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ATLANTA -- Atlanta officials insist that they have yet to begin even drawing up their wish list of potential head coach candidates, let alone whittle the possibilities down to the so-called "short list."

Still, several media outlets, including the network and Web site owned and operated by the league, already have tabbed San Francisco 49ers assistant head coach/linebackers Mike Singletary as the early leader to fill the vacancy created by Bobby Petrino's abrupt departure.

And given the very positive impression the former Chicago Bears' star and Hall of Fame middle linebacker made on Atlanta owner Arthur Blank when Singletary interviewed for the Falcons' job less than a year ago, the outlets might indeed be on-target.

After all, before he decided to move into the coaching ranks in 2003, Singletary's principle means of income was as a motivational speaker. And the man who could intimidate opponents with his unwavering stare alone during his dozen seasons as a player, is a guy with an imposing presence, a coaching star on the rise who commands respect.

But there is this caveat: Blank, who essentially inherited Dan Reeves when he purchased the team from the family of the late Rankin Smith in 2002, ostensibly has made two head coach hires: Jim Mora in 2004 and Petrino in 2007. Both were, as Singletary would be, first-time head coaches in the league. And Blank fired the first after three seasons, and the second walked out just 13 games into his rookie campaign.

So, yeah, maybe Blank and team president/general manager Rich McKay again will be inclined to bring in a rookie coach to try to clean up the mess festering in Atlanta. And maybe not.

INSIDE TIP SHEET

Here's what you will find in Tip Sheet notes.

" Intriguing search

" Change the only constant at QB

" Garrett a hot commodity

" Patriots running game

" Rogers on outs in Detroit?

" Seattle a sleeper

" Vikings could be tough in playoffs

" Atlanta missing Kerney

" Williams dominating

" Denver's disappointing season

" Colston getting hot

" Atlanta's White hot, too

" Will Jets' Vilma be back?

" Rams ownership situation

" Asomugha playing well for Raiders

" No contracts yet for Cardinals LBs

" Neuheisel and Georgia Tech

" The list

" Stat of the Week

" Stat of the weak

" Punts

" The Last Word

Because of his persona alone, Singletary could be a step in the right direction and he might elicit from veteran players the respect Petrino never earned.

Far more than mastering X's and O's, what is really the name of the game these days is getting your core veterans to want to play hard for you. Singletary clearly is a no-nonsense guy; a solid communicator with a gift for the language, the knack for enunciating his goals without any ambiguity, but also the ability to connect on the players' level.

And he might be able to promote the "culture change" in Atlanta that Petrino talked about but could not enact because of the basic (and apparently justifiable) mistrust of him in the locker room.

The Singletary name and background would provide him some cachet with a disenchanted fan base, too. But Singletary has been a coach for only five seasons total, was not involved in the game for the first 11 years of his retirement as a player and has never even been a coordinator. His title with the 49ers aside, he still essentially is just a position coach.

Perhaps in hiring another first-time coach, the third time would be a charm for Blank, McKay and the Atlanta franchise. Then again, three strikes and you're out, right? The Falcons, a franchise that is absolutely reeling right now, have to get it right this time.

Around the League

" Intriguing search: Given the internal dynamics in Atlanta, and the respective histories of Blank and McKay, the interview process they fashion in coming weeks could be every bit as interesting as the coach the Falcons eventually hire.

The track record of McKay suggests his preference often is to seek out a longtime league assistant -- a solid football coach seemingly ready to move up to the top spot. He did it in Tampa with Tony Dungy and tried to do it there with Marvin Lewis, before ownership overruled him, courted Bill Parcells and ended up with Jon Gruden. And while McKay indicated in a Wednesday news conference dealing with Petrino's tawdry departure that he wasn't worried about titles or control -- and noted that he was prepared to give Jimmy Johnson all the power he wanted when the Bucs tried to hire him -- there are some who feel the Atlanta general manager will try to protect his own turf during the coaching search.

After all, McKay was victimized by Gruden in Tampa Bay, and one of Petrino's grievances was that he wanted more control over the personnel side of the operation, so no one could blame McKay for covering his back a little. The bottom line, though, is that McKay, who has come under increasing scrutiny from the usually soft Atlanta media, wants to win.

So does the guy who fills in the Blank checks, of course, but the Falcons' owner, at heart, is a high-profile, big-splash kind of guy.

Blank lost his drawing card when quarterback Michael Vick pleaded guilty to dogfighting charges, then lost his coach when Petrino decided the NFL wasn't for him. Blank could lose his fan base if he doesn't land a coach who gets the attention of ticket patrons.

Not too many blocks from the Georgia Dome, the folks at Georgia Tech recently conceded that winning and going to a low-level bowl game every season wasn't enough to keep the uninspiring Chan Gailey around. So Blank might be thinking that he needs to hit a home run, and do it with a proven NFL sideline boss.

Problem is, there aren't many of them around. Blank likes Steve Mariucci, interviewed him in the past and actually tried to hire him as a consultant and head-coach-in-waiting when Reeves was the boss. Marty Schottenheimer is available. And so is Bill Cowher.

About the only plus to Petrino's early departure is that Blank and McKay, if they so desire, can be the first pursuers lined up at the former Pittsburgh coach's front door in nearby North Carolina, if they want to be. And it's difficult to believe, especially with Blank's mind-set, that he won't at least force Cowher to take his call.

People close to Cowher contend that, rumors aside, he really doesn't want to be a coach/general manager. What he does want, they say, is to have his general manager and hand-picked support staff, in place. Those same people, however, insist that Cowher is serious about not coaching again in 2008, no matter how much money some owner waves in front of him.

His youngest daughter, Lindsay, is a standout basketball player as a junior at Ravenscroft High School in Raleigh, N.C., and Cowher might wait until she graduates to make the jump back to the NFL.

" The Jerry Jones Factor: It made for great, sexy headlines, but the comments of legendary head coach and athletic director Frank Broyles (or Frank Broyle, as he was called by Petrino in an unforgivable slip during his Tuesday night introductory news conference) aside, Dallas owner Jerry Jones had nothing to do with luring the former Falcons coach to Arkansas, his alma mater.

At the behest of Arkansas officials, Jones did phone Blank last Thursday, and then spoke with McKay on Friday and Sunday, to officially seek permission for the Razorbacks to discuss with Petrino their head coach vacancy.

[+] EnlargeJoe Robbins/Getty Images

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones (left) wanted to give Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank word that Bobby Petrino was a candidate for the Arkansas head coaching job.

Jones also wanted to give the Falcons a heads-up on Petrino's interest in the Arkansas job.

But when McKay apprised Jones on Sunday that the Falcons would not grant such permission, the Cowboys' owner dropped the matter entirely. So the reports that Jones was instrumental in luring Petrino to Fayetteville were bogus. What is true, however, is what was reported in the "Tip Sheet" last week: That Jones, despite his displeasure at the way Houston Nutt was forced out, was one of the influential Razorbacks alums ready to help fund the buyout of Tommy Tuberville if he had decided to leave Auburn to take the Arkansas job.

" Jonesing for McFadden?: Ol' buddy Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News twice now has suggested, in print and in a pregame discussion at Gillette Stadium last Sunday afternoon, that Jerry Jones might be interested in cutting a deal in the 2008 draft to land Arkansas tailback Darren McFadden, who is expected to forego his remaining college eligibility and enter next April's lottery.

"Goose" makes a pretty compelling case, and lays out a scenario that bears watching. Courtesy of a 2007 draft day trade with Cleveland, the deal that allowed the Browns to select Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, the Cowboys own two first-round choices in 2008.

And the Dallas roster has just enough depth at a few positions that Jones probably could afford to throw a pretty good player into the mix of any trade proposal. The Miami Dolphins, who can clinch the top overall pick with a loss at Baltimore on Sunday, are more than one player away from even basic respectability, and might bite at the opportunity to turn the top overall choice into a draft bonanza.

Plus, the Dolphins already have invested heavily in a tailback, Ronnie Brown, and might not need McFadden, especially if Brown is making good progress in his rehabilitation from anterior cruciate ligament surgery.

[+] EnlargeWesley Hitt/Getty Images

Could Arkansas star Darren McFadden be in the Cowboys' sights?

The Cowboys, no matter who has coached them, never really have embraced Julius Jones, and the veteran tailback is eligible for unrestricted free agency in the spring. Marion Barber is a terrific back, and is starting to get the bulk of the carries, but will be a restricted free agent.

And as good as Barber is, most scouts don't rate him in the class of McFadden, who some suggest will be as good as Adrian Peterson, this year's running back phenomenon. Jones always has been a mover and shaker in the draft, a guy hardly shy about taking risks, and he is adept at going up and down the board. Could be that, in 4 ½ months, he'll try to get all the way to the top of the board.

" Change the only constant at QB: There are three more quarterbacks -- Todd Collins of Washington, Shaun Hill of San Francisco, and Chicago's Kyle Orton -- scheduled to make their first starts of the 2007 season this weekend.

Assuming there are no other first starts this week, that will raise to 59 the number of different starters used so far in 2007, nine more than a year ago. The 59 starters will be the most since 1999, when there were 62. But as noted here in the past, it isn't only the large number of starters, but the changes made overall, that have reflected the instability and lack of continuity at the game's most critical position this year.

[+] EnlargeMichael Zagaris/Getty Images

Shaun Hill (13) becomes the next in the line of 49ers starting QBs this season, following Alex Smith (11) and Trent Dilfer (12).

In addition to the three new starters this weekend, there will be at least two more changes, with Jeff Garcia returning to the lineup in Tampa Bay and Cleo Lemon back as the starter for Miami. Marc Bulger figures to regain his starting spot in St. Louis after missing two weeks with a concussion.

And there is a chance that Ben Roethlisberger could be sidelined by a shoulder injury, which would force the highly respected Charlie Batch into the lineup for the Steelers.

Not counting any of the pending changes for this week, there already have been 57 quarterback switches since after the opening weekend of the season, and incredibly high average of 4.3 per week. There hasn't been a single week yet in which every team in the league returned its starting quarterback from the previous weekend. And in five different weekends, there were five or more changes at starting quarterback.

" Garrett a hot commodity: Dallas first-year offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has garnered considerable attention, and justifiably so, for his work with quarterback Tony Romo this season. This is Garrett's first stint as a coordinator, and the longtime journeyman quarterback -- who bounced around in the CFL, the World Football League and the NFL before settling in as a coach -- clearly has done a superior job in only his third year as an assistant in the league. So much so that Garrett, only 41, will be one of the hot commodities during the coming head coach firing-and-hiring cycle.

What should not be overlooked, though, is the job turned in by Cowboys assistant head coach/offensive line Tony Sparano, who basically functioned as offensive coordinator under Bill Parcells last season. Sparano, who does a lot of work with the Dallas running game and is key to the Cowboys' overall game-planning, has been overshadowed by Garrett. It won't be surprising if Sparano leaves the Cowboys, for whom he has worked since 2003, after this season.

" Don't overlook Patriots' running game: In the wake of Sunday's victory over Pittsburgh -- a game in which New England did not call a designed running play in the second half until there were less than three minutes remaining -- there have been concerns raised about the Patriots' perceived lack of a ground attack. And skeptics have privately questioned how well the Pats will run the ball in cold weather. But New England's ground game, which statistically ranks 14th in the league, is a lot more efficient than some think.

Only three weeks ago, the Pats were the league's No. 7 rushing team. But even with the recent slippage, New England seems to be able to run the ball when it needs to.

"Guys here know their roles (in the running game)," said third-down tailback Kevin Faulk. "Just because we don't have an individual back with big numbers doesn't mean we don't run well."

This was a year in which the Patriots were counting on second-year tailback Laurence Maroney to ramp up his game, but injuries have slowed him at times. And the loss of Sammy Morris, who had proven to be one of the steals of free agency before suffering a season-ending chest injury, definitely hurt the offense. But as is typically the case with a Bill Belichick-coached team, New England seems to find role players, and Faulk and Heath Evans have done well when called upon.

It helps, of course, that the Patriots often spread the field and that their running game is set up by the NFL's most potent passing offense. Still, lost in all the gaudy numbers the passing attack has rung up is that the Patriots have the ninth-most running plays in the league, the sixth-most rushing scores and the second-most first downs on the ground.

"When we need to run it," said Faulk after last week's game, "we can run it."

" Rogers on outs in Detroit? There seems to be substance to the rumors that Detroit coach Rod Marinelli is about at the breaking point with two-time defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, and that the Lions might attempt to trade the seven-year veteran in the offseason.

When he is motivated and in shape, Rogers is one of the more dominant interior presences in the league. Problem is, the former University of Texas star, who elicited a big-money contract from the Lions less than two full years ago, only plays hard in streaks.

And right now, from what Detroit sources say, he is carrying way too much weight. In his past five games, Rogers has seven tackles and no sacks, and it's no coincidence the Lions have lost all five games to fall to 6-7.

When the Lions hired Marinelli in 2006, the assumption was that the former Tampa Bay defensive line coach, and one of the game's most gifted motivators of big men, would be the guy to prod Rogers to consistent greatness. But that hasn't been the case. And given Rogers' four-game suspension in 2006 for a violation of the steroid policy and dwindling production, Lions management might be about ready to throw in the towel.

If Rogers is shown the door by the Lions, six-year veteran right end Kalimba Edwards might not be far behind him. Despite terrific physical tools, Edwards has never posted more than seven sacks in a season. Despite playing every game in 2006, he had just three sacks. He has only three this season and just one since the opening game. Edwards has missed time with injuries, but last week against Dallas he was a healthy inactive and did not dress. There's a chance Marinelli won't dress him for the rest of the season.

" Seattle a sleeper: Much of the focus in the NFC this season has been on Dallas and Green Bay, and rightfully so, given the strong years both franchises have enjoyed. But the "sleeper" team in the conference, several pro personnel directors have suggested to ESPN.com, could be Seattle, a club that continues to fly below the radar but has won five straight games.

The Seahawks don't get much notice from the media because of where they play and the fact they are rarely on national television. But as is usually the case with a Mike Holmgren outfit, Seattle is one of the best-coached teams in the league and seems to be peaking at an opportune time.

Given the lack of productivity from tailback Shaun Alexander, the Seahawks are relying heavily on the passing game, and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is quietly having a terrific season. When the Seahawks' up-tempo passing game gets into rhythm, there are few designs in the league as pretty.

Its defense is playing much better than its No. 12 statistical ranking, and it has at least three Pro Bowl players in end Patrick Kerney, middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu and corner Marcus Trufant, who has recovered nicely from a dismal 2006 season.

The Seahawks won't be one of the favorites in the NFC playoffs, but they are a team that's red hot and one that no one should want to have to face in the postseason.

" Vikings could be tough in playoffs: The Vikings are another team that could cause problems in the playoffs if they qualify for a wild-card berth. Because they run the ball so much, with the two-pronged attack of tailbacks Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, and stop the run so effectively on defense, the Vikings could be a headache for any higher-seeded team.

Interestingly, the dome-based Vikings are built for cold weather. Coach Brad Childress, who came under plenty of fire earlier in the season, always has been viewed as a passing-game aficionado. But that is hardly the case. Childress likes a physical inside running game, and he certainly has one now.

The strength of the ground game has permitted Childress to bring second-year quarterback Tarvaris Jackson along slowly, with game plans that don't put too much on his shoulders. The former second-round pick has played very efficiently over the past month. Given their current roll, Childress and Jackson certainly have silenced their once-throaty critics.

" What was Atlanta thinking on Kerney? On the subject of Kerney, one has to wonder if Atlanta officials are rethinking their decision to allow the nine-year veteran and 1999 first-round choice to escape as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason.

Kerney suffered a torn pectoral muscle in 2006, limiting him to nine games, and there was some concern that he was beginning to break down physically. But Kerney, 30, also was a leader in the Atlanta locker room, a guy who was the conscience of the team, and those are qualities the Falcons clearly have missed in 2007.

Seattle team president Tim Ruskell knew Kerney from their years together in Atlanta, where Ruskell was the assistant general manager, and he knew the veteran defensive lineman would rehabilitate hard. He also knew that, even if Kerney didn't get back to his previous standards on the field, he would be an asset off it. Turns out, though, that the former University of Virginia star has been better than ever at left end. He leads the league with 13 ½ sacks and has nine sacks in the past four games, including three performances featuring three sacks each.

The Falcons, who made no effort to retain Kerney, were forced to choose left end Jamaal Anderson in the first round and move him immediately into the starting lineup. Despite starting all 13 games, Anderson, the eighth player chosen overall in the draft, has zero sacks. And the former Arkansas star, while a good-effort guy who will get better, looks lost at times.

" Williams dominating: It looks like there are going to be a lot of people served up a heaping portion of steaming crow, us included, for having ripped the Houston Texans' selection of defensive end Mario Williams with the first overall choice in the 2006 draft.

With his dominating performance against the Broncos on Thursday night (3 ½ sacks), the former North Carolina State star now has 13 sacks for the season after getting only 4 ½ as a rookie. Williams has posted nine sacks in the past five games and has become a far more complete two-way defender. Somewhat overshadowed by Williams' recent sack spree is that he is also playing the run very well, as manifested in his 30 total tackles in the last five games.

The pro scouts who have seen Williams recently say that, in addition to using his hands much better to keep blockers off his body, he is playing with more leverage and more confidence.

" Denver's disappointing season: There are a lot of reasons for the disappointing season for the Broncos (6-8). But a continuing negative trend for coach Mike Shanahan, as pointed out by Jeff Legwold, the astute beat writer for the Rocky Mountain News, is the team's terrible draft record.

And while injuries at key spots, and the meltdown of the defense under first-year coordinator Jim Bates rank as some of the more obvious reasons the Broncos will be home for the postseason, the franchise's draft failures are far more telling.

Shanahan might be an excellent coach, a tremendous offensive tactician, but as a personnel man, his record isn't very good. We've pointed out in the past how abysmal Shanahan has been in choosing defensive linemen and cornerbacks, but his record in general certainly isn't one to brag about. In the three-year span from 2002-2004, Legwold pointed out, the Broncos chose 28 players. That group should essentially be the nucleus of the Denver roster. But of those 28 draft choices, only one -- middle linebacker D.J. Williams -- is still with the franchise.

Shanahan always has been adept at wheeling and dealing during the draft. He is expert at amassing a lot of extra choices. But as the record indicates, he's not very good in turning those selections into productive players, which helps explain why Denver is annually one of the NFL's most active teams in free agency.

" Colston getting hot: New Orleans second-year wide receiver Marques Colston, one of the steals of the 2006 draft, is on quite a roll. Over the past seven games, Colston has 53 catches for 715 yards and six touchdowns. He caught at least seven passes in all but one of the seven games, going over the 100-yard receiving mark in three of them.

As a rookie in 2006, Colston was superb, with 79 receptions, 978 yards and eight scores. His numbers for this year project to 97 receptions, 1,204 yards and 10 touchdowns.

What few people realized early in the season was that Colston was suffering from a nagging knee problem. But he's healthy now and, with the emergence of veteran David Patten as a force in the passing attack, Colston is getting to work more out of the slot, where he can overpower smaller cornerbacks with his size. Colston is incredibly effective working between the hashes and is certainly playing at a Pro Bowl level.

" Atlanta's White hot, too: Another young wide receiver who should merit some Pro Bowl consideration is third-year veteran Roddy White of Atlanta, perhaps the brightest spot in the Falcons' dismal season.

The team's first-round choice in the 2005 draft, White had only 59 catches for 952 yards and three touchdowns in his first two seasons, and was near the top of the league each of those years in number of passes dropped. But the former Alabama-Birmingham star really has blossomed in 2007, becoming the deep threat the Falcons' brass envisioned when it chose him, with 65 receptions for 995 yards and five touchdowns.

As his numbers have improved, White, who has exceptional deep burst, has become increasingly confident. The Falcons have made a lot of mistakes at wide receiver in the draft, trades (remember Peerless Price?) and free agency (the signing of Joe Horn this spring), but White looks like a keeper.

" Will Jets' Vilma be back? New York Jets officials insist that linebacker Jonathan Vilma, on injured reserve with a knee injury, will be back in 2008. But Vilma, a pure 4-3 middle linebacker, hasn't been as productive since coach Eric Mangini arrived and installed a 3-4 scheme two years ago.

If Vilma successfully rehabilitates his knee, New York could have some suitors for him in the offseason. Rookie David Harris, the Jets' second-round pick and the man who has replaced Vilma, is more of a 3-4 linebacker. He has an amazing 91 tackles in his first six NFL starts. That includes 20 tackles, according to the New York coaches, in a Nov. 4 game against Washington. The former University of Michigan star also has three sacks and a forced fumble.

" Rams ownership situation: With St. Louis principal owner Georgia Frontiere said to be ailing, reportedly in and out of hospitals with an undisclosed illness, there is some question about the ownership of the Rams' franchise. Frontiere, 80, has two children, but neither has been particularly involved in the management of the franchise. And with the value of the team set at about $900 million, the Frontiere children could face the kind of daunting estate taxes other NFL families have in the past.

Businessman Stan Kroenke owns 40 percent of the team and has a right of first refusal on any stock sales. But Kroenke also owns a share of the NHL Colorado Avalanche and the Denver Nuggets of the NBA, and the NFL's rules against cross-ownership might come into play if he were to attempt to purchase controlling interest in the Rams. It is hardly a critical situation at this point but it is one that bears watching, and league officials definitely are.

" Asomugha playing well for Raiders: Nnamdi Asomugha might not make it to the Pro Bowl, but some scouts insist the Oakland five-year veteran cornerback is having as solid a season as in 2006, when he was voted a Pro Bowl alternate.

The former first-round choice had eight interceptions in 2006 after getting none in his first three seasons, and has just one steal in 2007. But the former University of California star, who bounced between safety and cornerback his first couple seasons before settling in at the latter position, has been just as good in coverage, according to pro scouts who have watched him closely.

One scout who has seen a lot of Asomugha, and written up some preliminary reports on him because the Raiders' cornerback can be an unrestricted free agent in the spring, said that opponents have thrown at Asomugha only 22 times in man-to-man coverage this season, completing just eight. There's a strong likelihood the Raiders will use the franchise tag to retain Asomugha if they don't get a contract extension worked out with him before the start of free agency.

" No contracts yet for Cardinals LBs: It's been several weeks now since the Arizona Cardinals publicly acknowledged their intent to work out contract extensions with starting linebackers Karlos Dansby and Calvin Pace, and deals aren't close to being consummated.

There's still plenty of time, of course, until both players become eligible for unrestricted free agency in March. But every week that passes brings both defenders closer to hitting the open market. Talks haven't really been ratcheted up yet with the agents for either of the players. But the initial numbers floated to Dansby's representatives, sources say, aren't close to meeting his financial expectations.

" Neuheisel and Georgia Tech: Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Rick Neuheisel was at or near the top of the Georgia Tech wish list during their recent coaching search.

In fact, the two sides even had a basic understanding on contract parameters. But when quotes from Baltimore head coach Brian Billick, in an e-mail to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution praising Neuheisel, showed up in a story, some influential Tech alums became concerned. They apparently felt that some of Neuheisel's past problems with the NCAA represented baggage they didn't want to take on. The Yellow Jackets then turned to Navy coach Paul Johnson. There are high-ranking people in the Tech athletic department who are convinced that Neuheisel would have been a tremendous choice, and that he will be successful if he returns to the college ranks as a head coach.

" The list: Being on a team that makes it through a season undefeated is nothing new for several of the players under contract to the New England Patriots.

Counting the active roster, injured reserve and the practice squad, New England has nine players who were on unbeaten college teams. The list: TE Kyle Brady, Penn State (12-0 in 1994); QB Tom Brady, Michigan (12-0 in 1997); QB Matt Cassel, Southern California (13-0 in 2004); WR Bam Childress, Ohio State (14-0 in 2002); OG Russ Hochstein, Nebraska (13-0 in 1997); LB Oscar Lua, Southern Cal (13-0 in 2004); WR Randy Moss, Marshall (15-0 in 1996); TE David Thomas, Texas (13-0 in 2005); and NT Vince Wilfork, Miami (12-0 in 2001).

" Stat of the week: If the Tampa Bay Bucs defeat the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, they will claim the NFC South title. And it will mean that, since the league's most recent realignment created the current configuration in 2002, a different franchise will have won the championship in all six seasons of the division's existence. More amazing, though, is that it will mark the fifth season in a row in which the division champion authored a worst-to-first comeback year. Carolina won the NFC South in 2003, Atlanta in 2004, Tampa Bay in 2005, New Orleans in 2006, and barring a complete collapse, the Bucs will win it again in 2007. Each of the franchises finished last in the division the previous season.

" Stat of the weak: Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme hasn't played since Week 3, when a right elbow injury precipitated so-called "Tommy John surgery" and forced him onto injured reserve.

The Panthers have played 10 games since, using Vinny Testaverde and David Carr as their starters, but Delhomme's eight touchdown passes still lead Carolina in that category. In fact, the three other quarterbacks who have taken snaps in those 10 games -- Testaverde, Carr and rookie Matt Moore -- have combined only to match Delhomme's eight touchdown passes.

" Punts: In four games against AFC East foes this year, New England quarterback Tom Brady has thrown 18 touchdown passes and no interceptions. The Patriots and Brady face another divisional rival Sunday, of course, when they play host to the New York Jets. & San Francisco, which plays host to the Bengals on Saturday, is 4-14 versus AFC teams since 2003. & Although they haven't made any promises to Ricky Williams for 2008, which would be hard to do anyway given the uncertainty in the front office, Dolphins officials have told the erstwhile tailback that they would prefer him to do his offseason rehabilitation from a chest injury in the Miami area.

Detroit quarterback Jon Kitna has been sacked 112 times in his 29 starts for the Lions. Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning has been sacked 112 times in his last 100 starts. & Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has debunked the reports, including one by ESPN.com, that he could join the staff of his son, Oakland head coach Lane Kiffin, next season. But the elder Kiffin is not under contract beyond this season, and Bucs officials have yet to approach him about an extension. Speculation is that, if Kiffin were to leave the Bucs, the team would promote secondary coach Raheem Morris into his spot. & The Steelers typically don't like to sign 30-year-old linebackers to extensions. But eight-year veteran Clark Haggans, in the final year of his contract and still playing very well at age 30, would like to remain with the team rather than go into free agency. It will be interesting to see how Pittsburgh deals with his situation. & Falcons offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has interviewed for the head coach vacancy at Duke.

There is some question about whether Dallas will bring back veteran nose tackle Jason Ferguson, 33, who was lost to a ruptured biceps tendon in the season opener. The future of the 11-year veteran could depend on how well Tank Johnson plays at nose tackle. & The Redskins won't totally rule out the return of quarterback Jason Campbell, perhaps for the final game of the season, but don't count on him playing. Washington officials know they dodged a bullet last Thursday night when Campbell suffered a dislocated knee cap but no ligament damage to his left knee. Campbell won't require surgery for the knee injury. But he's simply too important to put back on the field if he's anything less than 100 percent, especially for a team that isn't going to the playoffs. & Congratulations to Lee Remmel, one of the true gentlemen of the business, who on Dec. 31 will retire after a 62-year relationship with the Green Bay Packers. The legendary Remmel spent 29 seasons covering the Packers as a newspaper reporter, then 33 seasons as the team's public relations director and later its historian. He is a grand man, and he will be missed by the media, in Green Bay and nationally.

" The last word: "This league is for men. Not everybody is built for this league. I think he realized that earlier than (Tuesday). I'm glad I don't have to deal with somebody who's not into this 100 percent. Everybody's in the boat paddling, and he's on the buoy boat going the other way." -- Atlanta strong safety Lawyer Milloy on the resignation of Falcons coach Bobby Petrino with three games to play in the season

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

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What was Atlanta thinking on Kerney? On the subject of Kerney, one has to wonder if Atlanta officials are rethinking their decision to allow the nine-year veteran and 1999 first-round choice to escape as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason.

Kerney suffered a torn pectoral muscle in 2006, limiting him to nine games, and there was some concern that he was beginning to break down physically. But Kerney, 30, also was a leader in the Atlanta locker room, a guy who was the conscience of the team, and those are qualities the Falcons clearly have missed in 2007.

Seattle team president Tim Ruskell knew Kerney from their years together in Atlanta, where Ruskell was the assistant general manager, and he knew the veteran defensive lineman would rehabilitate hard. He also knew that, even if Kerney didn't get back to his previous standards on the field, he would be an asset off it. Turns out, though, that the former University of Virginia star has been better than ever at left end. He leads the league with 13 ½ sacks and has nine sacks in the past four games, including three performances featuring three sacks each.

The Falcons, who made no effort to retain Kerney, were forced to choose left end Jamaal Anderson in the first round and move him immediately into the starting lineup. Despite starting all 13 games, Anderson, the eighth player chosen overall in the draft, has zero sacks. And the former Arkansas star, while a good-effort guy who will get better, looks lost at times.

Another great move by the front office. The more I think about it the more I agree that it might be time for McKay to go.

We should have kept Ruskell.

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comments on Georgia Tech were intereting. The Engineers got themselves a huge prize in Paul Johnson. Being a Georgia Southern Alumnus, I can tell you when he left it was a huge loss. Locally here at Southern Methodist they were crushed when he chose the Jackets as they thought they had an inside scoop on what they were calling a coup to return to glory

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