NFL Nation: MVP

Matt Ryan's slipped out of contention, and I’ll be hugely surprised if Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers doesn’t wind up NFL MVP.

All year I’ve thought the idea of J.J. Watt, or any defensive player, winning the MVP award was beyond a long shot.

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Will a defensive player ever win NFL MVP again?

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But I have come to this: If a guy having the disruptive season Watt is having doesn’t win it, I wonder if we will ever see a defensive player win more than defensive player of the year again.

(Mike Sando's most recent MVP Watch had Watt fifth.)

Against the Titans, Watt had a sack, a batted ball and a tipped pass that resulted in an interception. Those three pass disruptions give him a league-high 30.5 drop-backs disrupted this season. Watt has disrupted 6.0 percent of opponent drop-backs, also the best mark in the NFL.

With 15.5 sacks and 15 deflected passes, Watt’s done something never done before -- and there are still three games remaining.

Gary Kubiak said what Watt’s doing is “off the charts.”

At that pace, he’ll finish with 20.5 sacks and 20 batted passes.

Those are giant numbers. They aren’t 4,669 passing yards (which Manning is on pace for) or 38 passing touchdowns (the pace of Manning and Rodgers), though, and they probably won’t result in more than defensive player of the year honors.

Three things: Panthers-Jets

August, 26, 2012
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Three things to watch in the New York's Jets’ "dress rehearsal" game against the Carolina Panthers Sunday night at 8 p.m. ET.

1. Offensive touchdowns. It's been a rough ride this preseason for the Jets' offense. New York holds the distinction as the only NFL team yet to score a touchdown this summer. The Jets' offense, particularly the starters, needs to get that monkey off their back and score at least one touchdown against Carolina. Much of the issue has been the offensive line. There haven’t been many running lanes and quarterback Mark Sanchez is getting little pass protection. The Jets need to start getting their act together offensively in this preseason game.

2. Holmes’ return. New York’s offense clearly needs a boost on offense, and No. 1 receiver Santonio Holmes can provide it. Holmes expects to make his preseason debut Sunday after missing the first two games with a rib injury. The former Super Bowl MVP is the only reliable wide receiver the Jets have. Holmes also can take a lot of pressure and coverage away from the other receivers.

3. Last glimpse of Tebow. Jets head coach Rex Ryan already made the decision that Tim Tebow will get the starter treatment. Tebow will not start at quarterback in the preseason finale. Instead, Tebow will rest with most of the starters next week against the Philadelphia Eagles. Therefore, this is the final tune-up for Tebow before the regular-season opener against the Buffalo Bills.
INDIANAPOLIS -- It took a long time for Peyton Manning to topple New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. But Peyton Manning's younger brother, Eli Manning, never had that problem.

Eli Manning continued his dominance over Brady, a future Hall of Famer, with another stellar performance in Super Bowl XLVI. Brady was solid. But according to the Total Quarterback Rating, Eli Manning was better in New York's 21-17 victory.

Brady posted a 71.9 QBR, which was highlighted by a tremendous run in the second and third quarters when he set a Super Bowl record with 16 straight completions. Brady finished with 276 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. But Eli Manning was better in the first and most-important fourth quarter, leading to a 79.5 QBR. He threw for 296 yards, one touchdowns and had several clutch completions late in the fourth quarter. The performance earned Eli Manning this year's Super Bowl MVP.

Brady started slow and didn't finish strong, and that was a big reason the Patriots fell short. Here is Brady's QBR by quarters:
  • First: 0.3
  • Second: 97.7
  • Third: 86.7
  • Fourth: 24.1

Sunday's game was Eli Manning's third straight victory over Brady, which includes two Super Bowls.

Jets regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
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» NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 19
Preseason Power Ranking: 7

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Patrick McDermott/Getty ImagesMark Sanchez was unable to make progress in his third NFL season.
Biggest surprise: Guess who led the Jets in sacks this season? Aaron Maybin. Yes, that Aaron Maybin. The same Maybin who was a draft bust for the Buffalo Bills and cut before training camp. The Jets saw potential in Maybin and invited him to training camp. With a change of scenery and scheme, Maybin showed some of the things in New York that he showed in college to make him a first-round pick. Maybin briefly made New York's 53-man roster out of training camp. Then, he was released. When the Jets picked Maybin up again during the season he was ready. Maybin helped the Jets with a team-high six sacks, which should put him in consideration for the NFL's Most Improved Player.

Biggest disappointment: This was the year New York's coaching staff thought quarterback Mark Sanchez would make major strides. This was the year the offense would be put in Sanchez's hands and would finally catch up to New York's talented defense. But that plan didn't pan out. Sanchez wasn't ready to take the next step in his third season and coach Rex Ryan pulled back the reigns. The Jets went back to their ground-and-pound offense and tried to protect Sanchez. The offense was bland, predictable and Sanchez struggled. New York's offense was ranked No. 25 in the NFL. Sanchez's numbers slightly improved. But the team still had to protect him in his third season, and that's not acceptable for a top-five draft pick. Sanchez needs to make a lot of improvements next season to be considered among the upper-echelon quarterbacks in the NFL.

Biggest need: There are several reasons the Jets were inconsistent, but the biggest reason was the offensive line. The Jets need to upgrade the right tackle position immediately. Wayne Hunter draws too many flags and struggles in pass protection. The front office needs to find a better front-side protector for Sanchez. The offensive line as a group played a notch or two lower than it was capable of. The Jets need to add depth and competition at guard. Center Nick Mangold was fine, but D'Brickashaw Ferguson wasn't as good as previous years. Both made the Pro Bowl, although Ferguson made it more on name recognition.

Team MVP: I know it's early. But I feel pretty safe in saying that Darrelle Revis will be an all-time great. Revis put together another Pro Bowl year and is easily the team's MVP. Revis is dominating a position that is nearly impossible to dominate. The rules are tilted in favor of the offense and receivers to promote scoring. But Revis has found a way to consistently shut down opponents from the cornerback position. His ability to stick to and frustrate receivers is fun to watch. His hand-eye coordination is the best in the NFL. It's considered an event when a receiver catches a couple passes on Revis. Perhaps the biggest shame is that Revis, 26, is a unique talent in his prime, and the Jets are wasting those prime years by fumbling around in other areas.

Free-agent watch: The Jets have several interesting free agents. Offensively, New York has to decide whether to bring back starting receiver Plaxico Burress and/or backup tailback LaDainian Tomlinson. Burress was signed on a one-year rental to see if he has anything left after spending time in prison. Burress showed flashes, particularly in the red zone. But he will be 35 in August and struggles to get vertical. The Jets may need an upgrade opposite receiver Santonio Holmes. Tomlinson's role was reduced this year and he is considering retirement. Defensively, New York has to decide what to do with starting safety Jim Leonhard. He's an underrated player. It's evident as the defense fell apart this season when he was out of the lineup. Leonhard suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the year and has a long rehabilitation process ahead. That could impact and delay whether the Jets pursue him.

Tom Brady listed 'probable' vs. Bills

December, 30, 2011
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Shoulder-gate is coming to a close in New England.

Brady
Brady
Patriots starting quarterback and MVP candidate Tom Brady is listed as probable for Sunday's regular-season finale against the Buffalo Bills. He missed Wednesday’s practice with a left shoulder injury and was limited on Thursday.

The Patriots (12-3) need this win to solidify home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The key for New England will be to take a big lead early and sit their starters in the second half. The Patriots have two weeks to rest Brady after Sunday's game.

In other injury notes, New England will be without starting offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back, foot) and guard Logan Mankins (knee). Both are ruled out. The Bills (6-9) will be without receiver Brad Smith (hamstring) and offensive linemen Kraig Urbik (knee) and Demetrius Bell (knee).

Can Patriots, Belichick stop Tim Tebow?

December, 14, 2011
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TebowIcon SMIBill Belichick says the Patriots are well aware of Tim Tebow's late-game heroics.
The AFC East has been "Tebowed" twice already this season.

In Week 7, the Miami Dolphins led 15-0 in the fourth quarter before Tim Tebow led the Denver Broncos to 18 straight points in an overtime victory. It was Tebow's first start of the 2011 season.

In Week 11, the New York Jets allowed Tebow to drive Denver 95 yards in the final minutes for the game-winning score. It was capped by Tebow's 20-yard touchdown run with 58 seconds remaining.

Are the New England Patriots Tebow's next victim?

The Patriots (10-3), winners of five straight, will travel to Sports Authority Field at Mile High to face Tebow and the equally hot Broncos (8-5). Teams have been unable to solve Tebow and Denver's read-option offense for four quarters. The Broncos have won six in a row. They are 7-1 with Tebow under center and in first place in the AFC West.

This will be an intriguing challenge for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. He's developed a reputation as a defensive mastermind and is known to come up with schemes to confuse quarterbacks. But that hasn't been the case for Belichick this season. New England has the NFL's worst-rated defense, allowing 416 yards per game.

Rex Ryan and New York's defense couldn't stop Tebow. Neither could Miami and veteran defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

Will Belichick find the right formula to stop the Tebow train?

"They're at the top of their game," Belichick said of Tebow and Denver's offense this week. "Hopefully, it's our target to get to the top of ours by Sunday."

The good news for New England is its run defense is solid. The Patriots are ranked 13th against the run. Players like defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo should allow New England to match Denver's physically up front.

The Broncos lead the NFL in rushing with an average of 156.2 yards per game. Tebow is at his best when he's a dual threat with his legs and arm. He's thrown for 1,290 yards and rushed for an additional 517 yards.

"Tim is a strong runner, good athlete, he can hurt you out of the pocket," Belichick said. "We've faced other quarterbacks like that. The big thing is just the whole offense. They run the ball, they have different types of running plays, running attack and then they have a lot of good receivers and they throw the ball down the field. There are a lot of challenges there."

Denver likes to run the ball the first three quarters to eat up clock and limit possessions. That keeps games close for Tebow to pull it out in the end.

With New England's defense struggling, expect the "Tom Brady factor" to play a huge role in this game. This game will be as much about Brady versus Tebow as it is Tebow versus New England's defense.

Often, Brady is New England's best defender. The MVP candidate has been stellar. The Patriots are second in the league in total offense (424.4 yards) and third in scoring (30.5 points). Last week was a perfect example as Brady continued to put up points to barely stay ahead of the Washington Redskins. New England won that game, 34-27.

A shootout between Brady and Tebow definitely favors New England. Therefore, Brady scoring early and often against Denver's defense is key to pressuring Tebow to match that production. Five of Tebow's seven wins have come by scoring fewer than 20 points.

"I think that's the difference," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "That's something that the Broncos haven't faced yet -- the firepower that they're going to have to deal with Sunday. Denver's defense is quite good, but not against Brady and those guys.

"I think Denver's defense is in for a long day. Brady is going to put up 28-35 points against just about anybody, including Denver. In the end, I think that gets Tebow out of his game. Even though he's getting better as a passer, that‘s not the game they want to play with him."

New England's biggest fear is keeping the game close in the final minutes. That is when Tebow is unleashed and becomes a completely different player. Many in Denver call the fourth quarter "Tebow Time."

According to ESPN's Stats & Information, Tebow has the NFL's highest Total Quarterback Rating (96.3) in the fourth quarter. This season Tebow has performed better than everyone down the stretch, including Brady (83.0) and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (91.7).

"They've had a lot of production," Belichick said of Denver's offense late in games. "I wouldn't say it's dramatically different. It's not like they run out a new whole thing. They’ve done it in different ways — they’ve done it throwing the ball, running the ball, driving it, making big plays. We’ll have to obviously study it a little bit more carefully but from what I’ve seen, they’ve made plays when they had to make them, critical plays."

The challenge for Belichick and New England is to get a big enough lead in the first three quarters, especially on the road. That way, the Patriots can avoid being the latest team to get "Tebowed."

Seven-step drop: Brady under pressure

December, 12, 2011
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Here are seven notes and observations from Week 14 in the AFC East:
    Brady
    CBSTom Brady's Patriots beat the Washington Redskins Sunday, 34-27, however, the All-Pro quarterback can't win every game on his arm alone.

  • Are the New England Patriots putting too much pressure on quarterback Tom Brady? For those who don't believe Brady should be considered for MVP, simply look at how poorly New England's defense played in a 34-27 victory over the Washington Redskins. Brady (357 yards, three touchdowns) kept giving New England the lead and his defense kept giving it back. He made his first real mistake late in the fourth quarter with an interception in the end zone. And when offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien chewed him out, Brady exploded with an uncharacteristic tirade. Pressure busts pipes and I think that had a lot to do with Brady's response. His teammates, particularly on defense, were making mistakes left and right. Yet when Brady has one slip, his coach was all over him about it, and Brady didn't appreciate it at that moment. Cooler heads eventually prevailed. But the bigger picture is the rest of the team needs to do a much better job so New England doesn't require near perfection from Brady.
  • The AFC East blog wants to send a congrats to Patriots receiver Wes Welker, who reached 100 receptions for the four time in his career. Welker's consistency and production should be applauded. He’s caught at least five receptions in 12 out of 13 games this season. Welker's career high for catches is 123 in 2009. He needs 24 receptions in the final three games to surpass his personal best.
  • If the playoffs started today, the New York Jets (8-5) would travel to play the AFC South champion Houston Texans (10-3). Houston is the No. 3 seed but is without its starting quarterback Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart. New York's defense would face third-string rookie T.J. Yates, who helped the Jets by beating the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. The Texans are strong in other areas. But I think the Jets' defense against Yates in his first playoff game would be a good matchup for New York. It's much better, in my opinion, than the Jets traveling to face Baltimore (10-3) or New England (10-3) in the wild-card round. New York also lost this season to Tim Tebow and the surging Denver Broncos (8-5), who are favorites to win the AFC West.
  • It's no surprise that Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez puts up better numbers when his offense can run the football. The past three weeks New York has pounded opponents via the run. As a result, Sanchez benefited from less coverage in the secondary and the ability to use play-action, which is one of his strengths. New York has rushed for 399 yards the past three games, and Sanchez has accounted for nine total touchdowns (seven passing, two rushing) and one interception in that span.
  • The Buffalo Bills (5-8) will miss the playoffs for the 12th consecutive season, which is an NFL high. The Detroit Lions (8-5) have a chance to tie the Bills if Detroit also doesn't qualify. But Buffalo, with six straight losses, clearly has a long way to go. The Bills have a lot of work to do in the offseason, particularly on defense. But the biggest decision was already made at quarterback. Via a $59 million contract extension, Buffalo has agreed to go forward with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick for the foreseeable future. Fitzpatrick was an abysmal 13 for 34 with 176 yards and two interceptions in Sunday's loss to the San Diego Chargers. Fitzpatrick needs to be more consistent and less streaky if he wants to get the Bills to the next level in future seasons.
  • Aside from quarterback Chad Henne, the Miami Dolphins have been relatively fortunate with major injuries to key players. But that wasn't the case Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Dolphins lost starting quarterback Matt Moore (head), left tackle Jake Long (back) and cornerback Vontae Davis (neck). Miami has talent, but it certainly isn't good enough to sustain losing three of its best players. I'm curious to see how competitive Miami will be if any or all of these players miss significant time.
  • Finally, I want to offer more thoughts on the Miami Herald's report of the Dolphins planning to fire coach Tony Sparano and keep general manager Jeff Ireland. It's an interesting concept if owner Stephen Ross goes in that direction. Dolphins fans want change and this would not be a complete overhaul. I believe Miami has to make a huge splash at head coach to get fans excited again. But that probably won't happen with Ireland still on board. The Dolphins may have to go the assistant route. They also will have a lot of competition for top coaches this offseason with Kansas City firing Todd Haley and jobs expected to open in San Diego, St. Louis and Jacksonville.
Newton, Kolb & Mallett US PresswireCam Newton, Kevin Kolb and Ryan Mallett could be attractive candidates to succeed Carson Palmer.
Thanks to Carson Palmer, there is a dark cloud of uncertainty hanging over the Cincinnati Bengals. Cincinnati's $100 million quarterback wants out in the worst way and has threatened to retire if he doesn't get his wish.

Palmer's stern demands have put the Bengals in a huge bind this offseason, as the franchise now scrambles to find contingency plans in the event Palmer stays true to his word. Not only that, Cincinnati is coming off a disappointing 4-12 season and has plenty of needs throughout its roster.

Bengals ownership has held firm in saying it will not trade Palmer, leaving both parties at a stalemate. But there are many wrinkles to this saga that have yet to unfold.

With that in mind, here are five questions and answers on Cincinnati's quarterback issue:

Question No. 1: Who is currently on the roster?

Answer: For years, the Bengals have put off drafting an eventual successor at quarterback, and the team is now paying for it with Palmer's surprising threat to retire. Cincinnati's in-house options aren't very good. Carson Palmer's younger brother, Jordan Palmer, is the No. 2 quarterback on the roster. The four-year veteran has seen limited action in four career games and has a 34.4 passer rating. Jordan Palmer is trying to take a leadership role in Cincinnati and rally the receivers to work out together in the offseason. Second-year quarterback Dan LeFevour, No. 3 on the depth chart, is unproven. The Bengals picked up LeFevour off waivers from the Chicago Bears as a rookie last September. Neither quarterback is starting material and it would be surprising if Cincinnati starts next season with either player under center.

Question No. 2: What is available via trade or through free agency?

[+] EnlargeRyan Fitzpatrick
Frank Victores/US Presswire Ryan Fitzpatrick could be a possibility for the Bengals in the free-agent market.
Answer: Although the Bengals traditionally aren't major players in free agency or the trade market, Cincinnati must an exception if the team wants an experienced quarterback to replace Palmer. As far as trades, Kevin Kolb of the Philadelphia Eagles would be a solid fit for the Bengals. He's young, has some starting experience and is well-versed in the West Coast offense, which Cincinnati is implementing under new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. Kolb is a backup in Philadelphia to Michael Vick, who was an MVP candidate last season. So for the right price, the Eagles could listen. Other options include Vince Young of the Tennessee Titans and Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb, who are both on the outs with their teams. The Titans, in fact, could be a good landing spot for Palmer if the Bengals are willing to move him. (We will get to that later.) The free-agent market is thinner. But an interesting option, at least in the short term, could be Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Buffalo Bills. Buffalo has expressed interest in re-signing Fitzpatrick (3,000 yards, 23 touchdowns) after a career year. But the Bills are also could draft their long-term solution at quarterback with the No. 3 overall pick. Fitzpatrick was Palmer's backup in Cincinnati in 2008.

Question No. 3: Who is available in the draft?

Answer: This is the safest route for the Bengals to grab "Palmer insurance." With labor uncertainty, there will no be trades or player movement until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. But there is guaranteed to be an NFL draft at the end of April. Cincinnati would be wise to grab one of the top quarterbacks in the draft. The Bengals have the No. 4 overall pick and could have a shot at top quarterback prospects Cam Newton of Auburn and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert. But investing such a high pick at quarterback when the team is still unsure about Palmer's future may not be the best route. A quality prospect at the position likely would be available at the top of the second round. Quarterbacks such as Ryan Mallett of Arkansas, Christian Ponder of Florida State and Andy Dalton of TCU could be possibilities there. Mallett showed great throwing ability at the combine but has some off-the-field concerns. But the Bengals have typically gone after those types of players in the past.

Question No. 4: What is Palmer's trade value?

Answer: Palmer is a 31-year-old quarterback whose best years are behind him, but he still has value. He put up a lot of yards (3,970) but not a lot of wins (four) last season. He also tied a career high with 20 interceptions, although some were the result of receivers freelancing and running their own routes. When looking at trade value, you have to examine recent examples. Last year the Eagles traded McNabb to Washington for a second-round pick and a future third- or fourth-round pick, which was conditional. This type of deal seems on par with what the Bengals could receive. Teams just don't give up first-round picks anymore because they're too valuable. So for a veteran such as Palmer, the Bengals could probably land a second-rounder and another pick or two in the middle rounds. Cincinnati also wouldn't have to worry about the $50 million owed to Palmer over the next years. If the Bengals try to call Palmer's bluff and he retires, they get nothing.

Question No. 5: Which teams are potential trade partners?

Answer: Palmer still has a few good years left and could be a solid quarterback in a winning situation. About a third of the league has questions at quarterback. But that doesn't mean every team is a good fit for Palmer. He doesn't want to be part of another long rebuilding process, which is what's going on in Cincinnati. So the Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee, Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders would be ideal landing spots for Palmer, who could be the missing piece to turning these teams into playoff contenders. Other teams with quarterback needs, such as Buffalo and the Arizona Cardinals, have a lot more work to do and are in the same spot as Cincinnati. So Palmer probably would be less interested. All of this is contingent, of course, on the Bengals' willingness to trade Palmer.

Considering all of these factors, Palmer vs. the Bengals is undoubtedly a must-watch situation this offseason.
Troy PolamaluJason Bridge/US PresswireTroy Polamalu had two interceptions against the Bengals -- including a 45-yard pick six.
PITTSBURGH -- In a year where very few teams are playing elite defense, the Steelers may have found their niche.

After playing through various fines, penalties and other struggles earlier this season, Pittsburgh's defense is gaining momentum. It put together another dominant performance in Sunday's 23-7 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals (2-11).

The Steelers held the Bengals to 190 total yards of offense, forced three interceptions and kept Cincinnati scoreless after its opening drive. Pittsburgh also scored two defensive touchdowns for the first time since Nov. 22, 1998, courtesy of pick-sixes by safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker LaMarr Woodley. The Steelers' defense scored more than their offense (nine points) and the entire Bengals team (seven points) in this AFC North win.

In the past month, Pittsburgh is allowing only nine points per game and the team is 4-0 in that stretch. This was also the second time in four games the Steelers kept an opponent to fewer than 200 total yards.

Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" defense is hardening at just the right time with the postseason just around the corner.

"We want to be great and we want to be remembered," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. "When you can hold teams to less and less yards each week, that's what good teams do. That's what we pride ourselves on around here."

Considering their strong track record and recent play, if there is any defense to bank on this postseason, it is Pittsburgh's. The Steelers are No. 1 against the run by a wide margin and now are forcing turnovers when opponents drop back to pass. This group also has championship experience, leading Pittsburgh to its sixth Super Bowl title in 2008. This is a combination no other playoff contender can boast defensively.

Each week Pittsburgh's defense is looking more like the 2008 version. It swarmed Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, sacking him three times and rushing him into three turnovers. Polamalu had two interceptions, which included the first pick-six that got the Steelers going (they eventually scored 23 unanswered points).

Polamalu is playing at a Pro Bowl level and deserves to be mentioned in the NFL MVP conversation.

[+] EnlargeCarson Palmer
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPittsburgh's defense sacked Carson Palmer three times and rushed him into three turnovers last season.
"Our defense is just something else," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "Troy and I always talk before the last couple of games. I tell him to do something magical and he tells me to do something magical. Troy always does it."

Here are some other notes on Pittsburgh's win over Cincinnati:

Beware of penalties: Pittsburgh had nine penalties for 89 yards and remains one of the NFL's most-penalized teams. That could hurt the Steelers in a close playoff game. Some calls this season have been questionable, but Pittsburgh's various holding calls and other errors committed against Cincinnati were legitimate. It was the primary reason the Steelers' offense couldn't get in the end zone.

"When you are looking at first-and-30, it's tough," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said of one scenario. "Somehow we overcame that. For the most part, we have all year when we get behind the chains with the penalties."

Bengals look defeated: Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis didn't have many answers in his shortest postgame news conference of the season, which lasted approximately two minutes. Palmer said he had no "words to describe" how down the Bengals feel right now. And Cincinnati receiver Terrell Owens was critical of the play calling on offense for the second week in a row.

"I have no idea; I'm just going with the plays that are called," Owens said. "I don't call [plays], I just run them. Sometimes I just feel like I'm out there running. In the beginning of the game I got some looks. But after that, that was it. We had no adjustments."

These things happen when a team loses 10 games in a row. The Bengals continue to fall apart, and the end of the season can't come soon enough for this disappointing group.

Officiating Ben: Roethlisberger, who already has an injured foot and is recovering from a broken nose, took another pounding against the Bengals. Cincinnati sacked Roethlisberger four times and had several questionable hits that were not flagged. Controversial plays included Bengals safety Roy L. Williams hitting Roethlisberger on a blitz after the ball was thrown and Roethlisberger complaining that his facemask was grabbed for the second week in a row. Roethlisberger vented to the refs but no flag was thrown. Several teammates stood up for their quarterback.

“It’s terrible, man,” Steelers linebacker and captain James Farrior said. “I think they protect all of the quarterbacks but ours. But we’re going to keep on fighting … Hopefully they’ll catch it one day.”

Jets upcoming: Next up for Pittsburgh is a big game against the New York Jets (9-4). Both teams should make the playoffs, but this contest could have a major impact on seeding in the AFC. The Steelers hold a 1 1/2 game lead over the Baltimore Ravens (8-4) in the AFC North and will continue to be in control of the division regardless of what happens in Monday's Ravens-Texans game.

» NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 10.

In a game where there were few bright spots for the Pittsburgh Steelers, second-year receiver Mike Wallace put on a show in a losing effort.

[+] EnlargeMike Wallace
AP Photo/Tom E. PuskarMike Wallace caught eight passes for 136 yards in Sunday's loss to New England.
Wallace recorded career highs with eight receptions for 136 yards and two touchdowns in a 39-26 loss to the New England Patriots. Pittsburgh captain and veteran receiver Hines Ward was knocked out of the game with a concussion in the first quarter, and Wallace stepped up as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's new favorite target. Wallace caught two touchdown passes from Roethlisberger for 33 and 15 yards.

The Steelers traded former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes this offseason because they were confident Wallace could fill those shoes. Wallace has done the job, recording 30 receptions for 643 yards and seven touchdowns. In his first year as a starter, Wallace already has three 100-yard receiving games and is on pace for his first 1,000-yard season.

But Wallace wasn't thrilled in the locker room Sunday night, despite his career game. Pittsburgh was throttled by New England and Wallace was part of last year's team that collapsed at this same point last season. Pittsburgh is 1-2 in its past three games.

"We got to stop it early," Wallace said of avoiding a losing streak. "Last year we just let it come up on us too fast. Things got in over our heads too fast and it was hard to bounce back, especially in the division that we're in.

"Now we know exactly what's coming, and we will talk about not getting down like last year."
» NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 9:

[+] EnlargePeyton Hillis
AP Photo/Tony DejakBrowns running back Peyton Hillis had a career-best day in a win over the Patriots.
This week's High Energy Player in the AFC North was a no-brainer, because Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis put together one of the most dominant performances of 2010. Hillis punished the Patriots with a career-high 184 rushing yards and two touchdowns in Cleveland's upset victory last Sunday over the New England Patriots.

Acquired in an offseason trade from the Denver Broncos for quarterback Brady Quinn and a draft pick, Hillis has been Cleveland's MVP in the first half of the season. His playing style makes him prone to injury, but when Hillis is healthy, the bruiser is a perfect fit for what the Browns want to accomplish offensively.

Hillis' 29 carries single-handedly protected rookie quarterback Colt McCoy, who only threw 19 times, and kept dangerous New England quarterback Tom Brady off the field. It was clear by the second half that New England's defenders were worn down. Hillis' 35-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter was a final exclamation point.

Hillis is the first two-time winner for High Energy Player in the division. He also won the award in Week 4 after rushing for 102 yards and a touchdown in Cleveland's win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

Previous AFC North High Energy Players

Week 1: Ray Lewis, linebacker, Baltimore Ravens

Week 2: Troy Polamalu, safety, Pittsburgh Steelers

Week 3: Brett Keisel, defensive end, Steelers

Week 4: Hillis, running back, Browns

Week 5: Ray Rice, running back, Ravens

Week 6: Lawrence Timmons, linebacker, Steelers

Week 7: Ed Reed, safety, Ravens

Week 8: Emmanuel Sanders, receiver, Steelers

Final Word: AFC North

October, 8, 2010
10/08/10
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» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 5:

Terrell Owens/Chad Ochocinco
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaTerrell Owens' negative reputation is perhaps why he's out of the NFL, while his equally eccentric ex-Bengals teammate Chad Ochocinco is employed.
Taming T.O. and Ocho: What is the best way to defend the Cincinnati Bengals' dynamic receiving duo of Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco? Teams are using different strategies, but the idea used in Week 4 by the Cleveland Browns likely won't be copied Sunday by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Cleveland doubled Ochocinco by providing help over the top nearly the entire game, allowing Owens to face one-on-one coverage. As a result, Owens exploded for 10 catches, 222 yards and a touchdown. The Bengals lost the game but the future Hall of Famer proved he still has it. Last season, the Bengals had no reliable second option when teams doubled Ochocinco.

Benson to break out against Bucs? It's been a slow start for Bengals tailback Cedric Benson, who is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. But this could be the week Benson finds his groove against a Tampa defense ranked No. 28 against the run. This is a good matchup for Cincinnati's burly offensive line, which has struggled. Tampa's front seven is built on speed first, and that will give Cincinnati a chance to be physical and control the line of scrimmage. The Bucs allow 141.3 rushing yards per game. The Pittsburgh Steelers ran for 201 yards against Tampa in its last outing.

The Pittsburgh hangover. The Baltimore Ravens' biggest challenge could be themselves this week. Baltimore will try to avoid a hangover against the Denver Broncos following last week's emotional victory over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. Since 2005, the Ravens are just 3-6 in games after playing Pittsburgh. All of those contests were very physical and emotionally draining. So Baltimore will have to keep its focus high to improve to 4-1.

Dueling No. 1s. Baltimore and Denver present a surprising matchup between the NFL's No. 1 pass defense (Ravens) and No. 1 pass offense (Broncos). Baltimore was expected to struggle without Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed, who is on the physically unable to perform list with a hip injury. But cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington have returned from knee injuries to play well, and safety Tom Zbikowski also has filled in fine for Reed. The Ravens are holding opponents to an NFL-best 119 passing yards per game. Baltimore will need another strong performance against Broncos quarterback and early MVP candidate Kyle Orton, who has thrown for 1,419 yards and six touchdowns.

No reprieve for Browns' secondary: Cleveland's secondary struggled against quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Carson Palmer the past two weeks. Now comes its latest challenge in Matt Ryan, who is off to a good start for the hot Atlanta Falcons. Cleveland's young secondary is going through some growing pains, and Ryan and others will continue to test this unit until its proves it can handle opponent's passing games. After the Falcons, the Browns' defense will face an even tougher trio of quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and Tom Brady in consecutive games.

MVP: It's Manning

January, 9, 2010
1/09/10
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Mike Chappell was first to report that Peyton Manning won his fourth MVP award.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Tim Umphrey/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning won his fourth MVP in a landslide.
No player has ever won it four times before.

The AP story, now out as well, says he got 39.5 of the 50 votes, with Drew Brees getting 7.5.

In a season in which Manning relied on two inexperienced receivers to go with Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark, he had his best year with accuracy ever (a 68.8 completion percentage) while throwing to rookie Austin Collie and second-year man Pierre Garcon.

He led the Colts to a 14-0 record and a super-early clinching of the division title, the bye week and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs while making fourth-quarter comebacks look routine.

It’s hard to imagine him leading more and doing more to set the tone for the franchise, but he made gains in both departments during Jim Caldwell’s first season as head coach.

I was fortunate enough to see the Colts in person nine times this season and gained even more of an appreciation for Manning's play and precision.

During the Colts' 35-31 win at Jacksonville on Dec. 17, I never felt any doubt about who was going to win, even though the Jaguars did some great work and made plays that helped create a thriller.

I compared it to the movie "Apollo 13." You knew the astronauts were going to make it back, but it was still compelling and entertaining to see how NASA and the guys in the capsule were going to find a way. Manning and the 2009 Colts had much the same feel.

I think he’s the best player in the league right now, and he would have gotten my vote.

video

Looking inside year-end award process

December, 31, 2009
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Cedric Benson & Tom BradyUS Presswire, Getty ImagesCedric Benson and Tom Brady are both top candidates for comeback player of the year, but is Benson at a disadvantage because no one on AP's panel of voters covers the Bengals?
Peyton Manning is expected to win the NFL MVP award, which will come to light Jan. 9.

Like the three he’s won before, the MVP award won’t come with the support of Indianapolis Star reporter Mike Chappell or any other reporter from any medium who has seen all of Manning’s games. That’s because no one who covers the Colts has a vote.

Manning’s win will be primarily a testament to his performance, and perhaps a bit of a testament to voter habit. It also speaks to the national scope of the league the voters cover and the neutrality of the panel put together by the Associated Press. Still, I believe the system can be seen as somewhat flawed.

The 50 voters will submit their ballots Monday and the news of the seven individual awards and the All-Pro team will start coming out Tuesday.

I’ve voted once, in 1995 when I covered the Raiders for the Oakland Tribune. Back then it was my understanding that there was one voter from each NFL market among the panelists. I am told that hasn’t been the case for some time even though many people, including several voters I’ve spoken with, still believe it is. AP says it has not fueled that impression.

“It’s really pretty tough to put a panel together,” AP sports editor Terry Taylor said. “… We have a core who does a very, very good job -- who are conscientious, who call, who ask questions, whose jobs really haven’t changed that much. If you look at the list, it is pretty much a national list. That’s not the end-all be-all, but we don’t tinker with it too much.”

“… If you look at some of the names on here, we’re very proud of this panel. There wasn’t a lot of, ‘Let’s build another contraption.’”

AP is quick to provide the list of voters (see below; it includes three people who work for ESPN: Chris Berman, John Clayton and Chris Mortensen) and I’ve given it a thorough look this week.

Barry Wilner, AP’s football writer, oversees the panel and manages the votes and results. He and AP are not focused on balance, either in terms of voters’ primary focus on their jobs or where they live and work.

“We try to get the most informed vote that we can get,” Taylor said. “That’s not only for this panel, that’s for the polls that we have. It’s folks who pay attention to the game, who cover the game, who make it their business not to focus on just one team but are informed about the sport of pro football.”

The emphasis is on national reporters and analysts who watch multiple games or travel the country getting close looks at numerous teams over the 17-week regular season.

I understand that and think it’s a reasonable approach for the individual awards, though maybe not the most effective way to determine the All-Pro teams. It’s the smattering of local reporters that causes me some concern.

There are 21 by my count who may follow the league but are locked in on one team all season, following a team home and away. Their presence has the potential to throw things off for the 12 teams whose markets don’t have such a focused representative.

It’s complicated, of course. In these economic times, a “national” NFL newspaper writer often isn’t heading to see a different game every week. Instead he can be cast as a home-team columnist on game day or she can report to work one day to find out she’s become part of the coverage team on the local beat. At least a dozen panelists fit that category.

Two voters the AP considers national cover the Cleveland Browns full time, including home and away games. I suspect if a left guard from the AFC South or NFC South -- divisions that have only one voter tied to them -- lost an All-Pro spot narrowly to a member of the Browns, there could be fair grounds for debate.

“What would we tell somebody if he lost out to a guy from Cleveland?” Taylor said. “We’re pretty transparent. We’d call the voters. You got the list. We don’t keep that a secret. We can ask them what they thought.”

Seeing a player more often in person doesn’t necessarily sway an opinion or a vote. I believe all these people strive to be impartial, following the entire league more than well enough to fill out a fair ballot.

It takes reporting beyond what they do for their jobs to do it well, and if they do it well the AP holds on to them tight. They are unlikely to be praised for getting it right, and very likely to be bashed if something comes to light where they are perceived to be wrong. All for free.

But each person is on the panel because of his specific expertise, which surely has a bearing on his opinion. And through networks that connect them, semi-formal and informal, they exchange thoughts on candidates and make the case for or against players or coaches they cover.

National or not, the fact that the AFC East has a voter connected to each of its teams means more visibility through voters' lenses for a player on a team in that division than for one in the AFC South or NFC South.

In 2003, when Manning and Steve McNair split the MVP award, there was a voter who covered the Titans, but not one who covered the Colts. The Titans writer backed McNair. If there had been a vote out of Indy, it could have offset that and McNair might not have won his half of the trophy.

That’s an extreme example, and we can pick apart any vote in any variety of ways. But when we’re talking league history, Hall of Fame résumés and contract bonuses, perhaps the potential for such things needs to be minimized.

Geography is not a big factor for AP when considering national voters.

Why should their location be an issue?

Well, I lean toward Cincinnati running back Cedric Benson for comeback player of the year, but Tom Brady is a popular candidate as well. Maybe with TV and the Internet, no one really qualifies as local anymore. Still, I’d feel better about Benson getting a fair shake against such a notable name and story if a Cincinnati representative were in position to make a case for him in the chatter building up to the voting.

It seems most fair to me to have a voter from each of the 32 markets plus national folks, but the days where that’s feasible are probably ending as the media landscape continues to evolve. There were about six spots that changed hands this year.

We shouldn’t expect a perfect distribution, and it shouldn’t be the AP’s goal. It’s not realistic to seek national NFL reporters or analysts who are based in San Diego or Kansas City or Indianapolis.

Still, that 20 percent of the voters are New York-based or 32 percent come from New York, Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia lends itself to complaints of East Coast bias -- an issue I am usually loath to give any credence. For a league that extends from San Diego to Miami to Minneapolis, could things be better dispersed?

“You’re looking at this regionally, and I’ve just never looked at it regionally,” Taylor said. “You can see there are voters from the West, the South, the East. I just never broke it down geographically.”

I’ve seen no huge controversy erupt out of AP award results, and I hope one doesn’t come up. If it did, I suspect we’d revisit much of this again.

I also can’t remember a conversation hashing this out, and thought it wouldn’t be a bad thing if we started one here as you check out the 50 people who will cast ballots Monday.

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