Posted: Monday October 8, 2012 7:46AM ; Updated: Monday October 8, 2012 11:57AM
Peter King
Peter King>MONDAY MORNING QB

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Fine Fifteen

Time to believe in surprise contenders?
Source: SI
After Miami, Seattle and Indianapolis won on Sunday, SI.com's Mark Mravic wonders if it's time to start believing in these surprise teams.

1. Houston (4-0). Acid test won't come tonight against the outmanned Jets in New Jersey. It'll come next Sunday night against Green Bay, on a short week, followed by the Ravens the following Sunday -- both at home.

2. San Francisco (4-1). Last two weeks: Niners 79, Foes 3. I thought seriously of putting them No. 1.

3. Atlanta (5-0). The Falcons, born in 1966, were never 5-0 until yesterday.

4. Chicago (4-1). Zooming up the Fine Fifteen, thanks to the three-game win streak with an average margin of victory of 24 points.

5. Minnesota (4-1). Never thought I'd put the Vikes here, but they're legit. Things don't really get real for the Vikes until Thanksgiving weekend, when, in a span of 15 days, Minnesota plays the Bears, Packers and Bears. By the way, how good is Percy Harvin?

6. Baltimore (4-1). A meh game in Kansas City, but a win's a win.

7. New England (3-2). Remember when Wes Welker was being phased out? Last three games: 30 catches, 375 yards.

8. New York Giants (3-2). One of the things the Giants do so well is use whoever dresses, and just win. Rueben Randle and Domenik Hixon were Week 1 afterthoughts at wideout. And in Week 5, both were much needed due to injuries, and they came through with 11 catches for 137 yards.

9. Pittsburgh (2-2). "By any means necessary! By any means necessary!'' Mike Tomlin shouted to his players as they hugged their way to the locker room after the win over Philadelphia. The means was a little bit of everything.

10. San Diego (3-2). Wacky, weird finish, obviously, with Jared Gaither's ankle-related ineptitude killing the Chargers on the last series. But this result really was expected, if you ask me. Much bigger game next Monday: Peyton and the Broncos at San Diego.

11. Philadelphia (3-2). When or if you figure out this team, please let me know.

12. Green Bay (2-3). Don't look now, Cheese Nation, but the Packers are two games behind two teams in the NFC North, and we're only in Week 5, and roadies against Houston, Chicago, the Giants, Minnesota and Detroit await.

13. St. Louis (3-2). Used to be an easy day, playing the Rams secondary. Today? Rams are second in the league with a 66.6 defensive passer rating. That's what signing Cortland Finnegan and drafting Janoris Jenkins will do for a team.

14. Arizona (4-1). I can't see how this team makes the playoffs with that offensive line.

15. Seattle (3-2). Bruce Irvin's on pace for a 14.5-sack season. His speed is impossible to handle for almost any tackle in the NFL. What a smart pick -- assuming Irvin can stay on the field.

The Award Section

Offensive Players of the Week

Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. He had his historic touchdown pass 25 real-time minutes into Sunday night's game with San Diego, then added three more on a night when he broke John Unitas's 52-year-old record for consecutive games with a TD pass. Brees is now at 48, 11 ahead of Tom Brady, who stands at 37 straight.

Reggie Wayne, WR, Indianapolis, for the greatest receiving day by a Colts receiver since Raymond Berry in 1957, the year I was born. Wayne's biggest day ever -- 13 catches, 212 yards, one touchdown -- was highlighted by a miracle one-handed grab in the first half and a stretch-for-the-goal-line-while-being-mugged touchdown in the closing minute. A tremendous day, fittingly, for the player on the team closest to Chuck Pagano.

Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis. The stat line is fairly impressive for a quarterback's fourth career game -- 31 of 55, 362 yards, two touchdowns, one interception -- but this is a game you had to see to believe. The Colts, down 21-3 at the half to Green Bay, got the ball seven times in the second half, and Luck led them to three touchdowns and two field goals, outscoring the Pack 27-6 when it counted the most. His poise in the pocket, his ability to make plays under pressure, was that of a Brees or a Brady. The Colts have gotten very lucky with this Luck guy.

Defensive Players of the Week

Charles Tillman, CB, and Lance Briggs, LB, Chicago. Never in NFL history had the same two defensive players scored touchdowns in consecutive weeks -- until Sunday in Jacksonville. And what a coincidence: Tillman and Briggs each returned a Blaine Gabbert interception 36 yards for a touchdown, keying the rout of the Jaguars.

Dunta Robinson, CB, Atlanta. His first-quarter corner blitz on Robert Griffin III resulted in a sack that began the Atlanta onslaught of RGIII. Then, with two minutes left and the Falcons clinging to a 24-17 lead, Washington drove into Falcons territory behind backup quarterback Kirk Cousins. On 2nd-and-7 from the Falcons 46, Cousins threw for tight end Fred Davis, and Robinson deftly stepped in front of him to pick it off. When Brent Grimes, Atlanta's best corner, went down for the year with an Achilles injury last month, the pressure went to Robinson to save the day -- and Sunday he did.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Jeromy Miles, strong safety, Cincinnati. A questionable call was upheld after a replay challenge by Miami coach Joe Philbin, but Miles' save of a Kevin Huber punt -- seemingly as the ball was a grass-blade shy of hitting the goal line -- was the special teams play of the day. With the Bengals down 17-13, Miles' diving scoop pinned Miami deep in its own turf. Cincinnati's offense got it back with a chance to win, but Andy Dalton couldn't drive the Bengals to the winning score. Miles gave them a chance, though.

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 in November 2008. Zim, a former collegiate offensive lineman himself, loved watching offensive line play.

Alex Boone, guard, San Francisco. OK, so holding the Bills' interior defensive line without a sniff all of a sudden is not such a big accomplishment. But Boone, the fourth-year college free agent from Ohio State with the big wingspan, played every snap for the Niners Sunday and allowed no quarterback hits or sacks on Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick -- and he helped pave the way for one of the great offensive days in 49ers history, a 621-yard monster. He's strong enough to have neutralized Marcell Dareus when they competed, and even though his 6-foot-8, 300-pound frame is not a classic guard body, he's been an upgrade at a spot that frustrated San Francisco the last couple of years.

Coach of the Week

Jeff Fisher, St. Louis. In the span of five days, division rivals Seattle and Arizona went to St. Louis with a combined record of 6-1. Fisher's preparation since camp has been a lot about the division, and here were the first two division games for them. After allowing a first-quarter touchdown run to Seattle, the Rams held the two teams to zero touchdowns and three field goals over the last seven quarters, with 11 sacks, and St. Louis won both to go to 3-2.

The culture that Fisher brought to the defense was simple: hit hard and cover like a glove, and Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins have transformed the secondary into one of the league's stingiest. Fisher has emphasized special teams, as he always did in Tennessee, while hoping the offense can eventually catch up and be competent. If you'd told me in camp this Rams team would be 3-2, I'd have been stunned. But Fisher has done a great job of getting a green team game-ready quickly.

Goats of the Week

Willis McGahee, RB, Denver. Over the years, the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady games have often come down to the team making the most mistakes losing. In the fourth quarter Sunday in Foxboro, with the Broncos trying to claw back in it, McGahee made two errors he'll remember for a long time.

One: Eleven minutes left, Denver ball, 4th-and-1, New England 47; Manning tosses a gimme to McGahee in the right flat, and McGahee turns upfield to run before he's secured the ball ... you know what happened next. Dropped it. Seven minutes later, down 31-21, going in to make it a three-point game, McGahee had the ball stripped on a run up the middle by Rob Ninkovich at the New England 11. Turnover. Ballgame.

Matt Cassel, QB, Kansas City. This has nothing to do with his injury, which, again, shouldn't be celebrated. But Cassel has 13 turnovers in the first 19 quarters of the year, and the 13th was clearly the most damaging Sunday against Baltimore. In a 3-3 game in the third quarter, Kansas City had the ball at the Baltimore 1, and Cassel, hurrying to get the ball so he could make a quarterback sneak, mishandled the snap from new center Ryan Lilja. Baltimore recovered, and was up 6-3 five minutes later.

Kansas City was inches from taking its first lead in regulation time of the season, and Cassel coughed it up. You could see on the replay how Cassel misplayed the situation by leaning forward before the ball was snapped. Just a huge error.

D'Anthony Baptiste, tackle, Arizona. Rough week at the office for Mr. Baptiste, the 30-year-old, four-times-cut veteran of six teams, pressed into left tackle duty due to injuries for Arizona. Four days after allowing two sacks and four hurries of Kevin Kolb against Miami, Baptiste took the national TV stage Thursday night at St. Louis to do worse.

According to ProFootballFocus.com, Baptiste allowed three sacks and five hurries in the 17-3 loss to the Rams. In fact, PFF has Baptiste as the lowest-rated tackle in the NFL, but he's not alone in his badness. Teammate Adam Snyder is the lowest-rated guard in the league, and he allowed three sacks to the Rams as well.

Quote of the Week I

"You know, I don't feel so sick right now."

-- Leukemia-stricken Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano, when the game ball was delivered to him by owner Jim Irsay in the hospital after the Colts' 30-27 upset of the Packers, as reported by Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star.

Quote of the Week II

"I pride myself on being prepared. My number was called and I didn't get the job done. Shame on me.''

-- Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, who continued a shaky sophomore season with a 12-of-29 performance in a 16-12 home loss to Seattle.

Quote of the Week III

"If I were you, I would learn how to be a little bit nicer. I know you don't care and nor do I care if I ever sit down and do an interview with you -- which I have yet to do. Maybe there's a reason for that. I like everybody. I'd like to like you but right now I don't like you. Grow up, young man."

-- Terry Bradshaw on Jay Cutler, on the FOX pregame show Sunday.

Quote of the Week IV

"When I look back on my father's life I remember a man who was much bigger than the game of football. The things he would appreciate most about you have nothing to do with football; it's about who you are as a person. You're a role model for today's youth, a family man and a humanitarian who cares for his community. My father would tell you these are the important things in life, not some record in a book.''

-- Joe Unitas, the son of John Unitas, from an eloquent letter to New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees last week as Brees prepared to break Unitas' 52-year-old record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass. Brees made it 48 straight games with a touchdown pass Sunday night against San Diego.

Quote of the Week V

"Nope. They're still using human beings."

-- Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen, asked the other day if he was being blocked differently this year than in the past.

Stat of the Week

Disappointment of the first quarter of the season: the invisibility of Tim Tebow.

Through four games, his underwhelming numbers:

Snaps from scrimmage -- 31.
Snaps on special teams -- 25.
Rushes -- 9 for 38 yards, no touchdowns.
Passes -- 1 of 1, 9 yards, no touchdowns, one sack.
Touches on special teams -- 0.
Total -- 56 plays, 47 yards rushing/passing, no TDs.

My personal favorite game of Tebow's was the 19-snap, five-yard, one-sack performance at Miami in Week 3.

I don't buy the Wildcat doesn't work in the NFL anymore. Check out the production of Colin Kaepernick, the hugely less famous Wildcat quarterback/backup quarterback, in 39 fewer plays over five games: 17 plays, 88 yards (all rushing), one touchdown. (That does not include the final 12 plays of the Niners' rout of Buffalo Sunday, in which Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith as the regular quarterback.)

If the Jets have been waiting to unveil Special Teams Timmy or Secret Weapon Timmy, tonight might be a good time, when vastly undermanned New York faces the superior Texans.

The Deep End

Each week, thanks to play-by-play game dissection by ProFootballFocus.com, I'll look at one important matchup or individual performance metric from one of the Sunday games.

So how is Peyton Manning adjusting with admittedly less arm strength than he's had before his four neck procedures? Apparently well -- considering he's on pace to throw for 4,822 yards, 35 touchdowns and a 66-percent completion rate. But let's look deeper, through the research of ProFootballFocus.com. In average depth of target (how far downfield his passes are touched, or land on the ground), his average this year is 8.8 yards; in his last healthy season, 2010, his average depth was 9.1 yards downfield. So that's a wash.

When blitzed is when Manning has changed. In 2010, his average depth of target when blitzed was 8.9 yards. This year, it's dropped precipitously, to 5.8 yards. It's likely now that Manning, at least through five games, doesn't think he can throw himself out of pressure and now is trying to think his way out of pressure -- and avoid the hits -- by hitting a receiver closer to the line of scrimmage. His passing chart against New England Sunday shows two throwaways out of 44 passes.

In the other 42 throws: 10 yards or fewer: 24 of 28 for 174 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT: QB Rating of 116.4 ... NFL Average of 93.2 11-20 yards: 4 of 7 for 62 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT: QB Rating of 126.2 ... NFL Average of 78.8 21 yards-plus: 3 of 7 for 109 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT: QB rating of 89.9 ... NFL Average of 95.4 Manning made three poor throws in the game, none of which could be attributed to poor arm strength. Balls float a little but still get to the target. He seems to have compensated. He knows what he's capable of and plays to that. It'll be interesting to see how he plays against a more reasonable schedule over the next eight games.

Depressing Cowboys Bye Week Stat of the Week

Dallas' regular season record this century: 98-98.

Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me

World traveler Larry Fitzgerald (whose travel photos will be featured Wednesday on SI.com -- he's been to Tanzania, Peru, Chile, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, China, Malaysia, all over Europe and many places in between) says part of the experience of traveling is to try the local food.

"I'll eat anything -- once,'' he said.

Worst thing he's eaten: "Fish eyes, a couple of years ago in China. Disgusting. The texture, the taste, totally disgusting."

Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week

I've always thought the two best pregame tailgate spots in the league are Pittsburgh and Green Bay -- and don't ask me in which order, because there are terrific things about both. The Packers have some of the greatest spreads, with the tables of cheeses and meats and beers from all over the upper Midwest. The Steelers? A little less garish on the food, but the same people in the same lots for years and years and years, with the flags and the tradition.

I was reminded Sunday of what I miss by not being at many games with a series of texts from Pittsburgh Phil, reporting from the Heinz Field parking lot. Pittsburgh Phil's a friend of a friend, and we met at a South Side bar a few years ago when I was doing a feature for HBO's Inside the NFL show.

"Big game today,'' he texted at 9:49 a.m. "Wearing gear I usually save for the playoffs: a hat my dad bought the week of the Immaculate Reception, a shirt that led us to ...''

New text: "Super Bowl 40 and a sweatshirt that led us to Super Bowl 43.''

The drinks of choice, Pittsburgh Phil notes, included homemade apple pie moonshine.

I mean, you gotta love Steeler fans. How, I asked, is apple pie moonshine made?

"Fresh apples, mashed and fermented with cinnamon sticks. Mash apples. Add some water. Heat to ferment. Like a sour mash. It turns to vapor and water. Drain apples and cinnamon sticks. Let set. Then add cinnamon sticks for flavor. Apple pie. My dad makes it.''

Not my cup of moonshine, really.

Pittsburgh Phil's final text of the morning: "My buddy also brought deer steaks! Freaking awesome!!''

Tweet of the Week I

"Thank you for all the prayers & support I'm ok and I think after all the testing I will play next week."

-- @RGIII, Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, two hours after the Redskins lost to Atlanta, and about three hours after Griffin suffered a concussion in the game.

Tweet of the Week II

"Seriously. At what point do people in Cleveland just wake up and say, 'You know, I'm going to focus my energy on gardening?' (Giants 27-17)''

-- @StevePoliti, the columnist for the (Newark) Star-Ledger, at halftime of the Giants-Browns game.

Tweet of the Week III

"This is going to put a lot of pressure on Bud Selig to settle the labor dispute and get the real umpires back for the rest of the playoffs.''

-- @CJNitkowski, former major league pitcher, after the questionable infield-fly-rule call in the Wild Card game in Atlanta Friday evening caused fans to rain debris down on the field.

Tweet of the Week IV

"I guess fainting the day after going over .500 isn't exactly acting like you've been there before.''

-- @KDemoff, St. Louis Rams COO Kevin Demoff, who passed out Friday while reviewing Thursday night's win with GM Les Snead and club medical officials. Demoff was taken to a hospital but released after it was determined he had simply fainted.

 
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