Sunday provided one of the most salient moments of the season.
There was Michael Vick, in full sprint at Lincoln Financial Field, shredding the Colts and galloping down the middle of the field for a huge gain with the game on the line. He was accelerating like no other quarterback perhaps in the history of the game. It was like nothing we'd seen since Vick's infamous fall from grace.
In a country of second chances and a league in which redemption is so prevalent, Vick is the face of the NFL, version 2010. He symbolizes this season, where almost every team has a feel-good story, or two, so many of which have been under-reported. As much as we bemoan those teams -- owners, coaches and executives -- willing to extend an opportunity to beleaguered players, and as quick as we are to ridicule such moves, we fail, all too often, to recognize those who manage to shed their mistakes of the past and prove their detractors wrong.
Who embodies this principle more than Vick? There were legitimate questions about his ability to rise to prominence again, ability to regain his skills, ability to win over a fan base, ability to break free from all of his past transgressions and devote himself more completely to the game of football. Vick has done all of the above in remarkable fashion.
NFC East Squad Leaders
He is playing far better than ever before, has become a student of the game, a much more accurate passer, a smarter decision-maker, and he is poised to become the prize of the 2011 free- agent class. He isn't a thrower or a runner anymore; he is a polished quarterback.
But Vick is hardly alone. His story is the story of the 2010 season. Adam "Pac Man" Jones came back from the abyss to become a key member of the Bengals' secondary and special teams units. Media types went out of their way to thrash Jones -- understandably -- for his many run-ins with the law. Now that he was acting like a team-first player, turning around his life on so many levels, you heard next to nothing on his positive exploits. Sad but true.
Even after suffering a season-ending neck injury late last month, there is still a redemptive quality to Jones' journey. He is expected to make a complete recovery and has impressed owner Mike Brown with his personal and athletic transformations and remains a part of the franchise's future.
Here are some others who have rejoiced in this season of redemption, even if not to the degree of a Vick or Jones:
Mike Williams, WR, Seattle Seahawks: Left in the NFL scrapheap as just another one of the Lions' bust receiver draft choices, Williams was thrown a lifeline by his former college coach, Pete Carroll, and has been a playmaker for an upstart Seahawks team in the hunt for the NFC West crown. Williams had been out of the league since 2007 and had started seven career games with 44 career catches. He already has 35 receptions and seven starts this season.
Mike Williams, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Williams was dropped on draft boards and labeled one of the bad boys of the 2010 draft. Despite first-round talent, there were serious character questions after he was thrown off Syracuse's team. He fell to the third round, despite possessing first-round talent, and now is having a Rookie of the Year-type season for the resurgent Bucs.
Brandon Lloyd, WR, Denver Broncos: Released by the Redskins back in 2007, shortly after signing a lucrative contract, Lloyd had a reputation for being moody, surly and unpredictable. He was also capable of unleashing a diatribe on coaches or secretaries and hurling his helmet on the sidelines. He became the ultimate journeyman, scuffling around from teams on veteran minimum contracts and barely playing. Now, he's been a model citizen for the Broncos and the league's most productive receiver. He leads the NFL with 878 receiving yards, ranks fourth in yards per catch and is tops with 14 catches of 25 yards or more.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Buffalo Bills: He was in jeopardy of falling off the NFL radar entirely, stuck behind Trent Edwards on the team with the worst record in the league. Fitzpatrick might have been staring at the UFL come 2011. Yet, once Chan Gailey gave him a shot under center, he's proven to be a much better fit for this spread system. Despite not taking over until midway through the season, Fitzpatrick has thrown just one fewer TD than Tom Brady and become the first Bills QB since Jim Kelly in 1990 to throw three TDs in back-to-back games. His future, as a backup if nothing else, seems secure.
Colt McCoy, QB, Cleveland Browns: All of the teams in the market for a quarterback took turns passing on him at the draft. He was too small, didn't have a strong enough arm. Even those West Coast offense clubs where he might be a fit -- like Cleveland -- let him pass them by round after round. He ended up falling until the third round and was the fourth quarterback taken, but only Sam Bradford, taken first overall, has been better. Injuries thrust McCoy into a starting role well ahead of schedule, but he already has wins over the defending champion Saints, and the Brady-led Patriots.
Peyton Hillis, RB, Cleveland Browns: He was an apparent throw-in when the Broncos traded for Brady Quinn before the season. A former fullback/spare part, he wasn't even a part of the Browns' preseason running back debate (Jerome Harrison or Montario Hardesty, remember?). Yet it's Hillis who ranks eighth in the NFL with 4.8 yards per rush. It's Hillis who has dropped massive games on the Ravens and Patriots. It's Hillis who is tied for third in the NFL with seven rushing touchdowns. Heck, it's Hillis who has replaced Jamal Lewis as a battering ball, tackle-breaking runner for the Browns. Opposing defenders definitely talk about him like he is a bona fide featured back. We should too.
LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, New York Jets: His old team didn't want him anymore, despite him being one of the most dynamic players of his generation. Former Chargers teammates took shots at him in the press once he was gone. Many doubted his ability to contribute much of anything (me included, and, for the record, I still have serious reservations about him maintaining this production). But he chose the Jets over the Vikings -- great call by him -- and with the Chargers' run game scuffling, L.T. is averaging a robust 4.8 yards per carry with five rushing TDs. Even if he fails to maintain that lofty pace, he has done enough for the Jets already to justify the minimal financial outlay.
Terrell Owens, WR, Cincinnati Bengals: No one wanted him this offseason. He carried too much baggage. He was old and slow. His asking price was too high. Finally, just before the season, the Bengals, the only team that invited him for a prior free-agent visit, signed him to an incentive-laden deal. Now, it appears Owens will hit every single one of those incentives, but even then he will be a bargain at $4 million. He hasn't caused any stirs in the locker room or with the media, and he's been as productive as any receiver in the league despite his age. He still makes plays and moves the sticks. Owens leads the league in targets, is third in receptions, is third in receiving yards, and is tied for fourth with seven receiving TDs. On a languishing offense, he is the lone true bright spot, and I would suspect he'll be a little more sought after in 2011.
Raheem Morris, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs considered making a coaching change after one year of his regime, with the league's youngest coach struggling in his first campaign. The Bucs were largely non-competitive and coaches on other staffs whispered about what appeared to be a lack of preparation from Tampa's players and coaches. Schemes and play-calling were called into question. A year later, Morris has the Bucs playing at a level few expected. He's looking more and more like a younger version of a Mike Tomlin than a one-and-done coaching candidate. He seems like a great fit for the youthful squad being rebuilt in Tampa Bay.
Stubborn about the Saints
I've remained fairly bullish on the Saints all season, even despite their hangover and dropping some games they should have won. Here's why: The defense is playing at a significantly higher level than a year ago, and the offense will come around.
A year ago, the formula was winning by scoring a ton of points and relying on turnovers. It served the Saints well, but it's hard to win every year that way. Takeaways tend to regress more to the mean, offenses don't often remain that explosive every week, and ultimately clubs with a more sound defense will succeed more over time. Sure, Peyton Manning doesn't need a run game or a defense -- and perhaps Drew Brees doesn't either. But remind me how many rings does Peyton have?
The Saints are getting Reggie Bush back soon, and I fully expect that offense to peak for the playoff push. But don't overlook the role the defense has played in keeping this team near the top of the NFC standings. Unlike a year ago, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams can't gamble as much -- he isn't playing with a lead as much, and the margin for error is much slimmer than when the club was flirting with a perfect season.
Through nine games, the Saints rank first with 116 points allowed (12.9 per game). A year ago they ranked 19th, allowing 318 points (19.9 per game). The Saints have allowed just 12 offensive TDs and are fifth in the NFL, allowing 4.77 yards per play, compared to 5.46 last season. They remain a top-five team against the pass and, though not elite against the run, have certainly improved (allowing 4.2 yards per carry in 2010; gave up 4.5 per carry in 2009, which ranked 26th).
Sure, they aren't producing as many turnovers, but you can't bank on producing a record pace for takeaways year after year. In 2009, the Saints tied for first by scoring 141 takeaway points; this season they have 44. They rank 20th with 13 takeaways this season and ranked second with 39 a year ago. But remember, Darren Sharper has just started getting his legs under him after spending much of the year on the physically unable to perform list, and as that offense revs up and opponents have to put the ball in the air with more frequency, the turnovers will come. We know there are playmakers on that defense.
So, I'll take this 2010 version of the Saints, who are more fundamentally sound on defense and growing in the unit's second season in Williams' system. Should they have to play a road playoff game, I like their chances of winning more than I would have a year ago. Write off the Saints as a Super Bowl repeat threat at your own peril.
Rivers part of MVP race
Rivers the new Manning?
If the Chargers rally to win the AFC West -- as I fully expect them to now -- and Rivers puts up a Dan Marino-esque 5,000-yard season -- as I fully expect him to -- then there's your MVP, folks.
The Chargers have played all season without top receiver Vincent Jackson, due to his holdout and subsequent roster-exempt status. So Rivers turns Malcom Floyd into a No. 1 receiver (averaging 21.4 yards per catch) and gets quality production out of guys like Legedu Naanee, Buster Davis and Patrick Crayton … until they started going down. Floyd and Naanee missed the last two games, and Davis landed on IR, and then Seyi Ajirotutu got promoted from the practice squad. And all he did was produce a 100-yard effort in his second game. He's averaging 22.7 yards per catch, including a 55-yard touchdown.
And through all of this, Antonio Gates had been holding the whole thing together, putting up record numbers for a tight end, and then he goes down before a crucial game at Houston, a team that was every bit as desperate as the Chargers for a win. So Randy McMichael replaces Gates and catches two touchdowns in a game for the first-time in his career (125 games).
This isn't a coincidence, and these guys didn't just morph into impact players. It's all about the quarterback. The Chargers don't run the ball particularly well, and don't have any individual running back you have to fear. You know it's going to be Rivers and his band of journeymen trying to win in a shootout, and you still can't stop it.
Can't expect much from Pennington
I've seen a lot of the Dolphins this season, and while the move to Chad Pennington will result in fewer turnovers and youthful mistakes, it could prove costly and might not cure what really ails them.
Football operations and the coaching staff know they could be gone without a strong finish, as none of them have strong ties to the new owner, and all of them have strong ties to Bill Parcells, who is moving on in 2011. There were playoff expectations this season and a sense that Chad Henne could become a winning quarterback and a long-term solution.
Now the entire direction of the franchise must be questioned, since Pennington is on his last legs. Coupled with the signing of Al Harris, it's hard not to detect a Vikings-esque scent of desperation out of Miami this week.
Pennington lacks the pop to get that attack going -- they're the most conservative, least big-play passing offense in the NFL. With the AFC so stacked, I don't see this being enough to thrust the Dolphins into the playoffs. Owner Steven Ross is very close to former Kansas City guru Carl Peterson, and I can assure you members of Peterson's old staff have been watching the events in Miami ever-so-closely all season long.
What Patriots defense?
I was talking with an NFL coach last week, and the conversation turned briefly to the Patriots. I asked the coach how the defense had been holding up so well the past month or so, and he started to chuckle.
"They're not going to beat anyone with that defense," he said. "When they win, it's because of Tom Brady. He is their defense. That's not a very good defensive ballclub."
Last week's loss at Cleveland certainly exposed some flaws. I tend to agree that the Patriots are going to have to win shootouts to go as far as they'd like in the postseason.
In the past four weeks, L.T. has continued to carry the ball twice as often as Greene (67-35), but after running for about five yards per carry in the first four weeks of the season, Tomlinson is averaging just 3.85 yards per attempt the past four games. Greene, meantime, is averaging 4.8 yards per carry over the last four games. It hasn't gone unnoticed, and to expect L.T. to finish the season the way he started it might be a bit naïve.
» Can you guess the NFL's top-rated passer since Week 3? Go ahead, I'll give you three guesses. Did you say Joe Flacco? Yeah, I wouldn't have guessed it either, but over his last six games (since throwing four picks in a disaster at Cincy in Week 2), Flacco's 108.6 rating tops all (Rivers is second in that span at 101.9).
Flacco's 11 to 1 TD-INT ratio is best in that span, while he is completing 66 percent of his passes (third-best behind Drew Brees and Eli Manning) and averaging 8.13 yards per attempt (second best to Rivers). If this kid can keep anything close to this going down the stretch, look out for the Ravens.
» How bad must the Broncos staff feel about letting Hillis get away? No team is more desperate for an impact runner. Sure, Denver has some notable names in the backfield, but they don't have anyone who has been close to an effective ball carrier. The Broncos rank dead last, averaging 2.91 yards per carry. If the Broncos don't find a spark on the ground, the second half could be as bleak as the first.
The picks are in
Had another solid week with the picks, 9-4 (Lions and Bills came close to pulling the upset for me and giving me back-to-back 11-win weeks). So I'm 81-49 for the season. This week, give me the Ravens, Steelers, Eagles, Titans, Rams, Seahawks, Giants, Vikings, Texans, Chiefs, Jets, Colts, Bucs, and Bills.