Peyton vs. Big Ben

Almost certainly, the most important football game of the season — the AFC championship game, which some folks are sure to call the real Super Bowl — will be played outdoors on what could well be the coldest day of the winter in Pittsburgh on Jan. 23. That became probable Sunday when the 14-1 Steelers won the home-field edge through the playoffs.

Pittsburgh is a running team built for Pittsburgh weather — which is to say bad weather. And its probable opponent that winter day will be a passing team, either the 13-2 New England Patriots with Tom Brady or the 12-3 Indianapolis Colts with Peyton Manning.

It's true that, this year, Corey Dillon has given the Patriots what they needed most — a running back.

And it's likewise a fact that tailback Edgerrin James has been vital to Manning's play-action game.

But there's a difference between running the ball for change of pace — which is, basically, what Dillon and James do — and running it steadily, which is what the Steelers do with Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley. For title day, the Steelers are counting on either bitterly cold weather or high winds. In milder, windless weather — with a sloppy field to retard the running backs and defensive backs — the advantage could shift to Brady or Manning. In any case, Pittsburgh's offensive line is still the envy of the league, and good blockers can throw blocks in any kind of weather.

Cheap Shot Downs Roethlisberger

THE STEELERS are where they are today, of course, because of the remarkable contributions of their new quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, the most successful rookie the NFL has known in six decades — since quarterback Bob Waterfield of the old Cleveland Rams beat Sammy Baugh in the league's 1945 championship game.

Nonetheless, as the passer on a running team, Roethlisberger throws only an occasional pass. And there came a time in the Baltimore game Sunday when he couldn't even do that. After a cheap shot by Raven linebacker Terrell Suggs, a second-year pro from Arizona State, Roethlisberger went to the sideline with one of the most painful of all injuries, bad ribs.

He had just thrown the second of his two touchdowns to defeat Baltimore, 20-7, when Suggs sneaked up on his blind side and got him well after the ball was gone. In the era of Coach Brian Billick, the Ravens have been widely known for moves like that. To win their only Super Bowl in 2001, they knocked out all three passers they faced in the playoffs. And more recently, it was in a Baltimore game last September that Roethlisberger's predecessor, Tommy Maddox, went down and out with an elbow injury.

The Maddox incident backfired on the Ravens — they'd be that much closer to the Super Bowl today if it weren't for Roethlisberger — but who knew that? Who could have expected a rookie to do what Big Ben's doing?

Best Passer, Worst Quarterback?

THE DENVER BRONCOS are favored to win a wild card spot in the playoffs next week by turning back the only NFL quarterback who ever, in one season, threw 49 touchdown passes. Say hello to Peyton Manning, whose comeback conquest of San Diego in overtime Sunday, 34-31, identified him as one of the best passers of recent years and one of the worst quarterbacks.

As a field general, that is, Manning leaves much to be desired. He loves what's known as play-action football — handing off or faking handoffs to runner James before dropping back to throw or fake a throw — and the faking is essential, but all those handoffs are not.

Against a San Diego team whose quarterback, Drew Brees, passed aggressively on nearly every first down and parlayed touchdown throws — one a 74-yard pass play for the game's longest touchdown — Manning kept handing off for small gains on time-consuming, profitless drives. In five quarters, James totaled but 81 yards on 22 carries. In the first quarter alone, Manning had possession for 24 plays to nine for Brees, who led at the end of the quarter, 7-0.

A half dozen James runs per game would be more than enough to, as they say, keep any defense honest. Instead, in the second half Sunday, Manning kept running James until San Diego had opened a 31-16 fourth-quarter lead on Brees' passes. Just then, when the Colts seemed dead, and were dead unless somebody could return the kickoff all the way, the improbable happened, reserve Colt running back Dominick Rhodes bringing the kickoff back 88 yards to save Manning.

Until Rhodes stole away, it was obvious that Manning had wasted so much time dancing around in the backfield after handing the ball to James that, now, he couldn't catch up throwing passes. And that's bad quarterbacking.

Manning Tosses Nine Straight Passes

MANNING PROVED in Sunday's fourth quarter that he's a much better passer than quarterback. To win the game in the final minutes, he stood back in shotgun formation and fired away, dispensing with his play-action nonsense and all other quarterback responsibilities on the game's decisive 80-yard drive. After Rhodes' big punt return closed the score to 31-23, the Colts needed eight points to tie, and the crucial problem, arising before a two-point conversion could be thought of, was getting the touchdown. Manning got it by lining up as a shotgun passer and throwing (or attempting to throw) nine consecutive passes, six of which connected.

There were no runs on that drive by Edgerrin James or anyone else. There were no window-dressing stretch plays. There was no elaborate faking. Although Manning often skips importantly around in the backfield before snaps, apparently conferring with teammates and pointing a finger zealously left or right, there was none of that. There was no need to huddle. There was no need for the sandlot plays Manning may have used at least once — his exceptional wide receivers, one or more of the three, were open on all nine plays.

He simply stood there, sometimes stepping this way or that, and threw the football with purpose and great accuracy — once on fourth and four, the last time on first and 10 to slot receiver Brandon Stokley, who was in the clear 21 yards away in the end zone when he held the historic pass. On the historic drive, with the clock running down, the superb Charger defense knew it wouldn't see James at all — or any other Colt runner — just Manning. That isn't quarterbacking. It's great passing.

Rule Enforcement Enhances Passing

THE NFL rates a thank you and an assist on Manning's record 49 scoring passes. The Colt star couldn't have done it last year or in other recent years when, defying league rules, pro football's more active defensive players repeatedly mauled pass receivers, preventing legal catches. This year, the NFL stopped that, insistently reminding wrongdoers: Don't touch. And in widely enforcing an old rule, the league office has restored the luster to pass offense, the most brilliant way to play football.

The rulebook allows linebackers and defensive backs to bump and otherwise obstruct pass-catching opponents on the scrimmage line or anywhere else in what is known as the five-yard bump zone beyond the line. Thereafter, though, no bumping or touching.

And the rule is as clear as it should be. For, on long spectacular passes particularly, the plays are so closely timed and the required skills are so carefully refined that the slightest case of interference — say, a hand placed briefly on an elbow — can undo a bunch of beautiful work.

In Manning's best formation — three receivers, one back, Manning under center — the receivers are all relatively small-sized. Marvin Harrison, a 6-footer, weighs only 175 pounds. Reggie Wayne measures 6-0 and 198. Stokley at 197 stands 5 feet 11. When bigger defensive players are permitted to manhandle any of these three lawlessly, or simply jar them off stride, the magical Manning pass offense grinds to a halt.

This year, by merely enforcing a good rule, the NFL has made possible better pass-offense play everywhere, leading to many good things — not only to a record 49 touchdown passes in Indianapolis but also to big pass plays on many other fields, plays that make a parity season more palatable. When the quarterback for a 7-8 team can complete 14 of 20 and throw a key touchdown pass to beat an 8-7 team, as Houston's David Carr did Sunday when he brought down Jacksonville, 21-0, there is joy in Houston if not in Jacksonville — whose passer Byron Leftwich created weeks of joy there earlier. And, down the road, will generate more.

A Nothing-Doing Monday Night

THE ST. LOUIS RAMS, lining up their first team all the way, managed to outpoint the Philadelphia Eagles' second team this week in an unsatisfactory 20-7 Monday night game that raised more questions than it answered.

First: How can the NFL best avoid late-season nationally televised fiascos when the schedule must be announced six or eight months earlier?

Second: What can be done in a situation like this — which is bound to recur — when one team (13-2 Philadelphia) isn't trying and doesn't want to be there and the other team (7-8 St. Louis) hasn't played well enough to even be on national television?

Third: In the long run, does it help or harm the better team to give its best players the night off in a meaningless game in order to avoid any possibility of the injuries that would disrupt the playoff season?

In the NFL's new TV contracts, the league is planning some answers for questions one and two, despite which there will always be similar unforeseeable late-season problems. Should the league just give up on mid-winter Monday nights? Clearly, this week, the Rams and Eagles didn't sell pro football to any new customers.

Question three follows a game in which Eagle running back Brian Westbrook never showed and Eagle quarterback Donovan McNabb appeared for only one series (where he underlined the difference between a good NFL team and a team like the Rams).

Undoubtedly, it hurts club chemistry to treat different players differently. But what would the City of Brotherly Love say if McNabb, in a nothing game on the eve of the playoffs, broke a leg?

The only realistic reply to all this may be that in football as in real life, there are questions that don't have answers.

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