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Focus on the playoffs

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Posted: Monday November 19, 2001 9:45 AM
  View the Peter King archives

MIAMI -- I can't remember a game I've looked forward to as much as the Rams-Patriots game Sunday night. Invariably, when I can, I fly home to New Jersey on Sunday night after whatever game it is that I've covered, because even the Heavenly Bed at the Westin gets pretty purgatory-ish after 55 nights or so during the season. But this weekend I couldn't fly Sunday night. I had to see this game. Chris Mortensen knew what I meant, because he told me at the Jets-Dolphins game that he was doing the exact same thing.

1. St. Louis (8-1). Admit it, Rambos. Kurt "Nine Picks In Three Games" Warner is starting to worry you. But it was pretty sweet watching Marshall Faulk bleed the clock, wasn't it? 
2. Oakland (7-2). I'm not sure there is a second-best team in football. This defense is too generous. 
3. Pittsburgh (7-2). Wouldn't all you Terrible Towel-wavers feel better if the Steelers could sustain a few drives? 
4. New York Jets (7-3). Today's Flavor of the Week. The only defense playing better right now is Pittsburgh's, which is a statement I couldn't imagine making a month ago. 
5. Chicago Bears (7-2). Dick Jauron shouldn't even need an agent to get this deal done. 
6. Philadelphia (6-3). The most amazing stat after the Eagles beat Dallas 36-3 is that Donovan McNabb was only 16-of-32 for 129 yards. 
7. Green Bay (6-3). Super Bowl teams don't lose to Atlanta at home after the leaves have turned. 
8. Baltimore (6-4). Ravens travel to Jacksonville on Saturday afternoon to play Jags on Sunday. Now this is just a gut feeling, but I believe there will be an empty seat next to Elvis Grbac on the team charter. 
9. San Francisco (7-2). Last five games have been decided after the two-minute warning. Niners are 4-1 in those. 
10. New England (5-5). Playoff game at Foxboro on Sunday: Saints at Pats. 
11. Miami (6-3). So limited offensively. So, so limited. I realize they've played better on eight previous Sundays, so I won't drop them out of the top 12, but that was an alarmingly pitiful show. 
(tie) 12. New York Giants (5-4). Last five: loss, loss, loss, win by a late field goal, win by a touchdown -- the last two against 2-7 and 3-6 teams. It's put-up time Monday night, boys. 
12. Cleveland (5-4). Any team that beats the defending Super Bowl champs twice in a month by double digits has my vote.  
12. New Orleans (5-4). I just don't know who they are. 
12. Washington (4-5). I know who they are. This is Stephen Davis' team. 

They are two of the most interesting teams in the league -- the Rams because anything can happen on the field where they play at any time, the Patriots because of the quarterback controversy (Joe Theismann, how can you sit there with a straight face and say, "There is no quarterback controversy here," when it's all the Boston talk shows and columnists are filibustering about?) and because of Bill Belichick's penchant for giving great quarterbacks a great game and because of the unknown.

And by midnight, the Rams and Patriots hadn't let anyone down. My two favorite sequences: Start of the game, Tebucky Jones foils a Rams reverse on the opening kickoff return, and, on the first two plays from scrimmage, Roman Phifer and Otis Smith knock down Kurt Warner passes. Like they're saying: We're going to be here all night. And they were. The other, Warner right before the half, getting stuck at his own 3 after a takeway at the two-minute warning, and, with his cache of great receivers, going to Jeff Robinson for 22, Ricky Proehl for 20, Proehl for 19, Proehl for 11 (72 yards in less than a minute, complete to players who are not among his top five options entering any game!) and finishing off the drive with Marshall Faulk taking it nine yards up the gut, doing what Mike Martz knows he has to do at least occasionally, that is, show defenses he's not afraid to run it when the game's on the line.

The game, and the weekend, actually illuminated much about the playoff race. The game told us that the Rams, with their last dangerous grass game out of the way, should win NFC home-field, and the Patriots, even at 5-5, should be able to muster up enough wins to go 9-7 and win a wild-card berth.

Sunday also told us the following: The AFC West looks like a one-team (Oakland) playoff division. Baltimore's offense is in huge trouble and may cost the Ravens any home-field playoff games. The Jets are for real. Washington, which could be a half-game behind the Giants after Monday night, might be. Do the math, and a Favre-Mariucci wild-card game looks more likely by the week. Tom Brady could be a playoff quarterback, and Peyton Manning might not be.

A couple of weeks ago, when I was trying to figure out the order of the top 20 teams in the NFL for Sports Illustrated's midseason ranking of the teams with the best chance of winning the Super Bowl, I went to NFL Films, in Mount Laurel, N.J., to the screening room for coaches' tape. I sat with ESPN's Edge NFL Matchup staffers, who watch tape of every pro game every week. The subject of ranking the teams came up, that started the arguments.

"You've got to put the Redskins higher," co-host Merril Hoge said. "You watch. Now that they're giving it to Stephen Davis, they'll win the NFC East."

"What?!" co-host Ron Jaworski said. "You're crazy! Move the Giants higher."

"You've got the Broncos too high," said Brian Baldinger, the FOX analyst, who sits in on the midweek video session to consult and learn. "Switch the Chargers and Broncos."

"You've got to give more respect to the teams with the big-time quarterbacks -- Green Bay, especially," says the show's executive producer, Greg Cosell. "And move the Giants up. They're still dangerous."

It's Week 10 and the clouds are starting to clear.

Michael Strahan celebrated his 30th birthday Friday night. His wife, Jean, surprised him with a party at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the campus of Montclair (N.J.) State University. The bait: Yogi himself. Berra, who lives a couple of Kerry Collins spirals from Strahan in Montclair, invited the defensive end to speak to some underprivileged kids at the museum. Lots of Giants came. Collins, Ron Stone, Tiki Barber, Jason Garrett. But a Jet might have gotten the warmest hug from the sackmeister: Wayne Chrebet. They're big pals.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Washington QB Kent Graham, for his play off the bench in a 17-10 win at Denver. Now, I could easily split this between Jerry Rice and Marty Booker, who had 130-yard-plus, three-touchdown receiving days. Chris Chandler, with 352 yards at Lambeau and a stunning win, deserves it, too. But when Tony Banks went down with a concussion late in the first half, Graham came into a 36-degree rain, on the road, down 10-0, against a preseason Super Bowl pick, competed for his first time this season and completed 12 of 18 throws for two touchdowns and no interceptions. The winning score is another reason Graham wins. When you're relying on a Zeron Flemister for the winning score, and you drill it into him, and he comes up with it, that's a big throw. Imagine if you were at Redskins training camp in early August, watching the team practice, and some clairvoyant said to you: "In the biggest game of the year, the one that will decide if you'll stay in the playoff race in November, you'll win on a Graham-to-Flemister touchdown pass."

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Pittsburgh LB Joey Porter, who, among his four tackles against Jacksonville, made one of the seasons textbook's stops in the Steelers' 20-7 win. Midway through the second quarter, with the Jaguars trying to get something -- anything -- going, Jimmy Smith came around left end on a perfectly executed reverse handoff from The Mighty Quinn, the sub quarterback. The entire Pittsburgh defense, minus one player, bit on the reverse and ran to the right side of the Jacksonville line. Not Porter. He overcame a block, dove at Smith, who was making the cut around left end, grabbed him by the right ankle and hung on until the receiver fell, just about in his tracks.

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE WEEK: (tie) Tennessee KR Derrick Mason, who, before the game with the Bengals, had been a shell of his 63-catch, 13.0-yard punt-return, 27.0-yard kick-return self of 2000. He wasn't even in the top 20 of NFL kickoff returners heading into the game. But he took the opening kickoff at Cincinnati a yard deep in the end zone and sped 101 yards for a touchdown that the devastated Titans needed desperately. For the day, Mason replayed 2000. He had 205 yards returning, rushing and receiving.

New York Jets P Tom Tupa. He dropped successive punts at the Miami 2- and 1-yard lines. Not bad for the NFL's 31st-leading punter entering Week 10. Which brings us to ...

COACH OF THE WEEK: New York Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff, who returned to the scene of his prime -- Miami -- to stun the Dolphins on a second-quarter punt. On fourth down at the Miami 41, the Jets sent in the punt team. Every Jets special teamer but one lined up on the right side of the line. Tupa lined up just more than halfway back to his normal punting position. When he got the snap, he turned his body toward the right pylon at the goal line and pooched a soft, low punt. Perfection. Football is a game of field position, especially in defensive games like this one, and Westhoff designed a great play to confuse a punt defense, and it worked. Downed at the 2. "We had that in last week," he told me. "The center's eligible. We threw for a first down." Westhoff, dumped by Dave Wannstedt after last season and hurt by it, gave the Fish an impossible field to work with and they went three-and-out.

If Jimmy Johnson drove his boat 81 miles due south from his front yard in the Florida Keys, he would dock in Havana.

1. I think there is no better poster child for any sports league in 2001 than Kurt Warner is for the NFL.

2. I think Rob Johnson (shoulder) will not play football again this year. The Bills' management team of Tom Donahoe and Gregg Williams , after watching Johnson play for half a season, might have otherwise had a tough decision on whether to re-do the quarterback's contract over the long term. But it won't be so tough. Donahoe's a believer. And with Johnson due to count $11.2 million against the Buffalo salary cap next year, a new deal should get done early in the offseason.

3. I think that the Rams-Pats game was as wishy-washy a game for the officials as I've seen in a long time.

4. I think, if you open SI later this week, you'll see my ranking of the top 20 unrestricted free agents scheduled to be available come February. Actually, the restricted list, led by some key Steelers and Bears, might be better. RFAs are unsigned guys who have completed three years of service, and if they're signed by a new team, the old team has a right to match or take draft-pick compensation in return. UFAs are unsigned fourth-year guys or older; no compensation for them. My top dozen RFAs, in order:

Porter, LB, Pittsburgh
Rosevelt Colvin, LB, Chicago
Mike McKenzie, CB, Green Bay
Olandis Gary, RB, Denver
Warrick Holdman, LB, Chicago
Aaron Smith, DE, Pittsburgh
Marty Booker, WR, Chicago
Chukie Nwokorie, DE, Indianapolis
Amos Zereoue, RB, Pittsburgh
Desmond Clark, TE, Denver
Oliver Ross, T, Pittsburgh
Martin Gramatica, K, Tampa Bay

5. I think, speaking of Gramatica, he looks like a 9-year-old when he stands there, arm around his coach, Joe Marciano, commiserating after his potential tying kick pops off the right upright. I wonder if Warren Sapp ever gave him a macho pill.

6. I think the quality of the South Florida sports fan was shown Sunday, about 1:05 p.m, when, with the game that was close to being Miami's game of the year nearing kickoff, there were swatches of open orange seats in the upper deck. As passionate as these Dolfans seem to be, I don't get how they can't fill an average-sized stadium for a game of the year.

7. I think one stat that I find amazing about this season is that we're more than halfway through it and Manning can't outscore the Colts' defense.

8. I think the question is not whether Tony Dungy will make it to next season. The question is whether he'll make it to next week.

9. I think these are my media thoughts of the week:

a. Troy Aikman's not cutting Jerry Jones any slack on the Quincy Carter pick. "You move up in the draft to take a kid in the second round, and he basically has not played and yet they're already evaluating whether or not he's going to be the future," Aikman said. "I don't understand that. What's strange is, they moved up to draft him and they've changed the way he grips the ball and they've changed his mechanics. I'm wondering what it is they saw in him to warrant moving up and drafting him in the second round."

b. Todd Christensen, who must be one of the championship second-guessers in broadcast-booth history, had this to say of Ohio State, which late in the first half brought in a quarterback who hadn't played this season, and then called two long passes on his first series: "I don't want to be overly critical, but those were horrendous calls."

c. Bill Zimpfer, the Dolphins' play-by-play man, sounded like someone just stomped on his foot after Aaron Glenn took a bobbled interception 60 yards for a touchdown as the Jets, though being significantly outplayed, grabbed a 7-0 lead. "You have to ask yourself: When does this stuff stop happening with the stinkin' Jets?!"

d. Zimpfer, after a second deflected pick was returned for a touchdown in the second half: "The stinkin' Jets have done it again!"

e. Jim Mandich, Zimpfer's partner, after the Dolphins' fifth turnover of the day: "Pass the vomit bag. This has been a Three Stooges pie fight."

10. I think the Quote of the Week comes from Pittsburgh safety Lee Flowers, cautioning the Steelers not to get too excited over their fast start. "I've seen teams be 6-2 and lose the rest of their games," Flowers said. Really? When? No team since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978 has started 6-2 and lost its last eight games.

As much as the emotion is on the side of the Vikings, with the Korey Stringer jersey retirement and the lineup changes and the season-on-the-line talk, I like Collins to throw for 329 yards and three touchdowns because emotion doesn't play defense. Giants, 29-27.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King covers the NFL and appears regularly on CNN/Sports Illustrated and CNN's NFL Preview. Click here to send a question to his NFL Mailbag.

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