Sunday, November 25, 2007
Observation deck: Giants fading again?
By Mike Sando ESPN.com
Quarterback Eli Manning proved in Week 12 what the New York Giants must have already known. They're a run-oriented team that struggles when Manning shoulders too much of the load.
The Minnesota Vikings returned three of Manning's four interceptions for touchdowns during their 41-17 upset victory in the Meadowlands -- an outcome sure to revive old questions about the Giants' ability to finish a season strong.
The Giants remain heavy favorites to emerge with a wild-card berth in the NFC. But with two losses in three games since the season's midpoint, they're starting to resemble the teams that faded twice in three previous seasons under coach Tom Coughlin.
The Giants are 9-18 in the second halves of seasons since Coughlin became coach in 2004. That includes a 1-7 finish three years ago and a 2-6 finish last season.
They won six consecutive games this season when running backs Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Reuben Droughns were controlling games behind a veteran offensive line. The Giants rushed for 188, 188, 140 and 189 yards during the final four games of that six-game streak. They've averaged 84.3 yards rushing over the past three games.
A hamstring injury has sidelined Jacobs since partway through a Week 11 victory in Detroit. Injuries have sidelined Ward for the past four games.
Those injuries, coupled with the Vikings' dominant run defense, helped to create a perfect storm at Giants Stadium. Manning's first three interceptions came in third-and-long situations. Teams that run the ball effectively face fewer of those.
Manning has learned this lesson before. Three of the four interceptions he threw against the Vikings in 2005 came on unfavorable down-and-distance situations, including a third-and-14.
Ten more observations from Week 12:
1. Jags deserve respect
While New England's dominance makes it easy to dismiss the rest of the AFC, Jacksonville deserves better.
This could be the season the Jaguars finally win a playoff game under Jack Del Rio. Their dominating performance against Buffalo was their third victory in a row since QB David Garrard's injury briefly derailed them.
Garrard won't set any passing records on a team determined to pound the ball, but he's the AFC's third-rated passer behind Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. Garrard has nine touchdowns and zero interceptions in the seven games he has started and finished.
Error-free play from Garrard makes the Jaguars a favorite to emerge as the second seed in the AFC. They probably can't score enough points to threaten the Patriots in a head-to-head matchup, but Jacksonville can overtake Indianapolis in the AFC South by beating the Colts in Week 13.
Both teams would have 9-3 records after splitting the season series, but the Jaguars would have the better conference mark (7-2 to 5-3).
2. These are the real Titans
Vince Young's miraculous plays helped the 2006 Titans win five of their final six games by a combined 20 points. Tennessee knew a repeat performance this season was unlikely after teams adjusted their game plans for Young.
The Titans started quickly anyway, a surprise, but they'll have a hard time claiming a playoff berth in the AFC after their 35-6 defeat in Cincinnati. The defense has become ordinary without injured tackle Albert Haynesworth disrupting offenses.
Without a strong defense, the Titans can't lean as heavily on their ground game. Without the ground game, Young's deficiencies become exaggerated. The second-year starter has attempted 113 passes over the past three games, seven more than he attempted in his five previous starts.
Carson Palmer was at his best on Sunday, and the Bengals rolled over the Titans.
3. All hail Palmer
Carson Palmer can be the most dangerous quarterback in the NFL. He's not having the best season, and Arizona's Antrel Rolle stunned him in Week 11, but Palmer scares defenses almost as much as Brady and Peyton Manning.
Palmer completed 32 of 38 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-6 romp of the Titans. His 84.2 completion rate was better than Brady's season-high effort (84.0 at Miami) entering Week 12. Few quarterbacks control games as effectively before the snap.
Wide receiver Chad Johnson stole the spotlight against the Titans by posing behind an end zone camera. His long history of antics, coupled with the Bengals' inability to field a championship roster, has prevented Palmer from gaining the recognition he deserves.
4. Kerney earning money
The Seahawks raised eyebrows during the offseason by committing $19.5 million in guarantees to a 30-year-old pass-rusher coming off an injury-shortened season.
Patrick Kerney is justifying their investment. His second consecutive three-sack game helped the Seahawks hold off St. Louis, 24-19. Kerney has 14 tackles, seven sacks, three forced fumbles and two passes defensed in his past three games.
The Seahawks still have problems. They can't trust their running game, and usually clutch kicker Josh Brown has missed four times in the past three games. The offense took another hit when receiver D.J. Hackett reinjured an ankle.
Seattle's defense is its strength, thanks largely to Kerney. He has 10½ sacks this season, same as what he had in his final two seasons with Atlanta.
5. Moore's time could be here
Carolina's reluctance to start Matt Moore at quarterback has been frustrating for fans, but it's somewhat understandable. Throwing young quarterbacks into tough situations can do more harm than good.
However, coach John Fox finally reached a breaking point during a 31-6 home loss to New Orleans. David Carr was brutally ineffective, completing 10 of 22 passes for 95 yards and two interceptions. Moore, an undrafted rookie, completed eight of 14 passes for 66 yards and one interception.
Carr's future with the team would seem to be in question. Vinny Testaverde, inactive with back issues, is just about finished.
Moore began his college career at UCLA and finished it at Oregon State. He spent time with the Los Angeles Dodgers in between.
The Panthers like Moore and think he might have a future. They just never expected to need him this soon.
6. Generous Redskins
Washington quarterback Jason Campbell keeps faltering in the clutch. Tampa Bay held on, 19-13, by picking him off on each of the Redskins' final two drives, both in Bucs territory.
In Week 11, Dallas picked off Campbell in Cowboys territory with less than two minutes remaining. In Week 10, a muffed snap doomed the Redskins' final drive during a 33-25 loss in Philadelphia.
The Redskins had six turnovers against the Bucs. They have 15 turnovers in their past five games, four of them losses.
Washington dominated the second half against the Bucs, who played long stretches without quarterback Jeff Garcia. The Redskins gave away a prime chance to gain ground in the NFC.
7. Reprieve for Niners' offense
San Francisco's embattled offensive coordinator, Jim Hostler, might deserve a temporary reprieve after putting together an impressive plan to help the 49ers outlast Arizona. But it's tough not to recognize newly hired consultant Ted Tollner as the man behind the 49ers' sudden revival.
The 49ers kept the Cardinals' opportunistic defense off balance with a wide variety of formations and personnel groupings during a 37-31 overtime victory in Arizona. The effort almost wasn't enough because the 49ers' defense repeatedly gave up big plays, allowing Kurt Warner to rack up 484 yards passing.
But for the first time this season, the 49ers found a way to fully utilize their best player on offense. Frank Gore finis
hed with 32 touches, 214 yards and two touchdowns.
For all the 49ers' troubles on defense, they would have lost without another outstanding performance from rookie linebacker Patrick Willis. The first-round choice finished with 18 tackles, including a heroic takedown of Cardinals receiver Sean Morey following a 62-yard gain in overtime.
Another 49ers defender appeared to give up on the play after officials threw a flag. Willis never gave up. His tackle forced the Cardinals to settle for a field goal try, which missed.
8. Chiefs kicking themselves
Daunte Culpepper put together another efficient, if unspectacular effort for Oakland, giving the Raiders less incentive to give No. 1 overall choice JaMarcus Russell a chance.
Whatever decision the Raiders make won't be as controversial as the one Kansas City head coach Herm Edwards made during a rare Oakland victory at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Chiefs lost yardage on a fourth-and-1 running play from the Oakland 23 with less than five minutes remaining and the Raiders leading, 20-17.
Kansas City had only one timeout remaining. Energized by the quick turn of events, the Raiders gained 12, 11 and 10 yards, respectively, on their next three plays. They ran out the clock.
Edwards' decision seemed strange given the outcome, but kicker Dave Rayner had already missed from 33 yards. Rayner has missed three of his past five field goal tries. The Chiefs had gained 19 yards on a fourth-and-1 run earlier in the game.
Edwards probably made the right call, even if it didn't work. Kolby Smith finished with 31 carries for 150 yards.
9. Rivers finds rhythm
San Diego QB Philip Rivers had been throwing into coverage and hurting the Chargers' offense in key situations. His three-touchdown performance against Baltimore gives San Diego hope.
The Chargers still couldn't get LaDainian Tomlinson going, but that was understandable against the Ravens. Tomlinson carried 10 times for only eight yards in the first half.
By then, Rivers had completed 20 of 28 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns. That type of efficiency will be enough for the Chargers to beat most teams and win the division.
10. Hester is the man
Kicking away from Chicago return man Devin Hester is harder than it appears, particularly given the overall strength of the Bears' special teams.
Denver became the latest team to learn that lesson, watching Hester score two second-half touchdowns on long returns. Hester's 75-yard punt-return touchdown tied the game, 13-13. His 88-yard kickoff return for a touchdown tied the game, 20-20.
The Bears also blocked a Broncos punt.
Hester has more touchdowns on special teams this season (five) than several prominent NFL receivers have on offense. Pittsburgh's Hines Ward, Denver's Brandon Stokley and Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez are among those with four touchdowns in 2007.
Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.