've explained for years if you have two backs and two receivers, how fair is that?
Fullback: Vonta Leach, Baltimore. A human anvil.
Defensive line: Jared Allen, Minnesota, and Justin Smith, San Francisco (ends); Haloti Ngata, Baltimore, and Sione Pouha, Jets (tackles). Smith played outside, or end, on four-fifths of the snaps he played this year, so I can't figure out why he'd be listed as a tackle.
Linebackers: Tamba Hali, Kansas City, and DeMarcus Ware, Dallas (outside); Derrick Johnson, Kansas City, and NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco (inside). So many good players here, and I feel terrible for not including Terrell Suggs, who could have placed at either end or OLB. He's ferocious. Hali and Ware were special too, especially the day Hali terrorized Rodgers in Green Bay's only loss of the year.
Secondary: Darrelle Revis, New York Jets, and Johnathan Joseph, Houston (corners); Eric Weddle, San Diego (free safety) and Kam Chancellor, Seattle (strong safety). Joseph was a big reason the Texans improved drastically, and Weddle became a premier roaming safety this season.
K: David Akers, San Francisco ... P: Andy Lee, San Francisco ... Return: Patrick Peterson, Arizona. Akers set the field-goal record. Lee had the highest gross plus net averages. Peterson had four return TDs.
MVP: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay. See last week's column for reason.
Off. player: Drew Brees, New Orleans. Not a copout. The best stat season ever by a quarterback deserves this.
Def. player: Justin Smith, San Francisco. Tape-watchers marvel how he never takes a play off. Watch how he caught Jeremy Maclin from 15 yards behind to clinch the Philly game in Week 3.
Off. rookie: Cam Newton, Carolina. Best season a rookie's ever had, I'd say.
Def. rookie: Von Miller, Denver. Slowed by bum thumb late. Edges Aldon Smith.
Coach: Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco. Great candidates this year. Only one premier one.
Assistant coach: Wade Phillips, Houston. Took the 30th-ranked defense of 2010, lost Mario Williams early, and turned it into second-ranked D.
Comeback: D'Qwell Jackson, LB, Cleveland. Missed the last 26 games with two separate pectoral tears. This year, led the AFC in tackles.
Executive: Mike Brown, Cincinnati. Good draft netted long-term weaponry. Good trade raked Raiders over coals for Carson Palmer.