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Unconventional wisdom

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The way to fix New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning's current problems is to ask more of him.

That might sound like an odd way to break Manning's six-game slump, which hit rock bottom Monday night, but it may very well take unorthodox measures to snap him out of this funk. Over the past six games, Manning has completed only 51 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. Those mediocre numbers are hardly representative of Manning's talent, which made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2004.

Moreover, at a time when the Giants (6-4) need Manning to be at his best, he is shrinking. Against the Jaguars, Manning was downright awful in a 26-10 loss. Through three quarters, he completed only eight of 24 passes for 102 yards with an interception and a touchdown pass. His final numbers (19-of-41 for 230 yards) looked salvageable only after some garbage-time stats in the fourth quarter, by which time the Jaguars were in control.

While the Giants are clearly suffering from injury problems that have made it difficult for the offense, the root issue for Manning is that he doesn't take the game seriously. Manning burns cool in a game where most people have to play as if their hair is on fire.

Perhaps that's why Manning has always seemed to play best when he is in a comeback mode, such as earlier this season in an overtime win against Philadelphia and a loss in Seattle the following week. That's the only time he feels challenged. That was true when he was at Mississippi and remains the case now that he is in the NFL. But in the NFL, you have to be good from the start more often than not if you want to be a champion.

Manning has the requisite talent to be great. In fact, he probably has more physical skill than his brother Peyton. But where Peyton plays to the maximum of his talent, Eli plays like a guy who would rather be at the Phi Delta Theta mega-kegger.

That said, early Tuesday morning, only minutes after the loss to Jacksonville, he was contrite. He took responsibility for playing poorly and didn't point a finger at anyone. He then echoed the comments of coach Tom Coughlin by saying that the Giants merely needed to continue "working hard."

Coughlin, who spent several minutes after the loss to Jacksonville screaming at his team in the locker room, all but directly said that Manning was playing poorly.

"There's no question about the fact that there's an awful lot more plays being left there [on the field] than being made," Coughlin said when asked directly about how Manning was playing.

The problem is that hard work doesn't solve what ails Manning. Rather, challenge does. Manning is the gifted kid who skates a lot of the time. The only way to get Manning to respond is to ask him to do more.

In this case, Coughlin and the Giants could force Manning to call his own plays or do something else that forces Manning to shoulder more of the burden. The hard part is that asking more of a player when he is struggling seems almost counterintuitive. Furthermore, Coughlin giving up responsibility to a young player like Manning goes against Coughlin's very nature.

Still, that may be the only way for Manning to get better before the team completely loses faith in him. In fact, even before the game began Monday night, a New York-based writer was talking to a Giants executive about a column that had been written earlier in the week. The writer was asking the executive if the column he'd written criticizing Manning earlier in the week had been too harsh. The executive didn't seem the least bit bothered.

"You mean the fact that you wrote that he's playing like (crap)?" the executive said, rhetorically. The writer chuckled and the executive walked away without disagreeing in the least.

AFC PLAYOFF PICTURE
Indianapolis' hopes for an undefeated season were ruined by Dallas last Sunday. Still, the Colts couldn't be much happier about the way things are shaping up for the AFC playoffs at this point.

After a weekend in which Baltimore and San Diego climbed within one game of Indy for the top spot in the AFC, the Colts should be hoping that the conference standings hold up over the final six games of the season. That's because the way things are shaping up, the Colts would have the No. 1 seed and could face one of two teams (Denver or New England) which they have already defeated this season in the second round of the playoffs. More important, the Colts wouldn't face the Chargers or Ravens – physical teams that could give them serious trouble – until the AFC championship, if at all.

That's the way things shape up with Baltimore currently holding the tiebreaker advantage over the Chargers in the battle for the AFC's No. 2 seed. While it's premature to consider, with the way that the remaining schedules break down, it's realistic. The following is a look at the nine teams in the AFC which are .500 or better with six games remaining.

  • Indianapolis Colts (9-1): The remaining opponents for the Colts have a combined record of 26-34, which is tied for the second-easiest schedule among the nine AFC playoff contenders. Furthermore, that series of opponents starts with Philadelphia (5-5) on Sunday night, the Eagles' first game following the season-ending loss of quarterback Donovan McNabb. Look for the Colts to roll into the playoffs with a 13-3 or 14-2 record and to keep the No. 1 seed in the conference.
  • San Diego Chargers (8-2): Their opponents are a combined 27-33 and they have the distinct advantage of playing four of their final six games at home. Barring a distinct reversal by the suddenly offense-aggressive Marty Schottenheimer, the Chargers will finish 12-4 and will beat out the Ravens for the No. 2 seed.
  • Baltimore Ravens (8-2): Like the Colts, Ravens' opponents are a combined 26-34. Some of those games (two against Pittsburgh) figure to be tough for the Ravens, who aren't the most explosive offensive team in the AFC, but do play with a sense of calm and intelligence. Look for the Ravens to finish 11-5 and be the No. 3 seed.
  • New England Patriots (7-3): The Patriots could throw a wrench into the situation as they face opponents with a combined 27-33 record. But they have to start beating quality teams starting this Sunday against Chicago as none of the squads they've beaten this season currently have a winning mark. The other problem for the Patriots is that all three of their losses (to the Broncos, Colts and Jets) are against conference teams, putting them behind in the tiebreaker race. Look for the Patriots to win the East at 11-5 minimum, but to also finish with the No. 4 seed in the playoffs.
  • Denver Broncos (7-3): Blowing a 17-point, second-half lead at home against San Diego was a huge confidence killer for the Broncos. Furthermore, the unraveling of quarterback Jake Plummer in the fourth quarter of that game was disheartening because it was so predictable. The worst part for the Broncos is that they face opponents who are a combined 32-28, featuring only one team (Arizona) with a losing record. The defense is there for the Broncos to still win the division, but it will be a struggle. Look for the Broncos to finish 11-5 with the top wild-card spot, which means a trip to New England in the first round.
  • Jacksonville Jaguars (6-4): It's hard to figure out what the Jaguars want to be. They can run on offense and play solid defense, but they have blown two games against Houston and another against Washington to put themselves in a tough spot. The remaining schedule is 33-27, but that is skewed by Indy's 9-1 mark. There are games against Buffalo, Miami and Tennessee, and the Jags can't afford to blow any of them. Look for a 10-6 finish, the final playoff spot and an ugly trip to either San Diego or Baltimore for their one playoff game.
  • Kansas City Chiefs (6-4): It's a brutal road ahead for the Chiefs, who face the roughest schedule at a combined 34-26, including AFC contenders Denver, Baltimore, San Diego and Jacksonville. If the Chiefs make the playoffs, they will have definitely earned it. Look for them to finish 9-7 and likely out of the playoffs.
  • New York Jets (5-5): The Jets have the most unique schedule down the stretch with no games against a team currently having a winning record. New York's remaining opponents are a combined 21-39, which is ridiculously bad by NFL standards. That said, the Jets are a really flawed team, having been outscored by 40 points this season and having been shut out twice. Still, they play hard and they don't make a lot of mistakes. Look for the Jets to go 9-7 and miss the playoffs after hanging around longer than anyone could have imagined.
  • Cincinnati Bengals (5-5): The schedule is tough, featuring a combined opponents' record of 33-27 and games against Baltimore, at Indianapolis and at Denver. There's also Pittsburgh in the season finale. The Bengals are also extraordinarily flawed on defense and the offense hasn't been good enough to cover it up most of the season. Look for a 7-9 finish and for them to be out of the playoffs with two weeks left in the season.

RISK TAKING
Speaking of the Jets, there was some hand-wringing by the media over an interesting decision to go for an onside kick to open the second half. The play didn't work as Chicago recovered the ball and eventually converted the excellent field position (they got the ball at the Jets 44-yard line) into a field goal for a 3-0 lead.

While some people second-guessed the decision, the strategy was pretty interesting and is one that Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff has loved to employ over the years. In the 2000 season, for instance, Westhoff used the play on the second kickoff of the game to help Miami build a quick 14-0 lead and win in Detroit.

In this case, the Jets needed to find a way to steal an extra possession against the defensive-minded Bears. The only problem is that the Bears are also exceptionally well-coached on special teams by Dave Toub, a guy who constantly goes over strategy details. That's one of the big reasons why the Bears have returned missed field goals for touchdowns in each of the past two years, setting and tying the league record for the longest scoring play ever at 108 yards.

SAVAGE DISPUTES REPORT
Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage said he has no desire to reduce his role as general manager of the team, countering what a source told Yahoo! Sports last week.

"If that was the case, why would I have battled [former Cleveland president] John Collins after last season for control over my job?' Savage said, rhetorically. "Look, I had that job before when I was at Baltimore. It was a good job and there was a lot less responsibility, but that's not what I want."

Savage also said that he and owner Randy Lerner communicate three to four times a day between phone calls and email. That said, there continues to be talk about Lerner being concerned about the direction of the team. Part of that was because former offensive coordinator Mo Carthon, who resigned, was not fired earlier by coach Romeo Crennel and because of problems with the recovery of injured center LeCharles Bentley.

Savage said Bentley spent more than four weeks in a hospital dealing with an infection after surgery to repair a ruptured patellar tendon, which occurred on the opening day of training camp.

RETURN TO GLORY
Former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo was on hand Sunday to help the team honor retired wide receiver Jerry Rice. The event featured numerous former 49ers, including Steve Young. In addition, former coach Bill Walsh came despite dealing with lingering pain from leukemia.

DeBartolo helped Walsh up to DeBartolo's luxury box and said Walsh appeared to be better physically than when they got together two months ago.

"He was in really good spirits and he looked healthier than when I saw him before," DeBartolo said. "He's fighting through it."

As for DeBartolo, he said he felt like "a proud father" at the event as Rice, a future Pro Football Hall of Famer, was honored for his illustrious career, which ended after the 2004 season. Looking back, DeBartolo oversaw a franchise that featured one of the greatest coaches (Walsh), one of the greatest quarterbacks (Joe Montana) and perhaps the greatest player at any position (Rice) in the history of the NFL.

"It's amazing as you're going through it that you don't really understand what you have at the time," said DeBartolo, whose teams won five Super Bowls between 1981 and 1995. The first came in only his fourth season as owner. "When you get a chance to look back at it, it's amazing. The truth is that we were really close to winning two or three more. We could have had seven or eight titles quite easily."

As for any desire to get back in the game, DeBartolo said he's "happy doing what I'm doing" as a real estate investor and developer in Tampa, Fla. DeBartolo's sister Denise and brother-in-law John York took control after DeBartolo was convicted of federal bribery charges.

QUICK OUTS

  • Throughout NBC's Sunday night telecast of the San Diego-Denver game, announcers Al Michaels and John Madden talked about how Broncos coach Mike Shanahan likes to judge a quarterback based on his effectiveness on third down. If that's the case, Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer sealed his fate and will be cut this offseason after his performance against San Diego. Plummer converted only one of five plays on either third or fourth down in the fourth quarter. He also fumbled a shotgun snap after Shanahan had called timeout to set up a play and threw an interception on another fourth down. Overall, the mercurial Plummer completed five of 11 passes for 81 yards, a touchdown, an interception, was sacked once and had two fumbles in the fourth quarter. Depending on how the rest of the season goes, the Jay Cutler era could get an early look at some point down the stretch of the season.
  • The biggest problem for the St. Louis Rams in the first year under coach Scott Linehan has been a deteriorating offensive line that can't pass protect on a consistent basis. The Rams allowed seven sacks Sunday against Carolina and have allowed 35 for the season. Only Cleveland (39) and Oakland (48) have allowed more. The biggest problem on the line? Left tackle Orlando Pace, who has missed two games with injuries, and backup Adam Goldberg have been bad. Said one scout of Pace: "I don't know exactly what's wrong, but he can't handle a good counter move right now. If the end gets him going outside and then runs back in the middle, Pace just doesn't have the quickness to recover right now."
  • It was an impressive day for big plays last Sunday. There were 10 touchdown passes of 40 yards or longer, led by a pair of 83-yarders by Buffalo wide receiver Lee Evans. There was a 70-yard touchdown run by Tennessee back Travis Henry and seven punt, kick or interception returns for scores. In addition, Baltimore return man B.J. Sams had three returns of 49 yards or longer.
  • Having mentioned Chicago and its game this Sunday at New England, the Bears definitely need to play well if they are going to develop any belief that they can beat an AFC team in the Super Bowl. In their past two games against the AFC, the Bears have been blown out at home by Miami and struggled against the Jets in New York, going scoreless in the first half of that game.
  • Memo to the NFL: Let more head coaches dress in suits if they like. San Francisco coach Mike Nolan and Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio looked good in the well-tailored look, reminiscent of Tom Landry, Hank Stram and others who used to bring a nice touch of dignity to the game.