A good, sound, up-to-date NFL team is one that rotates two defensive lines, reasoning that it has a better chance to win with eight fresh pass rushers than four tiring All-Pros.
Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning taught that lesson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their All-Pros Monday night.
Then, in one of the great personal quarterbacking triumphs of all time, he rallied the Colts to a surprisingly easy 38-35 comeback victory with the most artistic passing show in recent NFL history, completing so many third-down throws that his official rating as a third-down passer must have bolted into the stratosphere.
As the Buccaneers blew a 35-14 lead in the fourth quarter before blowing up, Manning completed 34 of 47 passes for 386 yards even though his offensive line couldn't protect him when the night was young and the world-champion Buccaneers were well rested.
Then, predictably, their wonderful front four — the NFL's best since the Ram days of Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen — wore down sprinting in to smash the Colt quarterback. He didn't smash. And on Manning's long overtime drive setting up the winning field goal, he made all four of the critical third-down plays that beat the best team in football.
Leaping Penalty Saves Kicker
THE LEAPING PENALTY, the rarely called restraint that gave the Colts a second chance to win in overtime Monday night after their flustered kicker, Mike Vanderjagt, had failed the first time, is in the NFL code for the players' own protection — and it belongs there.
If you let every tall, eager professional jump any way he wants to, and as high, he might come down heavily on somebody's leg, then spin awkwardly away, turn a cartwheel, fall on his head, and kill himself. Serious injuries on kick-prevention special teams threatened regularly in the old days before the rules were tightened.
It was one of the Buccaneers' tiring All-Pros, Simeon Rice, who somehow summoned the energy to attempt the illegal play that awarded Vanderjagt a bonus chance to kick the football straight, which he didn't really do, either time, but lucked out the second time when the ball hit an upright and flopped over.
Referee Johnny Grier explained the penalty: "Leaping is a player starting more than one yard off the line of scrimmage and running forward and landing on players. He jumped and landed on his own players."
Even so, the leaping penalty isn't what beat Tampa Bay. It was Manning who won this game. It was Manning who beat the intellectual-emotional Tampa coach, Jon Gruden, who had inherited the defense that made him the NFL champion last winter, inheriting from Tony Dungy, the Indianapolis coach who bested him this strange night in Tampa.
Gruden had seen no reason to modernize the great defensive line that Dungy willed him — modernizing with four journeymen in a rotation system with all the All-Pros — but conceivably, he sees some reason now.
For the aging defensive Buccaneers will always be vulnerable to a quarterback like Manning, a quarterback with a lively young passing arm and the young, strong legs to carry him away from Gruden's bruisers. For the present, though, Gruden is safe. Now that Brett Favre is aging too, there's only one Peyton Manning.
1958 Sudden-Death Game Overrated
There are so many good ways to play winning football that "the greatest game ever played" has been played many times.
Best show of them all, conceivably, was Monday night's. Few have been able to do what Dungy and Manning accomplished in the 21-point fourth-quarter rally from 35-14 to 35-35, after which their little three-point overtime performance was a formality against Gruden's dog-tired All-Pros.
Or, possibly, the best game ever played was played in Kansas City Sunday when unbeaten Kansas City came from behind to conquer unbeaten Denver, 24-23. Both sides scored in every quarter to keep it constantly close and dramatic before the Chiefs won with a humdrum play: another long kick return by Dante Hall, his seventh in 10 games, this one for 93 yards.
Or the best game might be coming up this week when the NFL's new power, 4-0 Carolina, conqueror of Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay, lines up against Manning at 5-0 Indianapolis.
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