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Even with Donovan McNabb out of the league, his presence looms large over the Washington and Philadelphia franchises facing off Sunday.
On Easter night 2010, Philadelphia bid farewell to McNabb, sending him to Washington. In return, the Eagles got the 2010 second-round pick they used on safety Nate Allen and the 2011 fourth-round pick they traded to Tampa Bay for two fourth-round picks. Philadelphia used the Buccaneers' 2011 fourth-round pick on linebacker Casey Matthews and sent the 2012 fourth-rounder to Houston in a deal for linebacker DeMeco Ryans.
So Philadelphia did gain something for McNabb -- although Ryans is the only one of those three who will start Sunday versus the Redskins.
But even with McNabb washing out of Washington after one less-than-subpar season, the Redskins were an even bigger winner in the deal. And here's why: Shortly after the lockout ended in 2011, Washington traded McNabb to Minnesota for a 2012 sixth-round pick that turned out to be the 173rd selection.
The Redskins used that pick on Florida Atlantic running back Alfred Morris.
Washington is two wins from its first NFC East title since 1999, and Morris ranks third in the NFL behind only Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Seattle's Marshawn Lynch with 1,322 rushing yards. He has been the less-talked-about Redskins rookie, although nearly as valuable as the more prominent one.
Morris has given quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins a dependable option, a bowling-ball running back who bounces off would-be tacklers and makes defenses pay for keying on Washington's quarterback.
The accomplishments of this season's rookie quarterbacks have overshadowed the mark made by a stellar group of running backs that includes Morris, Tampa Bay's Doug Martin, Cleveland's Trent Richardson and the New York Giants' David Wilson.
Before the 2012 draft, the Eagles made a deal similar to Washington's trade with Minnesota, sending cornerback Asante Samuel to Atlanta for the seventh-round pick that turned out to be running back Bryce Brown. But the league's best rookie running back this season has been Morris, who is tied to a veteran quarterback, the one the Redskins hoped would accomplish some of the feats this season's rookie quarterbacks have.
As it turned out, McNabb was vital to Washington's turnaround.
|It's been less than a full year since Adrian Peterson was helped off the field with a serious knee injury.|
1. Amazing Adrian: One year ago Monday, on Christmas Eve in Washington, Peterson tore up his knee. Less than one year later, in maybe the most improbable and impressive comeback in sports history, the Minnesota running back has torn up the league.
Peterson, who has 1,812 rushing yards, needs 294 more in his final two games -- Sunday at Houston, then at home against Green Bay -- to break Eric Dickerson's single-season NFL record of 2,105 yards, set in 1984. After 14 weeks, Peterson is 20 yards ahead of where Dickerson was with two games remaining in 1984.
There are so many impressive aspects to Peterson's feat aside from the speed and depth of his recovery. For starters, with Minnesota lacking an effective passing game, opposing defenses are crowding the line of scrimmage, sticking as many as nine men in the box to try to shut down Peterson. And they can't. Peterson also has gained most of his yards -- more than anyone else in the league -- after contact. Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info, Peterson has 909 yards after contact. The closest in that category are Martin (572) and Morris (543).
While the Vikings are chasing a playoff spot, Peterson already is chasing history, although he has made plenty with his inspirational return.
2. Always working: San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh took about, oh, five minutes to celebrate Sunday night's significant victory over the Patriots in New England. As his team flew back to San Francisco early Monday morning, Harbaugh spent the trip studying film of this Sunday night's opponent, the Seattle Seahawks.
What he saw was a team that has outscored its past two opponents by a combined 108-17 margin and has a rookie quarterback, Russell Wilson, who has led his team to as many wins this season as Andrew Luck while throwing 21 touchdown passes, more than Luck or Griffin.
But what was equally impressive as San Francisco's work environment was its work ethic.
"Watched the entire game, offense, defense and special teams, and work on Seattle," Harbaugh said. "It's a pretty impressive thing. I've never been associated with a team like this, where the coaching staff is -- it's like a workstation in the back part of the plane. The computers are on, nobody is watching movies and not a lot of sleeping going on. Really impressed with our guys the way they do that.
"And the players, too, they had laptops and were watching the game in groups, and then eventually fell off to sleep."
If San Francisco wants, it can do more work on the flight to Seattle on Saturday. But this 49ers team looks ready for Sunday and the postseason.
3. Oh, brother: For as much success as the Harbaughs have had this season, no NFL siblings have been more productive than the McCourtys, the first set of brothers with at least four interceptions each in the same season since 1987, when James and Don Griffin did it.
Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty has five interceptions in addition to breaking up another 18 passes and having 73 tackles. Titans cornerback Jason McCourty has similar numbers with four interceptions, 15 pass breakups and 76 tackles. What are the odds that a set of brothers could play at such a high level, with such high statistics?
Each of the McCourty brothers has played at a Pro Bowl level, and it would be a great -- and worthy -- storyline if each found his way to the Pro Bowl.
4. No small challenge: Cincinnati is one win from clinching a playoff spot, but the Bengals are going to have to earn it. Their final two games are Sunday at Pittsburgh, then home against the Baltimore Ravens, the two teams the Bengals have had the hardest time beating.
The Bengals have lost a hard-to-imagine nine straight games against the Steelers and Ravens, and are 1-11 in their past 12 games against those division rivals. To make it back to the postseason, the Bengals are going to have to exorcise their divisional demons.
5. Running in opposite directions: When the season began, hopes were high for San Diego running back Ryan Mathews and low for Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno, two players who went No. 12 overall in their respective drafts.
But Mathews, the No. 12 pick in the 2010 draft, had one of the most disappointing seasons of any running back, breaking his right collarbone on his first carry of the season and his left collarbone on his last carry of the season.
Meanwhile, Moreno, the No. 12 pick in the 2009 draft, has hurdled Ravens safety Ed Reed as well as his way up Denver's depth chart. At one point, Moreno was on the Broncos' bubble, uncertain whether he would make the team or be dealt. Then, even after Denver declined to trade Moreno, he carried the ball only eight times in the first two games before not playing in the Broncos' next eight games. But Moreno has proved how valuable it is for any team to have depth.
Denver has come to depend on Moreno as a key replacement for Willis McGahee, and he has responded. Maybe it should not be such a surprise. When Moreno left Georgia, one NFL general manager compared him to Emmitt Smith. Another coach predicted he would be the best running back to come out of the draft that year.
But Moreno was a virtual nonfactor in Denver until the past four games, in which he has carried the football 94 times and emerged as the productive running back the Broncos thought they were drafting. Moreno has helped carry Denver to the playoffs, something Mathews failed to do for San Diego this season.
|The Packers have several more renowned receivers than James Jones, but he leads the NFL with 12 touchdown receptions.|
6. Packers' Jones delivers: On a team with Pro Bowl wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings and emerging star Randall Cobb, Green Bay's most productive receiver this season has been James Jones. Few might realize it, but Jones has scored 12 touchdowns this season, tied with Trent Richardson for second in the league, behind only Arian Foster's 16.
Jones' 12 touchdowns are one more than A.J. Green's 11, two more than Dez Bryant's and Brandon Marshall's 10, and seven more than Calvin Johnson's five.
Having Jones under contract through the 2013 season relieves the Packers of some of the pressure of having to re-sign Jennings, whose contract is up after this season. If the Packers were to lose Jennings, which is considered likely in some league circles, Green Bay still would be left with a receiving trio of Jones, Nelson and Cobb, which would be as capable as any in the league.
7. Bills' QB head-scratcher: For the 13th straight season, what is now the NFL's longest playoff drought, the Buffalo Bills will not be advancing to the postseason. Their last postseason appearance came in Tennessee in the game known as the Music City Miracle. (And as someone sitting in the press box directly atop the play, I saw it was a forward pass, no matter what the officials called. But we digress.)
Bills general manager Buddy Nix already is plotting and waiting for next year, an all-too-familiar refrain in Buffalo. Last week, Nix told WGR radio in Buffalo that the Bills want to trade up to draft a quarterback.
"Let me say this: I think there's a time that in the era that you're in and the development of your team, there's a time when you can move up a round to take a quarterback," Nix said on "The Howard Simon Show." "And I think the time's now for us.
"I mean, if a guy's there -- I keep saying that, and there'll be one out there -- if the guy's there, then I think we'll target -- as I've said before -- drafting a good quarterback. We need a good, young quarterback, and we're going to do our best to get him."
There were so many unusual facets to this. For starters, who knows whether Nix will be employed in Buffalo beyond this season? But even if he is, in a class that apparently lacks quality but has quantity, what quarterback is worth trading up for? And if the Bills did trade up for a quarterback or even draft one high, it would be an official acknowledgment that they can't move forward with Ryan Fitzpatrick, whom Nix signed to a six-year, $59 million contract that included $24 million guaranteed.
8. Equal pay, unequal play: Here's one of the stats of the season, and it shows why New England and the New York Jets are where they are. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez are being paid the exact same $11.75 million in salary this season. Yet in another respect, their numbers are quite different.
Brady has thrown 30 touchdown passes and six interceptions while Sanchez has thrown 12 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. So Brady and Sanchez are making the same salary and producing at entirely different levels, explaining why New England is preparing for the postseason and the Jets are not.
|Eagles quarterback Nick Foles started his college career at Michigan State before transferring to Arizona.|
9. College reunion? Who would have known that Michigan State's incoming freshman recruiting class in 2007 would affect the NFC East in 2012 and beyond? Back then, Michigan State signed high school quarterback standouts Cousins and Nick Foles, who competed for the backup job their freshman season.
Eventually, Foles transferred to Arizona, but the two wound up making an impact in the NFC East this season. Redskins rookie Cousins finished off a game-tying drive in the closing seconds against Baltimore that led to an overtime win over the Ravens in Week 14, then led Washington to a key victory over Cleveland on Sunday.
Foles has struggled, but he did lead the Eagles to a come-from-behind, last-second win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers two Sundays ago. Philadelphia hasn't been able to see him play with several injured Pro Bowl-caliber players, including offensive tackle Jason Peters. Now, depending on Griffin's health, the two quarterbacks who met as incoming freshmen in East Lansing, Mich., more than five years ago could meet again Sunday.
10. Vikings rookie has big leg: Rookie quarterbacks and running backs are one of this season's biggest storylines. But rookie kickers also have fared well, most notably Minnesota's Blair Walsh, who is one long-distance kick from an NFL record. Walsh has booted eight field goals of 50-plus yards this season, tying the single-season record Morten Andersen set in 1995 and Jason Hanson matched in 2008.
While Peterson deserves the most credit for carrying the football and the Vikings into playoff contention, Walsh has been one of this team's biggest and most underrated weapons. He has helped kick Minnesota into contention and can kick himself into the record book with one more 50-plus-yard field goal.
• Game of the week: San Francisco at Seattle -- Football's two toughest defenses square off in what could be the first of two meetings in coming weeks between the 49ers and Seahawks.
• Player of the week: Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo -- Continues to quiet his doubters and prove he is one of the NFL's upper-tier quarterbacks.
• Upset of the week: Detroit over Atlanta -- In an effort to get Calvin Johnson the receiving yards record, the Lions also can steal an unexpected win.