Monday November 26th, 2007

FOXBORO, Mass. - Musings, observations and the occasional insight on Week 12's storylines, as we await the latest Patriots-palooza of points at Gillette Stadium ...

• After 50 regular-season starts and just more than three full years of watching his every move, can we just all agree that Eli Manning is what he is? He's never going to be Peyton Manning; and by now, it's our fault if we don't realize where he fits into the pecking order of NFL quarterbacks.

He's a good, but far from great passer, who can still struggle mightily at times to see the field accurately and put the ball where his receivers -- as opposed to defenders -- can catch it.

Manning has never played worse than in the Giants' 41-17 homefield flameout against Minnesota on Sunday, which happened to occur in his 50th regular-season start since being selected first overall in 2004. He threw four interceptions against a Vikings pass defense that was ranked worst in the NFL coming into the game (288.4 yards allowed), with a league-record-tying three of those picks being returned for touchdowns.

Manning now has a ho-hum 16 touchdowns and 15 interceptions this season, and he's just 27-23 as an NFL starter since taking over the No. 1 job in New York on Nov. 21, 2004 -- the 10th game of the Giants' season that year. Factor in his 0-2 playoff mark, and Manning's 27-25 starting record is almost the definition of mediocrity.

The problem, of course, is that .500 records and so-so statistics aren't really allowed when you're drafted No. 1 overall, especially when the team that you play for traded a boatload of picks (and quarterback Philip Rivers) to acquire you. Giants then-general manager Ernie Accorsi gave up so much in that top-of-the-draft deal with San Diego in April 2004, because Manning, hailing from the NFL's first family of quarterbacking, was considered such a safe bet.

Manning has had his moments of superb play, and he does deserve credit for helping New York make the playoffs in both full seasons he has been a starter. But the highlights have been too few and far between, and the struggles too frequent to consider Manning an NFL success story at this point in his career.

He's a Manning, so he'll never completely escape the comparison game. But he's not Peyton Manning, and it seems to be past time for us to stop expecting him to make that distinction disappear. To quote that noted bard from Foxboro, Eli is what he is. And maybe that's all he will ever be.

• Same old Cardinals. They're doing it to us again. Just when you thought Arizona had played its way into serious playoff contention, along comes the bunch that always finds a way to give away a game it had no business losing. When it's all said and done this season, a delay of game penalty that wiped out a chip-shot Neil Rackers game-winning field goal in overtime might end up being the difference between the Cardinals making or missing the postseason.

• How ironic that it was 49ers linebacker Tully Banta-Cain who fell on that Kurt Warner fumble in the end zone, giving the 49ers a 37-31 victory over the shell-shocked Cardinals. Banta-Cain, the ex-Patriot, hurt his former team with the game-winner, because San Francisco snapped its eight-game losing streak and in the process broke out of the tie it was in for the No. 2 draft spot next spring.

New England, of course, owns the 49ers first-round pick in 2008, as part of the trade that landed San Francisco an extra No. 1 in 2007.

• That's the Kurt Warner who thrilled us with his pinpoint passing in his glory years in St. Louis. And that's also the Kurt Warner whose sloppy ball-protection skills have haunted the Rams, Giants and Cardinals since 2002 or so. Letting Warner drop back into the end zone in overtime is just asking for trouble.

• What am I missing? You kick it to Devin Hester, you pay for it. You don't, you don't. The Bears would not have been able to even dream of beating the Broncos without the help of Denver's punter and kicker. It's that simple.

• Nice NFC wild-card chase. It was no thing of beauty in Week 12, to be sure. The Lions (6-5) have lost three in a row and were blown out at home by Green Bay on Thanksgiving. The Giants (7-4) get embarrassed at the Meadowlands by the Vikings. Washington (5-6) came out flat and lost at Tampa Bay. Arizona (5-6) gave one away at home to the lowly 49ers. And I'm going to go ahead and assume there's a beating coming for Philly (5-5, for now) at New England on Sunday night.

• Give Jack Del Rio his due: Cutting Byron Leftwich less than 10 days before opening day and placing the Jags' season -- and maybe his coaching fate -- on the shoulders of David Garrard is looking like a savvy gamble about now.

Not only is Jacksonville 8-3, on a three-game winning streak -- and pushing the Colts for the division lead -- the Jags may be playing better than anyone south of New England in the AFC. As for Garrard, I've never been a big believer, but how can you nitpick a guy who hasn't thrown an interception yet this season in eight games and 209 passing attempts?

I used to think Garrard was incapable of anything other than a horizontal passing attack, but he carved up the Bills defense for 296 yards passing and a touchdown, and he's showing a better touch all the time with his vertical game.

• Another week, another questionable Joe Gibbs coaching decision or two. Why is it that Washington's veteran-laden coaching staff -- led by a Hall of Famer with three Super Bowl rings -- seems to bungle a couple critical situations every game?

Down 19-10 with 2:10 remaining in the third quarter, Gibbs bypassed a chip shot field goal to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Bucs' 4. Clinton Portis got stuffed for no gain on the play, and Washington could have used those three points when Jason Campbell was intercepted in the end zone by Brian Kelly with 17 seconds to go in the 19-13 Redskins loss.

If the Skins had taken the field goal earlier, they would have been in position to tie the game at 19-19 and force overtime later. The play that Campbell was picked off on was a second-and-10 from the Bucs' 16 -- putting Washington easily within Shaun Suisham's range.

• Speaking of coaching blunders, Herman Edwards apparently really means it when he says he "plays to win the game.'' As opposed to tying the game. With his Chiefs down 20-17 and facing a fourth-and-1 from the Raiders' 23, Edwards bypassed a 40-yard Dave Rayner field goal attempt with 4:26 remaining. Oakland dropped rookie running back Kolby Smith for a 1-yard loss on the foolishly risky Edwards call, and the Raiders ground out four game-ending first downs.

If you don't have confidence in your kicker converting from 40 yards out with the game on the line, why is he your kicker?

• With the Cowboys, Packers and Colts all playing and winning on Thanksgiving Day, Week 12's Sunday slate of day games sure felt light in terms of star power (until the Patriots took the Sunday-night stage at home against the Eagles).

Jacksonville and the Giants were the only seven-win teams at the start of the day, and the Jags were the lone club that improved to 8-3 and made their bid to join the league's elite class.

• This just in: With the Patriots clinching the AFC East by virtue of the Bills loss at Jacksonville -- that's right, it took New England just 10 games to make the playoffs -- Spy-gate officially cost them a first-rounder in the 2008 draft.

As if there was ever a doubt.

• After watching the Titans give up 28 to the Jaguars, 34 to the Broncos, and 35 to the Bengals, losing three consecutive games after a 6-2 start, I'm left with no recourse but to reassign them to the playoff fraud category at the moment.

But in today's NFL, that's a week-to-week decision.

• When you've got rookie Kolby Smith rolling to 150 yards rushing and two touchdowns in his first NFL start, who needs Larry Johnson or Priest Holmes? The Chiefs lost a home game against the Raiders on Sunday but found themselves another quality running back. Smith, a fifth-round pick out of Louisville, entered the game with just 19 yards on 10 carries this season.

But the kid knows the surprising newcomer role pretty well, having rushed for 891 yards last season as a Louisville senior after taking over for star back Michael Bush, who broke his leg in the team's opener.

• On my drive to Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon, I was listening to Mike Ditka break down NFL's Week 12 action on the radio. Ditka told his listeners that he believes San Diego fourth-year quarterback Philip Rivers has "digressed.''

Which proves that you're not necessarily worth listening to just because you're a Hall of Famer.

• Said it before, and I'll say it again: More than any other team in the league, the New York Giants (7-4) absolutely, positively cannot stand prosperity. If there's one given about the G-Men, it's that they will swoon just when things look the brightest.

Since that season-saving six-game winning streak, the Giants have lost at home to Dallas and Minnesota by a combined 72-37, squeaking past the slumping Lions 16-10 on the road in between. And don't look now, but with a two-game road trip to Chicago and Philly dead ahead, 7-6 could be just around the corner for New York.

• Where exactly has that Carson Palmer and that Cincinnati offense been all season? Late November qualifies as too little, too late in the Queen City.

• Oh, and good to see that Chad Johnson still knows how to draw the old excessive-celebration penalty. It's been a long while since No. 85 has had anything to celebrate. His three touchdown catches on Sunday were his first since Week 2. Manning that TV camera wasn't even funny, Chad. You can do far more creative work than that, but maybe you shouldn't when your team is a pathetic 4-7.

• I don't know about you, but I saw a little too much of referee Pete Morelli and his crew again this week, when they had the Bills-Jaguars game. Morelli and friends, of course, were in the eye of the storm last week in Baltimore, where Browns kicker Phil Dawson bounced that game-tying field goal off the pipes.

Morelli didn't have any such spotlight moment in the Bills-Jags game, but there were a couple replay reviews that I watched a little closer than I would have before last week.

• Vikings owner Zygi Wilf and his family have been Giants fans and season-ticket holders for decades; so it had to be particularly sweet (or bittersweet?) for him to see his new team humiliate his old team.

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