As we do every week, let's take a swing around the NFL, looking at a bunch of stories that caught my attention...
So, what's been up?
Partying in New Orleans
The news came late on a Friday, when I'd imagine Bourbon Street was packed and the bars in New Orleans were overflowing with adult beverages. My guess is that a few toasts took place right around 6:05 p.m. local time when Fox Sports Insider and NFL Network contributor Jay Glazer broke the story that coach Sean Payton and the Saints had reached an agreement in principle on a five-year contract.
Then Saturday, owner Tom Benson sent out a statement saying, "Now we can focus our attention on building on the winning tradition with the Saints that Sean has played such a large role in."
True. In fact, this development ends a long, drawn-out process whose only result was giving Payton more money.
If the Saints and Payton were correctly confident all along -- and if he really wasn't looking to leave anywhere -- then we were all used a little bit in a leverage play to help Payton's pocketbook. All is fair in negotiations, and Payton's camp played this well. If he is, in fact, the NFL's highest-paid coach, then the goodwill he lost in dangling the Saints and perusing other jobs was worth it. Plus, I doubt Saints fans care anywhere, since they've seen what can happen when someone else coaches the team. But still, we all got played.
What did we learn? The only thing I can come up with is that New Orleans' nightmare is over. The bounty scandal is done, save for a defamation suit from linebacker Jonathan Vilma that may not have a long life. Payton will be back. Drew Brees will be present in the 2013 offseason, unlike 2012. And defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has that unit understanding what he's trying to do.
I know 2012 was a real disasterbacle. But it may have only made this Saints team stronger and in a better position to be ready for next year. It would be tough to imagine the Saints looking more poised for 2013. And when they start rolling, this past season will seem like a distant memory.
Ending on the right note
The former undrafted free agent from Michigan State played three years for the Patriots backing up Tom Brady, was cut in the preseason, then found himself jobless for much of this season. Now, after being claimed by Arizona -- and with every other QB nicely discarded -- Hoyer is starting. Um, yeah. The NFL, ladies and gentlemen. As Hoyer told me in a phone call this week, "That's the nature of the business."
He's right. Hoyer has been a career backup, ideal for the Patriots. Smart, capable of running the scout team and willing to do whatever. Yet, there were always nerves. This week, actually, may be easier.
"At least you know you're going to play," Hoyer told me. "I'm a backup for all these years, and it's almost more nerve-wracking not knowing if you're going to play or not or at what point in the game. At least I know now on Sunday I'll be out there on that first drive and go from there. That kinda takes a little bit of the unknown out of it."
I was told he had a great week of practice, too, so that's nice. A story like this gives hope to every single free agent on the street. Keep doing what you're doing, and chances can still come. Hoyer moved back to Cleveland after being cut by the Patriots, and I'm sure he was down. There wasn't much to cheer about. He did eventually get picked up by the Steelers, but was quickly released. Now, he's got a chance. He's relied on advice from Brady.
"Obviously this is an opportunity I've been waiting for for a long time now," Hoyer told me. "I never thought in a million years it would come in this year with the Cardinals in Week 16. If you would've told me that at training camp, I would've said you're crazy. That's the opportunity that's been presented to me and I have to take advantage of it. That's something from Tom. He said, 'Look, when you get that opportunity you gotta do whatever you can to make the most of it and coming from him, which that's how he started, it really sunk in. For me, this is a one-week season for me. And want to go out and play as well as I can and help this team get a win and finish the year on the right note."
Bad news for 49ers opponents
Speaking of the Cardinals, they play the 49ers on Sunday, a team that will be without star defensive tackle Justin Smith again Sunday. He has a partially torn triceps tendon that will keep him out for the second week in a row. Now, players have played with similar injuries -- Terrell Suggs is one of them. And Smith told the Sacramento Bee Friday that he hopes to be back for the playoffs.
Where does this leave San Fran? Short-handed... and I'd argue in a better place than before. Why? The team takes a nose-dive when Smith isn't there.
According to numbers presented in the San Francisco Chronicle, they've given up twice the first downs and nearly three times as many points in the six quarters Smith has missed compared to when he was in there. They gave up a whopping and mind-numbing 42 points last week to the Seahawks. And now, the 49ers have seen themselves without Smith.
Flaws have been exposed. With little-to-no negative effect, they've lost and given respected defensive coordinator Vic Fangio some ugly film. I trust he'll fix it. That's what the good ones do, especially after they've seen it.
The Niners have been exposed, even with all their talented Pro Bowlers. That means they can see their weaknesses, too. Whether or not Smith comes back, they have enough time to figure it out, especially if they have a bye. In other words, the points the Niners have given up will turn out to be bad news for their playoffs opponents.
The right mindset for Bryant
Giants receiver Victor Cruz would be the one player who should be bounced in favor of Bryant. No offense to Cruz, who can be dynamic. But not like Bryant (1,311 yards) -- who has better stats than Cruz (1,040 yards). If you haven't been watching Bryant on the field these last seven games, or if you're more focused on his off-the-field issues that have been worked out, you've missed the coming out party of one of the NFL's elite receivers. Dallas has come on with a 5-2 record down the stretch and the connection between Bryant and quarterback Tony Romo has been a monster reason why. Their on-field connection has been impressive. But the major improvement for Bryant has been mental.
Players say he's been in the film room more, more willing to listen and seek out an understanding of how teams will defend him. He makes in-game adjustments now. The mindset change has been most stunning.
When Bryant talked about his broken finger, which is a serious problem for a receiver, he said, "You think its going to hurt its going to hurt. If you don't think about it, it's nothing to worry about it."
"Back then, it probably would have worked," Bryant said, about his younger days. "But not now. I understand what other players want to do to benefit their game, but I am very confident about it."
Spoken like a true veteran, rather than a green rookie-ish player. Of all the things that happened to the Cowboys during the second half of the season, Dependable Dez may be the biggest.
The Pro Bowl's true worth
The actual Pro Bowl may not mean much. The game, as we know, leaves some to be desired, and it's clear the NFL has paid attention to that.
To me, I'll never forget my one experience covering the game when it was in Miami, watching defensive tackle Vince Wilfork make pass-rushing look like a pillow fight. It was comical.
So, if they continue to play it, I hope the quality is better. But the actual selection process is obviously meaningful. Take the Texans, for instance. They had a breakout regular season with unprecedented team success and a possible first-round bye. And they had eight Pro Bowlers, which led buttoned-up coach Gary Kubiak to say of the selections, "That's pretty cool. That's a compliment to the whole team."
And defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said as much, noting how it really reflects on the whole team when guys like J.J. Watt, left tackle Duane Brown, running back Arian Foster and others are honored.
"I think from last year to this year because we've won so many games in the last two years now," Phillips said, "players are starting to get recognition because you win."
Anyway, my main point is that people can say what they want about the Pro Bowl as a game. But as an honor, it's pretty special. Players and teams care. And given the arguments over the players who were snubbed, I'd say that only backs me up.
The Colts' class act
A lot of interesting things will be playing out on Sunday, including the play-in game for the Cowboys and Redskins. But the coolest thing will be Chuck Pagano coaching again after undergoing cancer treatment. He's back, on the sidelines, and in charge. Heartwarming.
For obvious and important reasons, Pagano will receive quite an ovation at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday. But I want to take a moment to commend Bruce Arians. I'm not sure the Colts OC could've handled his trying situation will any more class.
He never took over Pagano's office. He never tried to use this opportunity as a springboard, though he'll have chances when head jobs become open. And that continued this week. Arians was asked if he has any veto power now with Pagano back and he said, "No. I can talk about the offense, but that's all his, man." What about play-calling? "I don't just hit my button. I've got to ask him."
Asked if it was easier to simply call plays now, Arians said no. But added, "It's fun again to have Chuck back in the building and doing his thing."
There were a lot of bad things that have happened to the Colts, and they've overcome many of them. But it's pretty fortunate for all of us how many people realized what a good man Bruce Arians is. If there is a positive out of this situation, that's it.
Steelers salary cap woes
Want to get a headache? Let me help.
There's a website I like to read called DraftMetrics.com, and they recently released a study on teams in salary cap trouble for next year. It focused on the Pittsburgh Steelers, an aging team missing the playoffs this year. And what they came up with not only made my head hurt (all the math), but it also probably made Steelers fans cringe.
Bottom line? They have some real decisions to make. According to the site, the Steelers are slated to be $20 million over the cap next year, based on 33 players accounting for $126 million, draft choices and another 11 (future mid-level) players who average $1 million per year. Now, they can handle this by restructuring deals for Willie Colon, Heath Miller, Ben Roethlisberger, Ike Taylor, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley, though that would hamstring them in 2014.
Why do I bring this up? Because Pittsburgh can also answer some of its cap questions with swifter, more decisive cuts now. Releasing linebacker James Harrison and safety Troy Polamalu would save about $3 million combined in 2013, but more than $20 million combined in 2014. Both are aging and, you could argue, not worth their salaries. Polamalu, especially, has struggled to find his former form. In addition, releasing safety Ryan Clark would save $3.5 million against the cap in 2013.
In other words, the Steelers have some real choices to make when this season ends. Yes, there is cap trouble. But looking to the future and getting younger quicker would deal with it.
Return of the Gronk
The Patriots might have tight end Rob Gronkowski on the field Sunday for the first time since mid-November. He's been out with a broken forearm, and I was told not to be surprised if he plays against the Dolphins.
The game could actually end up being meaningless, depending on the results beforehand, so why risk him playing? Especially because the offense hasn't suffered without him. All they've done is average 34.2 points. But I'll make the argument Gronk needs to play. Assuming he's medically cleared, which seems likely, Gronk hasn't played in six weeks. If he doesn't play Sunday, and if the Patriots earn a bye, it'll be two months. That means Gronk could be rusty for the first playoff game.
The result Sunday doesn't matter much. As Bill Belichick has always insinuated, it's all about being ready for the playoffs. Getting Gronk ready is mission No. 1 for this team, which is why he needs to play.
The Jets' best bet
I think we're beyond circus. It's bad enough that, as the New York Daily News reported, Rex Ryan privately said he'd be better off being fired than coaching a Jets team without offensive improvements.
It's even worse than someone leaked that to a newspaper (though it was certainly entertaining). But then there was the crying in front of his team, the demonstrative press conference where he lashed out and called himself "mad as a hornet."
Just drama, drama, drama. Personally, I don't understand why Rex even responds. Not everything necessitates an impassioned, emotional response. Sometimes, it's OK to just let things go. What's to defend, really? Who doesn't think the Jets would be sunk next year with this same offensive group and coordinator? Who doesn't think Rex would prefer to coach somewhere with a better chance to win, if it's not the Jets?
The story made complete sense, and no one would blame Rex at all for thinking that. Instead, he ignited another media storm with his reaction. Another distraction. I think Rex is a great coach. He should win a lot of games in this league. But it's all becoming so high maintenance.
At what point does Woody Johnson, the owner, decide it's not worth it? If Rex doesn't make the playoffs next year, that's the best bet.
Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.