FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The other quarterback was on the sideline, a wire dangling from his ear, giving pointers to his replacement. Eli Manning was the foil the Patriots could not defeat, the one who stole two championships away with passes that still, years later, induce gasps in New England. He was never the most storied of the Patriots' rivals -- that was his brother, Peyton -- but Eli was the one that caused the Pats the most pain, robbing them of the only two things that elude this dynasty: perfection and a spot alone atop the list of most prolific Super Bowl winners.
On Thursday night, Manning was nothing more than a poignant embodiment of the passage of time and the diverging of fortunes, the starkest possible contrast to Tom Brady and the Patriots. Manning is on the bench, his replacement Daniel Jones is going through growing pains, the New York Giants are enduring a rebuild, and the Patriots are taking another shot at an undefeated season and another championship.
New England's 35-14 victory over the Giants was the predictable result for an unblemished team with the NFL's best defense playing against a rookie quarterback without his star running back, the backup running back, his No. 1 receiver and his play-making tight end. That the Patriots (6-0) have done a better job than the Giants (2-4) -- and everyone else in the NFL -- at sustaining success is inarguable. The Giants replaced Manning because his play dropped off the way Brady's has not, and because the rest of the team deteriorated to a degree that has simply not happened in Bill Belichick's 20 seasons in New England.
So it feels like quibbling over details to find fault with the Patriots, particularly because this has become an annual exercise in absurdity. The Pats seemingly always look flawed at this point in the season, only to address their shortcomings just enough to make them amusing storylines come Super Bowl week. But there are faults there again and they were apparent on Thursday night, even against a struggling opponent in a blowout victory.
The most obvious concern is the offense, which provides few reliable weapons for Brady beyond Julian Edelman. The final score is misleading. One Patriots touchdown came off a blocked punt and another came off a fumble return. The ground game is still erratic. Subtract a 26-yard run by Sony Michel in garbage time, and New England rushed for just 88 yards. In the second half, because of injuries, the Patriots were limited to one offensive grouping, a situation that Brady said he could not remember ever happening before in his 20 years.
Brady was asked if he thinks the offense is good enough and his response was brief, but telling. "Uhhh," he said, before going silent for several seconds. "We'll see. We're 6-0, so try to get to 7-0."
His concern about the offense isn't a revelation if you've been paying attention to Brady's public comments in recent weeks. When asked about his tight ends after the Patriotscancelled their dalliance with veteran Ben Watson this week, Brady called the departure of Watson "pretty tough," then offered a lukewarm comment about how the remaining tight ends are trying hard. But New England is getting minimal production from them (Ryan Izzo had two catches for 31 yards). It was difficult not to watch Rob Gronkowski appear on FOX before the game and during halftime and think he looked like he could be ready to play in a few days. No wonder Robert Kraft sounded so hopeful in an interview with NFL Network about the technicality that Gronkowski has not yet filed retirement papers.
Brady also didn't conceal his disappointment about the release of Antonio Brown. Despite the considerable baggage the wide receiver carries, the Patriots simply needed him. Edelman had nine receptions for 113 yards, but the next leading receiver was rookie Jakobi Meyers, who had four catches for 54 yards. Rookie Gunner Olszewski had two receptions for 34 yards. Maybe this experience helps New England in the long run, but the thinness of quality among receivers becomes particularly alarming with Phillip Dorsett out with a hamstring injury and Josh Gordon suffering a leg injury in the second quarter from which he did not return, limiting him to one catch for 7 yards.
"They're working hard at it -- I appreciate all their efforts," Brady said of Meyers and Olszewski. "That's what we needed. Anyone who is on the active roster has to be ready to go. It's good for those guys to catch some balls."
That sounds a lot like a quarterback who is hoping to inject some confidence into a threadbare unit. But he must also be wondering how the Patriots could have built perhaps the best defense they have had under Belichick while letting the offense's firepower wither. That the Patriots will be linked to every available receiver before the trade deadline is to be expected.
"Guys showed a lot of toughness out there today and battled through the situation we ended up being in," Belichick said. "Really good job by those guys and offensive coaches."
It will take much more than that -- maybe even better personnel -- to beat a better opponent, though. The real season is about to start for the Patriots.