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Critics pounce again on Holmgren's pick

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This has hardly been the smoothest season for Seattle Seahawks general manager and coach Mike Holmgren.

In the first half of the year, he had to defend his forced feeding of inexperienced quarterback Matt Hasselbeck over veteran Trent Dilfer. Now Holmgren is defending his choice of veteran running back Ricky Watters over second-year star Shaun Alexander.

When Holmgren announced last week that Watters would start today against Dallas for the first time since injuring his shoulder early in the season, he was met with incredulity from the media. Seventeen of 28 questions asked at Holmgren's midweek news conference focused on his decision to start the 11-year veteran.

"It's not like I'm taking Joe Schmotz and sticking him in there," he finally said after his 13th consecutive question about the running back situation. "This is a guy who can play."

Watters has had an excellent NFL career. On a team building for the future, though, Alexander is the future. He ranks sixth in the league in rushing with 1,009 yards, and his 11 rushing touchdowns lead the NFL. Alexander's 266-yard rushing game against Oakland was the fourth-best individual performance in league history.

"But that's not enough," said Alexander, who has made just nine starts.

The Seahawks are a playoff hopeful at 6-6, with a soft schedule down the stretch. Watters is a better pass blocker and receiver, but the offense has responded better to Alexander.

"That is what Coach Holmgren is here for, to make those decisions," Alexander said. "And if they are right, then he's smart and we're in the playoffs. If he's wrong, then we made a mistake."

The dregs of defeat

It was bad enough that the Indianapolis Colts got toasted by Miami, 41-6, on national TV last Monday. Then, on Wednesday, team president Bill Polian became embroiled in a nasty exchange on the radio with Jay Mohr, an actor-comedian who is part of Fox's NFL pre-game coverage.

Polian was disputing allegations Mohr made Tuesday on the nationally syndicated Jim Rome show that the Colts botched the diagnosis of running back Edgerrin James' torn knee ligament this season and that James no longer wanted to play in Indianapolis.

Mohr asserts that the Colts allowed James to practice one day with the injury before they knew it was a torn anterior cruciate ligament. In a rambling, wild response, Polian lost control. A day later, team owner Jim Irsay was stepping lightly over the mess.

"Bill could have been a little bit more controlled to get his points across because they were very clear," Irsay said. "But his emotion is natural, because it has been a long season, a tough season. When someone starts talking loosely ... says those sorts of things ... it's very hurtful."

With the Colts 4-8, Irsay declined to address the future of Polian, under contract through 2003, or coach Jim Mora, whose contract is through 2002.

Dregs, Part II

There's always someone in worse shape, though. Take Detroit. The 0-12 Lions are starting rookie quarterback Mike McMahon and have a reasonable shot at becoming the first 0-16 team in NFL history. They have lost seven games by no more than five points. But the past three losses have been particularly agonizing:

They lost, 29-27, to Green Bay on Thanksgiving Day, missing a potential tying two-point conversion with 10 seconds left.

They lost, 13-10, in Chicago when Jason Hanson missed a field-goal attempt with 21 seconds left.

They lost, 15-12, in Tampa last week when the Bucs scored the winning touchdown with 45 seconds left.

That's three losses by a combined eight points in games decided with 76 seconds on the clock.

Damage control

Minnesota Vikings owner Red McCombs squelched rumors about coach Denny Green's job security last week and attempted to defuse the furor over wide receiver Randy Moss' recent statements that he only plays hard when he wants to.

"Some of the statements he made are unfortunate," McCombs said of Moss. "But they give an unrealistic picture of who Randy is. I'm not saying he didn't say those things, or mean them. I'm saying there's more to him than that."

What do you expect him to say about a player he's committed $75 million to?

While McCombs also said that Green will be back as coach in 2002, speculation is that the Vikings may take away his personnel duties after the season. Green is in his 10th season with the Vikings, and this could be his first losing team.

Payday in Cincinnati

Rookie defensive end Justin Smith's next sack will be worth $2.5 million for the 4-8 Bengals. With 7 1/2 sacks, Smith needs one more to receive a contract bonus that will earn $500,000 in each of the next five years.

Smith, who missed all of training camp in a holdout, had three sacks last week against Jacksonville.

Audibles

Rookie quarterbacks are 36-86 since 1996, including a 1-11 debut by Carolina's Chris Weinke this season. ... The Cowboys are 2-15 outside the NFC East since December 1999 and have lost their past nine against non-division opponents. ... In its first seven games, New England had 13 sacks. In the past six games, it's had 22, figures that coincide with the emergence of rookie defensive tackle Richard Seymour. ... The Bengals have scored just three offensive touchdowns in the past 19 quarters and are the NFL's lowest-scoring team with 13.6 points per game. ... At 35, Oakland's Tim Brown became the oldest player to return an NFL punt for a touchdown last week, beating out Eric Metcalf, who was 33 in October when he did it. ... Buffalo and Indianapolis lead the NFL with six double-digit losses. ... The St. Louis Rams have had 18 turnovers in their past four games against New Orleans, three of which were won by the Saints.

Last call

You had to be thick-skinned in the NFL last week. Here's a sampling of some zingers that were fired around the league:

Rams coach Mike Martz, when asked if the New York Giants and Saints did the best job of defending his team: "I would give credit to the Saints. I absolutely would not give credit to the Giants. We threw the ball all over the lot against the Giants. I'd like to line up against Jason Sehorn every week."

Saints right tackle Kyle Turley on tomorrow's showdown with the Rams: "We'll call it the Battle of the Bulge because of all the Rams' swelled heads."

Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil on Denver after the Broncos continued to rip new Chiefs receiver Eddie Kennison for walking out on them: "I'm not saying Eddie hasn't had some problems, but they've had some other guys on that roster who have had some problems, some guys suspended from the league and all that kind of stuff. Now, what does that make them? I think they'd show more class in evaluating their own people."

Ouch.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

Power rankings(Last week's ranking in parentheses)

1. Pittsburgh (1): Is Kris Brown this year's Al Del Greco?

2. St. Louis (2): Acid test in Big Easy in prime time.

3. Green Bay (5): Ahman Green triggered the revival.

4. Miami (8): Crushed the Colts.

5. Ravens (6): Survived the Colts.

6. San Francisco (3): Took a step back.

7. New England (9): Who is Tom Brady, anyway?

8. Chicago (4): Could lose next two games.

9. Oakland (7): Shaky down the stretch.

10. Philadelphia (10): Must win in Washington.

11. New Orleans (13): Will muscle up for Rams.

12. Tampa Bay (12): Won five by four points or fewer.

13. New York Jets (11): Passing game ranks 30th.

14. Washington (16): Dallas loss was huge.

15. Denver (19): Defense is the strength now.

16. Cleveland (15): Offense along for the ride.

17. Tennessee (14): The window has closed.

18. Atlanta (17): Smoked in past two games, 63-16.

19. Seattle (18): Finishes with four losing teams.

20. Minnesota (26): Randy Moss is so immature.

21. Dallas (25): Quincy Carter is making do.

22. Arizona (20): Overrun by scorpions.

23. Jacksonville (27): Tom Coughlin never heard from Notre Dame.

24. Kansas City (24): Eddie Kennison faces ex-mates.

25. N.Y. Giants (22): First to worst?

26. San Diego (23): Mike Riley's on the way out.

27. Indianapolis (21): Bill Polian is over the edge.

28. Cincinnati (28): Some things never change.

29. Buffalo (31): Finally won at home.

30. Detroit (30): Winless, not hopeless.

31. Carolina (29): Hopeless, not winless.

Three predictions

1. The Rams should answer the physical challenge of the Saints and pound out a win tomorrow night in New Orleans.

2. To keep things interesting, the Ravens will beat the Bus-less Steelers, and may not even need that special teams potion at the end.

3. The Colts, in the meltdown phase of their season, will lose at home to the Falcons.

The honors

Game of the week: Steelers at Ravens. It's a grudge match now. Despite all the pre-game hyperbole, it comes down to a territorial dispute -- Pittsburgh wanting something Baltimore's got. The bigger battle comes later.

Dog of the week: Vikings at Lions. Only game this week without playoff implications. Todd Bouman vs. Mike McMahon. That's St. Cloud State vs. Rutgers.

Upset of the week: Bucs over Bears. Tampa Bay is in its survival mode. The Bears could still be hurting from last week's loss to Green Bay. Both teams are playing for wild cards now.

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