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On Black Friday, the Super Bowl of shopping days, the NFL offers some of the best bargains out there.
At some point later this season, or possibly shortly after it, teams will have little choice but to pay full price for these players. But for now, here are the NFL's 10 best deals, with base salaries for 2012:
• Giants WR Victor Cruz, $540,000 base salary: Has slumped lately, but the Giants wouldn't be the defending world champions without him.
• Broncos WR Eric Decker, $540,000: Already has developed into one of Peyton Manning's most trusted targets and a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver.
• Vikings WR Percy Harvin, $915,000: Is as valuable to Minnesota as running back Adrian Peterson, who already has been paid a record deal.
• Bengals QB Andy Dalton, $612,009: Went to the Pro Bowl in his rookie year and is trying to lead Cincinnati to the playoffs this year.
• Saints TE Jimmy Graham, $540,000: The Patriots took care of tight end Rob Gronkowski, and the Saints will have to do the same for Graham.
• Seahawks CB Richard Sherman, $510,000: ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski said last week that Sherman has developed into "the best shutdown corner in the NFL right now."
• Seahawks S Kam Chancellor, $540,000: If Sherman is the game's best shutdown corner, Chancellor might be the best shutdown safety, one of the hardest-hitting players in the league.
• Bills S Jairus Byrd, $615,000: Buffalo invested a ton of money in its defense, but it didn't take care of its biggest defensive playmaker.
• Bears CB Tim Jennings, $3 million: A bargain for one of this season's biggest defensive playmakers.
• Patriots LB Brandon Spikes, $540,000: Spikes and Jerod Mayo give New England its twin linebackers for the future, and Mayo already has gotten his big deal.
|Aqib Talib returned an interception for a touchdown in his first game after being acquired by the Patriots.|
1. It's a pick-six party: Some of the most notable NFL trends this season have been teams running the hurry-up offense, using empty backfields and kicking long field goals. But the league's biggest trend just might be the proliferation of players returning interceptions for touchdowns. It's happening at a record pace.
Last weekend, six players did it: New England's Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard, Carolina's Captain Munnerlyn, San Diego's Eric Weddle, Green Bay's M.D. Jennings and New Orleans' Malcolm Jenkins.
Heading into Thursday's Thanksgiving Day action, there had been a crazy-high 45 interceptions returned for a touchdown, more at this point in the season than ever before. The single-season record for interceptions returned for a touchdown is 59, set in 2001. Defenses are on pace to shatter that mark this season.
Maybe it's because teams are throwing the football so often. Maybe it's because many of the defensive backs are more athletic than ever before. But whatever the reason, on any given Sunday, a team's defense can be its offense.
2. Little mystery in AFC: For all the suspense and drama the NFL provides, the AFC has a glaring lack of it. Each of the four AFC divisional races is all but over by Thanksgiving week.
New England is going to win the AFC East, Baltimore is the clear-cut front-runner to win the AFC North, Houston is going to win the AFC South, and Denver is going to win the AFC West. Pittsburgh and Indianapolis are the wild-card favorites, though Cincinnati still is making its push.
To be able to identify at least three and probably four AFC division winners during Thanksgiving week is as surprising as it is disappointing.
|Denver's Von Miller is second in the NFL this season with 13 sacks, already surpassing the total from his rookie year.|
3. Denver's "other" POY candidate: Even with all the attention Broncos quarterback Manning is getting -- and right now, he might just be the leader for the NFL's Most Valuable Player award -- Denver's strongside linebacker Von Miller deserves plenty as well. With 13 sacks, Miller has played himself into contention for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award.
Wearing No. 58, Miller looks and plays like Chiefs Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Thomas, who tormented Denver for years. Even their stats are alike. Miller has 24.5 sacks for his career, and the only NFL player who ever had more sacks in his first 25 career games was Thomas, who had 25.
When Manning gets the Broncos a lead, which is often, it makes Miller more dangerous as a pass-rusher. It's why until this past Sunday, Denver's defense had a stretch in which opposing offenses were 0-for-26 on third downs. Miller is a main reason.
He has turned into one of the game's best defensive players and given Denver a chance to walk away with the NFL Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year awards.
4. K.C. barbecued: A quarterback drafted by Kansas City hasn't started and won a game for the Chiefs in more than 25 years. Kansas City must now face three quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall in an attempt to avoid going winless at home for the season for the first time in franchise history.
The Chiefs have lost six straight home games dating to last season and are 0-5 at home this season. Kansas City's next home game will be Sunday against Manning and the Broncos, followed by a Dec. 2 matchup versus former No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton and the Panthers, and then a Dec. 23 meeting versus former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck and the Colts.
These are dreary times in Kansas City, where the Chiefs are 1-9 and tied with the 1987 and 2008 teams for the worst start in franchise history. The last time the Chiefs were this bad they fired Herm Edwards after the season and replaced him with general manager Scott Pioli and head coach Todd Haley. Now the fans in Kansas City are clamoring for more change, and owner Clark Hunt is said to be "evaluating" his entire operation.
|The Raiders still owe Cincinnati a 2013 second-round draft pick as part of their trade for Carson Palmer.|
5. Possible win-win situation: As Carson Palmer returns to Cincinnati, where he is now about as beloved as the Browns, the Raiders still are paying the Bengals for the veteran quarterback. The Bengals will get the Raiders' second-round pick in the 2013 as part of the trade that sent Palmer to Oakland last year.
So each time the Raiders lose this season, it's a win for the Bengals, and Cincinnati has the chance to get a double dose of goodness. With a win Sunday, the Bengals can help their playoff position and improve their draft position.
While Cincinnati is set up nicely, Oakland must wonder what it has with Palmer, a quarterback who looks past his prime. If Palmer isn't the answer in Oakland -- and he hasn't been so far -- who is? For now, Oakland's franchise has fallen into what feels like a different kind of Black Hole.
6. Watch out, Weeden: Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden is about to discover what many rookie quarterbacks before him already have: There's no more difficult defense for a young signal-caller to face than Pittsburgh's. Since returning to the Steelers in 2004, Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has compiled a 14-1 record against rookie quarterbacks.
Look what he did this season to one of the most celebrated rookie quarterbacks, Robert Griffin III. LeBeau's defense shut him down. The only rookie quarterback to beat LeBeau and his defense was Baltimore's Troy Smith in 2007. Now LeBeau gets Weeden on Sunday and again in the Dec. 30 regular-season finale.
|The Packers have been racking up wins without Charles Woodson in uniform.|
7. Injuries don't hobble Pack: Green Bay still is battling significant injury issues, but it has gotten past its early-season struggles. Since opening the season 2-3*, which included a controversial loss in Seattle and an asterisk on their record, the Packers have won five straight games. What's most impressive is who they are winning without.
Green Bay is winning without perennial Pro Bowl players. Defensive back Charles Woodson has been voted to eight Pro Bowls, linebacker Clay Matthews to three and wide receiver Greg Jennings to two -- a combined 13 Pro Bowls among three players. There aren't many if any teams that could withstand the loss of three perennial Pro Bowl players and still reel off five straight wins. And yet the Packers have played as if some of their standout players have not been missed.
With Green Bay peaking at the right time, its performance should get better as it continues to get back injured players.
8. Pondering Ponder: Minnesota's last trip to Chicago, in Week 6 of last season, was historic because it ended the career of one of the league's top quarterbacks and started the career of another young quarterback. During their last visit to Chicago, a 39-10 loss to the Bears, the Vikings benched the ineffective Donovan McNabb and turned to inexperienced rookie quarterback Christian Ponder.
Let the record show that, late in the third quarter, in his hometown, McNabb's final NFL pass was a 9-yard completion to wide receiver Bernard Berrian. On the next two plays, Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije each sacked McNabb before the Vikings ultimately did. Minnesota yanked McNabb, who never found another quarterbacking job.
Now the Vikings have a different set of challenges with Ponder. They must continue to find passing-game concepts that he can execute, which is not always simple and raises the question of whether Minnesota will have to seek another quarterback of the future.
9. Philly fix failed: Maybe the Eagles needed former defensive coordinator Juan Castillo more than they realized. With Castillo as their defensive coordinator in the first six games this season, the Eagles ranked among the three best teams in the league in terms of opponent completion percentage, yards per attempt and Total QBR. But since they fired Castillo on Oct. 16, the Eagles rank last in the NFL in all three of those categories as they head into Monday night's game versus Carolina.
During the first half of this season, many Eagles fans wanted Castillo gone and Michael Vick benched. It doesn't look like either one was as much of a problem as some thought. And it is another reminder to be careful what you wish for.
10. Sponge and a soft place: When Arizona hosts St. Louis on Sunday, it'll be the Misery Loves Company Bowl. Since the Rams beat the Cardinals on Oct. 4, neither team has won a game. In the six weeks since, the two teams have combined to go a remarkable 0-9-1. The Rams have lost four games and tied one, and the Cardinals have dropped all five as their skid reached six games.
One team will get relief Sunday, but still. It's hard to think that heading into Week 5, Arizona was 4-0, one of the NFL's real surprise teams. And the Cardinals also have been a surprise the past six weeks -- surprisingly bad.
• Game of the week: Green Bay at N.Y. Giants -- A playoff rematch with each team trying to capture its division title.
• Player of the week: Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton -- The Raiders get a look at a Bengals quarterback who should have interested them more than Palmer.
• Upset of the week: Tampa Bay over Atlanta -- Greg Schiano emerges as a bona fide NFL Coach of the Year candidate.