As Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning prepares for the Detroit game Thursday, the question is not whether he can extend his impressive touchdown-pass streak to 36 or more that day. He'll puncture the Lion defense a time or two. The key Manning question is whether, down the stretch, he will thrive or fold in the big-game high-pressure competition that's surely ahead for the Colts this winter.
Going back to his college days, Manning hasn't always been at his best in tight games against first-class teams. As recently as this fall, it was New England quarterback Tom Brady who prevailed in the pressure of opening night, 27-24. Later, when Kansas City's slick offense made it a shootout there, the Colts lost, 45-35.
But he's most effective when out in front — or when a ballcarrier like Edgerrin James is setting up Manning's play-action passes, and freeing him from blitzers. With 204 yards on 23 runs, James set up Manning's four touchdown passes and 211 passing yards on his 17-for-28 day in Chicago. The only bad plays Manning has made in recent years have come when good defensive teams have subjected him to heavy pressure.
Eli Is Smoother Than Peyton
THE NEW YORK GIANTS, now starting a young quarterback who may be better than Peyton Manning, will take on Philadelphia this week in a game that New Yorkers are due to watch closely. Their new quarterback is Eli Manning, Peyton's kid brother, who made a neat debut Sunday in a game that Atlanta narrowly won, 14-10.
The question about Eli is whether he has the size to survive his vicious world. He has the height, 6 feet 4, but at a listed 218 pounds he is comparatively small-framed. Brother Peyton, who rises 6 feet 5, is a well-packed 230-pounder. Otherwise, not surprisingly, they seem much the same after growing up with father Archie Manning, the NFL's best-ever-quarterback-who-couldn't-win.
Archie, the Brett Favre of his time, was drafted by the awful New Orleans Saints, who have never really improved. Eli isn't on much of a team, either, but he does have a great running back, Tiki Barber, and three grade-A pass catchers, Jeremy Shockey, Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard.
In the pressure of Eli's maiden NFL start, there were a few misses and a few drops Sunday, but all that seemed to be mainly passer-receiver unfamiliarity. Lately, Giant receivers have been catching Kurt Warner, the previous starter; and it often takes a while for even gifted pros to adjust to new teammates. Young Eli unloads faster than Warner can — or than Peyton does — and his throws were arriving sooner than expected.
Partly in response, no doubt, to those who said Warner held the ball too long, Eli held it only long enough to make very fast reads. If at times he lacked Peyton's accuracy, it was probably because, as a first-game rookie, he was unused to game-time speed. In action, though, Eli is not only quicker than Peyton but smoother. They're both nearly in Archie's league.
Why Doesn't Vick Protect Himself?
THE ATLANTA FALCONS will take the NFC's second best record (8-2) into their game with New Orleans this week. And they're playing like an 8-2 team. But their quarterback, Michael Vick, has the look of an injury waiting to happen. Either he doesn't know how to protect himself or he doesn't care.
Although quarterback sliding is as much of football today as draw plays, Vick never goes down until he's tackled. He hasn't even learned to take a glancing blow. He just keeps going until someone hits him solidly.
That seems a strange way for a 215-pound NFL quarterback to proceed in this day of 300-pound tacklers, if indeed Vick goes as much as 215. At 6-0, he is four or five inches shorter than either Manning. But when carrying a football, Vick, an extremely fast sandlot-type runner, is so quick and talented that his focus is only on moving around or ahead.
In Sunday's matchup of underweight quarterbacks (Vick vs. Eli Manning), bigger Giants tackled Vick unsparingly four times on his first touchdown drive alone. But he got up and kept running or passing and getting hit until he had a 14-0 lead at halftime, after which the Falcons seemed to prematurely relax.
The West Coast Offense, which Vick's new coaches have put in this year, could have been designed for him specifically. By spreading around the pass receivers, the West Coast spreads out the defensive players, creating lanes for Vick to run through. Yet he won't last if he doesn't learn to slide.
Belichick, Brady Too Much for NFL
THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS won a 27-19 Monday night game in Kansas City their usual way — on the leadership and defensive designs of Coach Bill Belichick and the pass plays and offensive leadership of quarterback Tom Brady — as the Patriots brushed off a 97-yard Chief touchdown drive and a 65-yard touchdown bomb by Chief quarterback Trent Green. The Chiefs are capable of such moves against any pro club, demonstrating their potential with 417 net yards to New England's 407. At clutch moments, though, they were no match for the firm of Belichick and Brady.
Belichick's powerful planning was illustrated in one small defensive instance in the first quarter, which the Chiefs won, 10-7. After a failed Kansas City run on first down, the Patriots, counting on the Chiefs to throw a second-and-nine pass, mounted a maximum blitz against passer Green, rushing all but two defensive backs. The Chiefs, who had been rolling from their first offensive series, lost so much ground on that sack that Green's third-and-long completion fell a yard short of a first down. The timely maximum blitz had forced the punt that kept Kansas City away from a big start against the champions.
Brady's powerful passing was best illustrated during a surprisingly quick, two-play, 72-yard move on successive passes to the game's key touchdown in the third quarter, the first a 46-yard bomb to 5-foot-10 wide receiver David Patten, the second a mid-range bullet to 5-foot-9 wide receiver Deion Branch, who, on a 26-yard play, ran it in. The bomb was actually thrown twice. The first time, Brady, with an easy 46-yard delivery, missed Patten's outstretched fingers by no more than two or three inches. So the passer made a correction. On the same play exactly, throwing the same way to the same speeding receiver, Brady hit him in the hands the second time with a shot that covered half the field from launch point to catch. The meaning wasn't lost on the league: The Patriots have a quarterback who can do a three-inch correction on a 46-yard pass in the pressure of Monday night football.
Nobody Stops Rams But Rams
THE ST. LOUIS RAMS are .500 (5-5) going into next Monday night's game at Green Bay, where they might well demonstrate that they don't have the defense or the special teams or the blockers to hang with the Packers. The only thing the Rams can offer as a competitive football team this year is the NFL's best pass offense, which can only be stopped by the Rams themselves.
In a 37-17 defeat at Buffalo, the Rams beat the Rams again last Sunday. After a 17-all half, they came out running in the third quarter, calling mostly ineffective power runs and difficult third-down passes (and a punt) on each of four consecutive series, by which time the Bills had parlayed some ordinary pass plays and an 86-yard punt return into the 20 winning points.
When the Rams were playing more aggressively in the first half — though not aggressively enough — they opened leads of 10-0 in the first quarter (as quarterback Marc Bulger threw nine passes on their first 13 snaps) and 17-14 in the second quarter. But their signal-caller, Coach Mike Martz, was growing more conservative by the minute. For the last points Martz was to make in Buffalo, it was third and 11 when Bulger hit wide receiver Torry Holt in the end zone in the fading moments of the half — throwing with unbelievable accuracy through a minuscule hole between two defensive backs, a hole that didn't look six inches wide.
Still, against today's NFL defenses, no passer can succeed consistently throwing on third and 11; and, in the second half, third-and-long passing was the undoing of Bulger in Buffalo. The Rams, to win these days, have to keep attacking with first-down passes and other early-down pass plays in order to outscore their nearly-hopeless defense and special teams, whose inadequacies are legion and legend-making. Martz knows how to throw but not how to attack.
Steeler Foes Focus on Rookie, Let Bettis Run
THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS, bare 19-14 winners over Cincinnati Sunday, are another team trying to win conservatively this season with third-down passes (after often futile early-down runs). And so far, they've made a 9-1 record with their phenomenal rookie passer, Ben Roethlisberger.
The NFL's defensive coaches are, however, beginning to catch up to Pittsburgh's simple offense, even though, clearly, they don't mind that Pittsburgh's old running back Jerome Bettis is still piling up 100-yard games.
Defenses let Bettis go on having his fun on first- and second-down plays, knowing he can't do any real harm, while concentrating their strategic planning almost wholly on ways to handle Roethlisberger on third down.
If it's true that he won't have so much to beat this week when 3-7 Washington comes to town, it's also a fact that the 4-6 Bengals made all kinds of trouble for Roethlisberger Sunday, fooling him with a variety of third-down blitzing schemes that would have troubled any passer trying to make a living on third down. It was good experience for Roethlisberger, who will doubtless see more of the same from the Redskins and five more defensive teams this year.
Bengal quarterback Carson Palmer, who threw two big touchdown passes in the first half, was going to win the Pittsburgh game until Roethlisberger made two plays — two only — in the second half, both on one series. First, from the Bengal 41, he threw a 26-yard pass to tight end Jerame Tuman at the Bengal 15. Then after Bettis got the obligatory handoffs on first and second down, Roethlisberger fired a third-down touchdown pass eight yards to a fullback, Dan Kreider. If Roethlisberger doesn't make the Tuman and Kreider plays, Pittsburgh is a goner and Roethlisberger's unprecedented undefeated career start ends at seven. It doesn't take 20-20 vision to see that it won't last much past eight or nine unless his coaches open up their offense.