Is Andre Johnson the best player in the NFL?

I say he is.

Of course, thanks to the unique skills required per position, and the varying duties per team it is impossible to definitively determine the best player in the league.

"There are a lot of people with a lot of talent," Johnson said. "I don't know if you can say there is a best player in the NFL, and just pick one guy."
Yes I can. I'm The King.

(On a side note, what's up with Sean Combs proclaiming he is The King with a new fragrance? Though it is expected to top $100 million in sales next year, The King won't get a cut, and worse, this fragrance reviewer — yeah that's his job — panned the cologne.)

Johnson is big, fast and strong, with excellent hands, the will to go across the middle and he is a superb route runner who positions himself to make throws in his direction easier for his quarterback. He is also a very smart player and a great teammate.

All of that makes him the best receiver in the league.

Is he the best player too?

Johnson has no problem saying he is the best receiver in the league.

There would be something wrong with a top player if he didn't think he was the best at his position, though Johnson said he didn't feel comfortable saying he was the best until his performance matched his confidence.

That has happened this season.

Johnson says Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald are at the top of his "best in the league" list.

ESPN's Chris Carter says Adrian Peterson is the best player in the NFL.

My top 20 NFL players this season (in alphabetical order):
Nnamdi Asomugha, Fitzgerald, Albert Haynesworth, Steve Hutchinson, Walter Jones, Andre Johnson, Ray Lewis, Peyton Manning, Polamalu, Adrian Peterson, Joey Porter, Ed Reed, Shaun Rogers, Bob Sanders, DeMarcus Ware, Brian Westbrook, Wes Welker, Jason Witten, Mario Williams and Patrick Willis.

Just missed the cut: Anquan Boldin, James Harrison, Randy Moss and Reggie Wayne.

Automatics on injured reserve: Tom Brady and Shawne Merriman.


Vilma sets his performance bar high

METAIRIE, La. — Jonathan Vilma doesn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea.

The New Orleans Saints middle linebacker still says he’s not producing the sort of results he desires as the end of his first season in New Orleans is coming to a close.

“It may sound bad and when people read it and they’ll think, ‘Man, he’s still not where he wants to be and he’s hurt,’” Vilma said. “I’m thinking in terms of that I can never be satisfied. I can’t be satisfied with my play because once you are, you’re destined for failure.

“I want to play to the best of my ability all the time, and if I did, we’d have a lot more wins. That’s just the way I look at the game.”

For a guy coming off season-ending knee surgery a little more than a year ago, some, including Pro Bowl voters, would argue against Vilma’s prognosis of his first 14 games with the Saints.

No one has come close to Vilma’s tackling production during coach Sean Payton’s first three seasons in New Orleans.

Vilma ranks second among the Saints with 130 total tackles; he has seven games with double-digit tackles and 10 games with eight tackles or more. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound defender also tallied one sack, one interception, eight pass defenses, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

In comparison, Scott Fujita led the team in both 2006 and 2007 with 119 total tackles. Vilma still has two games remaining to add to his impressive totals.

“I think in Year 1, it’s very encouraging,” Payton said. “When you look at Jon Vilma, he spent a lot of his offseason in rehab and not as much in football. So to have the season that he’s been able to have, we look forward to having a healthy Jonathan Vilma now in the offseason participating in football events as it leads to the ’09 season.”

Vilma’s stellar numbers didn’t earn him an outright bid to the Pro Bowl as he is a second alternate for the league’s all-star game. Even if he had been named to the roster, the honor would ring somewhat hollow considering how the Saints’ season unfolded.

“It’s a little bittersweet consolation,” Vilma said. “I try to focus more on the wins and losses. It’s been kind of tough dealing with the individual success when the team success wasn’t where we wanted it to be.

“I’m thankful, but I don’t want to say I’m happy because I’m not happy because we’re not in a position as a team where we thought we should be. But I’m thankful people are recognizing my hard work in coming back. It was a whole lot of work for myself as far helping this team win next year.”
Vilma’s journey back from knee surgery — in which a floating piece of dead bone was removed midway through last season, in addition to escaping a 3-4 scheme that didn’t fit his comfort level with the New York Jets — didn’t take it out of him physically. But it made his brain work overtime.

“It’s been a tougher journey mentally from here to back then in New York. Physically the muscle came back fine the muscles around the knee healed up fine. But mentally, striving to not only compete against everyone else but competing against myself to get to the level I should be playing at and the level that I’m used to playing at hasn’t been easy.

“Once I get there and if I ever do, then I’m striving to get better than what I was before the surgery. That’s been the toughest thing mentally, trying to be patient through this whole process. I know it’s not all going to come out at once.”

Vilma said although some of the league probably hasn’t seen his progression because the Saints haven’t received the national exposure of others, he and the coaching staff do see the noticeable improvements and Vilma wants next year to be his resurrection.

The problem for the Saints could be where Vilma spends his next few years. Vilma’s contract expires at season’s end and he will be a free agent by the end of February after having only a year left on his New York deal when he was traded to New Orleans in early March.

New Orleans is the only team that can negotiate with Vilma until free agency opens. But because of a stipulation in the trade, the Saints can’t sign Vilma until the start of free agency.

If the Saints did sign Vilma before free agency kicks off, the Jets would receive the Saints’ second-round pick in 2009. That would also affect the trade involving Jeremy Shockey and the Saints would have to give the Giants their first-round pick instead of the second already committed to the Giants.

Vilma made his intentions quite clear to Payton and Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis.

“I already told Mickey and already told Sean that I want to be here,” Vilma said. “I told all the coaches I want to be here. They already know how I feel. Obviously, I don’t handle the money side. I actually told my agent (Mitch Frankel), I don’t even want to hear the money side of it. Hopefully my agent and Mickey will get it done so I can be here.”

Despite his early pleas to remain in New Orleans, Vilma understands nothing is ever definite come contract negotiation time

“(Vilma is not interested in leaving), but you know what they say that unfortunately this is a business,” Vilma said. “Even with the good relationships that you build throughout your time here, it’s a business.”


Gore says he's 50-50 for St. Louis

Frank Gore seemed much more sprightly today than he did a week ago, but he said his availability for Sunday was "50-50." Gore, who is dealing with a sprained ligament in his left ankle, will not practice today but he will do some on-field work with trainers, something he wasn't able to do last week. As was the case a week ago, the 49ers are calling Gore's ankle injury a game-time decision. Gore didn't even test the ankle before Sunday's game in Miami, but he said he planned to do so this coming Sunday in St. Louis.


Edge's role could increase at New England

Running back Edgerrin James' frustration over his playing time isn't likely to subside until he finds a new employer. And that will come after the season.

James, benched after the seventh game, has played sparingly since, although he could play a larger role Sunday in New England. Backup J.J. Arrington might not play because of a knee injury, and that could mean more time for James.

"We said all along that we're going to need Edgerrin," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "He's an experienced back. He's played in New England before."

James, however, wants a larger role. This is the first time in his career that he has not started. Since losing the job to Tim Hightower, James hasn't played in three games and has seven carries for 15 yards.

James declined comment, but his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, said his client is frustrated.

"He feels like he can help so much," Rosenhaus said. "It's befuddling for him. Since the change has been made, there hasn't been an improvement. He's certainly not going to create a distraction but the level of frustration, it's rough."

As a starter, James carried 108 times for 380 yards, a 3.51-yard average. In his starts, Hightower has gained 246 yards on 81 carries. A 3.03-yard average.

James has played well against the Patriots. In nine games, he's averaged 105.6 yards rushing.

The Cardinals are sticking with Hightower as the starter because coaches view him as more of a big-play threat. James has had just four runs of more than 20 yards in three seasons with the Cardinals.


Player Notes

DE Calais Campbell, a rookie, is gradually getting more playing time as a rotation player along the defensive line. Campbell has produced when given the chance this year. He also plays on several special teams.


Moss Fined

Receiver Santana Moss was fined $10,000 by the NFL for his touchdown celebration last Sunday - he used his towel to shine his shoe.


No deal for Lewis yet

The latest rumor circulating had the Ravens already completing a deal with inside linebacker Ray Lewis.

The deal apparently was in the drawer, and the Ravens were ready to announce it as soon as the season ended.

But that's not true, according to Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome.

"There have been no negotiations," Newsome said. "We'll sit down and meet with Ray's people as soon as the season ends. Nothing has changed."


Darnell Jenkins Promoted To the Active Roster

Wide receiver Darnell Jenkins was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster.  Jenkins has been around since training camp and will most likely take Molden's gunner spot on special teams.


Meriweather: Safety Lock

When starting safety Rodney Harrison suffered a season-ending thigh injury Oct. 20 against the Denver Broncos, the question was if Brandon Meriweather could fill the void.

It turns out the 2007 first-round draft choice has filled it to the rim.

In a statistic that reflects how Meriweather has become a steadying presence in the Patriots' secondary, he hasn't just started all eight games since Harrison's injury, he has played every snap, a string of 493 plays (including penalties).

It has been a major jump for the 24-year-old Meriweather, who didn't start a regular-season game in his rookie campaign and earlier this season was the team's first defensive back off the bench.

His performance was lauded by coach Bill Belichick yesterday.

"He's certainly come a long way as a player in these two seasons and it just continues to get better," Belichick said. "He's a really dependable guy, smart, and makes very few errors back there in the secondary - not just himself but also in terms of his overall communication back there with the group. He's playing with a lot of confidence and I think we have a lot of confidence in him because of the way he's playing."

Coaches have credited Meriweather with 70 tackles, tied for third on the team.

Belichick said Meriweather has really improved on working closer to the line of scrimmage. That was a Harrison specialty, as he attacked the physical challenge of taking on bigger blockers to assist against the run, but also had speed to protect the middle and deep parts of the field.

Meriweather (5 feet 11 inches, 200 pounds) has also been utilized more as a coverage player, such as when he lined up in the slot against four-receiver packages against the St. Louis Rams Oct. 26.

"Through the course of the season, he's been asked to do a lot of different things and he just really has improved in all of them," Belichick said. "I think he's having a good year."

Meriweather, who estimated he dropped about six would-be interceptions last season, believes his ball skills are one area he has improved from his rookie campaign (he has a team-high four interceptions). He's had few, if any, physical problems from the expanded role.

"I've always tried to be one of the best-conditioned guys on the team," Meriweather said. "My comfort level is pretty high right now. I'm having fun playing the game."


Vinny's advice helps Williams to breakout season

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The way DeAngelo Williams sees it, the credit for his breakout season with the Carolina Panthers goes to a 45-year-old guy in Florida.

Williams thinks he now spends his days in Tampa doing impersonations of Al Bundy from "Married with Children," sitting on his couch, a cold beverage in his hand.

This guy would be Vinny Testaverde, the once ageless quarterback who, before finally retiring at the end of last season, sat down the young running back and gave some wise, fatherly advice.

"I think he's probably impacted my season the most this year than anybody because of the conversation that we had before he left," Williams said Wednesday.

After serving as a backup for his first two seasons in the NFL, Williams has become one of the top backs in the league. The 25-year-old Williams has rushed for 1,229 yards and 14 touchdowns. His 5.5-yard average per carry is the best of any back in the league with at least 100 carries.

Behind their renewed running game with Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers are 11-3 and play the New York Giants on Sunday with the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs on the line.

And while Williams teased Testaverde for his supposed easygoing lifestyle in retirement, Williams believes their talk about commitment and work ethic at the end of last season is the reason Williams has gone from a backup to somebody his teammates feel should have been selected to the Pro Bowl.

"We had a lengthy conversation and everything he said to me made perfect sense," said Williams, Carolina's first-round pick in 2006. "From the film room down to work ethic and everything of that nature. He really left me with some things that really touched me and stayed on my heart, as you can tell from this season."

Williams wouldn't reveal the exact details of the talk, and Testaverde couldn't be reached on Wednesday. But quarterback Jake Delhomme believes Williams has benefited greatly from the advice of the 21-year veteran who was well known for being in top condition and well prepared for every game.

"Last year, Vinny talked to DeAngelo about that, about, 'Hey, when you practice, run. Finish runs,'" Delhomme said. "Because Vinny had all those years and knew how to prepare. He was a tireless worker. He prepared extremely hard. I thought it was great that Vinny did that, because obviously, he saw something in DeAngelo."

This year after every running play at practice, Williams runs all the way to the end zone, no matter where on the field the play started from. Williams acknowledged he worked harder in the offseason and is in better condition. He's stronger, too, which has made him harder to tackle.

"Physically I thought he really, really worked hard in every area from endurance to speed training to strength," coach John Fox said.

Williams, Carolina's first-round pick in 2006, is still a jokester with a bubbling personality. But he's now one of the hardest workers in the weight and film rooms, too.

"I know where guys are on the field now," Williams said. "Last year and the year before, when guys dove at my legs, I didn't really know to anticipate that or try to counter that. Now it's just happening instinctive for me. I look at film sometimes and I wonder what I was thinking when I did that. It's just kind of instinctive. I know I have a feel for the game."

Williams is also more comfortable in second-year offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson's system. Williams rushed for 717 yards in an inconsistent 2007 as the No. 2 back behind DeShaun Foster.

"When Jeff got here two years ago we weren't really comfortable in his offense," Williams said. "It was kind of different for us. We were trying to get a feeling for it and then Jake goes down. He's our captain, our leader, our field general.

"We kind of did the switcheroo with the quarterback situation and going through those things. Not making excuses, but it was a little difficult for us to have our offense going and having the quarterbacks come in and out."

The rash of QB injuries was the reason Testaverde was lured from his couch on Long Island last season. He started — and Carolina beat Arizona — four days after he signed. It was after that game that Williams became friendly with him. Just before Testaverde retired and moved to Florida, he took Williams aside for a chat that helped jump-start his career.

"It made me think about some things," Williams said. "After that I sat down and had a long talk with myself ... but it made perfect sense. That's primarily the reason I'm having the season that I'm having this year. Hopefully I can carry it on to seasons to come."


Clinton Portis's Stripper Pole

Since Clinton Portis's mansion was featured on MTV cribs while he still played for the Broncos, "Portis" and "stripper pole" have been joined like leg to metal.

But old news doesn't make it any less irresistible. If you're a young lady and you show up at his summer pool party and find yourself in a vaguely burgundy and gold room with a sliver of silver in the middle, you have to stop and pose for pics (and then post them on Facebook). And if you're a blogger and you find these pictures in your inbox, you have to post them, even if the only response you'll get is "Yup, that's a pole in a vaguely burgundy and gold room."

In other pool party pic news, Portis appears to own a large bobblehead of himself, an interestingly toned bar, an expansive swimming pool and some sort of grotto-with-waterfall. That last pic, though, featured some bikini-clad revelers, so I left it out. This is the Washington Post, after all. We have standards


Steve Walsh to Coach Cardinal Newman

ESPN 760 in West Palm Beach is reporting Steve Walsh has accepted the Cardinal Newman head-coaching job left vacant Monday when Don Dicus resigned.

Walsh went 23-1 in two seasons as the starting quarterback for the Miami Hurricanes and led them to the 1987 national championship. He spent 11 seasons in the NFL.

Cardinal Newman athletic director Alan Botkin did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment, and neither did Walsh.

If Walsh takes the position, he will join fellow ex-‘Canes Kenny Berry (head coach at Berean Christian) and Lamar Thomas (assistant coach at Boynton Beach).


Some players to keep an eye on as the week progres

49ers feature running back Frank Gore is still dealing with soreness in his ankle. As disappointed as he might have been not to be able to suit up in his hometown of Miami on Sunday, the fact that he was limping all week is enough to confirm that resting was a smart move. The next question is whether he will be ready for a favorable matchup Sunday against the Rams. At this point, he is very questionable, and fantasy owners should prepare a backup plan. But if he makes major progress with the ankle, we will upgrade his status.


Reed sits out practice Wednesday

Owings Mills, MD (Sports Network) - Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed missed practice Wednesday because of a thigh injury.

Reed has been bothered by his thigh problem recently, but has not missed a game and will likely play Saturday night when the Ravens visit Dallas.

Selected for the Pro Bowl on Tuesday, Reed leads the Ravens with five interceptions and has scored three touchdowns this season.


Shockey trade could bring down Saints' Payton

In 2002, New York Giants offensive coordinator Sean Payton lost the power to call plays a month after taking the fall for an ill-advised decision by coach Jim Fassel to push the ball downfield late in the second quarter of a game against the Arizona Cardinals.

After the season ended, Payton likely would have been fired if he hadn't left to join Bill Parcells' Dallas Cowboys staff.

It's a fact of NFL life: accountability followed, if necessary, by consequences. Sometimes, as in Payton's case, it's not fair. Other times, however, a guy who deserves to be dumped escapes scrutiny.

Indeed, six years after being made the scapegoat in New York, Payton is coach of the New Orleans Saints and enjoys the thick veneer of Teflon that typically is reserved for men who have taken a team to a Super Bowl.

Payton acquired a multi-year pass based on his first season with the Saints, during which the team returned to town after the Katrina catastrophe and won the hearts and minds of everyone with a Louisiana address by parlaying new stars Reggie Bush, Drew Brees and Marques Colston into the first NFC championship appearance in franchise history.

Since, expectations have been high but performances low.

Last year, many hoped the Saints would improve on their unlikely '06 success. Seven wins and nine losses later, they didn't.

This year, big things again were expected. And with two games to play, the Saints already are out of contention, looking up at the Panthers, Buccaneers and Falcons in the NFC South.

So after such tremendous disappointment, who is responsible? Well, if Payton was responsible for calling the one play that doomed the Giants against the Cardinals in '02, Payton should be responsible for two full years of underachievement by the Saints.

The only problem? For now, no one in New Orleans has even begun to whisper the possibility that Payton might not be laying the foundation for eventual enshrinement in Canton, Ohio. It's more than just the won-loss record; because GM Mickey Loomis isn't a traditional "football guy," Payton has more input than many coaches regarding personnel.

And so at a time when many believe that former Texans GM Charley Casserly has been vindicated by passing on "running back" Reggie Bush with the No. 1-overall pick in the '06 draft, why isn't Payton being criticized for pouncing on Bush like the last piece of pizza no one else wanted?

Then there was Payton's curious decision to use a first-round pick last year on wide receiver Robert Meachem, who has a mere nine career receptions, when University of Miami tight end Greg Olsen still was on the board.

Before anyone tries to justify the decision to draft Meachem over Olsen based on the possibility that Payton wasn't interested in a rookie tight end from the "U" based on past experiences with such a player, let's not forget (even though Payton surely would love to) that Payton swung a trade for former Miami tight end Jeremy Shockey, who played for Payton in New York.

Though there have been worse trades in league history, there haven't been many. For at least a second- and a fifth-round pick, Payton received a chronic malcontent who couldn't get over the fact the team won a Super Bowl while he double-fisted cocktails in a luxury suite.

Apart from making Plaxico Burress look good by comparison, Shockey would have contributed nothing of value to the '08 Giants.

The results? In a pass-early, pass-often, pass-always offense, Shockey has only 45 receptions and not a game with more than 75 yards of production.

And no touchdowns.

It gets better, potentially. If ex-Jets linebacker Jonathan Vilma participates in 85 percent of the defensive snaps (he has started all 14 games) and if the Saints sign him to a contract extension, the Saints would have to send to the Jets the second-round pick currently earmarked for the Giants.
And the Giants then would get a first-rounder. For Shockey.

In any other city, Payton would be looking for a landing strip with another team, like the one he found in Dallas when he was about to be fired in New York. In New Orleans, however, there's no sign Payton is in any trouble.

Next year, he might not be so lucky. And since the Saints might not have a first-round pick or a second-round pick in the '09 draft, improvement will have to come from the free-agent market.

Or by trading away 2010 draft picks.

Regardless of how Payton goes about attempting to make his mediocre team better, he'd better have a good plan. Memories of that magical '06 season will last for only so long, especially if the other three NFC South teams continue to separate themselves from the Saints.


NFLU Week 15 Video Highlights and Photos

Check out the return of our NFL U Video Highlights. Like we did back in 2006, will provide our fans every week video highlights of all of our NFL U stars along with pictures from the current NFL Week. Click here to check out our Week 15 Video Highlights or click above on NFL U Video Highlights. Enjoy this week's highlights which feature Ed Reed, Greg Olsen, Devin Hester, Ray Lewis, Reggie Wayne, Santana Moss, and more!

Check out Week 15 photos from around the the NFL of our proCanes. Click here to see the photos.

proCanes Pro Bowlers

7 proCanes will be heading to Hawaii in February for the 2009 NFL Pro Bowl. They are: Clinton Portis, Jon Beason, Jeff Feagles, Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, Ray Lewis, and Ed Reed.

Peter King Thinks Portis Could Head To the Hall

I think Clinton Portis is going to be in front of us one day for Hall of Fame consideration. Two games shy of seven full seasons, and he's already past 9,000 yards. He's 27 years old. Can he muster 4,000 more yards? I'd think he will. If so, he'll be in Eric Dickerson territory.


Offensive Players of the Week by Peter King

Andre Johnson, WR, Houston. At various points this year, I've considered Brandon Marshall or Larry Fitzgerald the best receiver in football. Not the past two or three weeks. In the first 20 minutes of Sunday's game against the best team in the conference, Johnson had five catches for 129 yards and a touchdown. He finished with 11 for 207 and the TD. In the first meeting between the teams, in Nashville, Johnson dropped two touchdown passes, so he made this game his personal shot at vindication. He succeeded and went over 100 catches for the season in the process. Johnson is big, fast, acrobatic and, though he doesn't have the soft hands of Fitzgerald, his hands are plenty good to be a superstar for a long time.


Salmons cools off after red-hot first half

Kings swingman John Salmons finished Tuesday's game with 21 points on 8-of-17 shooting, three three-pointers, five rebounds and two assists.

The catch? He scored all 21 of his points by halftime, shooting 0-of-8 in the second half. Salmons is having a career-year, averaging 19.3 points on 49% shooting, and even the eventual return of Kevin Martin shouldn't slow him down too much.


Ed Reed Honored

Safety Ed Reed is the Ravens’ recipient of the annual Ed Block Courage Award.

The four-time Pro Bowler is having one of his finest seasons after contemplating retirement during training camp because he was suffering from a nerve impingement. Reed has five interceptions and three touchdowns, including an NFL-record 107-yard interception return against the Philadelphia Eagles on Nov. 23.

The courage award is given to one member of each NFL team for overcoming great adversity. The award is named after the longtime Baltimore Colts trainer, who died in 1983.

“I'll take Ed Reed any day of the week,” Coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s had a tremendous year and he’s surrounded by a really good supporting cast on defense and all of those guys have made him better. He’s made those other guys better and I’m really proud of him.”


On and off the field, when Johnson speaks, they listen

When the locker-room door closed, Andre Johnson did something he almost never does. He spoke up.

“When he speaks, everybody listens,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said.

This doesn’t happen very often. Andre Johnson is the guy everyone else in your office respects.

He’s the one who works hard, does what he’s told and keeps his mouth shut. He accepts blame and deflects credit.

If you were looking for the perfect wide receiver, if you wanted a blend of size, speed and strength, he’d be your prototype.

If you wanted a good teammate and a caring, humble man, he might also be your prototype.

The Texans have always known he is special, but as long as the team was terrible, he was going to be one of the NFL’s best-kept secrets. Now the Texans are good, and Johnson is showing the world he’s a dominant player.

The Texans won again Sunday, defeating Tennessee 13-12 at Reliant Stadium. That’s not a pretty score, and neither was the game.

Once upon a time, it was games like these the Texans couldn’t win. When the Titans turned it into a street fight, the Texans responded with some fight of their own.

They controlled the ball for 36 minutes and got a relentless defensive effort from Richard Smith’s group to make that 0-4 start a distant memory.

He’s Pro Bowl-bound
Johnson had a huge day, catching 11 balls for 207 yards and a touchdown. He leads the NFL with 102 catches and will be named to his third Pro Bowl this week.

On this day, he muscled balls away from defensive backs, caught slants across the middle and ran under lobs down the field.

Been there, done that. What some of his coaches and teammates may remember about this day is that Johnson felt compelled to speak after the game.

As the final seconds ticked off the game clock, he was a bundle of excitement, bouncing on the balls of his feet one moment, slapping teammates the next.

After all the tough Sundays and all the painful losses, he finally was living the NFL life he hoped to lead.

That’s exactly the message he delivered after the game. That one was simpler.

He wanted his teammates to know that they’d created something special, that there was a bond and that a foundation for long-term success had been laid.

He began by telling of a Thanksgiving chapel service in which several of his teammates were asked to discuss what they were thankful for.

“It was kind of shocking because, other than kids or families, the thing (they were thankful for) was this team,” Johnson said. “I was just telling everybody about it.”

Reaping the fruits
Yes, character counts. Successful teams are made of a complex fabric that includes talent and character. It’s also teammates caring about teammates.

Kubiak and Rick Smith have created a mix that’s working. Perhaps the most impressive thing the Texans have done this season is stick together through the tough times.

If you think character is overblown, if you’re fine with a team composed of thugs, you’re wrong.

The Texans are winning because of Steve Slaton and Matt Schaub, because of Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans. They’re winning because all those solid draft classes are paying off.

They’re also winning because they’ve got a great approach, because they’ve got people willing to put the team in front of individual accomplishments. These aren’t the Dallas Cowboys.

“Guys have given it up for their team,” Johnson said. “It has been shown over the past month. It’s not just one guy. It’s about everybody.”

He appreciates this success more than some of his teammates because he was here for the worst of times. That goes for Chester Pitts, Dunta Robinson and Kris Brown, too.

There were times earlier this season when the losing finally seemed to be getting to Johnson. He was almost distraught after dropping two touchdown passes in Nashville.

He caught just three balls the next week in Jacksonville, and for the first time, he came close to complaining about the way he was being used.

“There was a lot of frustration at the beginning of the season,” he said. “You guys know that. I’ve put that all behind me. I said to myself before that Colts game I’ll do whatever I have to do to help this team win. I was going to put everything that happened in the past behind me, all the frustration and things like that.”

‘Crazy’ work ethic
He caught nine balls for 131 yards the next week against the Colts and has been unstoppable since. He has caught at least 10 passes in five of the last 10 games. He has four 100-yard games and a 200-yarder.

“He’s the best high-caliber player in this league,” Texans cornerback Fred Bennett said. “There’s really not much you can do about it. I go against the guy every day in practice. His work ethic is just crazy.”

Johnson would get a lot more attention if he ran his mouth more, if he questioned his quarterback, if he called attention to himself.

Those things would also diminish his greatness and the regard in which he’s held in his locker room.

“It’s been a long road,” he said. “I didn’t think it would take this long.

“We’ve learned a lot about ourselves. I think right now we’re starting to find our niche.”


Franks Back

Bubba Franks was active for the first time in two months, and he got some of Keller's reps. Keller finished with three catches, including a 20-yarder. Chris Baker made a nice grab over Whitner for 19 yards.


Kenny Phillips Injured

S Kenny Phillips suffered a mild concussion when he became the 1 millionth player ever to have his feet go out from under him on the worst turf in the NFL. Phillips slammed his head into the turf when he fell. Coughlin thinks he'll be ready for practice.


Redskins may bench McIntosh

The Redskins may continue to bench Rocky McIntosh after the third-year player watched most of Sunday's loss from the sideline.
McIntosh, who returned from a torn ACL and MCL in August, is having knee problems again. But he was healthy enough to start against the Bengals and may have been benched for his performance. McIntosh's numbers didn't decline much this year, but he hasn't made many difference making plays.


Should Mets pursue Burrell?

What do you think of the Mets pursuing Pat Burrell? They need a veteran left fielder, Burrell has power and walks a lot. And he always has killed the Mets.
-- Paul F., Arlington, Va.

I've always regarded Burrell as a guy who "could be pitched to," even though the Mets seldom found an effective way to do that. They already have a left fielder, albeit two-headed, in Daniel Murphy and Fernando Tatis. That tandem probably won't produce at a level consistent with the premier left fielders in the game, not as much as the Phillies' new left fielder, Raul Ibanez. But I like platoons if for no other reason than they tend to keep two players fresh.

At this point, the Mets have no void in left field but conspicuous vacancies in their rotation and bullpen. The need to address those is greater than the need to import a 32-year-old outfielder given to uneven but ultimately pretty decent run production. Burrell has averaged about 92 RBIs per season the past three seasons, playing his home games in that bandbox at Citizens Bank Park and benefiting from opponents' dependence on left-handed pitching to counter the left-handed swings of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.

We don't know how Citi Field is going to play, but chances are it will be more like Shea Stadium was, a "fair" ballpark. So perhaps some of Burrell's production would be negated by Citi.

Moreover, the Mets might see a tad more right-handed pitching than the Phillies did, and that too would have a negative effect on Burrell. And that he "always has killed the Mets" isn't much of a factor unless you're planning to wager on the intrasquad games in March.

So, the short answer is I'd pass on Burrell and get some left-handed relief pitching to throw at Utley, Howard and Ibanez.


Astros sign outfielder Jason Michaels

The Astros signed Jason Michaels to a one-year, $750,000 contract plus incentives, essentially filling the club’s other backup outfielder’s role for the 2009 season.

With Michaels and Darin Erstad to go along with starters Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, the Astros’ outfield is set for next season, barring injuries or trades.

Michaels, who has history with Astros general manager Ed Wade as a former member of the Philadelphia Phillies, played with the Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates last season. Despite a .224 batting average, the career .271 hitter drove in 53 runs over 286 at-bats last year.

“I had Jason in Philadelphia, and in 2005 he and (Kenny) Lofton shared time in center field and were very productive,” Wade said. “He’s a veteran bat off the bench and is also capable of playing all three outfield spots off the bench. … From a talent standpoint he can play all three outfield positions. He can go out and play every day if needed, too.”

The righthanded-hitting Michaels is a .286 career hitter against lefthanded pitching, providing a complement to the lefthanded hitting Erstad on the bench.

“We wanted a righthanded bat,” Wade said. “We’re down (Mark) Loretta at this point, and we think that Jason can go out there and give us a professional at-bat similar to what Loretta did.”

A few days after not tendering a contract to Ty Wigginton because of economic concerns, the Astros would still like to find a third baseman on the free agent or trade market.

“We have a handful of guys who we’re talking to about coming into the third base mix,” Wade said. “At the very least we’d like somebody to come in and share time with Geoff Blum. At the same time we’re going to give (prospect) Chris Johnson a chance to come into the spring training and see what he can do.”

Andre Johnson Sets Franchise Record reports Houston Texans WR Andre Johnson finished today's win over the Titans with 11 receptions and a career-high 207 receiving yards, a Texans franchise record. His second-quarter score was the only touchdown of the game and gave the Texans a lead they would not relinquish.


Cardinals will continue to use Rolle as offensive weapon

Don’t be surprised down the stretch if you see the always-creative Cardinals running a few more well-timed offensive plays featuring S Antrel Rolle, similar to his nine-yard catch on a quick screen in the Week 14 win over the Rams. “I can see them getting the ball in his hands some more,” said one veteran insider. “He’s so good in the open field.” As for other Arizona defenders who could conceivably get thrown into the offensive mix, we’re told it’s quite possible the team might try to capitalize on CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie’s blazing speed and sneak a deep ball in his direction at some point.


Moss catches seven pass, TD in loss to Skins

Santana Moss caught seven passes for 72 yards and a touchdown in Week 15 against the Bengals.
At least one Redskin had a big game against Cincinnati. Moss put the Redskins on the board with a 10-yard touchdown streak across the middle of the end zone in the second quarter. It was his first score in five games. And, of course, he foolishly used a prop to celebrate, drawing a flag that gave the Bengals great position on their next drive. Fantasy owners came away satisfied, but the Redskins wound up losing and have dropped to 7-7.


D.J. Williams going to MLB?

The Rocky Mountain News suggests that D.J. Williams (knee) could move to middle linebacker full time now that he's healthy.
Williams, who's listed as probable, was playing inside on passing downs before his injury. Denver wants to keep rookie WLB Wesley Woodyard in the lineup and it could come at current MLB Nate Webster's expense. Denver could also move Webster to the strong side, replacing Jamie Winborn.


McGahee totals 30 yards on eight touches

Willis McGahee carried just six times for 15 yards in the Ravens' Week 15 loss to Pittsburgh. He added two catches for 15 yards.
McGahee dropped a well-placed throw from Joe Flacco in the third quarter and played behind LeRon McClain, who saw 23 touches to Willis' eight. McGahee is clearly no better than second on the depth chart at this point.



Wide receiver Reggie Wayne, the Colts’ first-round selection in the 2001 NFL Draft, long has been one of the NFL’s top players at his position, having played in the last two Pro Bowls and having made the game as a starter last season. An eight-year veteran from the University of Miami, he has had 1,000 yards receiving each of the last four seasons, and has set career-highs in receptions in each of his first seven seasons, helping the Colts to six consecutive playoff appearances, the last five AFC South titles, and a Super Bowl victory following the 2006 season. Wayne, who played collegiately at the University of Miami, not only is one of the Colts’ top players, he has developed in recent seasons into one of the Colts’ most popular players as well as one of their most durable. He has not missed a game since 2001, his rookie season, and until this season he had not missed a practice since that season. This season, he is again among the NFL leaders with 62 receptions for 870 yards and five touchdowns through 12 games. Wayne this week sat down and spoke with about several topics, including his relationship with the fans, his durability and what the Colts have meant to his career.

Question: One thing that’s very noticeable to anyone who follows the team is you have developed a very close relationship with the fans over the years. How much has that come to mean to you?
Answer: It means a lot. We come here to play a game and that’s our job. That’s what we’re getting paid to do. But we’re also out there to put on a good show for the fans. Me personally, I feel like the fans are underrated. They’re out there screaming at the top of their lungs. They’re making it hard for the opposing teams to make their calls. That helps us. That’s kind of my way of thanking them, kind of getting them involved and letting them know I appreciate them.

Q: Have you seen that grow over the years? It seems it has . . .
A: It’s getting bigger. When I got here, it was already there with the Reggie Miller stuff, so it was already here as far as the first name, but it definitely has grown because now I get the Reggie chants at the away games, so that’s pretty cool. But once again, that’s just my way of showing my gratitude and appreciating it.

Q: You make it a point to go over to the corner when you score, or even before the games. It’s not something you take for granted. Some guys might give what you just said lip service, but it’s important to you . . .
A: There’s the one particular corner – whenever we run from the tunnel, everyone runs to the corner where our sideline is. The other corners, it seems like they’re always forgotten. I just go over there to get them involved and let them know, ‘Hey, you’re not forgotten. We’ve still got love for you over there, too.’ All of a sudden it has grown to whenever I’m out in the city or whatever, people will come up to me and say, ‘Hey, nice to meet you, I’m so and so and I’m in your corner. I’m in Reggie’s corner.’ It’s grown to be my corner, so I definitely have to go over there.

Q: You haven’t missed a game since – knock on wood – 2001, your rookie season. You’ve played in more consecutive games than any Colts player except quarterback Peyton Manning. How much pride do you take in that aspect of your game?
A: Knock on wood. That’s right. It crushed me this year just to miss my first practice. It really wasn’t brought to my attention, but then I went home and thought about and was like, ‘Man, that was my first practice I missed since my rookie year’ – seven years. I feel like practice is the hard part. If you’re able to go out there and practice every day and conquer that, Sundays – that’s the easy part, you know? Yeah, you’re out there and it’s tackle and it’s live, but Sundays are always the fun time. I feel if I’m not out there practicing, then I can’t do what I want to do in the game. I feel like I’m going to miss something. So, the time I did miss that first practice, I had people like (middle linebacker) Gary Brackett and a couple of other guys – it seemed like I had some extra energy, so they were telling me to relax. They were saying, ‘Be cool, man. It’s going to be all right. We need you out there on Sundays.’ I just feel like all the hard work is done through the week. All the preparation, that’s when everything is in the mixture. I love to practice. That’s when I feel like I get better. That comes with my work ethic and things of that nature. I just like to go out and help my teammates get good looks. I try to emulate the game in practice and I go out there and feel like, ‘OK, this is what I’m going to do,’ so if you don’t practice doing that, you have a visual, but you don’t have a set where you’ve actually done it. You don’t know how it’s going to look or how it’s going to work or whatever the case may be. So, I love practice.

Q: In that sense, how would you define this season? Because it has been a tougher season than you’re used to in terms of having to gut some things out . . .
A: It has been. If you look at it numbers-wise, everybody on this team’s numbers are down, but in a way, it is good. We have had to tough some things out and that shows the character of this team. You’re going to need those games to try to move on and try to conquer that goal and that’s to win the Super Bowl. If you think about it, if you think back to our Super Bowl year (in 2006), when we won, the whole time through the playoffs, there was nobody worried about numbers. Everybody was worried about doing their job, helping your buddy, doing whatever it takes. I wasn’t worried about balls. (Wide receiver) Marvin (Harrison) wasn’t worried about balls. (Tight end) Dallas (Clark) wasn’t worried about balls. There was nobody worried about anything. We just wanted to get our job done. I feel like that’s what we need to do now. We’re not where we normally would be, which is in first place in our division, so we don’t have room for error. Now, we have to get what we can. Whenever the opportunity comes, we have to conquer that moment. I think with these close games it’s going to push us and let us know what we’re capable of doing in tight situations, so in the long run, I think it will help us out.

Q: You’ve talked a lot over the years about how you’ve always improved that number. You’ve always gotten at least one more catch each season. That will be a tough thing to do this year, but you seem OK with that . . .
A: I am. I am. Going into the season, I knew with a healthy Marvin and a healthy Dallas and everybody in the equation healthy, those numbers were going to be tough. That’s fine. You have goals set, but for you to have a successful season doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have to conquer all of your goals. It’s strange, because normally I’m sitting pretty and everything, but who cares?

Q: Final question. You’re in your eighth season and obviously firmly established as not only one of the NFL’s top receivers, but as a core player on one of the most successful teams of this era. You’re forever linked with this franchise. Do you ever imagine what your career would have been like with another team? It’s been a very, very good fit for you here . . .
A: It’s kind of hard to picture that. I really don’t see myself anywhere else. Even when it was time for my contract – and you always kind of sit back at that time and you’re thinking, ‘Man, what if they don’t want me. Where do I see myself?’ I can’t see myself anywhere else. This is where I started. This is where I want to finish. You see people go out there, and they go to different teams, and it may be for different issues – money, or whatever the case may be. But the grass is not always greener. I can’t see that. Every time you see me and you think of football and the National Football League, I see me in blue and white. I see me as a Colt. I can’t picture me anywhere else.


McGahee down about rough season

OWINGS MILLS -- The truth hurts, and so does his body.

In an extremely candid interview Thursday, Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee acknowledged the painful reality of his unproductive season punctuated by a shaky performance during a 24-10 win over the Washington Redskins. McGahee seemed sad about the situation.

"I'm back to normal, but I played like doo-doo," McGahee said. "It's nothing to be happy about it, just have to do better this game."

McGahee rushed for just 32 yards on 11 carries against the Redskins, losing a fumble, dropping a pass and bobbling a pitch that went out of bounds.

He missed practice Wednesday because of a family issue, but returned to work Thursday and remains hopeful that he can turn things around.

When asked if the coaching staff still believes in him, McGahee replied: "To tell you the truth, I wouldn't. I haven't had the best season. Right now, Le'Ron [McClain and Ray [Rice are the hot guys. You stick with your guns."

Since rushing for a season-high 112 rushing yards and scoring two touchdowns against the Houston Texans he has gained just 58 yards over the past four games. His longest run was seven yards during that period, and he was benched against the Cincinnati Bengals.

McGahee has rushed for just 521 yards and five touchdowns with a 3.4 average on 152 carries. He is on target to post career lows for rushing yards, rushing average and carries one year removed from leading Baltimore with 1,207 rushing yards.

His role has continued to decline as the Ravens have emphasized a committee approach to the running game.

"It's still going to be running back by committee, we like that," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "I think it's good for us from a game-plan standpoint. We're not going to overreact if a guy plays really well, and give this guy the stamp as the starter or a guy doesn't play well and he's not going to play. Every guy has a rough game every now and then, and we're going to need every one of these guys down the stretch."

McGahee has dealt with injuries to his eyes ribs and ankle and underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in August following an offseason where he rarely attended workouts and minicamps.

"I'm not making any excuses," McGahee said. "I made a decision to go out there and play, and I haven't been performing the way I can."

McGahee dismissed the notion that he's simply one long run away from shaking out of his slump.

"I'm looking for a whole complete season, not just one carry," he said.

Although it would be expensive for the Ravens to part ways with McGahee after the season, he knows that this year has raised doubts about his future status with the organization.

"You can't pout," McGahee said. "You look at the last performance I had, it wasn't good. You have to deal with your medicine."