They are the closest of friends, Denver linebacker Von Miller and San Francisco defensive end Aldon Smith, so when Smith finished with two sacks against Miami last Sunday to extend his league lead to 19.5, Miller texted him. Smith had created substantial breathing room ahead of Houston's J.J. Watt (16.5 sacks) and Miller (16.0).
"I'm pretty confident that he'll get it," Miller said Wednesday of Smith's pursuit of the sack title. "I mean, he put it pretty out there. He's definitely pulled away from the pack."
And Miller is OK with that. Sure, he wants to follow up winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last season with an NFL Defensive Player of the Year award this season. It is within his grasp. It is essentially a four-man race among Miller, Smith, Watt and dark-horse candidate Geno Atkins, Cincinnati's dominating defensive tackle.
All four players are worthy. All four are unique. All four play on surging defenses that are pushing toward the playoffs.
But Miller is the only one who is the real linchpin of his defense. Miller sets the tone for the Broncos. Opponents must account for him on every play. He is versatile and fast and comes off the edge quicker than any player in the game.
Miller probably won't catch Smith, who had 5.5 sacks in a win over Chicago in Week 11, but he has a more diverse résumé given the position that he plays. He is tied with Smith with 57 tackles, but Miller has forced six fumbles -- including five in the past five games -- more than Smith and Watt combined. Miller also has become just the third player since 1994 with at least 15 sacks (16.0), 20 tackles for loss (24) and five forced fumbles (six).
Miller is third in the league in sacks, second in tackles for loss, and his six forced fumbles are tied for the most in Broncos franchise history.
And among the four top candidates, Miller is the only one with either an interception or a touchdown this season. Miller got his first career interception two weeks ago after Broncos defensive tackle Mitch Unrein hit Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman as he was releasing the football. The ball fell to Miller, who ran 26 yards for his first career touchdown.
"It was great," Miller said. "That was my first one."
Miller came into the season wanting, as he said, to cut down on his mental errors, be more reliable for his teammates and not be "a liability whatever they call," he said. He has worked on being better in pass coverage. This season, the Broncos are ranked fourth in total defense with 309.4 yards allowed per game, third in yards per play (4.8) and fourth in points allowed per game (19.8).
Before Miller arrived as the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft, the Broncos had the worst defense in the NFL. Now, they are one of the best.
Of course, Miller would like to win the award, he said. He recognizes where he stacks up in comparison to Smith and Watt. He pays attention, if only so he can congratulate his friend on his accomplishments.
"I wouldn't say I don't want to get it," Miller said. "I definitely want to get it, but it's one of those things, God willing, we can have more opportunities. We're trying to win as many games as possible. We have bigger team goals to achieve."
Like making a postseason run.
It is interesting that the three leading candidates for the award -- Smith, Watt and Miller -- all are second-year players from the 2011 draft. Miller was the No. 2 overall pick, Smith went seventh and Watt went 11th.
Looking at the bigger picture, Miller said he is proud of that draft class overall -- he rattled off a dozen players who are making significant contributions to their respective teams -- and of the defensive class he entered with into the league. There is always talk about a quarterback's draft class: Which is the best? How does this year's stack up? But the 2011 defensive class is strong.
"I think that's one of the best drafts in NFL history," Miller said. "Of course, I'm saying that biasedly, but I really do feel like it was one of the better drafts. If you look at 1 through 32 and even in the later rounds, guys are starting and having huge impacts on their teams. I'm proud to accomplish what we accomplished, particularly right after the lockout. That made it even more sweet."
As for Smith, Miller said the two have a healthy competition but it doesn't affect their friendship. And if Smith were to win the award, so be it.
"I love to see him go out and have success," Miller said. "I think he feels the same about me. We play two totally different positions in two totally different schemes. We just happen to get the same stats. It allows us to put the competitiveness aside."
They are in a dogged competition for defensive MVP, which probably will come down to the last week of the season.
Drew Brees is right. The NFL and in particular commissioner Roger Goodell, as Brees said Wednesday, "have very little to no credibility with us as players." Paul Tagliabue's decision to vacate the suspensions of Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita for their roles in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal certainly didn't help.
But Goodell's image problem among the players -- and to an extent among the fans -- extends beyond his heavy-handed handling of the Saints situation. He has been strict since he became commissioner six years ago and made personal conduct his mantra. Goodell has preached player safety and legislated rules changes to protect players, yet has pushed for an 18-game schedule, instituted weekly Thursday night games that make teams play on short rest, looked at expansion into Europe and this week floated the possibility of expanding the playoffs. There also was the ridiculousness of the replacement officials earlier this season.
Goodell claims to have the players' safety at heart and yet seems motivated more by growing the revenue for a sport that has never been more profitable or popular. He needs to focus on what's in the best interest of the game. The revenue will come. And maybe Goodell can earn back some of the credibility he has lost with the players and the fans.
• • •
In a weekend full of fantastic matchups, with division titles and playoff seeding on the line, there may be none better than San Francisco at New England in what could be a preview of Super Bowl XLVII.
How important is this game? Tom Brady spent a couple of days following the Patriots' Thanksgiving Day win over the Jets looking ahead, watching tape and preparing so that he would not be behind on a short week following the Patriots' destruction of Houston on Monday night.
"[I] probably wouldn't have done that 10 years ago," Brady said Wednesday.
It should prove to be time well spent. The 49ers enter the game with the NFL's second-ranked defense. They're allowing only 184.7 passing yards per game and lead the league in allowing 14.2 points per game. San Francisco opponents have converted only 31.4 percent of their third-down opportunities this season, the second-lowest percentage in the league behind Houston (29.9). The Niners lead the league in allowing just 4.45 yards per play and have allowed opponents to score on only 23.8 percent of their possessions. And, they've allowed only 25 drives to reach the red zone all season.
Brady has been impressed.
"They play well together," he said. "They're physical. They stop the run. They rush the passer. They can cover. They create turnovers. They play well in long-yardage situations. They're good in the red area. They do everything well."
The Patriots did an outstanding job negating the Texans' Watt, who didn't have a sack for just the third game all season. They will look to do the same thing to the 49ers' Smith.
• • •
As Baltimore coach John Harbaugh noted in the release announcing his decision to fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron on Monday, there is a very real human side to the business of the NFL. No one was celebrating Cameron's dismissal, because it disrupted his and his family's lives.
That said, removing Cameron and replacing him with quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell was a popular move within the Ravens' locker room, even if it appeared to be a desperate move for a team that sits at 9-4 heading into a matchup with Denver. Baltimore's offense had become too predictable. The team blew fourth-quarter leads in back-to-back losses to Pittsburgh and Washington. In the second half of those two games, Baltimore combined to score two touchdowns, had three turnovers and punted six times. Against the Steelers, Ray Rice had just 12 carries and only five in the second half.
Baltimore has problems on defense, certainly. Injuries have not helped. But the offense had become stagnant. Dismissing Cameron was probably overdue. The Ravens brought Caldwell, the former head coach of Indianapolis, to the staff in the offseason to serve as a buffer between Joe Flacco and Cameron. He is even-keeled and low-key and beloved by everyone with the Ravens, particularly Flacco.
Now, Caldwell will get to call plays and show he can be more creative than his predecessor. Against the Broncos, expect a heavy dose of Rice and an offense that shows some much-needed fire.
• • •
How about this: Indianapolis can win the AFC South. All the Colts have to do -- and it is a big task -- is win out by beating Houston twice and winning at Kansas City. Do that, and they would be 12-4 and hold the tiebreaker over the Texans. The division would be theirs.
Imagine that. It would be a remarkable accomplishment, given everything the franchise has been through with first-year coach Chuck Pagano undergoing treatment for leukemia. The Colts were 2-14 last season and many felt they would not fare much better this season, even with Andrew Luck.
Even though he leads the NFL with 23 turnovers, Luck is tied for first with six game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime this season, the most by a rookie since the NFL-AFL merger.
Even if the Colts don't win the division, Bruce Arians is a lock for NFL Coach of the Year and Luck probably will nip Robert Griffin III for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
So what has the film shown Greg Cosell about Baltimore? The executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup" said the Ravens haven't looked that much different in their two consecutive losses than they did earlier in the season when they won nine of their first 11 games.
"I think when you're dealing with the Baltimore offense you're dealing with an offense that is primarily an intermediate to downfield passing offense," Cosell said. "They don't give Flacco a lot of easy throws. I think you're dealing with wide receivers that at times struggle to win against man coverage. I think the combination of deeper routes, an inability to win quickly, Flacco's internal clock not being among the best, adds up to erratic and inconsistent play.
"So I think what you have is a quarterback that can throw it as well as anybody, but I would say because of the nature of their passing game he's forced to be in the pocket longer without clear definition of where to throw the ball, and therefore you often get what they are. Some weeks they can be great because Flacco has the strongest arm in the league, he can make any throw and he's willing to make any throw. But when routes are not defined clearly, when receivers don't win and when he's forced to stand there holding the ball, that's where some of his deficiencies show up."
Cosell said the Ravens have not created formations that help receivers win against man coverage -- formations like bunch concepts, stack releases, shifts and motions. Will they do more of that with Caldwell as offensive coordinator, particularly against a Denver defense that's aggressive?
"Denver's a tough defense to play against because they've got 15 sacks when they blitz," Cosell said. "That's a lot of sacks off blitz. Von Miller dictates some of the things you do from a protection standpoint, which then limits the number of receivers. It will be interesting to see how they choose to handle that."
STATS & INFO
We're going to find out a lot about the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday when they host the 8-5 New York Giants. Are they really the best team in the NFC, as their 11-2 record would indicate? There's no better team to get an accurate measure against than the Giants, who beat Atlanta 24-2 in the wild-card round of the 2011 playoffs.
In that game, according to ESPN Stats & Information, New York held the Falcons' receivers to 47 yards after the catch. Those 47 yards accounted for 23.6 percent of Matt Ryan's passing yards, the lowest rate for Ryan since the start of 2011. Also in that game, Eli Manning went 7-of-9 (77.8 percent) for 126 yards and two touchdowns when the Falcons sent five or more pass-rushers. Manning has 24 touchdowns against such pressure since the start of 2011, third most in the NFL.
So the Falcons will be looking to be more effective with their passing game and defensive pressure than they were last postseason. This is a huge game for Atlanta to prove it is for real and finally will be a player in January.
"Sunday, December 16 will be the latest calendar day in NFL history with 6 games between teams with winning records. #SHOWDOWNSUNDAY"
-- Trey Wingo (@wingoz) December 12, 2012
It should be a fabulous day of football, as ESPN's Trey Wingo noted. Four early games are between teams with winning records, including two -- Indianapolis at Houston and Green Bay at Chicago -- with division title implications.
"Congratulations to our players for having the suspensions vacated. Unfortunately, there are some things that can never be taken back"
-- Drew Brees (@drewbrees) December 12, 2012
This is true. Anthony Hargrove lost his job in Green Bay because he was facing an eight-game suspension for his alleged participation in the Saints bounty program. Were it not for that, he might have made the Packers. But Paul Tagliabue restored the four players' reputations, particularly Scott Fujita's, with his ruling to vacate the player suspensions imposed by Roger Goodell.
"Congrats to the whole @scottfujita99 family!Should have never been put through this whole ordeal but I know you're stronger for it.Love yall"
-- Ben Watson (@BenjaminSWatson) December 12, 2012
The Cleveland Browns tight end echoed many players on Twitter.
"It feels great to be going home. Thanks to all of jet nation that continuously supported me and pushed for me. I'm back and it's go timr"
-- Braylon Edwards (@OfficialBraylon) December 12, 2012
All games Sunday unless otherwise noted. All times ET.
Washington (7-6) at Cleveland (5-8), 1 p.m.
Even with a fully healthy RG III, this would be a tough test for Washington. The Browns haven't quit. Three consecutive wins prove that. Browns 20, Redskins 17.
Indianapolis (9-4) at Houston (11-2), 1 p.m.
Hopefully Houston shelved its letter jackets. What a horrible idea that was. Texans 27, Colts 24.
Jacksonville (2-11) at Miami (5-8), 1 p.m.
In a weekend of fantastic games, this isn't one of them. Dolphins 30, Jaguars 14.
Denver (10-3) at Baltimore (9-4), 1 p.m.
Caldwell gets to call plays in a game against his former quarterback. He will need the Ravens' defense to show up. Broncos 35, Ravens 21.
Minnesota (7-6) at St. Louis (6-6-1), 1 p.m.
Adrian Peterson has averaged 157.3 yards in his past seven games and scored eight touchdowns. Amazing. Rams 27, Vikings 24.
Tampa Bay (6-7) at New Orleans (5-8), 1 p.m.
Brees might throw for 500 yards against the Buccaneers' horrible pass defense. Saints 42, Buccaneers 20.
New York Giants (8-5) at Atlanta (11-2), 1 p.m.
This is a huge bounce-back game for the Falcons. What are they made of, and can they make a postseason run? This should tell us something. Falcons 28, Giants 27.
Green Bay (9-4) at Chicago (8-5), 1 p.m.
Are the Bears fraudulent or for real? The Packers are who we thought they were. Packers 35, Bears 20.
Detroit (4-9) at Arizona (4-9), 4:05 p.m.
The Cardinals have averaged 10.6 points per game during their nine-game losing streak. Impossible to win that way. Lions 20, Cardinals 10.
Seattle (8-5) at Buffalo (5-8), 4:05 p.m.
Seattle hasn't won three consecutive games all season. Now is its chance. Seahawks 30, Bills 17.
Carolina (4-9) at San Diego (5-8), 4:05 p.m.
Cam Newton has thrown eight touchdown passes and no interceptions in his past four games. Progress. Chargers 24, Panthers 23.
Kansas City (2-11) at Oakland (3-10), 4:25 p.m.
Again, a fantastic weekend of games, but this isn't one of them. Oakland 27, Chiefs 10.
Pittsburgh (7-6) at Dallas (7-6), 4:25 p.m.
It is do-or-die time for both of these teams if they hope to make the playoffs. Cowboys 24, Steelers 20.
San Francisco (9-3-1) at New England (10-3), 8:20 p.m.
If New England did that to Houston, does anyone stand a chance? Patriots 35, 49ers 24.
New York Jets (6-7) at Tennessee (4-9), 8:30 p.m. Monday
Edwards is a Jet again, because that makes sense. Jets 20, Titans 10.
Last week: 9-6. Season: 126-67.