McDaniels' influence still felt in Denver

Long before Denver, the NFL, fans and television networks invested in Tim Tebow, former Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels did.

McDaniels believed in Tebow more than any other coach or team in the NFL. He envisioned what he could do for a franchise. It was just that McDaniels also envisioned being a part of it.

Yet before he could get his chance, the Broncos fired McDaniels on Dec. 6, 2010, two weeks before Tebow made his first career start as Broncos quarterback.

McDaniels packed up his belongings but left behind the quarterback he traded up to get. Since then, Denver has not been the same.

Tebow has reinvigorated a city and a franchise. He has led the Broncos to victories in four straight games in which they trailed in the fourth quarter. He now has a fourth-quarter or overtime game-winning drive in six of his 11 starts, more than any other player in NFL history.

No wonder that in an op-ed piece last Sunday, the New York Times dubbed him "The Mile-High Messiah."

But it's worth noting who first authored this story. It is the head coach who Broncos fans and the Denver organization wanted out. At a time when no other coach would, McDaniels packaged picks -- one of which came from Miami for Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall – to select the draft's most polarizing player. Some publicly applauded the Broncos. Many more privately mocked them.

Yet McDaniels, now the St. Louis Rams' offensive coordinator, always has known things about quarterbacks that others didn't. He elevated Tom Brady's game to arguably the highest level of his career. He boosted up backup Matt Cassel and made him a $40 million quarterback in Kansas City. And he recognized what Tebow could do whereas others commented on all he couldn't do.

Now McDaniels' prized pupils, Brady and Tebow, are preparing to battle in this week's game of the week. Sunday's matchup is a testament to McDaniels' work, and why he still will be in demand despite St. Louis' struggles.

No one around the league would be surprised if Kansas City and its general manager Scott Pioli, who worked with McDaniels in New England, made a hard run at him as the successor to Todd Haley. New England would always have a spot for McDaniels. And St. Louis wants to keep him even when change is likely to shake up the organization.

As the Broncos continue to make the unlikely climb from worst to first, and as Denver continues to supplant unbeaten Green Bay as the story of the 2011 season, the irony is the person who helped make it all possible no longer is a part of it.

McDaniels is battling through a challenging season in St. Louis, but his legacy is on display in Denver.

On to this week's 10 Spot:

1. Is RG3 the one? After Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy, front office executives around the league speculated on where he might go in the draft. One compared him to Michael Vick and predicted he would be picked in the second half of the first round. Another compared him Randall Cunningham and speculated he was a "surefire first-round pick." But a third offered the most eye-opening statement, saying there are a handful of personnel people around the league who would pick Griffin ahead of Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.

"There's a real wave of support for Griffin III," the front-office executive said. "I don't want it to get out of hand, but I know people who are very bullish on this guy. There's so much focus on Andrew, but a guy like this could take the draft by surprise."

The leaguewide expectation is that the Indianapolis Colts, who by losing to the Tennessee Titans, could clinch the first overall pick as early as Sunday, will take Luck at No. 1. But the fact that some personnel people are so high on Griffin is an indication that he is not expected to remain on the board very long, and is likely to be a top-10 pick. There will be at least one general manager out there, and maybe more, who covets Griffin the way McDaniels once did Tebow. When this happens, anything is possible. Griffin could wind up going even higher than most NFL scouts are projecting.

2. Wild ratings for wild card? TV executives already are drooling at a potential playoffs ratings bonanza. The way it shapes up now, the loser of the AFC North race, Baltimore or Pittsburgh, is now destined to wind up on the road in wild-card weekend at the winner of the AFC West. And unless a battered Raiders team that has been outscored 80-30 the past two weeks in Green Bay and Miami can somehow overtake the Broncos in the final three games of the season, Denver will be hosting a wild-card game against whichever AFC North team that does not win the division title. If the season were to end today, Denver and Tebow would host a playoff game against Pittsburgh and the Steelers' defense.

3. The power of Gronk: If there were an NFL MVP that wasn't a quarterback, it would have to be New England tight end Rob Gronkowski. It's not just that Gronkowski has set a record for most touchdown catches in a season by a tight end. It's that there have been only three other players -- Randy Moss in 2007, Jerry Rice in 1987 and Carl Pickens in 1995 -- who have caught more touchdown passes 13 games into the season than Gronkowski, who already has 15 receiving touchdowns with three games remaining.

No one has figured out how to cover him. He's too big for safeties, too fast for linebackers and too tough for anyone. During a season in which tight ends have made history, Gronkowski is contributing his share.

4. Get ahead of the Pack: Before a team beats Green Bay this season, it's going to have to have a lead on the Packers late in the game. So far this season it hasn't happened. In a season of impressive stats, including an unblemished won-loss record, Green Bay still has not trailed in the fourth quarter. At all.

In fact, in spite of Carolina leading Green Bay by 13 points in September, and Atlanta going ahead of Green Bay by 14 points early in a game in October, it's rare that anyone has a lead on the Packers at any time. During its 19-game winning streak that spans 1,140 total minutes and 570 second-half minutes, Green Bay has trailed for only 46 minutes in the first quarter, 61 minutes in the second quarter, 27 minutes in the third quarter and not a single minute in the fourth quarter. When people wonder what it will take to beat the Packers, the simplest answer might be this: Get a lead on them in the fourth quarter.

5. Staying inside: Even though the Saints travel to Minnesota this weekend, New Orleans can put away its long underwear until late January. The Saints are finished with cold weather until the postseason, which quite possibly could be the NFC Championship Game. New Orleans' last three regular-season games are indoors at Minnesota on Sunday, then home for back-to-back games against the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers.

New Orleans could have a bye or be home for the wild-card round, and could be ticketed for San Francisco on the divisional playoff weekend if the Saints aren't home. But it's possible New Orleans' next cold weather game will come at Lambeau Field, the same venue in which the Saints opened the season against the Packers.

6. Go fourth and ... lose? No team this season has blown more big late leads, and done a poorer job managing the clock, than the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas surrendered a 34-22 fourth-quarter lead last Sunday night to the New York Giants just as it surrendered a 30-17 fourth-quarter lead to the Lions and a 24-10 fourth-quarter lead to the New York Jets in the opening game of the season. The numbers are as ugly as the endings. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this season the Cowboys have blown three fourth-quarter leads of at least 12 points, one more than they blew in their previous 51 seasons as a franchise. But there have been other questionable calls as well.

In Week 6 at New England, while holding a three-point lead over the Patriots with 3½ minutes remaining, the Cowboys chose to run the ball three straight times without picking up a first down, giving Tom Brady and the Patriots a chance to pull out the game. Then in Week 13 at Arizona, the Cowboys let the clock run after a Dez Bryant catch rather than call a timeout, only to see their kicker miss a field goal at the end of regulation before Dallas lost in overtime. And the heartbreak is hardly confined to this season. In the past two seasons, the Cowboys have lost 13 games by a touchdown or less. The Cowboys have become the Anti-Tebows -- they're finding ways to lose.

7. Manning on a mission: From the moment this season kicked off, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady have been gunning at Dan Marino and the NFL record book. But while those three celebrated quarterbacks have gotten accolades for all their passing yards, Giants quarterback Eli Manning quietly has snuck up on them and the rest of football.

With three games remaining this season Manning already has thrown for 4,105 yards -- 84 more yards than he has in any of his previous seven seasons. Manning is on pace to throw for 5,052 yards, which means he too could challenge the single-season record that Marino set in 1984 with 5,084 yards. And the one thing about the Giants, who have struggled to consistently run the football this season, is that they're going to keep throwing it over and over. It has led Manning, who has brought the Giants back from a fourth-quarter deficit in five different games, to have an MVP-type season.

For the first time in franchise history, the Giants now have two wide receivers, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, who have gone over 1,000 receiving yards this season. This is not just some passing fancy in New York. This is a former ground-and-pound team becoming a pass-happy franchise.

8. Great defenders: Just as quarterbacks are chasing records, so are pass-rushers. With three games remaining, Vikings defensive end Jared Allen already has a career-best 17½ sacks, five short of the single-season record Michael Strahan set with the Giants in 2001. But the defensive player who might be making the biggest impact -- and could be the favorite for the Defensive Player of the Year -- is Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has had three sacks in a game three different times this season, including last Sunday against Indianapolis.

Suggs has learned his craft well, both on and off the field. After his most recent impressive outing, Suggs asked reporters gathered in front of his locker to hold off on their questions until he had put on his suit because Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis once taught him that he never should do a post-game interview without looking as professional as possible.

9. Slow start, fast finish? There's still hope for this season's slow starters. In 2008, the San Diego Chargers started 4-7 before finishing 8-8 and winning the AFC West. Could the Chargers do it again? And could they have company? The Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks and Chargers each have gone from a 4-7 start this season to being in the playoff discussion.

Arizona has won five of its last six games to go from a 1-6 record to a 6-7 mark. And with games against Cleveland at home, at Cincinnati and at home against Seattle, the Cardinals' game against the Seahawks could turn out to be for a playoff spot as Seattle goes to Chicago, returns home for the 49ers and finishes the season at Arizona. The Chargers have won two straight to go to 6-7, but this is their time of the year. Since 2006, the Chargers are 20-1 in the final four games of the regular season. San Diego has one game at home against Baltimore and goes to Detroit and to Oakland. So if there's going to be a team that goes from being out of the postseason to being in, it looks as if the Cardinals or Seahawks are this season's best bet.

"You guys stuck a fork in us quite awhile ago," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said after Arizona upset San Francisco in Week 14. "I think our guys never let it get to them. How many times during those first weeks did we say that we were going to stay the course and that it was going to turn for us? We believed it."

Now they will try to finish it.

10. South Florida coaching search: Nobody should be surprised that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross now aspires to hire "a young Don Shula." The Dolphins have been unable to replicate Shula's success since he left. When Shula coached in Miami from 1970-95 -- an unheard of tenure in this current day and age -- the Dolphins had a 257-133-2 record and a .659 winning percentage while going to the playoffs 16 times and winning 17 playoff games. Since then, from 1996 through the present, the Dolphins have had a 126-127 record, a .498 winning percentage, while making the playoffs six times and winning two playoff games.

Ross undoubtedly will look to hire a head-coaching star. He might opt to pursue former Titans coach Jeff Fisher or former Steelers coach Bill Cowher. It would be a surprise if either man opted for the organization and its difficult working conditions in Miami, just as former Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh bypassed the Dolphins. More than likely, the Dolphins will be unable to land the biggest names on the market and will have to turn to a coach with a lower profile to try to raise the organization to the heights of yesteryear. Worthy choices would include CFL coaching sensation Marc Trestman, Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, Packers assistant head coach Winston Moss, Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer or even former Giants head coach Jim Fassel. Miami could do a lot worse than hiring any of these coaches.

The Schef's specialties

Game of the week: Patriots at Broncos. Two division leaders featuring Tom Brady versus Tim Tebow.

Player of the week: Dolphins running back Reggie Bush. He continues to prove that he does deserve to be a No. 1 back, and will have the chance to do it again.

Upset of the week: Colts over Titans. If ever there were a time for Indianapolis to win a game this season, this would be it.

Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.