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Around the NFL for Week 17

FOX Sports Len Pasquarelli
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Around the league

Catching on: Opinion varies about the best receiver among NFL running backs now -- particularly since Brian Westbrook has become just a backup -- but there doesn't seem to be much disagreement about the identity of the most improved pass-catcher out of the backfield. It appears it's the man who supplanted Westbrook as the Philadelphia starter, LeSean McCoy.

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The second-year pro has 78 receptions, and leads all NFL backs, and that is the most since Westbrook posted 90 in 2007.

"I found out that if you want to play in this offense, you have to catch the ball," McCoy said. "It's how you get to stay on the field here. That and blocking were probably the two things I worked on the most in the offseason."

With Arian Foster of Houston at 64 catches and Baltimore's Ray Rice at 63, there remains an outside chance there could be three backs this season with 70 or more receptions. That would be the most in at least 10 years. With the three- and four-wide receiver sets so prevalent around the league, the perception is that backs aren't used as much as receivers. But there are seven backs with 50 or more catches in 2010, and that's about the pace for the last few years.

There were eight each in 2007, 2008, and 2009.

One of the most complete backs, Chicago coordinator Mike Martz has discovered, is Matt Forte of the Bears. Forte has become the first back in the team's celebrated history to start a career with 1,400 total yards from scrimmage his first three seasons. With 22 more rushing yards and 13 receiving yards, Forte will join the great Walter Payton as the only Chicago backs to have 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving in a season. "You ask him, he does it," Martz said.

On the line: Earlier this week, in response to the Pro Bowl balloting, we offered a column that pointed out that voters had once again disenfranchised an entire position, by failing to put an offensive right tackle into the all-star game for the fourth straight year. The last pure right tackle voted to the Pro Bowl was Willie Anderson of Cincinnati for the 2007 contest.

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But that wasn't the only shortcoming of voters, especially as far as the offensive line is concerned.

Shaun O'Hara was chosen, even though foot injuries that could require offseason surgery limited him to six starts (he probably will miss the season finale as well), and the Giants' unit was markedly better when left guard Rich Seubert moved over to center.

Another dubious choice was that of New England left guard Logan Mankins, who missed the first seven games in a contract dispute and has logged only eight starts. Perhaps the folks who run the Pro Bowl balloting might want to consider a minimum starts criteria, no matter the position.

For instance, Baltimore safety Ed Reed has been his usual ballhawking self since returning to the Ravens' lineup, with six interceptions in only nine games, but he began the year on the physically unable to perform list, and so missed six contests. Charles Woodson of Green Bay isn't even the best cornerback on his team, nor is New Orleans' Jahri Evans, who leads the league in holding penalties, the Saints' best guard. At least the other guard, Carl Nicks, made the squad for the NFL team.

Tramon Williams of the Packers wasn't so fortunate.

Some personnel people feel that Andrew Whitworth of Cincinnati was one of the top two or three left tackles in the league -- having permitted only two sacks this season, both on late-game, "Hail Mary"-type series, but Jake Long (Miami), Joe Thomas (Cleveland) and D'Brickashaw Ferguson (New York Jets) beat him out.

That the Pro Bowl balloting is a popularity contest, even among the players in a lot of cases, is a given. That point is especially obvious, almost annually it seems, with the dubious offensive line choices.

No way, Raye: In their continuing quest to fill the general manager position, The Sports Xchange has learned that the San Francisco 49ers requested permission to speak with San Diego player personnel director Jimmy Raye, and were denied.

The request is oddly ironic, in that the 49ers fired Raye's father, longtime league offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, after only three games this year. But the younger Raye, who has been in the San Diego personnel department since 1996, is well regarded in NFL circles, and the 49ers are at least going through the motions of interviewing a lot of candidates from various personnel levels and seeking input from Bill Parcells and Ed DeBartolo Jr. San Francisco, which reportedly will hire a general manager and allow him to hire a coach, had huddled earlier this week with two longtime league personnel men, Michael Lombardi and Tony Softli, and then met Thursday with former Broncos' general manager Ted Sundquist, according to The Denver Post.

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The NFL Network has reported three former general managers -- Charley Casserly, Randy Mueller and Floyd Reese -- might also be candidates. The Sports Xchange has heard that a fourth, Tom Donahoe, might get an interview. The man reported to be the front-runner for the job is current 49ers executive Trent Baalke, who years ago worked with Parcells. But there are some people in the league who insisted to The Sports Xchange that the 49ers are floating Baalke's name in an effort to gauge public opinion, and that an ultimate decision on the position could hinge on how fans react to the prospect of elevating someone already employed by the franchise.

Pee-brains: In the moments after their victory at the Georgia Dome on Monday night, several members of the New Orleans defense, largely the linemen and the linebackers, exited their locker room and paraded to the 50-yard line of the stadium, where they posed for a group picture, allegedly in commemoration of qualifying for the postseason.

According to one veteran member of the defense, the group also "left a little present for (Atlanta)" on the Falcons' logo there. A couple of the Saints' players privately confided to The Sports Xchange that they urinated on the logo, and none of the Falcons' players asked about it witnessed the deed. But one member of Falcons' management apparently saw it, and the team is, pardon the pun, pissed off by the Saints' exploits. There already was bad blood between the two franchises -- for clubs that have had such miserable pasts, and shared dishonor, the scope of the rivalry has long been played down in the league -- and the incident figures to fuel the flames, especially if the teams meet again in the playoffs.

Vick vanquished: A source close to Michael Vick suggested to The Sports Xchange that the Philadelphia quarterback "fought hard" to start the regular-season finale against the Dallas Cowboys, but "finally understood" the decision of coach Andy Reid to instead go with Kevin Kolb. "(The) truth is, he's pretty beat up," the source said, and while "he'd never ask for any rest, he knows it will get him ready (for the playoffs)."

The Eagles, of course, are locked into to the No. 3 seed in the NFC, and the outcome of the game with the Cowboys has no bearing on the postseason lineup.

Vick is nursing an assortment of injuries, including a bruised quad, and bruised hip, and the source said the rib cartilage injury the quarterback sustained nearly three months ago still "tugs at him a little."

Teams have been knocking Vick around pretty good -- a fact that has not escaped the view of Reid -- and Minnesota blitzed him off the corner with Antoine Winfield a ton in the Vikings' upset last Tuesday night. The small twist, as pointed out by the NBC crew for the game: The Vikings sometimes came from Vick's right side, and allowed him to roll left, which most defenses try to avoid. Vick was sacked three times and knocked down on at least six other occasions.

It's not unusual for a quarterback who runs so much to get hit, of course, but Vick isn't all that big, and the hits stick with him.

While he has progressed dramatically this year in the art of playing quarterback, under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, Vick still holds the ball too long, tries to make a play from nothing, and takes way too many sacks for a guy with his elusiveness, In fact, it may be surprising to note that Vick has a higher sack quota this year (one sack every 11.9 "dropbacks") than in his previous seasons combined (one every 12.3 "dropbacks").

The effect has been somewhat cumulative, as well, with Vick seeming increasingly careless with the ball. He now has six interceptions and nine fumbles (three lost) his last six games, after no turnovers the first six. In 80 career starts, Vick has fumbled 66 times.

Corner market: Two of the three cornerbacks selected for the AFC Pro Bowl squad, Nnamdi Asomugha of Oakland and the New York Jets' Darrelle Revis, each have no interceptions in 2010. It's not a prerequisite, of course, to garner a lot of pickoffs to qualify for the Pro Bowl, and the additions of Revis and Asomugha symbolize that.

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But the suggestion that "nobody ever throws at them" is a somewhat disingenuous one.

Certainly, quarterbacks around the league don't challenge Asomugha or Revis -- arguably the two best cover defenders in the game -- very much. But people rarely threw at Deion Sanders, the man whose play was credited for creating the term "shutdown corner," either, and he managed to still come up with interceptions.

In the first six seasons of his career, when Sanders was in his prime, 1989-94, he totaled 30 interceptions. Even in his final eight seasons, when he was older and bounced around, Sanders still averaged nearly three interceptions per year. And that was despite only 10.3 starts per season in those campaigns. In his final two years, when he was just a nickel corner in Baltimore and started five games 2004-2005, Sanders managed five interceptions.

Nine-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey had 10 interceptions in 2006, and people allegedly stopped throwing at him, too, but he has nine interceptions in the nearly four full seasons since then, including at least one per season. Revis had 14 interceptions in his first three years, including six in 2009, when a lot of people, including his outspoken head coach, felt he should have been the defensive player of the year. Asomugha had just one "pick" in each of the three previous seasons.

So as terrific and Revis and Asomugha are -- and they definitely are deserving of all the plaudits that they receive -- it's still apparently possible to come up with interceptions even when the opportunities for big plays are reduced.

The Burner gets burned: While the Atlanta passing game gets plenty of attention -- especially quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Roddy "Tweety Pie" White, and tight end Tony Gonzalez -- the New Orleans' Saints' victory in the Georgia Dome on Monday night underscored the significance of stuffing tailback Michael Turner.

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"I wouldn't say we 'sold out' to stop him," Saints' defensive end Will Smith told The Sports Xchange, "but we knew what happened when he gets off on a defense. You've got to get to his legs, and given how short and strong he is, that isn't easy. And you've got to get to him before he gets into the hole. He's really good, with some (subtle) moves, in the hole. You see him go in and, whoosh, he's out the other end. You just can't let him get going. As good as all the other guys are on their offense, he really is the key."

The Falcons have only three losses, and one of the common denominators in the defeats is that Turner has been held under 50 yards in all three. He had 42 yards against Pittsburgh on Sept. 12, 45 yards versus Philadelphia on Oct. 17, and the Saints limited him to 48 yards on Monday. Turner has rushed for fewer than 50 yards in only one of the Falcons' dozen wins. He has 75 yards or more in 11 of 12 victories. Said New Orleans strong linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar: "As good as they throw it, they really want to run first. And that means (Turner)."

Something to play for: There are 10-12 quarterbacks whose teams are out of the playoff chase, but whose starts this weekend are meaningful to their futures with their current clubs.

Does Ryan Fitzpatrick in Buffalo, for instance, add to a body of work in 2010 that suggests he is at least the Bills' short-term starter?

Can Colt McCoy of Cleveland play well enough to go to camp as the Browns' starter next summer?

POWER RANKINGS

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Will Tim Tebow play well enough to prompt Denver to market Kyle Orton in trade talks? Is Jimmy Clausen promising enough to dissuade the Carolina Panthers from choosing a quarterback with the top pick in the 2011 draft?

And among the teams still chasing a playoff berth, can Charlie Whitehurst, who figures to get the start in Seattle ahead of the injured Matt Hasselbeck, the guy the Seahawks felt they were trading for last spring. A lot of seasons conclude with quarterbacks, and teams, simply going through the motions. But for several quarterbacks, the otherwise meaningless season finales this weekend bear some import.

No heavy lifting: Between Christmas Day and Thursday evening, there were nine practice squad players elevated to the active rosters of their respective teams. Why is that important?

Because nine is a relatively low number, roughly half of what the average was for the previous three seasons in the final week of the campaign. Teams generally promote promising practice squad players -- and clubs eliminated from the playoffs dump wounded veterans onto injured reserve to create roster openings -- so that they have the rights to the elevated, young players.

If a guy finishes the season on a practice squad, the rules dictate he becomes a totally free agent the day after the season concludes, and anyone can sign him. But a player who is lifted to the active roster becomes an "exclusive rights" free agent. Essentially his team retains his rights, typically at a minimum salary, and no other club can negotiate with him. It's a clever, but somewhat transparent maneuver, but apparently not this year. There were 13 players placed on I.R., by the way, this week.

Plentiful playoffs: Much has been made of the sorry state of the NFC West -- the foursome could produce the first division champion with a losing record if St. Louis wins at Seattle on Sunday -- but the rest of the postseason field looks pretty loaded. If Green Bay beats the Bears on Sunday, it will mark the first time since 2005 that all four wild card entries had 10 or more victories. And the Ravens and Saints could win 12 games apiece, and that would be the first time since 2001 the postseason included a pair of 12-win clubs as wild cards. Another playoff note: This marks the 15th straight season in which at least five teams who will be in the playoffs did not qualify for the postseason the previous year.

Tagged: Falcons, Bills, Bears, Browns, Broncos, Packers, Vikings, Saints, Giants, Jets, Eagles, 49ers, Seahawks, Panthers, Ravens, Michael Vick, Matt Hasselbeck, Brian Westbrook, Ed Reed, Will Smith, Michael Turner, Darrelle Revis, Matt Forte, Ray Rice, Matt Ryan, LeSean McCoy, Jimmy Clausen, Colt McCoy, Tim Tebow

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