Posted: Mon December 31, 2012 9:19AM; Updated: Mon December 31, 2012 4:47PM
Peter King
Peter King>MONDAY MORNING QB

Show-stopping Peterson highlights better-than-expected Week 17

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Who's the AFC's most dangerous team?
Source: SI
SI.com's Jim Trotter takes an early look at the AFC playoff matchups.

What a regular season. What a year. What a Sunday.

Tough to be too fired up as Sunday dawned, with 10 of 12 playoff teams already in. There was a win-and-you're-in game in Minnesota for the Vikings to help determine the 11th playoff team, and an NFC East championship game to determine the 12th. And there was Adrian Peterson, beat up, needing 208 yards to break the all-time single-season rushing record, which seemed the impossible dream. And there was the Black Monday speculation. That was about it. Where was the drama in the AFC? All six playoff teams locked.

But playing all division games on the final Sunday continues to be a smart decision, and the way they were sequenced on Sunday was smart too. The Bears and Giants both needed Minnesota to lose to have a chance at a wild card berth. So the league played Chicago-Detroit and Giants-Philadelphia in the early Sunday window, knowing that one very large market would likely then have to be glued to the TV for Green Bay-Minnesota at 4:25 p.m. Eastern.

We didn't count on there being some actual drama on the AFC side in the early games, but Houston laid a home-field egg, and the Texans did it in the city that's their kryptonite (0-11 in Indy), and they did it in Chuck Pagano's return after three monthsm of treatment for leukemia. So instead of the AFC being Houston, Denver and New England as the top three seeds, it's Denver, New England and Houston, and the Texans have to come to work today to prepare for a wild-card game they had no desire to play. Not to mention the fact that the Patriots and Broncos are one home win from a Manning-Brady AFC title game in the Rockies.

And we didn't count on Green Bay-Minnesota being one of the three or four best games of the year ... and Peterson making us hold our breath as he climbed toward a record he had no business breaking, and Minnesota trying to beat its arch rival to scratch and claw into the playoffs, and Peterson making a mess of what should have been a Peyton Manning MVP-walkaway. All in about 12 or 15 minutes.

Then, in the 256th and final game of the regular season, the Cowboys imploded (Tony Romo most notably, in a disaster of a game for him), and Washington won its first division title in 13 years. A year ago, no one inside the Beltway thought the Redskins would ever have a chance to draft Heisman winner Robert Griffin III, and no one there had heard of Alfred Morris, and no one there had seen anything like a Pistol formation morphing into an option offense. But that's life in the NFL. Washington's dangerous now because of one draft and one scheme, and will be for some time.

PLAYOFF SCHEDULE | UPDATED DRAFT ORDER

On the field as time ticked down late Sunday night and FedEx Field rocked, Griffin said to Morris: "We came here as rookies this year, and they hadn't won the NFC East in forever. And we won it. Now look at us -- the sky's the limit!''

The other storylines pale. Andy Reid's inglorious final game of a 14-year coaching career in Philadelphia, a fitting 42-7 loss to the Giants. The Saints, waiting for King Sean to retake his throne after agreeing to a new contract last Friday, finishing the worst defensive season in NFL history with a 44-38 loss to Carolina. The end of the Tebow Error with the Jets; he played one snap Sunday in Buffalo, handing off to Joe McKnight, which is a beautifully apt way for him to go out. And the Falcons, trying to get some playoff momentum, playing their starters in a meaningless game, losing to the Bucs at home and maybe losing their most important defensive player, John Abraham. Black Monday starting early today, with the Jaguars firing GM Gene Smith, the Browns dumping coach Pat Shurmur and GM Tom Heckert, Reid prepping for his dismissal in Philadelphia, and coaches and GMs in a dozen other club offices awaiting their fate.

COACHING UPDATES | BANKS' BLACK MONDAY SNAP JUDGMENTS

The Chiefs getting the first pick in the quarterback-starved 2013 draft -- just not knowing who will make that pick with the fate of GM Scott Pioli still up in the air. Peyton Manning finishing the second-most prolific passing season of his life (4,659 yards, 37 touchdowns), an event made all the more impressive by the fact he had his first padded practice with the Broncos five months ago.

And the team Manning left, Indianapolis, making one last absurd statement that you can find players to help you win anywhere -- like at the Oklahoma City Renaissance Hotel, where Deji Karim was valet-parking cars three weeks ago; on Sunday, he ran a kickoff back 101 yards for a touchdown to help the Colts throw the Texans off the top of the AFC heap.

And Adrian Peterson hogging the day from everyone.

BEST, WORST OF WEEK 17

***

The whole nine yards.

(Stole that from Sam Farmer of the LA Times. More about that later.)

Vikes-Pack, 34-34, two-minute warning, fourth quarter, Peterson at 2,060 yards, just 46 from breaking Eric Dickerson's record of 2,105 in a year. Quarterback Christian Ponder throws for 25 (yes, Christian Ponder) to convert a 3rd-and-11. Minnesota's at the Green Bay 48. If you're a Vikings fan, you want both. You want the Wild Card playoff berth. You want the record for Peterson. But he's 46 yards away, and the Vikings are 48 yards from the goal line, needing to kill some time and get in position for a Blair Walsh field goal. That is, unless Peterson can take it to the house.

Peterson through the left guard-tackle hole for seven. Peterson behind rookie left tackle Matt Kalil for four. Peterson stuffed for no gain up the gut.

Ball at the Packers 37. Second-and-10, 24 seconds left, and the Vikings want to get a little closer for Walsh, though he'd been perfect from 50 and out this year, 10 for 10.

Thirty-seven yards away from the goal line, 35 yards from the record.

"I didn't know that,'' Peterson told me later. "When I took the handoff, the only thing going through my mind was Find a hole, make people miss, get to the end zone. I saw some daylight. And I was fighting for every last yard I could get.''

Peterson juked, sprinted, cut left, juked again and burst forward, until, at the Packers 11, Morgan Burnett hogtied him down.

Fifteen seconds left. They unpiled. Peterson got up, quickly for a man who'd just carried for the 34th time with a sore groin and abdomen. Thirteen, 12, 11 ...

Would Vikes coach Leslie Frazier, who'd said he'd do nothing out of the ordinary to get Peterson the record, call time and run another play?

Nope. Minnesota called time with three seconds left. Walsh booted the winner from 29 yards out. Minnesota 37, Green Bay 34. Playoffs clinched. With 2,097 yards, Peterson was nine yards from immortality. He didn't know it until Pam Oliver of FOX told him on the field during their post-game interview.

"It kinda went through my mind that I didn't get it,'' he said. "Was I surprised? Not really. All week there was so much talk about the record, the record, the record. At one point, I just told myself, 'Don't worry about the record. Don't force it. Just play. If it happens, it happens. That can't be our focus. We win, we're in the playoffs.' ''

That's what was so great about the chase, and about how Frazier and Peterson treated it. Peterson was removed from the game in Houston last week when he could have gotten some late garbage yards, because he strained something in his abdomen and his groin hurt. If he was going for the record, he could have hidden that and banged ahead, and maybe he'd have gotten the record. But at what cost? Maybe none. Maybe he'd have been a shell of himself for the playoff game Saturday night at Lambeau.

Frazier played it exactly right. If the record was going to happen, it'd have to come within the confines of doing everything to try to win the game. This wasn't going to be some cheap Nykesha Sales kind of record.

I told Peterson I liked how he went for the record, but I also liked how he and Frazier didn't do anything to force it. And I asked him, "You said all the right things about how the most important thing was to win the game, but I have to ask, deep down, way deep down, does it hurt that you didn't break the record?''

"Yes,'' he said. "Yes. Yes. The feeling is there. I understand the big picture, but the feeling is there. I wanted this.''

But he knows he has time. He has 2013. And he said, with a laugh, this was his message for Dickerson, "I'm coming for you.''

One final question: "You've made it pretty impossible for the MVP voters,'' I told him. "You think you've done enough to win it?"

"In my heart, I believe I'm the MVP,'' he said. "Whether I win it or not, I feel I'm the MVP.''

Such a tough call. I think it comes down to Manning and Peterson; I dissect the choice below. But Peterson, to me, kept chipping away in December, against a slate of teams we all thought would be Minnesota's Waterloo when December dawned. But in five games this month, Peterson rushed for 861 yards -- which would be 19th in the NFL's rushing standings this season -- and carried the Vikings to a 4-1 record and the playoffs. That's a very strong argument for the award. I wouldn't pretend to argue against Manning, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. But Peterson was as special as a running back could possibly be in 2012.

Gotta love the NFC East.

Go back to 1982, and count the division titles won by the current four teams in the NFL's classic division:

Dallas, 9.

New York, 8.

Philadelphia, 7.

Washington, 7 (including the strike-amended 1982 NFC regular season title).

It's always a competitive division, obviously, and no team in the last nine years has won two in a row (last nine winners: Philadelphia, New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, New York, Dallas, Philadelphia, New York and now Washington). This was Washington's first division title in 13 years, and some of the fans dancing in the aisles at FedEx Field, witnesses said, were crying. "I was nine years old in 1999,'' Robert Griffin III said. "I stand before you at 22 and the Redskins are the NFC East Champions. To me, it's just incredible.''

For once, the hero wasn't Griffin. This time it was the NFL's second-leading rusher in 2012, sixth-round rookie Alfred Morris, who drives a 1991 Mazda ("with 125,000 miles on it, but it's still young,'' he said after the game) and seemed shellshocked when he was told: "You just ran for 200 yards on national TV against the Dallas Cowboys, knocked them out of the playoffs and sent your own team to the playoffs.''

"Coming for where I've come from, it's a dream,'' he said over the phone from the Redskins' locker room. "It's a dream. You have to know where I came from. At Florida Atlantic, we went 1-11 my senior year. We started 0-10. It's kind of a small school, and I thought the odds were slim to none that I'd even be drafted, never mind make an NFL team. When I got here, I didn't care what the offense was. I was just going to buy into whatever.''

Hs 33-carry, 200-yard, three-touchdown effort was vital Sunday night, because Griffin is still feeling the effects of a sprained knee suffered three weeks ago. And with the ferocious rush coming Sunday from Seattle, it's likely Morris isn't done being the worker bee in the Washington offense.

This weekend's lineup, with one dream matchup.

Quick thoughts on the four games in the Wild Card round:

Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET (NBC), AFC: Cincinnati (No.6, 10-6) at Houston (No. 3, 12-4). The Texans have been thinking for weeks they were in line for a first-round bye, and so it has to be demoralizing to know that, instead of getting four or five days off this week, they have to get right back to work -- and on a short week, no less, with the Saturday game -- and prep for Cincinnati.

The Bengals are a fits-and-starts offensive team, but they can rush the passer with any team in football, and a pressured Matt Schaub is a mistake-prone Matt Schaub. If Houston is to go on in the playoffs, the Texans will have to tighten up on D; the Colts ran it down their throats for an embarrassing nine-and-a-half-minute drive to end Sunday's game.

I expect J.J. Watt will have something to say about that. Not only did he have a league-high 20.5 sacks this year, but also he added 39 tackles for loss or no gain on running plays. Think of that: 60 tackles of quarterbacks or backs at or behind the line of scrimmage. Almost four per game. Very close to call, but I'll go with Houston.

Saturday, 8 p.m. ET (NBC), NFC: Minnesota (No. 6, 10-6) at Green Bay (No. 3, 11-5). Without a running game, Green Bay's going to need Aaron Rodgers to keep being Aaron Rodgers. In the last two years, he's plus-70 in touchdown-to-interception ratio, and that is not a misprint: 84 touchdowns, 14 interceptions. The Packers can expect limited possessions, because Minnesota's game plan will surely be to have Adrian Peterson eat the clock with carry after carry, and Christian Ponder (with his newfound confidence) throw short and intermediate. If Rodgers is Rodgers, I expect Green Bay to move on.

Sunday, 1 p.m. ET (CBS) AFC: Indianapolis (No. 5, 11-5) at Baltimore (No. 4, 10-6). The Ravens rested their big players most or all of Sunday at Cincinnati, which deepens the mystery around what kind of January team they'll be. How much does Ray Lewis have left after sitting for half a year? Will Joe Flacco be sharp? Can their secondary stop rookie weapons like T.Y. Hilton and Dwayne Allen and wily veteran Reggie Wayne? I'm tempted to go with the visitors, but give me a couple of days to ponder.

Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ER (FOX), NFC: Seattle (No. 5, 11-5) at Washington (No. 4, 10-6). This could come down to which quarterback is healthier, and I'd bet as you read this, Robert Griffin III has some sort of rehab device attached to his wounded knee. You could see Sunday night he was about 88 percent whole. That's good enough to win most games. It might not be good enough to beat one of the hottest teams in the league, though the Seahawks were brought down to earth by the Rams a bit Sunday, and they'll be taking yet another cross-country flight for this game. Russell Wilson's quarterback rating, last eight games: 127.3, 131.0, 125.9, 104.9, 88.0, 104.4, 115.3, 136.3 ... 16 touchdowns, two interceptions, four rushing touchdowns. I'm leaning toward Seattle here.

AN EARLY LOOK AT A WILD-CARD WEEKEND

***

Coming in the New Year's Day column: My team of the year, my special teams player of the year, and my unsung offensive and defensive players of the year, along with updates on all the coaching and general manager news from Black Monday.

My Predictions and Reality

Predictions vs. Reality
How my preseason picks fared versus how the league actually played out.
AFC ForecastAFC Reality
1. Houston12-43. Houston12-4
2. New England12-42. New England12-4
3. Kansas City10-6Kansas City2-14
4. Baltimore10-64. Baltimore10-6
5. Denver10-61. Denver13-3
6. Buffalo9-7Buffalo6-10
Cincinnati9-76. Cincinnati10-6
Pittsburgh8-8Pittsburgh8-8
San Diego8-8San Diego7-9
Jets7-9Jets6-10
Tennessee7-9Tennessee6-10
Oakland6-10Oakland4-12
Indianapolis5-115. Indianapolis11-5
Cleveland5-11Cleveland5-11
Miami4-12Miami7-9
Jacksonville 4-12Jacksonville2-14
NFC ForecastNFC Reality
1. San Francisco11-53. San Francisco11-4-1
2. Chicago11-5Chicago10-6
3. Atlanta11-51. Atlanta13-3
4. Dallas10-6Dallas8-8
5. Green Bay11-52. Green Bay11-5
6. New Orleans10-6New Orleans7-9
Seattle9-75. Seattle11-5
Giants9-7Giants9-7
Detroit9-7Detroit4-12
Philadelphia9-7Philadelphia4-12
Carolina8-8Carolina7-9
Washington6-104. Washington10-6
Tampa Bay6-10Tampa Bay7-9
Arizona5-11Arizona5-11
Minnesota4-1210-6
St. Louis3-13St. Louis7-8-1

Super Bowl: I had Green Bay 33, Denver 30.

My forecast: I had Peyton Manning MVP, Aaron Rodgers and Brooks Reed offensive and defensive player, Andrew Luck and Bruce Irvin as offensive and defensive rookie, respectively, Manning comeback player, and Romeo Crennel coach.

My reality: I voted Adrian Peterson for MVP (edging Manning), Peterson and J.J. Watt offensive and defensive player, twin 'Hawks Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner offensive and defensive rookies, a tie between Manning and Peterson for comeback player, and a tie between Chuck Pagano and Bruce Arians as coach of the year.

Explaining:

MVP and Offensive Player: Manning had one of his best seasons ever, and he had it coming off four neck procedures in two years, and while learning a new offense and a new team and all new players in an offseason governed by the new NFL Offseason Lite rules, and he lifted the Broncos from a marginal playoff team to a dominant one finishing with 11 straight wins, and it's hard to fathom not voting for him for MVP. And I had Manning as MVP until Sunday.

But this award is almost unfairly balanced to the quarterback, and will be for a long time the way the game is being played now. If you have a mind to vote for Manning, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers -- but particularly Manning in leading a new team to the AFC's top seed -- it's easily justifiable. But the Vikings without Peterson would have been toast by Thanksgiving, Halloween maybe.

BANKS: NO DOUBTING PETERSON'S MVP CREDENTIALS

Remember when we all looked at the Vikings' schedule a month ago, and we said the Vikings would never survive December, with Green Bay twice, Chicago once and Houston and St. Louis on the road? With Percy Harvin out for the year and Christian Ponder playing like -- Jimmy Johnson's words, not mine -- the worst quarterback in the league (non-Sanchez division, of course), what real hope did the Vikings have? Seven and nine, here they come.

They went 4-1. In December alone, Peterson rushed for 210 in a narrow loss at Green Bay, 154 in beating the Bears, 212 in trouncing the Rams, 86 while hurting an abdominal muscle in a beatdown of the Texans, and then, Sunday, 199 yards in falling eight yards shy of the Dickerson record, propelling Minnesota into the playoffs by beating Green Bay 37-34. If a runner can ever earn the MVP, the 2012 Peterson did.

Defensive player: Watt (20.5 sacks, 16 pass deflections) simply had one of the best seasons a 3-4 end has had in NFL history.

Offensive rookie: Wilson over Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck. Morphing from a laughed-at 5-foot-11, 75th pick in the draft into a tornado-like force at quarterback by December (three games, 150 points, including 42 against the mighty Niners), and playing like Fran Tarkenton with a better arm, Wilson nipped Griffin in my opinion. But if you want either other man, I have zero problem or argument with you.

Defensive rookie: Bobby Wagner, edging Green Bay cornerback Casey Hayward and Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly. Wagner turned a suspect group of Seattle linebackers, the weak point of the Seahawks defense, into a competitive group by being great against the run (more tackles than Patrick Willis) and good dropping into coverage (three interceptions, excellent instincts).

Coach: Some might pick Arians alone; some might pick one of many other deserving candidates. Some might say Pagano was 2-2 in the games he coached; how can you pick him? Good question.

After traveling to Indianapolis in November for an SI story on the unexpected rise of the Colts in the absence of the leukemia-stricken Pagano, I saw how involved Pagano was. Scores of texts and phone calls, hours of watching practice tape, every day, while the chemotherapy flowed into a port in his chest ... And when I was out with GM Ryan Grigson one night, the phone rang, and it was Pagano. He was telling Grigson to remember to get a ball painted for reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week Darius Butler, a player Pagano had never met. In other words, he was painstakingly involved in everything that happened with the team this season. Arians, 9-3 in his absence, was the hands-on coach who piloted the Colts into the playoffs. There you have the reason for my split vote.

Where I did well: Peyton Manning. As I wrote in the preview: "I think his arm will be good enough this year, because his brain will win so many of the one-on-one battles he's won in the past. Manning will take [Denver] two wins further in the playoffs than Tim Tebow did." ... Houston, New England and Baltimore .. Seven of the 12 playoff teams correct ... Records of seven teams correct: Cards, Texans, Giants, Browns, Steelers, Ravens and Patriots.

Where I blew it: The Chiefs. I loved their skill players at camp, and totally misread the ability of Matt Cassel to have a good comeback season and the ability of Crennel to jumpstart a floundering team ... Brooks Reed (the wrong Texan on defense) ... I blew it on Buffalo and on the significance of Mario Williams, who was overwhelmingly pedestrian after signing a $96 million contract ...

I blew it on Indy and on Andrew Luck's amazing ability to be average for three quarters and great for so many fourths ... I blew it on Joe Philbin's ability to turn around a sinking ship ... And I thought, wrongly, that Matthew Stafford could overcome a terrible secondary by throwing for a jillion yards -- I didn't see Detroit making the playoffs, but I also didn't see them being out of contention by Labor Day ... And I missed the rise of St. Louis, Washington and Minnesota. That's a lot of missing. I'll try to be smarter next summer, but knowing me, I probably won't be.

The Deep End

Every week this season, Neil Hornsby of ProFootballFocus.com has used PFF's play-by-play game analysis to provide an in-depth look at an important matchup or individual performance from one of the Sunday games. Last week we took a slightly different tack, examining defensive rookie of the year candidates. This week, Hornsby looks at the offensive candidates. His report (all statistics through 16 weeks):

As exciting and promising a start as Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck has made, this award comes down to a battle between two players who haven't just reinvigorated their teams but have done so in a way that is directly attributable to the consistent excellence of their play. Luck has won some close encounters, but some have been due to his poor play to get the Colts into that position. Luck has had some terrific fourth quarters, but his overall play has been a roller-coaster ride. To me, this award is so closely balanced between Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III and Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson. How can we split these two outstanding players? I'll attempt to by going over key factors that determine a player's and team's success.

Supporting Cast: On the offensive line, Washington has an edge. This has been an area of strength for the Redskins, with only Tyler Polumbus at right tackle providing a significant weakness for defenses to target. Left tackle Trent Williams' Pro Bowl place was well-deserved, and center Will Montgomery was unlucky to miss out.

In Russell Okung and Max Unger, the Seahawks have players performing equally well at identical positions (LT and C) but the rest of the line has been far more fluid. While the play of Alfred Morris and Marshawn Lynch means support at running back is somewhat of a wash, pass-catcher injuries to Fred Davis and Pierre Garcon left huge holes and RGIII had to compensate, finding unexpected help when needed from players like Aldrick Robinson and Logan Paulsen. The Seattle receivers have rounded into a sure-handed group; the drop rate of both Golden Tate and Sidney Rice puts them in the top 15 in the league. Edge: RGIII -- his rotating receiving options means he's had the biggest problems and puts him slightly ahead here.

Consistency: Throughout the year Griffin is the only quarterback ProFootballFocus has not graded negatively in a single game; he has been the model of stability from his very first game against the Saints. He's never thrown more than one interception in a game (and only five total) and even in his worst performance (at the Steelers) never looked completely out of whack. In contrast, Wilson started shakily but has improved almost week by week. Eight of his 10 interceptions came in the first half of the season, and his Week 16 performance was his best, clinically dissecting the 49ers defense, one of the NFL's top two. Edge: RGIII.

Offensive Tailoring: From the very first series of Week 1 against New Orleans it was obvious that the Redskins had reconstructed their entire offense to fit the skills of their new passer. Griffin managed initially easy throws interspersed with read-option runs, then deeper play-action passes as the defenses bit up on the short stuff. Credit to Griffin for making the whole thing work superbly.

But Wilson is displaying a much fuller repertoire. Wilson is throwing deep (20 yards plus) the fourth-most in the league, with Griffin the second-least, and Griffin has thrown twice as many screens as his counterpart. Wilson's passing "grid" is significantly more balanced, and he utilizes the deep ball and throws outside the numbers far more often. Edge: Wilson -- He is making every throw, even the difficult ones, with a high degree of efficiency.

Injury Concerns: We all know Griffin has missed playing time, so maybe this is a slam dunk, but that would miss the point of just how good Wilson is when it comes to scrambling without taking undue risks. There's no doubt both players are equally fearless, but when Wilson scrambles he rarely takes big hits; he's incredibly elusive and has already avoided eight tackles on 45 scrambles compared to Griffin's three on 41. As a result he's also fumbled five fewer times than RGIII. Edge: Wilson.

In summary: Very tough call. After Week 15, PFF had Griffin just ahead and in our Pro Bowl squad too. After last week, Wilson just squeaked ahead of his rival. When pushed, my choice would be Wilson because I believe he has been less a product of the system and hence more difficult to take away. Regardless, I don't think there is a wrong answer between the two.

The pressure is all on the Falcons
Source: SI
SI.com's Jim Trotter takes an early look at the NFC playoff matchups.

Fine Fifteen

1. Denver (13-3). Broncs finish the season with an 11-game win streak. Won last four by 13, 17, 22 and 35.

2. New England (12-4). One win by the Broncos and one by the Patriots ... That's all that stands in the way of a Peyton Manning-Tom Brady AFC Championship Game Jan. 20.

3. San Francisco (11-4-1). What a long, strange year it's been: 0-1-1 against the Rams, routed in Seattle, manhandling the Patriots ... and this bizarre three-game stretch: 79-3 composite win over Jets and Bills, 26-3 loss to Giants. But here they are with a first-week bye, then a home game to start the playoffs (the Niners beat third-seed Green Bay at Lambeau to start the season, 30-22), with the knowledge that top NFC seed Atlanta is flawed.

4. Green Bay (11-5). Tough one to lose at the Metrodome, but I don't see the loss hurting the Pack in the wild-card rematch at Lambeau.

5. Atlanta (13-3). Don't tell me about momentum entering the playoffs, of the lack thereof. Tell me about the MRI on John Abraham's ankle Monday.

6. Seattle (11-5). Ending the season 7-1, with a hot quarterback, should be enough to scare the Redskins this weekend. I said "scare,'' not necessarily "beat."

7. Washington (10-6). I can see Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and his staff firing up the tape this morning and wondering how they're going to stop the unstoppable Redskin in their wild-card meeting Sunday. "Anybody got any ideas about putting a lid on Alfred Morris?'' he'll ask.

8. Minnesota (10-6). America thrilled. Adrian Peterson in prime time Saturday at Lambeau. Hope he's got enough left to make it as exciting as what we just witnessed.

9. Houston (12-4). Month of December for the Texans: Two wins, three losses ... Foes 120, Texans 89. I'd be a little worried about the Bengals this weekend, particularly if Cincinnati can block J.J. Watt.

10. Cincinnati (10-6). Rematch of last year's wild-card game, right down to the site (Houston), day (Saturday of wild card weekend) and time (4:30 p.m. Eastern). One difference: Geno Atkins and friends will be chasing Matt Schaub this time, not T.J. Yates.

11. Indianapolis (11-5). Andrew Luck threw for 4,374 yards, and the Colts improved by nine wins over their 2011 team, and Luck might be no higher than third in Offensive Rookie voting. Tough crowd.

12. Baltimore (10-6). No one really has any idea what the Ravens are right now. And what a weird turn of history that Jim Irsay brings a different franchise quarterback into town Sunday to try to end another Ravens' season. Six years ago, it was Peyton Manning beating a broken-down Steve McNair. This week, it's Andrew Luck against Joe Flacco.

13. Chicago (10-6). Finished 1-5 and out of the playoffs last year, 3-5 and out of the playoffs this year. So, Phil Emery, we still need to hear the words out of your mouth: Lovie Smith back next season?

14. New York Giants (9-7). Bizarro Jerry Team of the Year. Last four: win by 25, lose by 34, lose by 19, win by 35.

15. St. Louis (7-8-1). A total makeover, and still Steven Jackson proved he's the perfect back for Jeff Fisher. He needs to return in 2013, and he sounds like he will.

The Awards Section

Offensive Players of the Week

Alfred Morris, RB, Washington. Seems amazing Morris was a sixth-round pick after watching his ascension to franchise-back status this season. But couldn't you say that about all the Mike Shanahan running backs who were low-round picks and went on to win very big games for him? Morris won the biggest of his life -- a play-in game for the NFC playoffs Sunday night at FedEx Field -- and was Washington's big key. He rushed 33 times for 200 yards and three touchdowns and became the team's all-time single-season rushing leader. Morris gained 1,613 yards this year, second in the NFL.

Christian Ponder, QB, Minnesota. Through 15 games, Ponder led the league in one category: scorn heaped on him. In game 16, he went head-to-head with Aaron Rodgers and more than held his own, piloting a 37-34 win over Green Bay. His 120.2 rating was the highest of his two-year career, and some of his throws -- like the 65-yard strike to rookie wideout Jarius Wright -- were the kinds you just hadn't seen him make. He told Troy Aikman and Joe Buck that the game against Green Bay Sunday was a defining one for his career, and he played like he wanted to be defined as a good quarterback.

Defensive Players of the Week

Justin Francis, DE, New England. In the Patriots' 28-0 shutout of Miami in Foxboro, New England got seven sacks, three from the undrafted rookie from Rutgers. Francis worked his way into the New England line rotation, and he may take on a bigger role in the playoffs, particularly if Rob Ninkovich, a huge piece to the pass-rush puzzle, has to miss time after leaving Sunday's game with a hip injury. "It's been a long journey,'' Francis said after the first three sacks of his career. It could get longer if the Patriots need production from him in the playoffs.

Vontae Davis, CB, Indianapolis. His two picks of Matt Schaub were huge in blunting the Texans' momentum, and in keeping Houston winless (0-11) all-time in Indianapolis. "When you go up against guys like Andre Johnson,'' Davis said, "you've got to have short-term memory, because he's going to make some plays." Johnson made 12 of them (12 catches), but Davis hung in and made a terrific end zone interception with 9:46 to play. Amazingly, the Texans never touched the ball again. Indy was able to run out the clock.

Special Teams Players of the Week

Deji Karim, RB/KR, Indianapolis. Another one of the parade of street free agents signed by GM Grigson two weeks ago, Karim went 101 yards untouched with a third-quarter kickoff, erasing a 16-14 lead with 20 minutes to go and giving the Colts a lead they'd never relinquish.

Darius Reynaud, RB/PR, Tennessee. Meaningless game of all meaningless games in Nashville Sunday (Jax-Tennessee), but a great return by Reynaud. He took a Bryan Anger punt at his 31 and didn't come close to being touched for the next 69 yards, completing his third punt or kick return for touchdown this season. Not bad for a guy who sat out 2011. Not because he wanted to; but because no team wanted him.

Dr. Z Unsung Man in the Trenches of the Week

The award for the offensive lineman who was the biggest factor for his team in the weekend's games, named for my friend Paul Zimmerman, the longtime SI football writer struggling in New Jersey to recover from three strokes suffered in November 2008. Zim, a former collegiate offensive lineman himself, loved watching offensive line play.

Matt Kalil, Charlie Johnson, John Sullivan, Brandon Fusco, Phil Loadholt, starting offensive line, Minnesota. For keeping Christian Ponder clean (one sack), and for leading the way for Adrian Peterson to come oh so close to breaking the NFL rushing record. A terrific job through the season, too, particularly for a guy off the street (Johnson), a couple of sixth-round picks (Fusco, Sullivan), a top-of-the-draft tackle (Kalil) and an experienced second-rounder (Loadholt).

Coach of the Week

Chuck Pagano, head coach, Indianapolis. Do you have to ask why? Pagano's leukemia is in remission, and the blueprint he wrote for his team worked well in his absence and just as well Sunday in his presence, as the Colts knocked the Texans from the top seed in the AFC to No. 3 with a convincing 28-16 win.

Goat of the Week

Tony Romo, QB, Dallas. He'd thrown two interceptions, total, in the last two Decembers. He threw three Sunday night, including the dagger to Dallas' season late in the fourth quarter. With three minutes left and Washington up 21-18, Romo lofted a popup to the left flat and never saw linebacker Rob Jackson closing fast. Jackson intercepted it, and the Redskins went on to get an insurance touchdown. This night could have far-reaching implications for the future of the Cowboys and Romo's place in it. Romo has one playoff victory in his career, and this was a clunker that just reinforced how small he's come up in many big Dallas moments. "It just hurts a lot right now to even think about and talk about,'' he said. It'll hurt for a long while.

Trotter: AP is your MVP
Source: SI
SI.com's Jim Trotter says who should get some of the NFL's top awards after the 2012 season.

Quote of the Week I

"Norv never really got a fair shake. I hope the next guy gets a fair shake."

-- San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers, after the last game of Norv Turner's San Diego coaching career, to San Diego radio reporter Marty Caswell.

Philip, here's the way the NFL works: You coach a team with a good quarterback, and you go five years without winning a playoff game, well, you lose your job. You think it ought to be any different than that? You would be one sweet NFL owner, with coaches paying you to work for them.

Quote of the Week II

"Sean Payton might want to invest some of that $8 million in buying a defense for next year.''

-- Jim Szoke of the Carolina Radio Network, as the Panthers ran through the Saints Sunday, as relayed by ESPN NFC South blogger Pat Yasinkas from New Orleans.

Quote of the Week III

"When I heard Lomas say that, it really killed me. I'm serious about that. I don't think a player could say or do something to a teammate that's worse than that. It's really despicable. Quite frankly, I haven't stopped thinking about it. I'm not sure when I'll stop thinking about it. It's a massive betrayal. It's total bull----. I don't know how Lomas can ever look himself in the mirror again. I had Lomas Brown in my house. I'd get gifts for the linemen, including Lomas. He was one way to my face and another way behind my back ... I'm not sure I would accept his apology. What he did was gutless."

-- Former Detroit quarterback Scott Mitchell, to Mike Freeman of CBSSports.com, after former Detroit tackle Lomas Brown said last week he'd purposely missed a block to try to get Mitchell, playing poorly, knocked out of a game 18 years ago.

I've liked Brown over the years, and known him as a standup guy and good interview, and one reprehensible act should not ruin a career of good play and deeds. But there is no getting around how objectionable what he did was.

Quote of the Week IV

"Well done, big fella."

-- ESPN host Cari Champion, reacting to Brown making his original claim.

There's one Cari would like to have back.

Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me I

On the occasion of the last column of the regular season, I look back at the two greatest catches in New York Giants history, the 32-yard Velcro catch by David Tyree that led to the winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLII, and the 38-yard rainbow catch by Mario Manningham along the sidelines that led to the winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLVI.

Giants offensive possessions that included Tyree after the Velcro catch: 0.

Giants offensive possessions that included Manningham after the rainbow catch: 0.

Obviously, the Super Bowl in Phoenix was Tyree's last game for the Giants (he never caught another pass in his NFL career), and the Super Bowl in Indianapolis was Manningham's last game for the Giants.

Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me II

Dec. 31, 1972 -- 40 years ago today -- was the most heartbreaking day in the history of Pittsburgh sports. And maybe in the history of Pittsburgh. At 3:05 p.m., at Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers walked off the field 21-17 losers in the AFC Championship Game to the Dolphins, who would go on to have the only perfect season in modern NFL history. That was just a game. Less than seven hours later, something truly horrible happened. Off the coast of San Juan, a plane ferrying beloved all-star Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente, who was on a mission of mercy carrying supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, crashed in the water, killing Clemente and the other four aboard the relief plane.

Stat of the Week

Sean Payton can't start working with his team again until approximately April 19, the start of the official Saints' offseason program, and that must be maddening for such a micromanaging worker bee. But when he does, he has to start working anew with Drew Brees on his efficiency.

I've heard Payton noticed one glaring thing about Brees when he watched Saints' games this year while serving his year suspension -- how many times he took chances downfield when the chances really were long shots, and when his focus should have turned from the deep ball to the checkdown or intermediate ball. That's a big reason his completion percentage without Payton was a shell of what it was with him.

Drew Brees by the Numbers
SeasonCompletion %
200970.6
201068.1
201171.2
201263.0

According to ProFootballFocus.com, Brees' average depth of target (how far downfield his target was, on average) was 8.2, 8.0 and 8.2 yards in 2009, '10 and '11 -- and rose markedly to 8.9 yards this year. So if you want to know why the numbers in the table to the right say what they say, look to the fact that Brees was throwing downfield more, and with less success overall, than he had in the past.

So many have wondered about Payton's impact on the Saints' season, and I discussed some of that above. But think of how many camera shots you saw over the years with Payton and Brees on the sidelines in deep discussion. With due respect to offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, he never had the kind of in-the-face impact on Brees that Payton did. There is zero question that Brees missed Payton more than most people thought he would.

The Battle of New York/New Jersey
Regular season wins since 2009Postseason wins since 2009
Giants364
Jets344

New Jersey Stat of the Week

Comparing the tear-everything-down Jets and one of the league's most stable franchises, the Giants, over the past four seasons. Just thought you'd like to know that as you go about your day putting pins in your voodoo dolls of Rex Ryan and Mike Tannenbaum.

Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week

Brian Costello, Jets beatman for the New York Post, saw the snowy forecast in the metropolitan area for Saturday and moved his flight from Newark to Buffalo for Jets-Bills from 3:30 p.m. Saturday to 10:30 a.m., thinking he'd beat the worst of the weather. He did. But then enough happened to him to make him the featured scribe in this week's travel note.

A good traveler, Costello got to the airport at 9 a.m. The weather looked fine, and the plane was on time, set to make the 49-minute flight to western New York. Once there, Costello would rent his car, drive to a hotel and write his Sunday preview story on the titanic tussle between a couple of teams playing for nothing.

Shortly before boarding, an announcement came that the lavatory was out of service, and maintenance would have to be called to fix it. Delay of game, two hours. "I thought the Jets season might have clogged the toilet,'' Costello said.

Passengers began to board at noon. The plane had to be de-iced, and then it began its taxi to the runway, and around 1 p.m., it appeared the flight would take off on time, despite some snow outside. But then a disturbed-looking and disturbed-acting man in 17B ("Charles Manson-like,'' Costello thought) got out of his seat. The flight attendant asked politely, and then firmly, and then firmly again, for the man to sit down. He wouldn't.

Costello was sitting in 1A. He heard the flight attendant tell the pilot about the wackjob in 17B who wouldn't sit down, and the pilot made the decision to go back to the gate. Much groaning. A United Airlines supervisor came on the plane, walked back to where Standing Man was, and escorted him off the plane. Standing Man went peacefully.

Now back at the gate, the snow increased in intensity. They weren't going anywhere for a while. While Newark Airport powers-that-be discussed whether flights would leave the airport, time passed. Finally, at 3 p.m., the pilot taxied out, there was more de-icing, and the plane took off -- at about 3:15. Costello was on the ground in Buffalo at 4:10 ... about 10 minutes before his originally booked flight would have landed.

Costello got off the plane, went to an airport bar, took out his laptop, ordered some wings, and wrote his advance. At 5:30, he went to fetch his rental car and drove to the hotel. What he took from the fun day in northeastern airports in late December: "There's no doubt this game is going to be a complete disaster."

At 9:50 a.m. Sunday, Costello tweeted: "Travel woes postscript: just opened my computer bag and there is a hat in there that's not mine. Gift from United?"

No, but I think the late John Candy was on your plane, and you just were unwittingly involved in Planes, Trains and Automobiles II.

Tweet of the Week I

"@AdrianPeterson Just want to say that you are a Great player & if my record had to fall. I would like it to go to a player like you AP. ED''

--@EricDickerson, 90 minutes after Peterson failed to break his all-time rushing record.

Tweet of the Week II

"Congrats #johnparry 4 call of the yr.15 yrs & never been ejected I hope your pillow is as Soft as u when u sleep 2nyt #waytoendseason #turd''

-- @TakeoSpikes51, after being ejected by ref John Parry. Spikes jousted with a Raider, Mike Goodson, the kind of joust you see quite often in the NFL. It was surprising to see Spikes and Goodson ejected.

Tweet of the Week III

"Two words I didn't think I'd tweet today: Ponder ballin' ''

-- @richeisen, the NFL Network host, as the embattled Christian Ponder led the Vikings on the game-winning drive over Aaron Rodgers and the Packers Sunday in Minneapolis.

Tweet of the Week IV

"Another turnover by Lions. Leshoure fumbles. Might as well snap the ball into the end zone."

-- @MikeOHaraNFL, longtime Lions beat man, watching the Lions' turnoverfest (four in the first 40 minutes against Chicago), including a Mikel Leshoure fumble.

Tweet of the Week V

"Lmao. A bills fan just tried to hit our bus with a snow ball but instead he slipped and bust his a-- and his beer spilled on him."

-- @OfficialBraylon, Jets receiver Braylon Edwards, reporting live from the Jets team bus as it pulled into Ralph Wilson Stadium Sunday morning.

Tweet of the Week VI

"Brings new meaning to the term 'the whole nine yards.' "

-- @LATimesfarmer, football writer Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times, just after Adrian Peterson finished nine yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record.

Tweet of the Week VII

"local news is asking chargers fans if this is norv's last game with the team. that's kind of like asking, is water wet?''

-- @SI_JimTrotter, after the last game of Norv Turner's San Diego coaching career Sunday.

Ten Things I Think I Think

1. I think this is what I liked about Week 17:

a. Congrats to Clark Judge (cbssports.com) and Sal Paolantonio (ESPN) for being named the 45th and 46th Pro Football Hall of Fame voters. Well-deserved. I know both men as experienced football minds, and they'll strengthen the committee with their thoughtfulness. Good choices by the Hall.

b. Great job by Ravens PR czar Kevin Byrne in relaying inspiring words from a fan to coach John Harbaugh. You need to take eight minutes to read this today.

c. On the first play of Colts-Texans, it was fitting J.J. Watt broke through the line and broke up the handoff play, leading to a one-yard loss.

d. Rueben Randle. Two touchdowns in the first nine minutes. Just 21 years old.

e. Another thing to love about Arian Foster: Watch when the defense closes in. He always covers up and prevents defenders from ripping the ball free.

f. Darius Butler, who's been a gift from heaven at corner for Indianapolis.

g. Rachel Nichols' interview with Chuck Pagano on ESPN. I'd expect nothing less than all the right questions from Nichols, and she delivered.

h. Great job, Arian Foster, bowing to the Chuckstrong banner in Indy after scoring, a tribute to Chuck Pagano.

i. Catch of the day, Lance Moore. Great job, hanging on to the ball while lying down.

j. Runnersup: Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, both with one-hand receptions on passes from Peyton Manning.

k. Charles Johnson of the Panthers evading an ole block on the Saints' line to smash Drew Brees with a drive-ending, fourth-quarter sack.

l. Heck of a job by the Rams defensive front, with a Seattle season-high six sacks of mobile quarterback Russell Wilson.

m. Marshawn Lynch, 1,590 rushing yards. Not much attention to it with all the Peterson attention and Russell Wilson headlines, but anyone who averages 99.4 yards a game deserves major kudos.

n. Michael Crabtree: eight catches, 172 yards, two touchdowns. We're seeing the dawn of a great receiver's career, I believe.

o. Tom Coughlin: "What in the world was the last two weeks about?" We all wonder, Tom.

2. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 17:

a. Not sure whether to like or dislike this, but it's so Patriot to announce the whacking of disappointing 2009 second-rounder Ron Brace at 5:44 p.m. on a Saturday evening of Week 17.

b. Nnamdi Asomugha, who has had 17 forgettable (but profitable) months as an Eagles savior.

c. Mark Sanchez and the Jelly of the Month Club from Christmas Vacation: the gifts that keep on giving.

d. One final slap at Tim Tebow, fittingly: Benched in the Wildcat for Jeremy Kerley in Buffalo.

e. I'd be getting a little worried about Matt Schaub. Severely underthrew an open James Casey for what should have been a touchdown at Indy, and Vontae Davis picked him clean.

f. Terrell Owens subjecting himself to circus-clown status, with the FOX promo that he'll be on some show called Stars in Danger. On a high-diving board. Is there nothing we won't put on TV?

g. Ref John Parry ejecting Takeo Spikes, needlessly.

h. Too many officials look too heavy to me.

3. I think the 2012 Jets are leakier than the 1912 Titanic.

4. I think if you want to read a good piece of American sportswriting, read this from Greg Bishop of the New York Times, on the student who died in the Notre Dame forklift accident two years ago, Declan Sullivan, his seeing-the-future scriptwriting, and how his family has turned a tragedy into something positive for society.

5. I think, and this would be an upset for you referee-philes out there, that Jerome Boger is the clubhouse favorite to ref the Super Bowl. Why Boger? A source tells me Boger has the best grade of any ref after the regular season, and under the playoff officiating rules, Boger would have to really mess up his playoff assignment to not get the Super Bowl. I'm also told it's unlikely two of the best refs out there, Gene Steratore and Ed Hochuli, will get playoff assignments.

6. I think, regarding the Pro Bowl, these are the last words you'll read from me on a game that's more useless than a fourth preseason game between two teams resting every starter: I have no use for, and no interest in, a process that rewards a Pro Bowl berth to Patriots guard Logan Mankins when he misses seven of 16 games due to holdout in 2010 and six of 16 games due to injury in 2012. The selection process is flawed (fans voting for guards?), and the players want the vacation to Hawaii, not to play a game. Bad mix.

It's absurd that a guy gets in on name recognition while missing 44 percent of the games one year and 38 percent of the game in another year. That's one of many reasons -- but a big one -- why I treat the Pro Bowl with back-of-the-hand deference. It deserves it.

7. I think the best news of the day for Rams fans was this from Steven Jackson, disabusing anyone of the notion he plans to retire, after his eighth straight 1,000-yard rushing season: "I definitely plan on coming back."

8. I think the Giants, for hosting 400 Newtown students and their parents, Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, for bringing a group of Newtown children to Texas and giving them an experience at Reliant Stadium they'll not forget, and the Bills, for paying tribute to the slain West Webster (N.Y.) firefighters Sunday, all deserve praise this morning.

9. I think a generation from now, Pro Football Hall of Fame voters will have an opposite experience from the one I had over the weekend, when I filled out my ballot voting for the final 15 candidates for election in 2013. No quarterbacks on the list now. And when I look at the landscape this morning, I see so many that Hall selectors might be considering someday. And I wonder: Will there be a quarterback glut in 2030 the way there's a receiver glut today?

GALLERY: MEMORABLE NFC MOMENTS OF 2012 | AFC MOMENTS

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. You never told me about Homeland. Daughter Laura gave me the first season of the show on DVD for Christmas, and, well, wow. When the turned Marine, Nicholas Brody, breaks out the prayer rug in his garage and starts in with the Allah prayers, it's good TV. The whole thing, as most of the country knows (and I now realize I'm the only one who wasn't watching), is good TV.

b. Looking forward to using another Christmas gift, my 34-inch ash bat from the Dream Bat Company in Somers, Conn. Feels like the thin-handled Al Kaline 34 I used in another life.

c. Saw two movies over the holidays. Silver Linings Playbook I liked a lot; Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence were superb, and the story felt real. And I saw on a movie channel Contagion, the doomy Matt Damon/Laurence Fishburne job. Liked that one too, particularly the way the contagion is researched and sourced back to bats.

d. Rich Eisen, I really want to hear the lost Bradley Cooper interview.

e. Did you see the Pinstripe Bowl on TV, with the snow and the sleet and wind? The Super Bowl's in New York in 13 months. No dome. You've been warned.

f. I have no idea how you'd vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame. And we think we've got it bad on the football side.

g. Coffeenerdness: Just my luck Sunday to get behind the Parisians with the $47 order in line at Starbucks in Manhattan. They must love that bisciotti. Got nine of them.

h. Beernerdness: Strongly urge you to try my Christmas beer of choice this year, courtesy of my brother-in-law in Somers, Conn.: Brewmaster Jack's Ambrewsia IPA, from Northampton, Mass. A dark amber look, very hoppy, and for a heavy-alcohol beer, easy to drink. I'll be back for more.

i. Happy 2013, everyone. You continue to be a great audience.

The End

Among those we lost in a particularly sad year for deaths:

Neil Armstrong, astronaut and fiercely private citizen who uttered the first words from the first step on the moon: "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Fontella Bass, soul and pop singer, singer of one of the great songs of the '60s, Rescue Me, which, to my amazement, was in part messed up (brilliantly, as it turns out) by Bass when, in the studio, she forgot some of the words and said, "Mmm-hmmm,'' in place of the words she forgot. Remember? It was around the time when she sang, "Can't you see that I'm lonely,'' and she forgot the next words "Take me baby'' and while she was thinking of them, she threw in a couple of Mmm-hmmms,'' and it worked out great.

Ernest Borgnine, actor. McHale's Navy was a big hit in the King household.

Ray Bradbury, writer. Not a science-fiction guy, but I did enjoy Fahrenheit 451 in high school.

Dave Brubeck, composer, musician. Authored and performed so many songs we don't even know are his.

Hector Camacho, boxer. Great fighter. Great costumes.

Gary Carter, catcher. Larger-than-life power hitter, just a couple of ticks below Johnny Bench with Carlton Fisk and Thurman Munson in a great generation (1970-95) for catchers.

Dick Clark, American Bandstand guy and New Year's Eve host. When I was a kid, you spent your allowance on 45s after hearing songs on American Bandstand.

Don Cornelius, Soul Train conductor. How great is Jeff Pearlman's story of Walter Payton and a partner appearing in a dance contest on Soul Train in 1973 when he was a Jackson State student, and finishing second out of 50 couples from across the country?

Phyllis Diller, comedian. Daffy, and she loved it that way.

Charles Durning, World War II hero, actor. Never knew until he died last week that Durning -- who tried to woo Dustin Hoffman the cross-dressing actress in Tootsie -- was awarded three Purple Hearts and the Silver Star for valor after being wounded three times in World War II, and surviving a German massacre of Allied troops in France.

Nora Ephron, writer and screenwriter of 15 movies, from Silkwood to the waaay underrated Julie and Julia.

Robin Gibb, Bee Gee. We of a certain age all have days in our lives when we can't get "Stayin' Alive" out of our heads.

Andy Griffith, actor/sheriff of Mayberry. Defined how adults should act, at least in the mind of little Peter King of Enfield, Conn.

Larry Hagman, actor. Born in Fort Worth, died in Dallas (of throat cancer), and starred as one of the most compelling and evil characters in American TV, J.R. Ewing, in Dallas. The perfect role.

Sherman Helmsley, actor. Moved on up to dee-luxe apartment in the sky.

Dawn Hochsprung, Newtown principal/hero. Chased, tried to stop, and was murdered by the madman who shot up Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., 17 days ago. An inspiration to her students, her teachers and Americans like me.

Whitney Houston, singer of the best National Anthem I've ever heard, at the Gulf War Super Bowl, Giants-Bills, in January 1991.

Daniel Inouye, senator from Hawaii, and probably the most important Asian-American politician in the history of our country. As an elected official for 58 years, Inouye never lost an election. Amazing. War hero too, having lost his right arm in World War II in a battle in Italy as an Army officer.

Etta James, singer. One of the great songs, sung beautifully: "At Last."

Davy Jones, Monkees. Okay, maybe I'm overrating the Monkees by putting Jones in this list, but they were BIG for three or four years of my youth.

Alex Karras, defensive tackle, actor, Monday Night Football boothmate to Howard Cosell. Never forgave Pete Rozelle for suspending him in 1963 for gambling on football, and he probably was a better player than the scribes of his day gave him credit for.

Rodney King, victim. "Can we all get along?"

Jack Klugman, actor. One of my favorite movies ever is Twelve Angry Men, and when Klugman died last week, that meant every one of the 12 angry men on the Manhattan jury was now gone. Sad. And I loved The Odd Couple. Don't think I ever missed one. After watching how Klugman never grew up and got to watch and write about sports for a living, I thought, "How fun would it be to be a sports writer!''

George McGovern, presidential candidate, war hero, Vietnam War foe, Watergate victim. Sad. A good man who couldn't even win his home state, South Dakota, as Richard Nixon won 49 of 50 states in the 1972 election.

Marvin Miller, baseball union head. The biggest freedom-fighter for athletes in the history of American sports, without question.

Larry Morris, 1963 NFL Championship Game MVP. The Bears linebacker, a first-round pick in 1955, played 12 NFL seasons and died of dementia. He is one of the players held up as an example of what happened to so many players in the era of pro football when head trauma was minimized in pro football.

Joe Paterno, football coach. Incredible career, good man, very sad end.

Johnny Pesky, ballplayer. How many men can say they were with one organization for 61 years of their lives? Pesky was as a player (an all-star second baseman in 1946), coach, manager, instructor, broadcaster and ambassador.

Sally Ride, astronaut, inspiration to a generation of young girls. The youngest astronaut ever to be launched into space, at 32, in 1983.

Steve Sabol, the eyes, voice and conscience of the NFL. When he was diagnosed with brain cancer early in 2011, he was morose in private moments. But then he'd think about how fortunate, at 68, he'd been to never work a day in his life, and to wake up every day and glorify football and watch football and spend time with filmmakers of football and football people themselves.

And as he told me when I visited him in his south Jersey office: "I've had a lot of time to think. People talk about heaven now. When things like this happen, you think about things like heaven. But the amount of years I've had on earth -- '' Sabol had trouble saying most numbers because of the effect of the cancer and a stroke on his brain. So now he wrote his age on a yellow Post-It note, "68,'' and showed it to me. "So they talk about heaven, and I don't know what is waiting for me up there. But I can tell you this: Nothing will happen up there that can duplicate my life down here. Nothing. That life cannot be better than the one I've lived down here, the football life. It's been perfect.''

Vidal Sassoon, hair guy. Cut and sprayed a lot of famous people's hair.

Anthony Shadid, journalist, two-time Pulitzer winner, insane Packers fan. While a foreign correspondent, he was shot in 2002 and kidnapped in Libya in 2011 before dying of an asthma attack while covering the Syrian atrocities this year. When the Packers made the Super Bowl in February 2011, the University of Wisconsin grad wrote about his love of the Packers in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, recalling his days as a foreign correspondent in Iraq. "I listened to every game in Baghdad,'' he wrote. "I could have written another book if I had somehow managed not to spend countless hours reading about the Packers online.''

Norman Schwarzkopf, military hero. Stormin' Norman.

Junior Seau, linebacker. I once called one of the sturdiest linebackers of this era, London Fletcher, "the black Seau,'' and he told me what an honor it was to be compared to Seau. If you live in San Diego -- or you knew Seau -- you know where you were on May 2, when you heard the awful news about Seau killing himself.

Ravi Shankar, sitar player. Greatest Indian musician ever.

Victoria Soto, Newtown teacher/hero. Meg Boxwell Williams, the minister who presided over the funeral for the 28-year-old beloved teacher and victim of the Newtown massacre, said at the service: "Her last act was selfless, Christ-like, in laying down her life for her children."

When Adam Lanza broke into the school and began shooting, Soto herded as many kids as she could into a closet in her classroom and helped others escape and shielded others, fruitlessly but bravely, before being murdered by Lanza. But her legacy will be that many of her students will grow up because of what she did when confronted with the impossible decision of what to do when confronted in the blink of an eye by a mass murderer. And she aced the test.

Arlen Specter, senator, NFL foil in the "Spygate'' case. He called it "absurd'' and "ridiculous'' that Roger Goodell destroyed the evidence in the case.

Christopher Stephens, ambassador to Libya. What a needless death.

Donna Summer, singer. She worked hard for the money.

Gore Vidal, incredibly prolific writer.

Mike Wallace, journalist. Mr. 60 Minutes. One of the great interviewers ever. Once said to Russian president Vladimir Putin: "This isn't a real democracy! Come on!'' Once asked Ayatollah Khomeini about being called a "lunatic'' by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. "His words, not mine,'' Wallace said almost apologetically.

Andy Williams, "Moon River" singer.

Adieu Haiku

BobGriff v Wilson
Wild Card dream is coming true.
Will Obama watch?

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