Super deja vu for Manning, Giants in clutch win over Patriots
Eli Manning may not be better than his brother Peyton, but he's more clutch
After dropping a game-winning TD, Ravens knew Torrey Smith would bounce back
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This may be the week offense came down to earth, and the league got back on its axis of normalcy. But before I get into the two Games of the Week, Eli Manning playing at a postseason 2007 level (sweet music to Giant ears everywhere) and a very weird scene involving Rex Ryan and a Belichick bobblehead, let's turn our eyes west. To Aaron Rodgers, who is halfway to the best season a quarterback has ever had in the 92-year history of the NFL.
It's eight games now. Good sample size. The man hasn't had an off day. Sunday, in showery San Diego, he completed a season-best 81 percent of his throws -- in the pocket, pressured, on the run, wherever. He zinged one ball 38 yards in the air to Jordy Nelson while on a dead run right. He threw four touchdown passes. He ran for 52 yards.
Every team that passed on Rodgers in the draft -- Miami, for Ronnie Brown, Minnesota (Troy Williamson), Washington (Carlos Rogers), Minnesota again (Erasmus James), Jacksonville (Matt Jones), and, just one pick before Green Bay, Oakland (Fabian Washington) -- has to be retching right now.
Projecting Rodgers' full season, with an asterisk next to what would be league records: .725* completion percentage, 5,238* passing yards, 48 touchdowns, 6 interceptions; 129.1* passer rating.
Minnesota twice? Fabian Washington? That has to hurt.
Eli: A Giant among men.
It's eerie. Way too eerie.
Giants-Patriots, Super Bowl 42, fourth quarter, New England up 14-10, 1:15 to play, third and five, Giants' 44. Eli Manning, pressured, looks downfield for No. 85.
Giants-Patriots, Sunday in Foxboro, fourth quarter, New England up 20-17, 1:07 to play, third and 10, Giants' 39. Eli Manning, pressured, looks downfield for No. 85.
Super Bowl 42: David Tyree hauls in the highly unlikely Velcro Catch with Rodney Harrison in close coverage. Gain of 32. First and 10 at the Patriots' 24. Fifty-nine seconds left, timeout Giants.
Sunday in Foxboro: Jake Ballard hauls in a one-handed catch, bending back with Tracy White in close coverage. Gain of 28. First and 10 at the Patriots' 33. Fifty-nine seconds left, clock running.
Super Bowl 42: Four plays after the drive-saving Tyree catch, Manning coolly finds Plaxico Burress in the left side of the end zone for a touchdown. Giants by three, with 35 seconds left.
Sunday in Foxboro: Four plays after the drive-saving Ballard catch, Manning coolly finds Ballard in the left side of the end zone for a touchdown. Giants by four, with 15 seconds left.
And finally ...
Super Bowl 42: After the Patriots return the kickoff 17 yards, Tom Brady throws three desperation passes to no avail. The Giants upset New England 17-14.
Sunday in Foxboro: After the Patriots return the kickoff 17 yards, Brady throws two desperation passes to no avail. The Giants upset New England 24-20.
"It's hard not to think about it,'' Manning told me from the locker room, after his biggest victory, all things considered, since that Super Bowl. "But in a way, before then, it was the complete opposite. Last time, it was the Patriots giving us the ball with three minutes left, up four. Today, after we took the four-point lead with three minutes to go, we're handing the ball to Tom Brady. And that's not a very good feeling.''
He's right. Four seasons ago, Brady threw a touchdown pass to Randy Moss with 2:45 left to give New England a four-point lead. And Sunday, Manning threw a touchdown pass to Mario Manningham with 3:07 remaining to give the Giants a four-point lead.
What made this Giant drive so interesting -- and, in some ways, tougher for Manning -- is that it came on the road instead of a neutral field, with noise and some of his mainstays out, hurt. Two guys Manning never heard of 20 months ago, Victor Cruz and Ballard, were his go-to receivers on this drive. And to go to Ballard twice ... it shows not only how undervalued the 6-6, 275-pound Ballard was coming out of Ohio State after being a blocking tight end and going undrafted, but also how adaptable and user-friendly the excuse-free Manning is.
The way he managed his receivers on this drive, and the comfort he showed with all of them, shows why Manning is such a terrific player (and why, wherever he watched the game Sunday, the GM who dealt for him, Ernie Accorsi, had to be nodding knowingly at his cool demeanor and laser accuracy) and why it surprised no one with the Giants that he was seven of 11 with two touchdown passes in the last seven minutes of the game.
On the throw to Ballard, Manning said it was a simple seam route and Ballard got over the linebacker, White, and he thought there was a tiny window to make the throw. What he didn't see was Patriot safety Patrick Chung charging into the play almost the way Harrison did four years ago. The ball was high, a smidge to Ballard's left, and he had to reach for it awkwardly, bringing it in with one hand to the other. A great catch. Not a Tyree catch, but what is?
"Huge,'' Manning said. "Jake's got great hands. He made a great catch there.''
Four plays later, at the Patriot one, the Giants had a third-and-goal. No timeouts left and 19 seconds to play. "You almost have to throw it there,'' Manning said. "If you run, and you don't make it, then you run your field goal unit on the field while you're unpiling, and it's chaos. Their guys laying on our guys, untangling the pile. You might not get the field goal off. So you've got to throw.''
"You audible?'' I asked. "Or was it the called play you ran?''
"No audible,'' he said. "Just a play-action, off the run. We sold it, and I saw Jake with a step on his guy.''
Not to dramatize the throw, but FOX had a camera in the corner of the end zone focused on Manning's throw. There was no wavering. In the Super Bowl, he had to place the ball deftly over a New England corner into Burress' hands. Here, Manning had to rip it, and he did. It was a perfect dart.
Manning is not his brother, the precision player and the prototype. But I believe Eli is a better clutch player than Peyton. No knock on Peyton. But look at the moments Eli's had. His 2007 postseason is one of the best any quarterback has ever played, winning three on the road (including beating Favre at Lambeau in minus-18 weather) and then upsetting the 18-0 Patriots in the Super Bowl. And Sunday, with 80- and 85-yard drives in the final seven minutes to beat Bill Belichick and Brady.
They don't make many like Eli Manning, and if you're a Giants' partisan, you've got to be thrilled he's yours.
Carson Palmer: Now this is a little worrisome.
Saw bits and pieces of Carson Palmer's starting debut with the Raiders. He threw two beautiful balls that I saw, a touch touchdown throw to Jacoby Ford and a laser to T.J. Houshmandzadeh over the middle for 28 yards. But in general, Palmer's first six quarters as a Raider are six quarters he'd like to have back.
He played the second half of the 28-point loss to Kansas City, and all of Sunday's 14-point loss to Denver. He didn't score for the final 30 minutes of the Chiefs game and the final 20 minutes of the Broncos game. The results of Palmer's 20 series in 2011:
Versus Kansas City: Punt, punt, interception, interception, interception, punt.
Versus Denver: Punt, field goal, punt, punt, touchdown pass, interception, touchdown pass, kneel to end half, touchdown pass, interception, punt, punt, punt, interception.
Totals: nine punts, six interceptions, three touchdowns, one field goal.
The rest of Sunday's headlines ...
The Ravens finally get over their hump. Last January, the night before Baltimore blew another lead and lost to Pittsburgh 31-24 in a divisional playoff game, I sat with coach John Harbaugh at his Pittsburgh hotel and listened to his plans. "We're going to beat Pittsburgh eventually in one of these big games,'' he said. "If not tomorrow, then soon. I know we have the plan in place to do it, and I know we have the players. I truly believe we're going to start beating them.'' It took a few months, but the Ravens completed a season sweep (only the second one since the Ravens were born, or transferred from Cleveland, in 1996) Sunday night with a dramatic 23-20 win. The real winner, I thought, was Joe Flacco, who engineered a 92-yard drive at the end of the game, and found a player he had no reason to trust, rookie Torrey Smith, for the winning touchdown. Smith had dropped a tough catch a few plays earlier -- but a catch he should have made. Harbaugh took great pride after the game in pointing out how, on the sideline after Smith's drop, more than one player told him not to worry -- he'd make a big play on this drive. And he did.
The way I saw the play, William Gay had decent coverage on the speedy Smith, chasing down the right sideline, but safety Ryan Clark underestimate Smith's speed. Clark was late coming over the top to help, and Smith, with a step on Gay, gathered in a precision throw from Flacco for the win. Flacco, who has been just okay this year, needed that throw. He and the Ravens needed this game. Now Pittsburgh will have to beat them outright, having lost the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Ravens.
So this is what Julio Jones can do. In the span of six minutes in a game no one was watching, Julio Jones showed why the Falcons traded a ransom to move from 27 in the first round to six. His diving catch on the goal line for a touchdown -- first ruled incomplete by the officials -- was an example of his ability to be a physical and acrobatic receiver. He was so sure he caught it that when he got up and saw the incomplete signal, he yelled to the official: "That's a catch! That's a catch!'' And he signaled to the sideline to throw the challenge flag. Which coach Mike Smith did, and won, and the Falcons had a touchdown. His catch of a short post and 80-yard touchdown showed his 4.38 speed. "I just know the type of player I am,'' he said afterward, "and I know what I can do. There's more where that came from.'' Who knows how history will view this trade. But Atlanta has fought back after a bad start to be 5-3, a half-game behind New Orleans in the NFC South, and if Jones has this sort of impact in the last two months, the Falcons will be a tough out in January.
The Dolphins showed what they think of the Andrew Luck Derby in Kansas City. You could just see the way Miami was playing that they wouldn't be the last team standing for Andrew Luck come April. It's not the way Tony Sparano is wired. (In fact, I can't think of a single coach who is wired to actually try to lose on purpose if it would bring him a great quarterback. I've never even heard lucid discussion of it off the record with coaches I know well.) But a 31-3 win at Kansas City? After the Chiefs had won four in a row and looked to be ready to take over a nobody-wants-it AFC West?
"I saw it all week in practice,'' Sparano told me post-game. "I saw it from my players, I saw it from my coaches. They want to win. Bad. They haven't lost focus, and they haven't been distracted by the outside stuff.'' Not the Luck stuff, nor the mayhem caused late in the week with star cornerback Vontae Davis' reported altercation with Brandon Marshall, or, according to the Miami Herald, Davis showing up at practice hung over the other day and not being allowed to make the trip to Kansas City. Encouraging Sunday was Reggie Bush being an impact player for one of the first times of the year (142 rushing-receiving yards). I've said all along the Dolphins wouldn't be in the running for Luck, because they're just too competitive. They showed that last Sunday -- and could well do it again this Sunday, with a home game against the offensively hapless Redskins.
Speaking of Andrew Luck ... I'm going to be writing about my conversation with Mike Mayock at the top of Tuesday's column -- he's going to start his NFL Network season as the color man alongside Brad Nessler Thursday in San Diego -- but I wanted to pass along one story he told me about Luck before then. Two summers ago, Mayock, who works at the Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana for a week every summer, told me he was standing next to Peyton Manning, watching a relatively unfamous Andrew Luck throw at the camp. "He's one of 25 college kids in shorts, just throwing,'' Mayock said. "Watching his throw, it still looked like he was warming up, and he threw a deep comeback.'' Mayock watched the throw and wondered if he was still warming up, or was that how Luck actually threw the ball? And Manning said, "But it gets there.'' And that's the thing with Luck. Mayock echoed Phil Simms, saying he doesn't have a howitzer, but the ball gets where it needs to go, and it gets there on time. More with Mayock tomorrow.