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Super deja vu for Manning, Giants in clutch win over Patriots

This may be the week offense came down to earth, and the league got back on its axis of normalcy. But before I get into the two Games of the Week, Eli Manning playing at a postseason 2007 level (sweet music to Giant ears everywhere) and a very weird scene involving Rex Ryan and a Belichick bobblehead, let's turn our eyes west. To Aaron Rodgers, who is halfway to the best season a quarterback has ever had in the 92-year history of the NFL.

It's eight games now. Good sample size. The man hasn't had an off day. Sunday, in showery San Diego, he completed a season-best 81 percent of his throws -- in the pocket, pressured, on the run, wherever. He zinged one ball 38 yards in the air to Jordy Nelson while on a dead run right. He threw four touchdown passes. He ran for 52 yards.

Every team that passed on Rodgers in the draft -- Miami, for Ronnie Brown, Minnesota (Troy Williamson), Washington (Carlos Rogers), Minnesota again (Erasmus James), Jacksonville (Matt Jones), and, just one pick before Green Bay, Oakland (Fabian Washington) -- has to be retching right now.

Projecting Rodgers' full season, with an asterisk next to what would be league records: .725* completion percentage, 5,238* passing yards, 48 touchdowns, 6 interceptions; 129.1* passer rating.

Minnesota twice? Fabian Washington? That has to hurt.

***

Eli: A Giant among men.

It's eerie. Way too eerie.

Giants-Patriots, Super Bowl 42, fourth quarter, New England up 14-10, 1:15 to play, third and five, Giants' 44. Eli Manning, pressured, looks downfield for No. 85.

Giants-Patriots, Sunday in Foxboro, fourth quarter, New England up 20-17, 1:07 to play, third and 10, Giants' 39. Eli Manning, pressured, looks downfield for No. 85.

There's more.

Super Bowl 42: David Tyree hauls in the highly unlikely Velcro Catch with Rodney Harrison in close coverage. Gain of 32. First and 10 at the Patriots' 24. Fifty-nine seconds left, timeout Giants.

Sunday in Foxboro: Jake Ballard hauls in a one-handed catch, bending back with Tracy White in close coverage. Gain of 28. First and 10 at the Patriots' 33. Fifty-nine seconds left, clock running.

And more.

Super Bowl 42: Four plays after the drive-saving Tyree catch, Manning coolly finds Plaxico Burress in the left side of the end zone for a touchdown. Giants by three, with 35 seconds left.

Sunday in Foxboro: Four plays after the drive-saving Ballard catch, Manning coolly finds Ballard in the left side of the end zone for a touchdown. Giants by four, with 15 seconds left.

And finally ...

Super Bowl 42: After the Patriots return the kickoff 17 yards, Tom Brady throws three desperation passes to no avail. The Giants upset New England 17-14.

Sunday in Foxboro: After the Patriots return the kickoff 17 yards, Brady throws two desperation passes to no avail. The Giants upset New England 24-20.

"It's hard not to think about it,'' Manning told me from the locker room, after his biggest victory, all things considered, since that Super Bowl. "But in a way, before then, it was the complete opposite. Last time, it was the Patriots giving us the ball with three minutes left, up four. Today, after we took the four-point lead with three minutes to go, we're handing the ball to Tom Brady. And that's not a very good feeling.''

He's right. Four seasons ago, Brady threw a touchdown pass to Randy Moss with 2:45 left to give New England a four-point lead. And Sunday, Manning threw a touchdown pass to Mario Manningham with 3:07 remaining to give the Giants a four-point lead.

What made this Giant drive so interesting -- and, in some ways, tougher for Manning -- is that it came on the road instead of a neutral field, with noise and some of his mainstays out, hurt. Two guys Manning never heard of 20 months ago, Victor Cruz and Ballard, were his go-to receivers on this drive. And to go to Ballard twice ... it shows not only how undervalued the 6-6, 275-pound Ballard was coming out of Ohio State after being a blocking tight end and going undrafted, but also how adaptable and user-friendly the excuse-free Manning is.

The way he managed his receivers on this drive, and the comfort he showed with all of them, shows why Manning is such a terrific player (and why, wherever he watched the game Sunday, the GM who dealt for him, Ernie Accorsi, had to be nodding knowingly at his cool demeanor and laser accuracy) and why it surprised no one with the Giants that he was seven of 11 with two touchdown passes in the last seven minutes of the game.

On the throw to Ballard, Manning said it was a simple seam route and Ballard got over the linebacker, White, and he thought there was a tiny window to make the throw. What he didn't see was Patriot safety Patrick Chung charging into the play almost the way Harrison did four years ago. The ball was high, a smidge to Ballard's left, and he had to reach for it awkwardly, bringing it in with one hand to the other. A great catch. Not a Tyree catch, but what is?

"Huge,'' Manning said. "Jake's got great hands. He made a great catch there.''

Four plays later, at the Patriot one, the Giants had a third-and-goal. No timeouts left and 19 seconds to play. "You almost have to throw it there,'' Manning said. "If you run, and you don't make it, then you run your field goal unit on the field while you're unpiling, and it's chaos. Their guys laying on our guys, untangling the pile. You might not get the field goal off. So you've got to throw.''

"You audible?'' I asked. "Or was it the called play you ran?''

"No audible,'' he said. "Just a play-action, off the run. We sold it, and I saw Jake with a step on his guy.''

Not to dramatize the throw, but FOX had a camera in the corner of the end zone focused on Manning's throw. There was no wavering. In the Super Bowl, he had to place the ball deftly over a New England corner into Burress' hands. Here, Manning had to rip it, and he did. It was a perfect dart.

Manning is not his brother, the precision player and the prototype. But I believe Eli is a better clutch player than Peyton. No knock on Peyton. But look at the moments Eli's had. His 2007 postseason is one of the best any quarterback has ever played, winning three on the road (including beating Favre at Lambeau in minus-18 weather) and then upsetting the 18-0 Patriots in the Super Bowl. And Sunday, with 80- and 85-yard drives in the final seven minutes to beat Bill Belichick and Brady.

They don't make many like Eli Manning, and if you're a Giants' partisan, you've got to be thrilled he's yours.

***

Carson Palmer: Now this is a little worrisome.

Saw bits and pieces of Carson Palmer's starting debut with the Raiders. He threw two beautiful balls that I saw, a touch touchdown throw to Jacoby Ford and a laser to T.J. Houshmandzadeh over the middle for 28 yards. But in general, Palmer's first six quarters as a Raider are six quarters he'd like to have back.

He played the second half of the 28-point loss to Kansas City, and all of Sunday's 14-point loss to Denver. He didn't score for the final 30 minutes of the Chiefs game and the final 20 minutes of the Broncos game. The results of Palmer's 20 series in 2011:

Versus Kansas City: Punt, punt, interception, interception, interception, punt.

Versus Denver: Punt, field goal, punt, punt, touchdown pass, interception, touchdown pass, kneel to end half, touchdown pass, interception, punt, punt, punt, interception.

Totals: nine punts, six interceptions, three touchdowns, one field goal.

***

The rest of Sunday's headlines ...

The Ravens finally get over their hump. Last January, the night before Baltimore blew another lead and lost to Pittsburgh 31-24 in a divisional playoff game, I sat with coach John Harbaugh at his Pittsburgh hotel and listened to his plans. "We're going to beat Pittsburgh eventually in one of these big games,'' he said. "If not tomorrow, then soon. I know we have the plan in place to do it, and I know we have the players. I truly believe we're going to start beating them.'' It took a few months, but the Ravens completed a season sweep (only the second one since the Ravens were born, or transferred from Cleveland, in 1996) Sunday night with a dramatic 23-20 win. The real winner, I thought, was Joe Flacco, who engineered a 92-yard drive at the end of the game, and found a player he had no reason to trust, rookie Torrey Smith, for the winning touchdown. Smith had dropped a tough catch a few plays earlier -- but a catch he should have made. Harbaugh took great pride after the game in pointing out how, on the sideline after Smith's drop, more than one player told him not to worry -- he'd make a big play on this drive. And he did.

The way I saw the play, William Gay had decent coverage on the speedy Smith, chasing down the right sideline, but safety Ryan Clark underestimate Smith's speed. Clark was late coming over the top to help, and Smith, with a step on Gay, gathered in a precision throw from Flacco for the win. Flacco, who has been just okay this year, needed that throw. He and the Ravens needed this game. Now Pittsburgh will have to beat them outright, having lost the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Ravens.

So this is what Julio Jones can do. In the span of six minutes in a game no one was watching, Julio Jones showed why the Falcons traded a ransom to move from 27 in the first round to six. His diving catch on the goal line for a touchdown -- first ruled incomplete by the officials -- was an example of his ability to be a physical and acrobatic receiver. He was so sure he caught it that when he got up and saw the incomplete signal, he yelled to the official: "That's a catch! That's a catch!'' And he signaled to the sideline to throw the challenge flag. Which coach Mike Smith did, and won, and the Falcons had a touchdown. His catch of a short post and 80-yard touchdown showed his 4.38 speed. "I just know the type of player I am,'' he said afterward, "and I know what I can do. There's more where that came from.'' Who knows how history will view this trade. But Atlanta has fought back after a bad start to be 5-3, a half-game behind New Orleans in the NFC South, and if Jones has this sort of impact in the last two months, the Falcons will be a tough out in January.

The Dolphins showed what they think of the Andrew Luck Derby in Kansas City. You could just see the way Miami was playing that they wouldn't be the last team standing for Andrew Luck come April. It's not the way Tony Sparano is wired. (In fact, I can't think of a single coach who is wired to actually try to lose on purpose if it would bring him a great quarterback. I've never even heard lucid discussion of it off the record with coaches I know well.) But a 31-3 win at Kansas City? After the Chiefs had won four in a row and looked to be ready to take over a nobody-wants-it AFC West?

"I saw it all week in practice,'' Sparano told me post-game. "I saw it from my players, I saw it from my coaches. They want to win. Bad. They haven't lost focus, and they haven't been distracted by the outside stuff.'' Not the Luck stuff, nor the mayhem caused late in the week with star cornerback Vontae Davis' reported altercation with Brandon Marshall, or, according to the Miami Herald, Davis showing up at practice hung over the other day and not being allowed to make the trip to Kansas City. Encouraging Sunday was Reggie Bush being an impact player for one of the first times of the year (142 rushing-receiving yards). I've said all along the Dolphins wouldn't be in the running for Luck, because they're just too competitive. They showed that last Sunday -- and could well do it again this Sunday, with a home game against the offensively hapless Redskins.

Speaking of Andrew Luck ... I'm going to be writing about my conversation with Mike Mayock at the top of Tuesday's column -- he's going to start his NFL Network season as the color man alongside Brad Nessler Thursday in San Diego -- but I wanted to pass along one story he told me about Luck before then. Two summers ago, Mayock, who works at the Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana for a week every summer, told me he was standing next to Peyton Manning, watching a relatively unfamous Andrew Luck throw at the camp. "He's one of 25 college kids in shorts, just throwing,'' Mayock said. "Watching his throw, it still looked like he was warming up, and he threw a deep comeback.'' Mayock watched the throw and wondered if he was still warming up, or was that how Luck actually threw the ball? And Manning said, "But it gets there.'' And that's the thing with Luck. Mayock echoed Phil Simms, saying he doesn't have a howitzer, but the ball gets where it needs to go, and it gets there on time. More with Mayock tomorrow.

Most Interesting Man of The Week: Juan Castillo.

Tonight, Castillo, the defensive coordinator of the 3-4 Eagles, will try to shut down Matt Forte and get pressure on Jay Cutler. The former is very hard (Forte's averaging 156 rushing/receiving yards per game), the latter not so much (only two quarterbacks through eight weeks had been sacked more than Cutler).

Castillo and Andy Reid were marked men in Philadelphia's 1-4 start. Reid mostly because his offense was sputtering, and because he'd named a longtime offensive line coach, Castillo, as his defensive coordinator before the season. Castillo was a college safety and linebacker in college, and he played two seasons at linebacker in the USFL in the mid-80s. But the last time he'd been a defensive coordinator -- in fact, the last time he'd been a defensive coach of any kind -- was at Kingsville (Texas) High in 1989.

Reid's decision, controversial then and now, came because he'd seen long sessions between Castillo and the late defensive coordinator of the Eagles, Jim Johnson, with Castillo not only talking about protections against Johnson's assorted blitzes, but also with Castillo talking blitzes, and what he thought would work against certain offensive fronts.

The great Castillo experiment flopped early, obviously. The Eagles had no offseason program, got their two big cornerback acquisitions late (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha), started 1-4, allowed 30 points per game in those four losses, and the hounds were at the door. The simple reason for the slow start? The adjustment period for five new starters on the defense, and for the coach, and for a secondary with two new cornerbacks learning new roles. Castillo's hidden way to bring a unit of talented players performing in a dysfunctional way together?

"I could feel in the summer there was something missing in our unit,'' Castillo told me the other day. "I didn't feel the camaraderie. Where does everybody fit? What's the real pull for these guys to play together?''

So Castillo, with the defense struggling, decided to bring one defensive player per day in front of the defensive team meeting. "We needed to get to know each other so we'd feel comfortable fighting for each other,'' Castillo said. "Everyone has endured some sort of hardship in their lives to get to this point, and I wanted every player to understand every other player in the room, to get to know them so they'd want to fight for them. The attitude was everyone's overcome something, and we'll overcome this to become a great defense.''

Cullen Jenkins told the group he'd been cut by Green Bay and didn't know if he'd have a football career. Others talked about personal hardships growing up ... as Asomugha did. "I thought this was really important for Nnamdi,'' said Castillo. "He looks like a professor. Looks uppity. He's rich. Everyone in the room thought he came from a well-to-do family, but the guys in the room found out he came up just like most of them. He had to earn everything he got. And I think it all worked out. We're playing together much better now.''

In the last two weeks, the Eagles have held the Redskins and Cowboys to 20 total points and an average of 277 yards per game. Asomugha has similarly stepped up his game, with an interception and being mixed in different coverages by Castillo. "We email back and forth during the week,'' said Castillo. "I'll say, 'I'm thinking about putting you on the tight end some first and second downs. And maybe putting you in different coverages on third down, depending on the situation.' He's good that way. He likes that. Like last week, he played some on [tight end] Jason Witten, some on the slot receiver, some on [outside receiver Dez] Bryant.''

The Eagles' real hope to climb out of their early-season hole is for Castillo, Asomugha and the rest of the defense to have more shutdown games. The offense will score, but as has been shown in the past year, sometimes a high-risk offense like Philly's turns the ball over and forces the defense to come up big. To catch the Giants in the NFC East, the defense will have to be as good as the offense.

***

Rex is a big movie star.

Last summer, I got a call from a movie publicist friend of mine who asked if I'd like to come onto the set of an interesting movie being filmed in a suburb of Boston. "Rex Ryan's in it,'' he said. "I think you'd like it.'' There was a catch: Writing about the movie would be embargoed until the week of the second Jets-Patriots game this season. I would be the print guy on hand, and ESPN would be there and cable nets that served the Jets and Patriots markets. Made sense to me. So I went over to the Lynn, Mass., site where the movie "I Hate You, Dad'' was being filmed.

The first thing I saw:

Rex Ryan, in a chair behind a shabby desk in a shabby office, with a $69 suit and clown shoes.

The second and third things I saw:

A Bill Belichick bobblehead doll on the desk. A Tom Brady MVP poster on the wall.

"Look at this little guy,'' Ryan told me, picking up Belichick off his desk and making the head bobble. "He's a sturdy dude."

The idea of the movie is that Adam Sandler's a former child star who's blown all his money. Rex is a seedy lawyer -- his name is Jim Nance -- with Sandler his client, and Ryan's job in his scene is to tell Sandler he hasn't been paying taxes, and now he owes the IRS $43,000.

Ryan's face is on billboards in town (1 800 LAW GUY ... Your Number for Toll Free Justice!), and on the day I'm there, he clearly can't quite believe his good fortune.

"You kidding me?'' he said. "A movie with Adam Sandler? When they called, I thought someone was messing with me. I just thought, 'Well, you're gonna be dead a long time. Might as well have fun when you're alive.' ''

I said: "What's Belichick going to think of this, you with this cute Belichick bobblehead on the desk and the Brady poster on the wall?''

"Oh, he's gonna laugh. He won't let anybody know he thinks it's funny, but you know Bill. He's not all business. I think he'll appreciate the fun of it.''

An hour or so later, I watch the scene with Ryan telling Sandler he owes the IRS the dough. Sandler is furious. He kicks the desk, knocking the bobblehead awry.

"DON'T MESS WITH THE GENIUS!'' Ryan yells, setting the doll back in its place.

Sandler fumes and throws something at the wall, nearly hitting the Brady poster. "Don't screw up my poster!'' Ryan says. "He looks so heroic in that shot.''

All in all, a fun day. Absurd seeing Ryan in this setting, of course, but you only live once. I watched Ryan do a couple of takes of a couple of scenes, and he wasn't bad. Knew his lines -- and he had a few -- and had the proper back-and-forth with Sandler in the scenes. Sandler's a movie machine, obviously (he's got one, "Jack and Jill'' out this week, with this movie slated for release sometime next year), and he saw the benefit of getting a marquee guy he liked like Ryan involved.

"It's been fun, lots of fun,'' Ryan said at the end of the day. "I think I'm still employed by the Jets, but maybe not after this performance.''

As I was leaving, I saw Sandler and told him what his next movie should include. "Belichick and Brady, playing big Jets fans in Manhattan,'' I said. "Now that would draw an audience.''

"I'll give it some thought,'' Sandler said.

Probably not much.

***

Living History: The Ryan Leaf story.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked if I should do more looking-back-at-history items with some perspective after the entry about what a tremendous draftsman Bill Walsh must have been to overcome the handicap of losing nine high draft choices in the horrible Jim Plunkett and O.J. Simpson trades that preceded his 49er stewardship. In email and Twitter responses, the answer was an overwhelming yes. So when I have something that I think merits the interest, I'll write about history.

I interviewed Ryan Leaf for my podcast the other day (iTunes or SI.com), and it brought back lots of memories about the 1998 draft, when Peyton Manning was the first pick, by Indianapolis, and Leaf the second, by San Diego. And you know the rest. Manning's had a Hall of Fame career, and Leaf was a major bust in five seasons with San Diego, Tampa Bay and Dallas.

I got this reaction from a few of you about the Leaf Podcast: Who cares? He's irrelevant.

Not really. It's one of the most fascinating stories in recent football history, and with the fervor over the potential star-studded 2012 quarterback draft class, I thought I would take you back to the month before the 1998 draft. That May, I took a VHS tape of 30 plays from Manning's 1997 season with Tennessee and 30 plays from Leaf's last season with Washington State. I sat down with six men, independent of each other, and showed them the 60 plays, and asked each who they would pick.

The six: brilliant offensive innovator Sid Gillman (since deceased), coach Mike Shanahan, analyst and former quarterback Phil Simms, then-Tampa Bay personnel czar Jerry Angelo, former 49er coach Bill Walsh and UCLA coach Bob Toledo, who had faced both quarterbacks in their college careers.

Now people look back and wonder, How could the Colts have had a second thought about who to pick? It had to be Manning, all the way. In spring 1998, the new ESPN The Magazine had a big story about which quarterback would turn out better in the NFL and said about Leaf: "He possesses an 'I don't give a crap' attitude that has proven essential to Super Bowl quarterbacks from Stabler to McMahon to Favre. Come 2018, Ryan Leaf, not Manning, will be strutting up to a podium in Canton.' '' It's easy to shake your head at that now, but there was a real debate.

Points from my SI story the week before the 1998 draft that I find interesting today:

* Sid Gillman, 86, watching tape of Manning throwing a look-one-way-throw-the-other screen against Mississippi: "Now this is a pro quarterback. Is that a beautiful throw, or is that a beautiful throw? I'd draft this kid in a second."

* Walsh said he wouldn't take either player with the first pick, though he favored Manning ... and said he had a better arm than Johnny Unitas. "I don't see Favre or Elway. I see those guys on the next level. But Manning seems to be more pro-ready than Leaf ... I'd pick another top player, and then I'd take [Michigan quarterback] Brian Griese in the second round. I think he could have the tools to be special."

* Simms was incredulous when the question about Manning's questionable arm strength was posed. "His arm's plenty good. You know how many times Drew Bledsoe really aired it out last year? I mean, 50, 60 yards in the air? Five. Ten, maybe. In the NFL, you make your living throwing the intermediate pass, and look at how many good intermediate throws we're seeing Peyton make."

* The same red off-the-field flags the Colts saw about Leaf, Angelo saw as Leaf's weight ballooned to 261 at the NFL Scouting Combine. "I was at the combine for the weigh-in," said Angelo, "and it really surprised me. Here's what could be the biggest day of your life, the day you're going to expose yourself to your future employers for the first time, and you show up out of shape and overweight. To me, that's a signal. The quarterback has to be the CEO of your team. You have to trust him. I'd have some hard questions if that happened and we were going to pick him."

* Gillman on Leaf's pass drop and release: "He's way too slow. This is the age of the blitzer in the NFL. He'd better get coached out of that in a hurry."

* Angelo on Manning, sounding eerily prescient: "He'll handle the inferno of going to a 3-13 team. He's a sure player."

Interesting note from Leaf on the podcast: He regularly texts Manning, and he says Manning has been a big supporter of his through some of his worst times. Leaf had a golf-ball-sized tumor removed from the base of his brain in May, and later this month he'll begin six weeks of radiation to neutralize what couldn't be surgically removed. The tumor was benign.

1. Green Bay (8-0). When a team gets halfway through a season without a loss, it's natural to analyze whether that team can go undefeated. Let's look at the next four games for the Packers: Minnesota at home, Tampa Bay at home, at Detroit on a short week for Thanksgiving, at the Giants with an extra three days of rest. What a Thanksgiving date this should be: the 10-0 Packers, potentially, in the early game at the 8-2 (potentially) Lions. Keep the turkey in that foil tent, families.

2. San Francisco (7-1). Four road games for the Niners this year, all in Eastern Time. Niners 4, Foes 0. Niners 81 points, Foes 61.

3. Baltimore (6-2). How sweep it is: Ravens win the season series 2-zip over Pittsburgh for only the second time ever.

4. New York Giants (6-2). Mea culpa, mea culpa on these guys. For three quarters, the Giants played defense against New England like it was the Super Bowl of four years ago, and in the fourth quarter, they played offense like it was.

5. Detroit (6-2). On his bye Sunday, Ndamukong Suh read the rule book.

6. Pittsburgh (6-3). You rarely see Troy Polamalu emote negatively on the field, but when Flacco threw the winning touchdown bomb to Torrey Smith, I was surprised to see Polamalu throw his arms up and act upset. All of Pittsburgh follows his lead.

7. New England (5-3). Chad Ochocinco was targeted by Brady five times Sunday. Caught none.

8. Houston (6-3). Seriously: What team in the NFL has a better 1-2 punch at running back right now than the Texans with Arian Foster (19 carries, 124 yards in the rout of Cleveland) and Ben Tate (12 for 115)?

9. New York Jets (5-3). The defense that took the field in Orchard Park? That's a championship defense.

10. New Orleans (6-3). The year the two leagues merged, 1970, John Brodie led all passers with 2,941 yards passing in 14 games. Today, Drew Brees has 3,004 after nine games.

11. Philadelphia (3-4). As I wrote earlier, Nnamdi Asomugha is getting comfortable in the Eagles defense, and is texting and emailing his defensive coordinator during the week. Just what teams on the Eagles' schedule need -- Nnamdi getting it.

12. Atlanta (5-3). Thomas Dimitroff boarded the charter home from Indy with a little puff in the chest. Rookie Julio Jones finally had the kind of game you trade up 21 spots in the first round to see.

13. Cincinnati (6-2). I have to say that I'd to switch to Andy Dalton as my offensive rookie of the year, a week after I chose Cam Newton in SI.com's midseason report. The rookie out of TCU is 6-2, Newton's 2-6, and like Newton, Dalton walks into the offensive huddle like he owns the place.

14. Chicago (4-3). Bears lose tonight and they're four games out of first in the NFC North and two games out of second. That would be trouble.

15. Buffalo (5-3). Marcell Dareus is the genuine item. Even in a bad loss with the offense showing absolutely nothing, that was patently obvious ... The Bills are at Dallas, at Miami and at the Jets in the next three weeks, by the way. Bad time for the offense to go into mothballs.

Offensive Players of the Week

Sorry. I have to give out four of these this morning. Just way too many great performances to limit it to one or two ... and I regret sincerely NOT including Aaron Rodgers, who threw four touchdowns, and Vincent Jackson, who caught three scoring passes, and Atlanta left tackle Will Svitek, who, pressed into duty with the back injury to incumbent Sam Baker, held Dwight Freeney to one tackle, no sacks and one quarterback hit in 25 Matt Ryan pass drop-backs.

Denver RB Willis McGahee. The total game was good enough -- 20 carries, 163 yards -- but consider that he played with a fractured bone in his right hand, didn't fumble and had the two biggest runs of the day. His 60-yard touchdown run on the last play of the third quarter was stunning because he outran the fleet Raider D; that tied the game at 24. His 24-yard scoring run with two minutes left in the game iced it. Denver 38, Oakland 24. All week he said his hand would be fine, and he was right. "Shake my hand! I'm telling you it will be fine!'' McGahee said to writers during the week. Interesting how much of a leadership role he's taken in Denver.

New York Giants QB Eli Manning. Throw the stats out the window (20-39, 250 yards, two touchdowns, one pick). I couldn't care less if Manning completed 20 of 139 at Foxboro. In the last seven minutes of a football game that closely resembled a Stieg Larsson thriller, Manning drove the Giants 85 and 80 yards, and threw touchdown passes to cap both drives. I can think of only two better games by Manning in his career -- Ice Bowl II, when he and the Giants defeated the Packers in the NFC title game four years ago, and the Super Bowl win over the Patriots two weeks later.

Baltimore QB Joe Flacco. Ditto on the stats thing. "This Steelers-Ravens game is a game for men, big men,'' coach John Harbaugh said postgame. "And nobody shined more brightly tonight than Joe Flacco.'' I couldn't agree more. On the winning 92-yard drive, Flacco converted three third downs and one fourth down, and survived two crucial drops by his receivers en route to leading the Ravens to a 23-20 victory.

Atlanta WR Julio Jones. The Man Dimitroff Traded A Few Drafts For scored his first NFL touchdown, a 50-yarder, on a full-out diving goal-line catch with three minutes left in the first quarter. Six minutes later, he took a short post from Matt Ryan and turned it into an 80-yard touchdown. He had but one more catch on the day, but his explosive impact turned this from a game into a 31-7 rout.

Defensive Player of the Week

Pittsburgh LB James Harrison. In his first game back since he fractured his eye socket five weeks ago, Harrison was the best defender in the league in Week 9. He led all tacklers in the Baltimore-Pittsburgh game with eight solo stops. He sacked Flacco three times and forced a Flacco fumble in the fourth quarter that led to a go-ahead Pittsburgh touchdown. Of course, no one in Pittsburgh is looking for individual trophies this morning, but Harrison swarmed the field all night.

Special Teams Players of the Week

Arizona DE Calais Campbell and PR Patrick Peterson. Campbell blocked a potential game-ending St. Louis field goal attempt at the end of regulation that forced overtime. Peterson, meanwhile, fielded an extra-period punt way too deep in his own territory instead of letting it hop into the end zone, but then wove and bobbed to an electrifying 99-yard touchdown. What an incredible return.

Dallas LB Anthony Spencer, for one of the best blocked field goals of this, or any, season. Steve Hauschka of Seattle lined up for a 41-yard field goal attempt that could have brought Seattle to within 13-9. However, Spencer jumped over the center, regained his balance, leapt again and blocked the field goal try. Brilliant, brilliant play.

Coach of the Week

Baltimore coach John Harbaugh. He and brother Jim are a combined 13-3 this year. (I guess they can coach.) On this night, John slew the dragon that has dogged his every step since he took the coaching job in Baltimore in 2008, completing his first series sweep over the Steelers in four seasons. He even managed to quote Teddy Roosevelt from 1910 too, bringing up his "man in the arena'' quote after the game. As in: "It's not the critic who counts. It's the man in the arena.''

Harbaugh and his staff have melded some valuable vets they inherited with the influx of Ozzie Newsome-drafted youth, and he's made it all work. For the Ravens to beat a hot Pittsburgh team after skunking the Steelers to open the season has to make owner Steve Bisciotti feel like he made a brilliant choice against the grain when he hired Harbaugh, the Eagles' special teams coach, in 2008.

It's midway through the season, so I'm starting the annual reader-enraging MVP Watch. When I vote for the Most Valuable Player for the Associated Press after the season, I vote for one player. But here, I'll tell you each Monday how I'd vote if I had a five-man ballot.

1. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay. I know it's stunning to hear this, and to even think of this, but Rodgers has amassed just half of the best season a quarterback has ever had. Can he play the second half at the same level?

2. Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants. "Which Manning?'' my buddy Florio asked me Sunday night when I told him I was putting Manning in my MVP top five. He's a wiseguy. Friday on our NFL preview show on Versus (shameless plug: "NBC SportsTalk,'' 6-7 p.m., Fridays), Florio put Peyton Manning fifth. Eli's second on my list after his scintillating victory in Foxboro -- and after his terrific play in the Giants' 6-2 start. I didn't have Eli on this list as of Friday, but he shot up the list Sunday evening.

3. Tom Brady, QB, New England. On pace to pass Dan Marino's all-time yardage record, comfortably.

4. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. On pace to pass Dan Marino's all-time yardage record, comfortably.

5. Matt Forte, RB, Chicago. On pace to challenge the record for yards from scrimmage in a season.

"You can't spell 'elite' without Eli.''

-- Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck, after the hero of the hour in Foxboro beat the Patriots with an all-timer of a winning drive.

"This is the toughest place in the world to win. It says something about our team, and it says something about our quarterback. We swept 'em, but don't be fooled. We'll see them again in January.''

-- Baltimore pass-rusher Terrell Suggs, after the Ravens stunned the Steelers in Pittsburgh Sunday night.

"You don't become a bad team over a couple of weeks.''

-- Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo, after New England lost its second straight game.

"I want to die. This feeling feels like death. Nothing else can describe this. The pain is that bad.''

-- Pittsburgh Phil, Phil Gennaro, a friend of mine and a 41-year-old claims adjuster from Monroeville, east of Pittsburgh, leaving Heinz Field early this morning. He went on to text that today "will be miserable. I will have to deal with angry people, all because of this game.''

I got this week's idea for Stat of the Week from a reader, Adam Null, of Westmont, Ill. I liked Adam's email so much that I thought I would do just what it suggested. Adam wrote: "Hi Peter. You mentioned in your column Monday that "DeMarcus Ware (12 sacks in seven games) and Jared Allen (12.5 in eight games) are both on pace to break Michael Strahan's single-season record of 22.5. I wonder if those numbers are apples-to-oranges. Since passing has been trending upward for years now, and this year has been particularly pass-happy, how many dropbacks did Strahan face, versus Ware and Allen? It stands to reason that men of similar ability, when presented more opportunities, will produce more sacks."

I love the question, Adam. Thanks. (And just a note here: It's great to have smart fans throwing me suggestions like this. I never would have thought of this, but it's a legitimate question and should be factored in when comparing Strahan's season 10 years ago to the seasons of these rushers today.)

This is a good time to do this: Ware and Allen have played half a season. Strahan, in 2001, played all 16 games. In terms of playing time, all are similar; Strahan played 97 percent of the Giants' defensive snaps (966 of 996 in 2001); Ware and Allen have each played more than 90 percent of their team's snaps this year, according to ProFootballFocus.com.

To answer the question, I added the pass attempts plus sacks for the Giants' defense in 2001 (the year Strahan had 22.5 sacks to break the record), and the number of pass attempts plus sacks the foes of the Cowboys and Vikings have totaled in 2011. Here's what the numbers say:

The way to understand that chart is this: For every 100 pass drops by the opponent, Strahan had 3.97 sacks in 2001 ... and Ware has been exactly as productive in 2011, dropping the quarterback 3.97 times per 100 pass plays. Interesting that the number of pass plays per game is higher now -- and it just might help Allen or Ware, or both, break Strahan's record.

Chargers left tackle Marcus McNeill was whistled for six penalties last Monday against the Chiefs. McNeill's total penalties in his previous 17 games: five.

Prior to Sunday's road game against Washington, the 49ers had their Saturday morning walk-through practice at a field at the Marine Barracks in southeast Washington. After practice, coach Jim Harbaugh told the players to break the huddle down by saying "Semper Fi.'' A few players wondered, "What's that?'' They were told it was the Marine motto and means "Always Faithful.''

And so, with Marines lining the field and watching, the players yelled, "One, two, three, Semper Fi!''

Then Harbaugh had the team buses take a detour on the way back to its Pentagon City hotel -- to the Tomb of the Unknowns. Most of the players and staff had never been there. They spent about a half-hour getting a history lesson and then, silently, watching the solitary guard pace slowly in front of the tomb.

Now that's the way to spend your Saturday morning on the road in the nation's capital. In the words of Mad Dog Russo, "That's a good job by Harbaugh!''

When the Rams scored four points in the third quarter Sunday, it was the first four-point quarter in the NFL's 92-year history.

Ohio University's first eight football games of the year were played on Saturdays. The last four fall, in chronological order, on a Wednesday, Thursday, Wednesday and Tuesday. ESPN, anyone?

There are many things to get used to when you move to Manhattan. The art of getting a cab at peak times is one I'm struggling with. Friday night at 8, I got off a train from Stamford, Conn. (our Versus NFL preview show ends at 7, and I take the Acela back to the city right after that) and was in a rush to get home to the east side of town. Stupid me: Friday night, Manhattan, crowds ... Should have taken the subway.

But I went above ground, began signaling for a cab on 34th. Fruitless. Then I started walking to the east side, hand up in the air, seeking a cab. Two blocks, three, four. Finally, at the corner of 37th and Fifth Avenue, a gypsy cab, one of older black former limos, pulled up. I gave him my address, which would have been a $6 cab ride. When I got out, he said: "Thirty, plus tip.''

From here on out, it's the subway for me.

"I may not be an expert on everything but I am an expert on holding as I held on every play for 12 yrs. that was no hold!''

-- markschlereth, the former NFL guard and current ESPN analyst, on the holding call on the first play of the Sunday night game between Baltimore and Pittsburgh that negated a 78-yard touchdown run by Ray Rice.

"I am a fighter, I fight where I am told and I win where I fight ... George Patton ... Great win Giants, way to fight and win in Foxboro!''

-- @NYG_J_Ballard85, Giants tight end Jake Ballard, who had a tremendous catch on New York's winning drive at New England, then had the winning touchdown reception, in the Giants' exhilarating 24-20 victory over the Patriots.

"Just watched the game 4 times on DVR! I'll just stay awake until it's time to go work out. I hate losing more than I love winning"

-- @RealRClark25, Steelers safety Ryan Clark, at 5:19 a.m. today, less than six hours after the end of the Pittsburgh loss to Baltimore.

1. I think this is what I liked about Week 9:

a. Terrific strip/forced fumble by DeMeco Ryans in Houston, which effectively ended the game with Cleveland. The Texans, already up 7-0, finished their second scoring drive quickly

b. That Tony Romo can sure hold.

c. Something you don't see every day: Patrick Willis getting trucked. Washington fullback Darrel Young steamed him on the sideline on a pass play.

d. Don't see many better fade routes, throws and catches than the Drew Brees-to-Lance Moore job late in the first quarter of the game against Tampa Bay.

e. Excellent replay reversal, Mike Carey. He overturned a diving Julio Jones catch at the Indy goal line, ruled an incompletion on the field, and correctly ruled that Jones had both hands under the ball as he hit the ground. Touchdown, Jones.

f. Brees, 36 straight games with a touchdown pass ... 11 games behind Johnny U's record.

g. Red Bryant's playing like a monster for Seattle.

h. Speaking of Seattle monsters: Cornerback Richard Sherman, a rookie from Stanford, saved a Dallas touchdown with a bone-jarring forced fumble on Dez Bryant. No ifs, ands or buts -- that hit by Sherman prevented Dallas from taking a 10-point lead in the second quarter.

i. What an effort by Rian Lindell, saving a touchdown with a diving shoe tackle of Jets kick-returner Joe McKnight.

j. Great line by FOX's Chris Myers on Dallas-Seattle: "Why do I think of the Big Lebowski when I see Rob Ryan?''

k. Let history note that at 3:01 p.m., in Orchard Park, N.Y., history was made. Darrelle Revis allowed a 53-yard completion to Stevie Johnson.

l. Tim Tebow's 2-1.

m. Top three receivers in football: Wes Welker, Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham. Who had that trifecta in the office pool?

n. Will Svitek had help, but his protection of Matt Ryan was very good.

o. Jerry Reese's architecture job with the Giants.

p. Carlos Dunlap, with two sacks and more pressure for the Bengals.

q. Steven Jackson. What a horse: 29 carries, 130 yards.

r. Cris Collinsworth, on the end-zone drop by Torrey Smith of the Ravens: "That's a championship play. It's not a simple catch, but it's a catch that has to be made."

2. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 9:

a. Protect yourself, Dustin Keller. That sort of leap you made against Buffalo is just too dangerous.

b. Uh-oh. My Friday column guy, Derrick Johnson, let Anthony Fasano get way behind him and score a touchdown in the Chiefs debacle against formerly winless Miami.

c. Brutal throw, Matt Ryan, the misguided toss from your own end zone that was picked and returned for a touchdown by Jerraud Powers.

d. Ryan Fitzpatrick's first-half passer rating: 2.8.

e. Looks like you panicked on that pooch punt fiasco, Dustin Colquitt.

f. The Chiefs, losing by 28 to Miami.

g. The idiotic inconsistency of flags for hitting receivers very hard, legally.

h. How was that not offensive pass interference on Plaxico Burress on the clear shove before the touchdown pass to LaDainian Tomlinson? He mugged the DB.

i. Philip Rivers, officially out of sorts, misses Sproles.

j. Green Bay, for all its greatness, giving up 38 points and 460 yards to the Chargers on a muddy track.

k. John Skelton's Orlovskian end-zone awareness. You've got to know when to throw it away, and how to throw it away back there.

3. I think there's so much that makes me sick about the Jerry Sandusky story, but the timing of the case troubles me greatly. It took 13 years from the time it first became known to authorities that there was credible evidence that Sandusky was a sexual predator for the man to be indicted. Thirteen years! When I read the grand jury report Saturday, with the mountain of evidence against Sandusky, including a monitored 1998 conversation with an angry mother of a son who he all but admitted to abusing, I just kept thinking, How many boys had their lives changed forever because this case somehow didn't get on the front burner of law enforcement?

The benign neglect of it should haunt authority figures at Penn State and in law enforcement in the area forever. And if his position as a football coach in a powerful program is found to have had anything to do with the power over young boys that he allegedly exercised, then shame on the football culture that holds too much influence over our lives. As for the future of Joe Paterno, the status of a football coach who should have retired long ago is not foremost on my mind with this story. But if he in any way attempted to either look the other way or influence the outcome of any investigation in Sandusky's behavior (and there is no evidence he did), he'll deserve his day in court too. What a sad day for America.

4. I think this is what makes the Matt Forte contract situation so difficult to solve: guaranteed money. Four star backs have gotten new deals in the last few months, with significant guarantees. They are Adrian Peterson ($36 million), Chris Johnson ($30 million, DeAngelo Williams ($21 million) and Frank Gore ($13.5 million). Peterson and Gore have played well this season; they are second and third in the league in rushing yards this morning. Johnson and Williams are 28th and 29th in the league in rushing.

Before the season, Forte and his agent turned down a contract with between $13 million and $15 million guaranteed. Forte told our NBC SportsTalk show on Versus Friday night that there had been more contract talks recently, and certainly those would have included a ratcheting up of the guaranteed number. Question is, what do you give a back like Forte? He's 25 (turning 26 next month), and set to be a free agent after this season.

The Bears could label him the team's franchise player and keep him next year; the franchise number won't be determined until after the season, but it's likely to be about $7.8 million. So the Bears could franchise Forte for a total of $17.2 million over the next two years (2012 plus 120 percent of that number for 2013). Or, in keeping with what other top backs have received recently, they're supposed to hand him $30 million guaranteed? That's not really acknowledging the fact that Chicago has the leverage of the franchise tag.

5. I think Forte and the Bears are at least $10 million guaranteed apart. Unless Forte comes down toward the Williams neighborhood of guaranteed money -- or unless he continues to put up 175 rushing-receiving yards per week -- I can't see the Bears folding.

6. I think, as I said on NBC Sunday (what, you were watching the end of the Giants-Pats?), Forte's not the only back looking for a new deal. Ray Rice is too. Very quietly. Both Forte and Rice have contracts expiring at the end of the year.

7. I think DeAngelo Williams' season is a mystery. He's not hurt, but he's averaging only nine carries a game, and Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton are equal rushing threats.

8. I think Colt McCoy cannot afford games like he played in Houston Sunday. You're on trial, son. Cleveland's scouting quarterbacks, and the 2012 draft will be full of them, and you can't go 6-of-12 for 54 yards and a pick and fall behind 24-3 at the half against anyone. No way Cleveland won't be looking long and hard at quarterbacks next April.

9. I think there's black crepe paper all over Miami this morning. They just experienced The Day They Lost Their Real Chance At Andrew Luck.

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. "Fire Edsall'' chants at Maryland? In the ninth game? Sheesh.

b. Best New York Post description of Kim Kardashian: "big-bottomed professional celebrity.''

c. OMG! Pam pregnant!

d. I mean, I caught 10 minutes of The Office the other night and saw a weird-looking James Spader and Stanley being way too congenial (what's up with that?) and Pam being pregnant and Dwight being funny. Now Dwight funny, that's good.

e. Every time I think of that Sandusky story I want to punch a wall.

f. Good luck in the job, Ben Cherington. One piece of advice, and the only one, and one you probably don't need to hear, from a Red Sox season-ticket holder (with others): Don't take lightly the anger of the fans over this players-drinking-during-games issue. Not acceptable under any circumstances. I can tell you from the fans I know well and talk to, this is still very much an open wound, and you would be smart to not ignore it.

Other than some CYA words from John Henry on the radio, the team has done an awful job of addressing the stories of players not taking their jobs seriously enough. You, or someone of great importance there, need to understand it's not going away. I mean it when I say good luck. You come highly recommended.

g. Old buddy Brian Hyland went to the two private Springsteen shows in Pittsburgh over the weekend (to raise money for wounded servicemen) and filed this series of texts to me: "In the Soldiers & Sailors Hall, in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, the backyard of a tiny home where an NFL legend named Marino was taught by his steelworker pop how to throw a football better than anyone ever has, in a building built at the turn of the 20th century, the granite halls surrounding the stage exhibit glass-enclosed renderings of the American soldier as he looked in each war this nation has fought. Over this tiny stage, so ordinary you'd expect to watch a second-grade performance of the Wizard of Oz, reads every word of the Gettysburg Address. In this setting -- in Steel Town, on Ravens Weekend, surrounded by a crowd of 2,000, nearly all clad in black and gold, with Roethlisberger and Keisel backstage nodding approval -- steps Springsteen, his guitar a lunchpail in a lunchpail town. With a mighty "1, 2, 3, 4.' The strings are struck and for two hours the earth shakes.''

h. Why don't I get those assignments?

i. A huge thank you to the hotel where NBC housed me for the last couple of years on NFL weekends, the Omni Berkshire Place on Fifth and 52nd. Great hotel. Friendly but not obtrusive staff, and comfy, quiet rooms. I'll be back to say hi.

j. Coffeenerdness: Now, on the homestretch of writing this column, I get to brew my own Starbucks Italian roast for the last 1,000 words or so. Believe me, I need it then.

k. Beernerdness: Tried the Captain Lawrence Pumpkin Ale the other day. Not my style. I want a pumpkin ale with a heavy bite of pumpkin, not a faint taste.

l. Congrats to Apolo Ohno, a first-time marathoner, for running the New York Marathon is 3:25.14. Heartier congrats to another first-timer, Jennie Finch, coming after the birth of her second child, for her time 4:05. That's some accomplishment.

m. Fun event of the weekend: Riding through Central Park on a bike Saturday morning. I could get used to that.

Philadelphia 23, Chicago 21. Something's got to give: Eagles back LeSean McCoy's gashing the opposition for 5.6 yards a carry, Matt Forte of the Bears for 5.4. My money's on the Eagles to hold the line slightly better, and to protect the quarterback loads better.

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