For Dolphins QB Chad Pennington, right, a victory today over the Jets would be especially sweet. Pennington, cast away by the Jets in the offseason as they courted future Hall of Famer Brett Favre, has led Miami (10-5) to a remarkable turnaround, from 1-15 a season ago to one win away from the AFC East title. On a team filled with comeback stories (Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, Joey Porter), Pennington is arguably the best and a strong candidate for the NFL's comeback player of the year, which will be announced this week. Pennington, who would become just the second two-time winner (he won in 2006 with the Jets), has plenty of competition, including these three:
Kerry Collins, QB, Titans
Collins, 35, appeared headed toward ending his career holding a clipboard, entrenched as a backup behind Vince Young, the face of the franchise. But when Young got hurt and was pulled Sept. 14, Collins came to the rescue. Although his stats won't pop off the page (2,676 yards, 12 touchdowns, 80.3 passer rating), Collins has helped pull the team together and earn the Titans (13-2) the top seed in the AFC.
Antonio Bryant, WR, Bucs
Just one year ago, no NFL team would touch Bryant, partially because of a DUI arrest that got him suspended in 2007 and documented blowups with former coaches Bill Parcells and Mike Nolan. But the Bucs took a chance, and Bryant has resurrected his career in a big way. On the field, Bryant has been a go-to receiver, racking up 80 catches for 1,171 yards (including three consecutive 100-yard games). Off the field, he hosted 10 needy families on a Christmas shopping spree last week.
Julius Peppers, DE, Panthers
When Peppers broke into the league in 2002 with 12 sacks, it appeared he had the chance to dominate for a long time. And Peppers did make three Pro Bowls in his first five years. But after struggling last year in arguably the worst season (statistically) of his career (21/2 sacks), he has bounced back with a career-high in sacks (131/2) and has the Panthers on the verge of an NFC South title.
"We win, it'll feel like the Super Bowl."
Lions RB Kevin Smith on Detroit's matchup against the Packers today at Lambeau Field. The Lions are trying to avoid becoming the first team to go 0-16.
Browns QB Bruce Gradkowski, a former Buc, will likely start today against the Steelers, fulfilling a childhood dream. Gradkowski, a Pittsburgh-area prep star, grew up reveling in the Browns-Steelers rivalry.
Signed by the Browns Dec. 2 as an emergency backup after Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson suffered season-ending injuries, Gradkowski will get a firsthand look today.
"He's not going to be shell shocked," Steelers CB Deshea Townsend said. "He's played the game. He got that out of the way two years ago."
Saints QB Drew Brees is 402 yards away from breaking Dan Marino's record for passing yards in a single season (5,084 in 1984). Brees has thrown for more than 402 twice this season, so there is a chance. "I'm trying not to think about it as much as possible," Brees said. "It's hard to do because everybody wants to talk about it."
Making his son proud
QB Jim Sorgi might have one of the best backup jobs in the NFL — holding the clipboard for QB Peyton Manning since 2004 has made for sparse snaps. That might change today against the Titans, with the Colts already clinching a playoff spot. And it could come at a good time for Sorgi, who will be bringing his 3-year-old son, Jimmy, to his first pro game.
"It'll be nice to have him at the game," Sorgi said. "It'll be like, 'Hey, you were at this game, and it was your first game, and your dad actually got to play.' It should be exciting."
Dot … dot … dot
The Titans, who lead the league in scoring defense (14.1 points allowed per game), have held their opponents to 17 points or fewer in 13 of 15 games. … The Patriots have won 11 in a row in December. … The Giants are 18-1 in their past 19 games when they haven't had a turnover. … Texans RB Steve Slaton leads the NFL in fourth-quarter rushing with 391 yards.
The picks of the moment for Super Bowl XLIII on Feb. 1 in Tampa:
Giants vs. Titans
With a win over the Panthers last week, the Giants proved the road will go through the Meadowlands in the playoffs. The Titans put an end to the Steelers' defensive dominance last week and proved they — for now — are the class of the AFC.
Times wires, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Philadelphia Daily News, Detroit Free Press and Indianapolis Star contributed to this report.