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A carrying case for MVP

RB Lewis seems to surpass quarterbacks

The consensus around much of the NFL is that the MVP balloting will come down to a battle between Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair and Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, with a dark horse being Baltimore running back Jamal Lewis. The main reason Tom Brady is not in the discussion is that the Patriots are widely perceived to be a defensive team first. Some Patriot fans might argue that McNair had a chance to beat Brady this season and failed and Manning had the ball on the 1-yard line and didn't do it either, and both games were high-scoring affairs in which the defense was bolstered by Brady & Co. rather than the other way around.


While few would dispute that the Patriots' success has been a product more of its defense than its offense, there are equally few doubts that it is Manning and McNair who have driven their teams into the playoffs.

The Patriots' winning streak has been mostly a product of a defense that allows barely two touchdowns a game while also leading the NFL in points scored with 38. Take away those 38 points and the Patriots are averaging just over 18 a game while the defense is giving up 15.5, barely a field goal difference.

The case for Manning is a strong one. He is second in the AFC with a rating of 100.3 (one-10th of a point behind McNair) and has thrown for 4,047 yards and 28 touchdowns to lead the NFL in both categories. He also has thrown only nine interceptions in 528 attempts. Going into yesterday, the ever-efficient Brady had thrown fewer passes and three more picks, which is nothing to be ashamed of, but his numbers do not compare with Manning's.

The case for McNair is even more compelling. He has far fewer weapons to work with than Manning (same is true of Brady) yet he's been slightly more efficient and carries a bigger load on his shoulders.

McNair could become the first quarterback since Jim Harbaugh in 1995 to finish the year with a yards-per-attempt average above 8 (McNair is at 8.04). In addition, he is first in passer rating, tied for second in touchdowns produced (24 throwing, 4 running), second in third-down passer rating, and second in fourth-quarter passing efficiency. Considering how difficult it is to win on the road in the NFL, it should also be pointed out that McNair has led the Titans back from road deficits of 21 points in Atlanta, 10 in Pittsburgh, and 4 in the final two minutes in Houston last weekend. McNair has completed 62.5 percent of his 400 throws and was tied with Denver's Jake Plummer for fewest interceptions (seven going into the weekend) by a starting quarterback.

The case for both quarterbacks is a strong one, but from here Lewis seems at least as deserving as anyone. Lewis enters tonight's game needing 154 yards to break Eric Dickerson's rushing record for a season, but that is not really the most amazing thing. Lewis has carried 360 times against defenses massed to stop him and still averages 5.4 yards per carry. His 1,952 yards are tops in the NFL, but the bigger feat has been doing it in an offense where everyone knows what's coming.

The Ravens are the only team in football that has run for more yards than it has thrown for (2,546 to 2,104), and no one could argue that they would be even close to the playoffs were it not for Lewis because Baltimore has gone through two starting quarterbacks.

"The one thing I don't think that people respect or appreciate is the nature of the yards that Jamal has gotten," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "People that are not that familiar with us, not realizing how many eight-man fronts we have faced. Everybody talks about eight in the box, but nobody -- I can't put numbers on it -- but nobody has faced it like Jamal.

"None of the great backs that you are talking about have carried the offensive load for their team the way Jamal has. I think that makes it a lot more spectacular."

If, in the end, the award goes to Manning, McNair, or Brady, no one could really complain, but just what player has been more valuable to his team than Jamal Lewis?

Let's stay together

Last weekend the Chiefs' offensive linemen became the longest-tenured group playing the same positions since the St. Louis Cardinals' line of 1975-77. The Kansas City group of left tackle Willie Roaf, left guard Brian Waters, center Casey Wiegmann, right guard Will Shields, and right tackle John Tait has started 31 straight games, bettering the New York Giants' group of 1985-86. Of the five, the most remarkable is Shields, who has started 173 straight games for Kansas City . . . Pittsburgh's old warhorse, Jerome Bettis, looks to be on his last legs but he says he wants to play next year. Bettis will likely lead the Steelers in rushing for the seventh time in eight years but he's averaging only 3.4 yards per carry and will fail to reach 1,000 yards for the second straight year. Bettis still has three years to go on a six-year, $30 million deal he signed before the 2001 season. That included a $6 million signing bonus, half of which would be added to the club's cap if he is released . . . How remarkable has the Panthers' season been? The NFC South champions are 9-5, but seven of those victories have come on essentially the last possession of the game. Carolina is 3-0 in overtime and has won four other games in the final 70 seconds . . . Local kicking guru Rick Gonsalves reports that Gary Anderson and Morten Andersen both reaching 500 career field goals this season is something that won't be seen for a while. Nick Lowery is third all-time at 383 . . ., an offshore gambling operation, has established Bill Parcells as even money to be named NFL Coach of the Year, with Belichick at 3-1. Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis is 2-1. It also has LSU coach Nick Saban as the 2-1 favorite to be named Falcons coach. Just for the record, Deion Sanders is 1,500-1 . . . The NFL has found another way to make money. Next season, subscribers to Sirius Satellite Radio will be able to hear any NFL radio play-by-play broadcast, thereby allowing Patriot fans marooned in Phoenix, for example, to hear Gil Santos and Gino Cappeletti. The deal is worth $220 million to the league over seven years.

On a bulky roll

Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb put the lie to the old saw that athletes don't read their press clippings. McNabb was approached last week by a Philadelphia sportswriter who had penned a column in September questioning the wisdom of McNabb adding bulk in the offseason because his game is based on elusiveness. When the same writer asked McNabb about defenders saying it was difficult to bring him down because of his size and strength, McNabb said, "Maybe we won't have to talk to the hockey guys again." Then he laughed. It was a reference to that September column, in which the writer had spoken with, among others, the Philadelphia Flyers' trainer about the consequences of adding bulk . . . Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache is among the best coaches in the NFL so he is not worried about the future, though he knows head coach Dick Jauron is on the hot seat even if the Bears finish with a rush to go 8-8 after a 1-5 start. Part of his attitude is based on watching Jauron this season. "He's a tower of strength," Blache said. "He's poised. He's not worried about it. Why should other people be worried about it? You're a hired gun. You know when you go in there that you're just renting office space. If you're not good at what you do, then you need to worry, because if you lose a job, you may not get another job. If you're good at what you do and you work hard at what you do, you don't worry about that." If Jauron is fired, as expected, he might land one of the other openings for a head coach, and it would be well deserved. Not only did he not have the support of general manager Jerry Angelo, but at times it looked as though Angelo made moves to purposely make the job more difficult. Why, for instance, is Ted Washington in New England and Kordell Stewart in Chicago? . . . How does Dallas guard Larry Allen make the Pro Bowl when he can barely make the starting lineup in Dallas? . . . Here are facts that may make you uneasy. Since 1990, only twice have the top two seeds in the NFC not met in the conference championship game. But in the AFC, the top seed has reached the Super Bowl only once in the past four years (Oakland last season, and you know what happened then) and it has happened only twice in the last nine years. But all does not bode badly for the Patriots. Early in the season, it appeared that injuries were going to crush their chances of returning to the playoffs. They not only survived an incredible rash of injuries that resulted in Belichick having to use 42 different starters but now are the most healthy team among the AFC playoff entrants. Add home-field advantage to that and the Patriots might well be able to make it two years in a row that an AFC top seed reaches the Super Bowl.

Times change

While the Patriots have been growing stronger, the Chiefs' suspect defense has begun to fade at the worst of times. Kansas City has given up an average of 413 yards and nearly 30 points a game the last six weeks, which is why the Chiefs are 3-3 in those games after their fast start. The same is true, although to a lesser extent, with the Titans and Colts. That means as the playoffs commence the most dangerous teams for the Patriots may well be the Ravens, because of their defense and Lewis, and the Broncos, who lost to New England earlier in the year with a guy playing quarterback who had been a high school football coach two weeks earlier. Now Jake Plummer is back and he's 9-2 as a starter this year, so a Denver-New England matchup would be an interesting and dangerous one . . . How much difference has the return of Jeff Garcia at quarterback meant to the 49ers? In its last three games with Garcia back, San Francisco piled up 1,415 yards, the most by any team this month. Garcia has completed 60 of 90 throws for 851 yards and 8 touchdowns this month. That gives him a quarterback rating of 125.3 in December and probably means the 49ers will not allow him to slip off into free agency despite his salary cap number . . . With Terrell Owens out with a separated shoulder, 49ers coach Dennis Erickson was painfully honest when asked who had replaced him as the first option for Garcia. "Nobody," Erickson said. "We'll just go to whoever of the three or four guys that are playing are open." Assuming anyone is.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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Last game / Dec. 27 vs. Bills
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  W L T Pct. PF PA
Patriots 14 2 0 .875 348 238
Dolphins 9 6 0 .600 288 240
Bills 6 9 0 .400 243 248
Jets 6 10 0 .375 243 279
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