FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – If you're looking for a bottom line answer to whether New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning(notes) is the equal of New England Patriots counterpart Tom Brady(notes), the answer is still no.
Manning may be playing the best football of his career, maybe the best since his superlative run of games in the 2007 playoffs, but even the heroic comeback on Sunday evening at Gillette Stadium isn't enough to close the gap. Not even close, really. There are too many Super Bowls and MVP awards in the space between the two.
But the opportunity is there.
On the heels of a 24-20 victory that stirred memories of their Super Bowl run from four seasons ago, Manning and the Giants are staring at a task befitting the greats of the game. Even with a two-game lead in the NFC East, if Manning leads New York to the playoffs, it will serve as one of those great achievements that measure the stature of an athlete.
Having just dispatched the Patriots, the Giants get to face the toughest lineup since Robert DeNiro asked for a second bullet in "The Deer Hunter." Starting next Sunday at San Francisco, which sports a 7-1 record, the Giants play eight games against teams that are a combined 36-20. Compared with division rivals Philadelphia and Dallas, against whom the Giants have a combined three games remaining, the Giants aren't simply walking barefoot over burning coals. They have to finish hop-scotching through lava.
By contrast, the Eagles, who play Chicago on Monday night, have nine games left with teams who are 32-39. Dallas has eight against teams that are 24-31. Aside from the 49ers, two games with Dallas and another with Philly, the Giants have a game at New Orleans, host Green Bay and play for the city championship against the Jets. The only thing close to a gimme the rest of the way is Washington, which beat the Giants in the opener. With that in mind, a game against the Patriots as a warm-up is only fitting, don't you think?
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And pitting Manning head-to-head against Brady finished the lovely bit of theater.
For three quarters, both quarterbacks did little of anything. Manning had one turnover and Brady trumped that with three, again struggling against a mixture of man coverages that the Giants don't normally utilize.
"[Brady] looked like he was a little uncertain with some of the things we were doing … he probably spent more time at the line checking the coverage than he had all year," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck(notes) said.
That, of course, is how you beat Brady. It's not easy and it doesn't last all game, as the fourth quarter showed. Brady directed two critical touchdown drives, including the second on which he hit tight end Rob Gronkowski(notes) for a 14-yard touchdown on fourth-and-9 with 1:36 remaining in the game.
That put Manning on stage for his own bit of drama. Of course, adding to the back story is that Manning had the temerity to compare himself to Brady in August. Manning said he felt he was Brady's equal, which led to plenty of guffaws from the collective fans and NFL experts.
On Sunday night, just as he did in the Super Bowl, Manning mocked those doubters with a series of big throws that combined for an 80-yard drive. There was a 19-yard toss to Victor Cruz(notes) on a scramble. There was a breathtaking 28-yard toss to tight end Jake Ballard(notes) on third-and-10. After a scramble for 12 and a 20-yard penalty that put the ball at the New England 1-yard line, Manning hit Ballard again for the game-winner with 15 seconds left.
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That shut up many New England fans who taunted Manning throughout the game with signs and jeers. After the game, Tuck took pleasure in noting, "You can't spell elite without Eli."
And Manning, who has often confounded fans and critics with his inconsistent play (he has twice thrown at least 20 interceptions in a season, including an ugly 25 last season, and caused the Giants to come up empty with a long third-quarter drive when he was picked in the end zone), has been nuzzling up to that premier status this season. He came into this game with a 102.1 quarterback rating and is on his way to breaking his career high of 93.1.
Is it time to vault Manning into that class with guys like Brady, his brother Peyton, Drew Brees(notes) and Aaron Rodgers(notes)? Can we somehow elevate him to a status that stats and moments don't quite justify?
No, not yet. Then again, Manning doesn't really care. In a culture of elite people, Manning seems comfortable with where he is. In some respects, that's a good thing. If Manning fretted about his status, he'd get chewed up worse than the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez. As the quarterback of New York's more traditionally established football team, Manning is examined more than the head of a needle.
"I just don't worry about it," said Manning, who has been consistent on this point for years. "It doesn't affect my performance, my preparation or my mindset on what I need to do each week. If someone wants to put me in that class or not doesn't bother me. It's not going to get me depressed or get me cocky. I just try to prepare each week and go out there and try to win each game."
That, of course, is the point. And the rest of this season, that will be quite a challenge.
Here are the winners and losers for Week 9:
• Give New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes) credit. He may not have started strong, but he finished great. Sanchez had one of his more precise overall games of his career as he completed 20 of 28 passes for 230 yards in the one-sided victory over the Buffalo Bills. One of those throws was a nice, tight 8-yard touchdown to wide receiver Santonio Holmes(notes) in the second half. Sanchez deserves criticism for the pick he threw in the first quarter when he put the ball nowhere near tight end Dustin Keller(notes). Perhaps that's why Jets coach Rex Ryan appeared to yell "stupid" after the throw.
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• Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray(notes) continues to be a beast as he finished with 139 yards on 22 carries in the win over the Seattle Seahawks. Including a 32-yard run, the bulk of his yards came when the game was still in doubt. Over the past three games, Murray has rushed for 466 yards on 55 carries; that's 8.5 yards per carry. While Murray had some injury issues in college, they weren't as severe as the ailments that have hampered Felix Jones(notes) in the NFL. Perhaps a change in the lineup is in order, even when Jones is healthy.
• For the fifth time this season, the San Francisco 49ers' Alex Smith compiled a quarterback rating of at least 98 (three of those five are over 100). That's a big reason why the 49ers are 7-1, including 4-0 on the road. Moreover, Smith had only eight such games in the first five years of his career.
• Nice work by Atlanta Falcons rookie Julio Jones(notes), whose two scoring receptions accounted for more points than the entire Alabama offense on Saturday night. Jones, a Crimson Tide alumnus who missed the past two games with a hamstring injury, had touchdown catches of 80 and 50 yards as he helped Atlanta to a rout of the Indianapolis Colts. Until then, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green(notes) had started to pull away in the race for the best rookie receiver in the league. Jones is now at least back in the discussion.
• There is no doubt that Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis(notes) got the better of the matchup against Buffalo wide receiver Stevie Johnson(notes) as New York won a lopsided game. However, give Johnson credit for playing hard the entire game against Revis, finishing with three catches for 84 yards, including a nice 52-yard reception in which Johnson did a terrific job to elude Revis.
• Houston Texans running back Arian Foster(notes) continued his return to his dominant form of last season. Foster rushed for 124 yards and one touchdown, finishing with 150 yards from scrimmage against the Cleveland Browns. Backup Ben Tate(notes) also topped 100 yards rushing as the Texans won their third straight game. Foster now has six consecutive games with at least 100 yards from scrimmage. Overall in that stretch, Foster has 959 yards and six touchdowns.
• Congrats to the Miami Dolphins for breaking out of the winless funk with a lopsided win at Kansas City (a game that should also have Chargers fans really worried about their team). However, when the story of the draft unfolds in April, you have to wonder how much that win will mean in the grand scheme of things. If it forces the Dolphins to have to pay a king's ransom for Andrew Luck, you have to wonder if winning one or two games was worth it.
• Along those lines, the Indianapolis Colts are doing their best to sew up the No. 1 pick. After losing three consecutive games by a touchdown or less, the Colts have been beaten badly or just plain blown out the past four. On Sunday, they lost 31-7 to the Atlanta Falcons and have been outscored 147-41the past four games. The suggestion last week by former NFL quarterback Phil Simms that Colts quarterback Peyton Manning(notes) would stand in the way of the Colts drafting Andrew Luck is a stretch. It's one thing to anticipate that Manning would have a say in the coaching staff, but when you're talking personnel, it gets dicey. If it ever got out that Manning did that, he would be branded as gutless by too many people and that's just not who he is.
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• The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' road woes continued this season as they lost a mostly one-sided game against the New Orleans Saints. This comes after having defeated New Orleans two games ago in Tampa Bay. The Bucs are in the middle of a seven-game stretch in which they play five games away from home. That includes the "home" game against Chicago in London. The stretch started in San Francisco, where the Bucs got destroyed.
• Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant(notes) is one of the best young receivers in the business and might actually be the one guy who pushes the entire organization to get better one day because of his high-strung style. However, Bryant can't fumble around the goal line the way he did on Sunday, costing the Cowboys a touchdown and leading to an eventual score for Seattle.
• Browns quarterback Colt McCoy(notes) continues to muddle through his second season. While his touchdown-to-interception numbers (10-6) for the season are reasonable, his yards per attempt are disappointing. He is averaging only 5.7 yards an attempt this season, which points to his inability to create big plays with his arm. The knock on McCoy, who is very accurate, is that he can't force the ball downfield and that's becoming apparent.
• For those of you who ripped me this week after I suggested that the Washington Redskins move on from the Mike Shanahan era if it really wants to rebuild, the effort Sunday was further proof that the franchise is in deep trouble. While quarterback John Beck(notes) was sacked only once after being sacked 10 times the week before, the passing game was still abysmal. It took 47 throws by Beck to gain 254 yards, an average of just 5.4 yards per attempt. The Redskins were held in check on offense except for the two possessions at the end of each half. Washington has lost five of six and has scored as many as 20 points in only one of those games.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: Watching the all-out play of Jets safety Jim Leonhard(notes), who in the second half nearly had a sack of Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes) and a fumble recovery. Leonhard is a long way from being the most talented player in New York's secondary, but he is the catalyst for so much that the Jets do.
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Loathed: Watching Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo(notes) continue to dive head-first on running plays. In the third quarter, Romo did a nice job getting positive yardage before throwing a touchdown pass to Jason Witten(notes). However, Romo continues to toy with the idea of getting crushed. He should have learned from the season-opening game against the Jets. Go feet first unless the game is on the line.
Loved: The fact that gamblers temporarily went into a conniption at the end of the Tampa Bay-New Orleans game when a touchdown run by the Saints was called back because of a holding penalty. The Saints were leading 24-16 at the time. The spread on the game was 8 ½ points, meaning that Saints bettors were about to start screaming conspiracy theories. Their fears were assuaged by a field goal. It's always good to see gamblers sweat it out.
Loathed: The dude in the fluorescent green, one-piece body suit in the stands at the Patriots game. Dude, seriously?
Loved: If you didn't see the catch New England wide receiver Wes Welker(notes) made against Giants cornerback Corey Webster(notes) with two minutes remaining in the first half on Sunday, go look at the highlights. Quarterback Tom Brady put the ball in a narrow window and Welker showed great concentration to go get it.
Loathed: The idea that so many Tim Tebow(notes) fans are going to seize upon the final score as justification that Tebow is playing well. Congrats to the Broncos for winning and congrats to Tebow for having some nicely productive elements to his game, such as the two touchdown passes and the 118 yards rushing he posted (on only 12 carries no less). However, Tebow still showed little or no consistency with his throwing and the victory was driven more by the number of big plays Oakland allowed in the second half (a 60-yard TD run by Willis McGahee(notes) and an 85-yard TD on a punt return by Eddie Royal(notes)). The test for Tebow is still whether he can be a consistent passer.
Loved Watching the highlights of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. For those who don't appreciate what we're seeing, this is perhaps the greatest display of quarterbacking in the history of the game over an extended period of time. Watch it, record it, remember it. Don't let it pass by without admiration.
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Loved: Finally seeing Falcons backup running back Jacquizz Rodgers(notes), a fifth-round pick from Oregon State, get the most extensive playing time of the season. Rodgers rushed 10 times for 44 yards and caught one pass for 16 yards. That's not a big deal, but if the Falcons can find a way to get the 5-foot-6 Rodgers more involved in the offense, he could be a significant weapon in the second half of the season.
Loathed: Seeing Saints cornerback Tracy Porter(notes) have to get carted off the field. Porter appears to be OK after suffering a neck injury. He's one of the good guys in the league, not to mention a Super Bowl hero.
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