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Forget hoops, NFL has March Madness

    Denver Broncos Media Services Manager Rebecca Villanueva displays a jersey with quarterback Peyton Manning's name and number before a news conference with Manning at the NFL Denver Broncos headquarters in Englewood, Colo., on Tuesday, March 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

March Madness is all about the NFL this year.

From Peyton Manning in Denver to Tim Tebow in New York.

From Sean Payton getting suspended for New Orleans’ bounty system to Saints players awaiting possible punishment for participating in it.

Not to mention the other big free agent signings. How did Mario Williams wind up in Buffalo? Answer: There’s 100 million reasons.

How about Calvin Johnson’s $132 million deal through 2019 with the Lions, merely the richest contract in NFL history, with Megatron getting $60 million guaranteed?

No matter what happens in the NCAA basketball tournament, with the Final Four in the Big Easy of all places, it can’t top what the NFL has produced in March.

And that’s with the draft, usually the focal point of the offseason, still a month away.

It has become impossible to escape NFL headlines pretty much since the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl — that was Feb. 5. The next meaningful pro football game is more than five months away.

The past two weeks, in particular, have been off the charts for NFL interest.

"Fans love it and they crave it," said Rich Gannon, the 2002 NFL Most Valuable Player and now a host on SiriusXM NFL Radio. "They don’t want an offseason and there hasn’t really been one, from the Super Bowl and the one-month buildup to the combine and free agency, and then to everything lately.

"I took my car in for service and three guys there, all they were saying was what about the Saints? And then the Tebow stuff; I am not surprised by that at all. And Peyton in Denver."

In addition to the front-page news, there have been some offseason moves that would be a big deal — in any other year.

Example A: A massive trade of picks between Washington and St. Louis already has spiced up the draft, with the Redskins in position to land Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III (if Indy doesn’t take him at No. 1 instead of Andrew Luck).

Example B: The same Redskins and their division-rival Cowboys, each get dinged for huge salary cap reductions by the league.

Rarely does anything in sports push The Big Dance off center stage. But all the NFL action has done just that.

No reason to think it will stop now, with penalties for Saints defensive players sure to come, if not by the end of this unpredictable month then quickly in April.

By then, the Senate Judiciary Committee could be holding a hearing about the bounties that led to Payton being suspended for the 2012 season; former assistant Gregg Williams, who ran the program and now is defensive coordinator in St. Louis, getting barred indefinitely; New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis suspended for eight games and Saints assistant Joe Vitt for six games; and the team stripped of two second-round draft picks and fined $500,000.

"Let’s be real basic about it here," said Sen. Dick Durbin, who is calling the bounty hearing. "If this activity were taking place off of a sporting field, away from a court, nobody would have a second thought (about whether it’s wrong). ‘You mean, someone paid you to go out and hurt someone?’

"It goes way beyond the rules of any sporting contest, at least team contest, to intentionally inflict harm on another person for a financial reward."

It does grab attention; scandals always do. So two of the NFL’s transcendent quarterbacks came along to rescue the league’s image a bit: Manning and Tebow.

Anytime a four-time MVP changes addresses, it’s huge news. When that player never missed a start in 13 seasons before sitting out an entire year after four neck surgeries, interest is piqued a mile high.

"It is a huge plus to have a Peyton Manning on your roster," Broncos boss John Elway said upon signing Manning to a five-year contract worth $96 million if fulfilled.

And a huge plus to have him in the league to deflect some attention from the bad vibes surrounding the Saints.

Ditto for Tebow, whose job disappeared in Denver when Manning joined the Broncos. Where else for him to land but with the Jets, who seem determined to win the back pages of the New York tabloids while their co-inhabitants at the Meadowlands, the Giants, win Super Bowls.

The Jets’ swift action — well, swift until there was an eight-hour delay as the Jets discovered a clause in Tebow’s contract that would have cost them $5 million before it was renegotiated — shifted the glare away from the Saints, as well.

In the middle of all this, the Cowboys had $10 million of salary cap space stripped and the Redskins lost a whopping $36 million, spread over this year and next. Yet both have found ways to spend enough on free agents to fill some holes.

What chaos could be ahead? Plenty.

— New Orleans star quarterback Drew Brees has yet to reach agreement on a new contract and, given the Saints’ precarious situation, imagine how ugly things might get if he ignores the franchise tag the team plunked on him and stays away from offseason workouts.

— With a rookie wage scale limiting financial investments, more blockbuster draft trades could happen. As it is, the Redskins mortgaged much of their future to move up four spots to get RG III. Yet, after his sensational pro day at Baylor, there’s thought Griffin has become a challenger to Stanford’s Luck as the top overall pick, owned by Indianapolis.

— Still out there ready to grab attention, if not many passes, is Terrell Owens. So might be Chad Ochocinco if the Patriots, as expected, release him. And Randy Moss, who didn’t even play in the NFL in 2011 and was no factor the previous year, landed in San Francisco.

— Tebow vs. Mark Sanchez. Just wait until the incumbent stumbles, even momentarily, and the Big Apple is rocked by screams from Tebow’s loyal legions.

— New jersey designs by Nike resemble the Oregon Ducks’ varied uniforms, causing a surge to — or away from — the merchandise shelves.

At least there are no labor battles to be waged for 4½ months by America’s richest sports league and its players. Last year at this time, we were in the middle of the lockout. No one knew if the 2011 season would even happen.

"I think the NFL is in great shape," Manning said, "with some great owners, great coaches and great people in leadership."

Don’t forget plenty of newsmakers.

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