Flipping channels Sunday afternoon, I noticed former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali watching the Rams-Cards game from a suite in University of Phoenix Stadium. Seeing the original GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) and then switching to the Giants-Patriots game, I was reminded of what Eli Manning said this summer about being an "elite" quarterback. Ali would say, "It's not bragging if you can back it up," and in Foxborough, Manning backed up his words with a great fourth quarter.
Was Manning elite in the game? No, but neither was Tom Brady (more about that later), and Manning was playing without his best receiver, Hakeem Nicks, and his best runner, Ahmad Bradshaw. Manning was limited in what he could do in terms of attacking the Patriots weak secondary, but at the end of the game when it mattered most, he made some incredibly clutch throws.
Defensively, the Patriots played their best all season Sunday ... until the final two times the Giants offense touched the ball. Manning orchestrated two eight-play drives, making two perfect throws -- both on third down -- for touchdowns. Third down had been the disaster down for the Giants for most of the day and season, but when they needed clutch throws, Manning made 'em.
Right now, the Giants are riding the talents and leadership of Manning. You could sense when Manning entered the huddle on both fourth-quarter drives, the team had complete confidence that he was going to make the right read, the right throw and the right play. Most of the current Giants on offense weren't around for Manning's Super Bowl-winning drive, and many may not remember how well he played that entire playoff run in 2008. But with Manning's recent play, his new Giants teammates know he is an elite quarterback.
Elite quarterbacks make the plays when the games are on the line, which is exactly what Manning did. He even scrambled for a first down, gaining 12 yards -- his longest run of the season -- in part because the Patriots were playing so much man to man and weren't accounting for Manning to run. The only mistake Manning made was throwing an interception in the end zone when the Giants had a chance to put the game away. But instead of pouting, or feeling sorry for himself, he just kept competing.
This game was different from any Giants game all season. Their defense played well against both the run and pass, allowing yards but not many points. They created turnovers, which created scoring opportunities for the offense, and the offense moved the ball without making its usual big play down the field, though it did benefit from two huge pass interference penalties on the last drive. All year, Manning has been able to make throws down the field, averaging almost nine yards per attempt coming into the game. But on this day, the Giants were not able to make explosive plays. The Giants offense did not try to force it, knowing the Patriots were taking away the deep ball, so they played smart and relied on their defense to keep them in the game.
Take nothing away from the Giants, but when the Patriots struggle on offense, they are not going to win many games. If the Patriots offense is held to under 24 points, there is a good chance they will lose. The Pats offense, specifically Brady, must carry the team to victory. When he is not playing well, the Pats cannot win. Brady struggled in throwing the ball, in making the right reads and in putting the ball in the right spot, missing even wide-open receivers. The ball never looked good coming off his hand. Most teams are taking away the short passing game of the Patriots, daring Brady to make the throw down the field, which he seems reluctant to take. Yes, when the game was on the line, Brady did lead the Patriots down the field, but this was not a typical Brady game.
The Patriots must establish the lead with their offense. With limitations on defense, the Pats can't turn the ball over offensively and expect to win. No team in the NFL can do this, but especially the Patriots, since they rely so much on their offense to win games. Some of the most glaring mistakes I saw were Brady missing Deion Branch on a quick slant (ball was tipped at the line) and then Brady missing Aaron Hernandez in the end zone at the end of the first half. To make matters worse, kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a chip shot from 27 yards. Instead of going into halftime up 7-0 or 3-0, with the ball to start the second half, the score was 0-0. And instead of starting fast in the second half, which is where the Pats normally excel, Brady threw his second interception, to Deon Grant on a ball he badly underthrew to Rob Grankowski (similar to the one the threw in Week 3 to Bills safety George Wilson).
Often when great players don't make an accurate throw or miss an open receiver or a read, it gets overlooked by all the great plays he makes during the game. During the past three weeks, the Pats offense has struggled in every phase, and they can ill afford to have inconsistencies. They are not a fast or play-making defense, so when they get off the field without allowing points the offense must take over the game. This has not happened the past three games, which is why the Pats are 1-2 over that period.
Next up for the Patriots are the Jets, who have had their struggles but now look like the best team in the AFC East. The NFL is funny. The last time the Pats played the Jets, the Jets had lost two in a row; now it is the Patriots on a two-game skid as they head to New York. Things change quickly in the league.
Back to the Giants. They might not look pretty on defense, especially in the secondary, but they have found their formula for winning. When the Giants don't turn the ball over and create pressure with their front four, they are tough to beat. In the past month, they have found ways to compensate for their lack of speed in the secondary. The toughest part of their schedule is ahead of them, with the NFC East title on the line. First they need to get Bradshaw and Nicks healthy and back in the starting lineup, which will help their offense. But most of all, it will give Manning more options as he continues to show the world he is an elite player.
Things I loved
» I love where the Jets are right now as a team. They still do not get pressure on the passer, but their coverage units in the secondary are so good they can shut down an opposing passing game. Since the second half of the Chargers game, the Jets have really come on; they saved their season with that win, and now they look to have their swagger back as they face the Patriots with first place on the line. Their offensive line has played much better, Shonn Greene is running hard and they are playing a style of offense that seems to work well for them. The Jets fixed their woes, and now they look like the best in the AFC East.
Darlington: Turning point for Flacco?
» I loved watching Joe Flacco take his team 92 yards down the field for the winning score to beat the Steelers. Just two weeks ago, Flacco and the Ravens offense could not get 92 yards for the entire game against the Jaguars or convert any third downs. Sunday night, they converted 66 percent of their third downs. Since the second half of the Cardinals game, this offense has become explosive thanks to Flacco's talents. Flacco has made some incredible throws, especially down the field where he places the ball so that his receiver has no choice but to make the catch. He has played his best football of the season the past two weeks and if the Ravens ride his arm, they will be a dangerous team come playoff time. In the past when the Ravens won, it was because of their defense, and when they lost, it was because of Flacco. That is no longer true.
» I loved that the Dolphins finally won a game and dominated the Chiefs on the road. I wrote last week that Tony Sparano and the Dolphins have been playing hard, competing in every game. When you watch the Dolphins on tape, they play hard, keep fighting and have no earmarks of a team that is losing, other than a lack of talent in some areas. But Sunday it all came together. Reggie Bush played like a feature back, and Brandon Marshall played like a No. 1 wide receiver. It was a nice win for the Fins and was even nicer for Sparano, who has acted like a pro and coached his team as if they were 7-0, not winless.
Things I hated
» I hated watching the Redskins play on offense, once again. They have no power, no play-makers and no quarterback. They can't run the ball, and their offensive line lacks the physical power to run block and the strength to pass block. I picked them to win the NFC East because their defense is really good and I thought they would be able to control the game by running the ball. The defense has lived up to expectations, but they play doubleheaders every game. The offense is so bad and never gain the lead, and the 'Skins defense never gets to do what it does best -- rush the passer. Mike Shanahan is now 9-13 in Washington and falling fast.
» I hated watching the Raiders play defense. For all the talk about Oakland being a legitimate playoff team after making the Carson Palmer trade, no one mentioned the defense was unsound against the run, unable to cover man to man and makes too many mistakes. The Raiders allowed a one-dimensional team to gain almost 300 yards on the ground. They take too many chances up front and don't maintain the control of the line of scrimmage. The Raiders have invested heavily in their defense, but all season they have failed to play well, and Sunday they sunk to a new low.
» I hated watching the Colts again, and I am sure most Colts fans agree. They are just not an NFL team right now. Watching the LSU-Alabama game Saturday night, I kept thinking, Could the Colts beat either one of these teams? I am not sure they could. They are 2008 Lions bad. Losing Peyton Manning has hurt, but it has also exposed how far the Colts are from being a good team. If and when Manning comes back, the Colts won't automatically be a great team again. It is going to take some hard work by the entire organization. First they must hit on some draft picks to turn this around and also make a few sound decisions in free agency. Is all this doable? Not in one year. Never in my career have I seen a team so uncompetitive each week. They are the odds-on favorite to win the Andrew Luck derby and I don't even think it is close.
Things on my mind
» The Bills' inability to make plays down the field finally caught up with them Sunday. The Jets took away the slants and short passing game, leaving Ryan Fitzpatrick with limited options. It will be interesting to see if the Bills can still score at a high rate in the second half of the season since their offense has become known around the league.
» Falcons WR Julio Jones' catch in the end zone was remarkable and I could watch it all day. Even more amazing was the referee had a clear view of the play but could not even tell he caught the ball. His reaction was so emphatic that Jones did not make the catch that even he had to be amazed when he saw a replay.
» The Bengals are just like the 49ers. They play tough on defense, play hard and smart on offense, limit their mistakes and wear down opponents as the game goes along. Both have dominating front sevens, both can run the ball and both force their opponents to beat them. They are getting better and better.
» Before the draft, Patrick Peterson had the "can't-miss" look to his game and so far he has proven to be that. His walk-off punt return in overtime was incredible. Why even catch the ball at the 1? Because when Patrick Peterson gets the ball in his hands, he is dangerous, that's why. The Cards should think about using him a little on offense, too.
» The Rams special teams just killed them. Failing to cover the 99-yard punt in overtime and getting the potential game-winning field goal blocked in regulation cost them the game.