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  Posted: Tuesday December 24, 2002 2:23 PM

Sports Illustrated's Don Banks tackles three issues from around the league:

 1  Who's the unsung component in Oakland's offensive success this season?  
  Marc Trestman Marc Trestman, shown here with Arizona in 1998.
Marc Piscotty/Allsport

The pass-happy Raiders are either first or second in five major offensive categories -- total offense (392.2 yards), passing yards (293.4), scoring (28.4 points), touchdowns (50), and first downs (22.7) -- and still nobody has paid much attention to the job being turned in by offensive coordinator Marc Trestman.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Trestman handles the majority of the Raiders' play-calling, focusing primarily on the passing game. Yes, head coach Bill Callahan contributes most of the run calls, and quarterback Rich Gannon has the authority to audible at will, but it is Trestman who devises and installs the team's game plan and meets extensively with Gannon in game preparation.

When Oakland shocked the Steelers in Pittsburgh in Week 2, calling 65 pass plays, it was Trestman who was directing the shots. When Oakland turned its season around in Denver in Week 10, upsetting the Broncos by throwing on 38 of its 52 offensive snaps, it was Trestman's go-for-the-throat approach that Gannon executed so superbly.

"Marc's done a great job," said one observer close to the situation. "Gannon has the keys to the car, and he can audible, but that just means that somebody has been laying the ground work and giving Rich all those choices."

The Raiders are notorious for trying to keep their assistants out of the spotlight, probably for fear that they could lose them to another team via promotion. And in the recent past, former head coach Jon Gruden seemed to receive all the credit for Oakland's offensive success -- whether he deserved it or not.

But if Oakland's No. 1-ranked offense rolls through an extended playoff run, and Gannon winds up winning the MVP award that many have him pegged for, not even the Raiders will be able to deny Trestman his due.

Still only 46, Trestman has been around the NFL since 1985, and has served as offensive coordinator for three other teams (Cleveland, San Francisco and Arizona). His career has ebbed and flowed, and he has served two different stints on the league's list of "hot assistants." But as the close of the 2002 season nears, Trestman may be doing his best work yet.

 2  What's wrong with Aaron Brooks? 
  Aaron Brooks Aaron Brooks
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The Saints say there's nothing physically wrong with their fourth-year quarterback, and that he didn't aggravate a three-week-old right shoulder injury in Sunday's loss at Cincinnati. Maybe so, but that doesn't mean there isn't cause for concern in the Big Easy.

Brooks hasn't looked right for a while now. In his past four starts, he has completed just 55 of 121 passes, for 736 yards. He has six touchdowns without an interception in that span, but he was at his worst in losing to the Bengals. Brooks completed 16 of 38 passes against Cincinnati, for 203 yards, a touchdown, and a 68.2 quarterback rating. After starting 11-of-14 for 154 yards in the first quarter, his game fell apart.

In the second half, Brooks was just 2-of-14 for 13 yards, with his last 11 passes falling incomplete in the 20-13 Bengals upset. That included an 0-for-7 fourth-quarter showing, and game's final 23 minutes ticking by without a New Orleans completion. How many big-time quarterbacks have whiffed that dramatically?

The Saints offense, which has scored a club-record 426 points this season, produced just three first downs and 52 total yards in the final three quarters at Cincinnati, despite facing the league's 30th-ranked defense. New Orleans fumbled five times overall, three of them by Brooks. Twice he wasn't even hit.

While the Saints' assurances that Brooks is healthy takes care of some questions, his mechanics and confidence level are clearly hurting. He did suffer some drops in Cincinnati, but he also sailed some passes way over his receivers' heads, and made several poor decisions to throw when he should have ran.

Whatever the problem, the Saints need Brooks to get his act together right now. Otherwise they're in danger of letting a playoff berth slip through their fingers with a second consecutive December collapse. New Orleans has dropped two in a row, four of six and five out of eight. Against Carolina on Sunday, Brooks needs to step up and end his slide, in order for the Saints to follow suit.

 3  Of the AFC's six 8-7 contenders, who's the most dangerous? 
  Chad Pennington Chad Pennington
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Let's put it this way: The Patriots, Browns, Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers aren't scaring anybody these days. But should the Jets make it, there's not a team in the conference that wants to mess with them in the playoffs. New York has won seven of its past 10 since starting the season 1-4, and is playing the AFC East's best ball as the regular season concludes.

Remarkably enough, the Jets can still be rewarded for that distinction. With a win at home against the Packers on Sunday, combined with a Patriots' defeat of Miami earlier in the day, New York will have the most improbable of division titles to celebrate.

How many Jets fans could have imagined that scenario when their team was getting humiliated to the tune of 102-13 in the span of three consecutive early-season losses? Or even 10 days ago, when it looked like New York had ruined all its good second-half work with an upset loss at Chicago?

When the story of the Jets' season is written, the saga obviously will begin with the insertion of third-year quarterback Chad Pennington into the starting lineup in Week 5. Pennington is 7-4 since he took over for the ineffective Vinny Testaverde, and he has provided the spark, the leadership and the execution that New York's offense had been lacking. Never was that more apparent than in the Jets' 30-17 dismantling of the Patriots in Foxboro Sunday night.

Pennington's 101.2 quarterback rating leads all full-time starters, and his 18-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio is second in the league behind only Brad Johnson (22 touchdowns, six interceptions). Not bad considering that Pennington's only distinction at the start of this season was a dubious one: From 1982-2000, he was the league's only first-round quarterback to not make at least one start in his first two seasons. Pennington has starting experience now, and because of it, the Jets might be far from finished this season.