ARLINGTON, Texas – Terence Newman had just had a football game, a division lead and perhaps a season snatched away by the cool right arm of a quarterback at the height of his powers, and as he walked to the parking lot at Cowboys Stadium late Sunday night, the Dallas cornerback reluctantly paid Eli Manning perhaps the ultimate compliment.
"He's definitely matured," Newman said of Manning, whose prolific, ice-cold performance gave the New York Giants a thrilling, come-from-behind, 37-34 victory over the Cowboys. "You can tell he's reading his safeties, understanding what the defensive backs are doing and picking apart defenses like never before.
"I think he's been studying with his brother."
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Newman managed a small smile. Yes, he had just compared Manning to one of the best quarterbacks of all time, and arguably the most valuable, given the way the Indianapolis Colts have collapsed in Eli's big brother's absence. And no, it wasn't completely far-fetched – not with the way the Giants' 30-year-old passer has played in his eighth NFL season, and certainly not after his brilliant fourth quarter Sunday night.
Know this: Even if Peyton Manning can't come back from the neck-fusion surgery that has imperiled his career, it's clear that the NFL's first family of quarterbacking isn't close to finished.
So yes, Baby Bro is very much aware he's the Last Manning Standing, and thus charged with upholding the family honor: "Yes, sir," he said after his third 400-yard passing day of 2011 helped New York (7-6) break a four-game losing streak and tie the Cowboys for the NFC East lead with three games to play, including a rematch with Dallas at home in the regular-season finale.
[ Playoff picture: Giants No. 4 seed in NFC ]
And yes, Manning (27-for-47, 400 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, zero sacks) was expecting an exultant text message from Peyton to greet him on his walk to the team bus: "I'm pretty sure there might be one, yes."
After Sunday's heroics, it was clear that Eli currently rules the Giants' universe with the same degree of omnipotence that Peyton has displayed while presiding over the Colts for more than a decade.
"Talk about a guy who has elevated his game," Giants tackle David Diehl said after Sunday's dramatic victory, which ended with defensive end Jason Paul-Pierre blocking Dan Bailey's 47-yard field-goal attempt in the final seconds. "Our offense goes as far as Eli allows us to go: The checks he makes at the line, the way he's able to identify blitzes and coverage and all of the things he does to put us in the right situation.
"I mean, his game is at its best, and it's no coincidence given the way he works and the way he prepares. Most importantly, the confidence he has in himself is showing on the field."
The normally understated Manning revealed that confidence before the season when, in a radio interview with ESPN New York 1050, he was asked if he considered himself to be in the same class as Tom Brady. Manning, who'd defeated Brady in that memorable Super Bowl XLII upset four seasons earlier, took the bait, answering, "I consider myself in that class and Tom Brady is a great quarterback, he's a great player and what you've seen with him is he's gotten better every year and he started off winning championships and I think he's a better quarterback now than what he was, in all honesty, when he was winning those championships."
Given that Manning had thrown a league-high 25 interceptions in 2010, the quote was the source of much ridicule. The chuckles have subsided as Manning has put up sick numbers in the season's first 13 games, including twice as many touchdown passes (25) as interceptions (12) and 4,105 passing yards.
"I think it's funny," Diehl said. "You look back before the season, and he said he's in the same caliber as elite quarterbacks, and everyone laughed at him. I think it's awesome. He showed the confidence in himself, and most importantly, he's shown it on the football field."
It took a lot of resolve to stay poised after Manning's Cowboys counterpart, Tony Romo, threw his fourth touchdown pass of the night, connecting with a wide-open Dez Bryant on a 50-yard scoring play to give Dallas a 34-22 lead with 5:41 remaining and send 95,952 fans into a high-fiving frenzy. At that point Romo (21-of-31, 321 yards, no interceptions) looked like the quarterback who'd summoned the season-defining performance in this game, and the season seemed to be slipping away from embattled coach Tom Coughlin and the Giants.
[ Winners/losers: T.J. Yates leads Texans to playoffs ]
Manning had to score, and he had to score fast, to give the Giants life. It was an exceptionally tense situation, unless you happen to be the Manning with the ball in your hand.
"It's only stressful when you're not on the field," Manning told me later as he dressed at his locker. "When you're standing there and watching it, you have no control. It's probably stressful for my dad and for my wife. But when you're playing …"
Manning didn't finish the sentence, so I'll do it for him. When you're playing like he is, feeling comfortable and looking smooth and dangerous behind a revived offensive line, it's all there for the taking.
Eight plays and 80 yards later, tight end Jake Ballard was standing in the end zone after snatching a willowy, eight-yard pass from Manning with 3:14 to go. When Romo had a rare misfire, overthrowing an open Miles Austin on a go-route on third-and-5 from the Dallas 25-yard line with 2:20 remaining, it was Eli Time once more.
He got the ball back at his own 42 and fielded a low shotgun snap that momentarily fell to the turf. Manning calmly picked it up and found Ballard on a short crossing route, and the tight end rambled for a 21-yard gain. Two plays later, wideout Mario Manningham dropped a gorgeous pass from Manning in the end zone, but the quarterback was unfazed.
On first-and-10 from the Dallas 19 he zipped another terrific throw to Ballard, who rambled to the 1, setting up Brandon Jacobs' scoring burst with 46 seconds remaining. A successful draw to D.J. Ware on the two-point conversion pushed the Giants' lead to three, and it was Romo's turn to try to pull off a dramatic drive.
Now Manning was stressed. "He did a good job all night," Manning said of Romo, "and a very good job at the end of getting them down there. It's not easy."
And we can now say with cruel certainty that it's really not easy being Dan Bailey. A week after the Cowboys' rookie kicker was iced by his own coach, Jason Garrett, and failed on his second attempt to make a game-winning field goal in an eventual overtime defeat to the Cardinals, a hauntingly similar scenario would play out in front of the home folks.
Romo, after a pinpoint 23-yard pass to Austin, spiked the ball at New York's 29-yard line with six seconds to go, bringing Bailey onto the field. Coughlin, filling the role of Garrett, waited until the instant before the ball was snapped to call timeout, rendering Bailey's 47-yard kick – which the kicker naturally drilled down the middle – moot.
The re-kick was a disaster waiting to happen. "I was hoping," Manning said, and he got his wish: Snap, kick, block, as Pierre-Paul changed up his pass rush (going to his left and past the long snapper, rather than trying to get around the guard) and got a paw on the ball, turning the Giants' sideline into a jubilant mosh pit.
"[Expletive], I'm glad I'm not in his shoes," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said of Bailey. "He's been iced two weeks in a row."
When the subject turned to Manning, Tuck simply shook his head in awe of his quarterback.
"I don't need to say anything," Tuck said. "He speaks for himself, with the way he plays. He continues to bail us out. And we're very grateful."
They're also very much alive. Thank the Last Manning Standing for that.
Two Saturdays ago in Houston, I sat at a restaurant with Texans tackle Eric Winston and asked him all kinds of questions about rookie T.J. Yates, who was preparing for his first NFL start the following day. Winston wasn't sure how the fifth-round pick would respond, but he had a pretty strong feeling about Yates' temperament: "The kid is cool. He doesn't get too high or too low. He won't be overwhelmed by the situation. When he's out there, it doesn't seem like it's too big for him." Yates had an impressive debut in a victory over the Falcons the following day, and on Sunday in Cincinnati, the former combine arm ignored insane amounts of pressure and engineered a stirring comeback to give the Texans the most important victory in franchise history. Trailing 19-10 with 11:50 remaining, Yates began a drive at his own 25 and watched a potentially nightmarish sequence unfold: After catching a short screen behind the line of scrimmage, halfback Arian Foster took a hit from linebacker Rey Maualuga and lost the football, and the Bengals' Geno Atkins scooped it up at the 14 and headed toward the end zone. Houston center Chris Myers ran Atkins down at the 5 and forced another fumble, and Winston alertly dove on the ball at the Texans' 2. Throwing out of his end zone on first down, Yates stayed calm and hit Kevin Walter for a 19-yard gain – ultimately guiding Houston into field-goal range, with Neil Rackers nailing a 33-yarder. Then, with 2:33 remaining, Yates took over at his own 20 and drove Houston the length of the field, zipping a six-yard touchdown pass to Walter with two seconds remaining. Rackers' extra point gave the Texans a 20-19 triumph that would set the stage for the banishment of a near decade's worth of frustration. Minutes later, when Titans rookie Jake Locker got sacked in an eerily similar situation on the final play against the Saints, preserving New Orleans' 22-17 victory, the Texans (10-3) had clinched the AFC South title and the first postseason appearance in the franchise's history. "We were all watching the game in the locker room and the place erupted when Locker got sacked," Winston told me (via text) afterward. "It was insane." As for Yates' demeanor on the final drive, Winston said, "T.J. didn't say a lot. Doesn't have to. Cool customer. He does a great job of being himself. I'm a pretty good judge of character. Lololol." … We know all about Tom Brady's character, and it was cool to see the Patriots' future Hall of Fame quarterback respond to his very conspicuous, fourth-quarter sideline spat with offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien in Sunday's 34-27 victory over the Redskins by accepting the blame, telling reporters, "I threw a pretty bad interception so he wasn't happy about it. It was probably a long line of coaches and players that were pretty pissed at me after that, but Billy got to me first and he let me have it. I deserved it. … We're both pretty emotional guys." The Pats' defense looks very shaky, which puts even more pressure on Brady to be great. He was good enough on Sunday: With his new favorite target, Rob Gronkowski, catching six passes for a career-high 160 yards – and setting an NFL single-season record for a tight end with his 14th and 15th touchdown receptions – Brady pushed New England to 10-3. The Pats also got a huge contribution from 32-year-old defensive end Andre Carter, who was deemed expendable by the Redskins after last season. Carter's strip sack of Rex Grossman gave New England the game's first points as mammoth defensive tackle Vince Wilfork fell on the ball in the end zone; there's no word on whether the ball survived the incident. Next Sunday in Denver, the Patriots' defense will go up against a quarterback who (after the Broncos' 13-10 overtime victory over the Bears) has won seven of his eight starts and has his team on the verge of a stunning playoff berth. That's right: Tom Brady vs. Tim Tebow in a battle of marquee quarterbacks – and if I'd billed it that way back in late October, you'd have said I was a mile high. No, I still don't quite understand it, and yes, I'll absolutely be there. … The Falcons, after last Sunday's shaky effort with the game on the line in Houston, faced a season-defining crisis in Carolina – and responded with heart, poise and excellence. Trailing the Panthers 23-7 at halftime, Atlanta (8-5) rallied behind Matt Ryan, who threw for 232 yards and three touchdowns in the second half, to pull out a 31-23 victory. Remember that bold draft-day deal that general manager Thomas Dimitroff made to land wideout Julio Jones with the sixth overall pick? He was feeling pretty, pretty good about it Sunday while watching Jones catch fourth-quarter touchdown passes of 17 and 75 yards and look like an utter beast while doing so. Dimitroff was even more relieved a couple of hours later when Atlanta coach Mike Smith was given a clean bill of health after having been rushed to a Charlotte hospital with chest pains. "Smitty is OK," Dimitroff wrote via text Sunday night, having remained in Charlotte with Smith while the rest of the team flew home. "Tests negative." A lot of people just let out a huge, collective sigh of relief for one of the good guys in the NFL community. … Finally, in a game that dropped the 49ers to 10-3 and reduced their margin of error in the race with the Saints (10-3) for a first-round playoff bye, the Cardinals rallied for a 21-19 upset of the NFC West champs, the fifth victory in six games for Arizona (6-7). When quarterback Kevin Kolb left after suffering a blow to the head on the Cards' third play, his backup came in and threw for 282 yards and three touchdowns. John Skelton: All he does is win. (Wait, I think I just violated Tebow's trademark … Oops …)
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The audacity of Charlie Bell (though it's a source of great amusement).
2. How the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, after a promising 2010 campaign, could get so atrocious, so fast. On Sunday the Bucs (4-9) had a 14-point lead against the Jaguars – and proceeded to give up 41 consecutive points to a terrible team that hadn't scored more than 20 in a game all season. The first 28 of those points came during a seven-minute, 32-second flurry in the second quarter that featured four Bucs turnovers (they had seven for the day). Tampa Bay has now lost seven consecutive games, and the future of third-year coach Raheem Morris is very much in doubt. Morris has one year remaining on his contract after this season, meaning the franchise will likely extend or fire him, rather than letting him stay as a potential lame duck. I'm inclined to give Morris the benefit of the doubt given the impressive job he did in 2010 and the fact that the team's owners, the Glazer brothers, have been among the league's least-aggressive spenders the past several seasons. As of last month the Bucs were reportedly $25.1 million under the salary cap after having spent even less in 2010, an uncapped year because of the impending expiration of the collective bargaining agreement. Still, after efforts (or lack thereof) like Sunday's, it will be tough to sell Morris' return to an understandably mystified fan base. The Bucs look listless, aimless and anything but precise, a somewhat shocking development after the way young quarterback Josh Freeman's leadership skills and late-game magic nearly pushed this team into the playoffs a year ago. Morris needs to have his team ready to play next Saturday against the Cowboys in Tampa and in season-closing road games at Carolina and Atlanta. The Glazers may be cheap – at least, as of late – but they're not delusional.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Marion Barber – seriously? Look, I know Tebow is getting better each week, and his success is either a testament to his extraordinary belief in his own abilities or part of some divine plan (or both), and he apparently will never lose again. That's all good; I'm trying to sit back and enjoy one of the more remarkable NFL stories I've witnessed. However, when The Plan includes an utter brainlock by a player who should know better, it's my job to rant and rave, and I'm sure the guys I know on the Bears will express similar sentiments privately. Barber, whose effort and physical running style I greatly admire, had a chance to help Chicago essentially close out the game on Sunday, and he went all Steve Bartman. On second-and-10 from the Bears' 49 with two minutes remaining, a 10-7 lead and the Broncos out of timeouts, Barber ran five yards to his left and allowed himself to be pushed out of bounds, putting up absolutely zero resistance. That saved Denver about 45 seconds, which Tebow desperately needed as he was driving the Broncos into position for Matt Prater's 59-yard field goal with eight seconds to go. Prater drilled it, naturally. Of course he did. When the Bears won the toss in overtime and drove to the Denver 38, it appeared Robbie Gould would have a chance to drill a long field goal of his own to win the game. On third-and-7 Bartman – er, Barber – slipped to his left, bulled forward and closed in on the first down marker … and fumbled the ball away. Yes, that really happened. Tebow promptly drove Denver 35 yards to set up Prater's 51-yarder and walked off the field a winner, for the seventh time in eight starts. He did it after completing three of 15 passes for 45 yards, with one interception, through three quarters; he did it against a team whose star quarterback (Jay Cutler) and star halfback (Matt Forte) were sidelined by injuries; and he did it by the grace of God, and/or Barber's unconscionable lack of awareness and dubious ball security. Apparently, that's the way it's supposed to happen – though if Barber had simply fallen down inbounds on that fourth-quarter run, I'm fairly sure it wouldn't have. When his teammates are home during the playoffs watching Tebow and the Broncos host a game, they'll surely thank him.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
– Text Sunday evening from Lions coach Jim Schwartz, celebrating a Bears defeat that helped his team's playoff prospects.
"Finally we played as a team. People have had it with all the [expletive]"
‐ Text Sunday afternoon from Eagles tight end Brent Celek after Philly's 26-10 victory over the Dolphins.
"Nice suit!!! Did you get the continuance that day?"
‐ Email Thursday from NFL Network senior producer Bardia Shah-Rais, in reference to my appearance on Total Access earlier in the week.
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