Ugly starts are turning into beautiful finishes


December 13, 2004|By KEN MURRAY

AS ROUGH A DAY as Eli Manning experienced in Baltimore, the New York Giants rookie quarterback found himself in good company yesterday with an unsightly 4-for-18 passing performance.

Imagine this: A few minutes into the second half in Green Bay, Packers quarterback Brett Favre, a three-time NFL Most Valuable Player, was an equally awful 4-for-18, for 37 yards.

And this: Chris Chandler, who won nine games as a rookie for the Indianapolis Colts in 1988, threw a shocking six interceptions for the St. Louis Rams as a fill-in for injured Marc Bulger.

Favre is 35 and Chandler 39, so Manning, a mere 23, has to realize that sometimes bad things happen even to veteran quarterbacks. Not that we're ready to lump the youngest Manning in with Favre or Chandler yet, mind you. But he was the first pick in this year's draft, so four games is a little quick to rush to judgment, New York fans.

In fact, Week 14 proved to be a lesson in perseverance on several fronts.

While Manning's Giants were thumped by the Ravens, 37-14, and Chandler's Rams dropped a 20-7 decision to the streaking Carolina Panthers, Favre overcame his dreadful start and pulled out a 16-13 victory over the Detroit Lions.

After hitting four of his first 18 passes, Favre completed 15 of his last 18 passes for 151 yards and one touchdown. Combined with the Minnesota Vikings' 27-23 loss at home to the reeling Seattle Seahawks, the win boosted the Packers into the NFC North lead at 8-5.

Is history repeating itself? Didn't the Vikings blow a big early lead in the division a year ago and finish out of the playoffs? For those inclined, the Vikings play at Washington in Week 17 if that story line holds.

Also persevering yesterday were the Panthers, San Francisco 49ers and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Jerome Bettis. The rundown:

Thought to be dead in the water at 1-7, the Panthers have made a remarkable turnaround. By beating St. Louis, they climbed to 6-7 and - more incredibly - back into the postseason picture. If the playoffs started today, Carolina would be in.

How? St. Louis' loss cost the Rams their share of the NFC West lead, and dropped them into wild-card contention. Since the Panthers now own the head-to-head tiebreaker with St. Louis, they have a tenuous grip on the last wild-card spot in the NFC. Philadelphia, beware.

The 49ers are dead in the water, and so, apparently, is coach Dennis Erickson. But now no one can say they flat-out quit, even though it looked like it. They blew a 25-point lead in Arizona, only to come back in overtime to beat the Cardinals, 31-28.

The 49ers are an organization in chaos, not to mention salary-cap hell. Whoever surfaces next season to attempt resuscitation - is that Mike Holmgren knocking at the door? - will not find a strong heartbeat.

Bettis, the beloved "Bus" in Pittsburgh, surrendered his recently acquired spot as the NFL's fifth all-time leading rusher to the New York Jets' Curtis Martin on a day both running backs crashed the 13,000-yard barrier on the same field.

Martin, at 13,046, finished the game with a 9-yard advantage on Bettis, who is now a part-time performer for the Steelers. But Bettis made the game's two biggest plays and the Steelers clinched the AFC North with a 17-6 win. Score this one for Bettis.

The first big play was a 10-yard touchdown pass he threw to Jerame Tuman to break a 3-3 tie. The second was a 12-yard touchdown run that broke the Jets' back. The starting job may belong to Duce Staley in Pittsburgh, but the city still belongs to Bettis.

Slowing the pace

The Ravens are next on Peyton Manning's hot seat. After throwing touchdowns on the team's first two series to raise his season count to 46, the Indianapolis Colts quarterback didn't find the end zone again in Houston.

The Colts came away with a 23-14 victory and their second straight AFC South title, but the pursuit of Dan Marino's single-season record for touchdown passes will drag into next Sunday night's game against the Ravens. Manning needs two to tie, three to eclipse Marino.

Thanks to an interception and early field position, the Colts only had to run two plays in their half of the field while building a 14-0 lead against the Texans. Indianapolis' prolific offense produced its first scoreless quarter in seven weeks in the second period, and contributed a pair of field goals in the fourth. The Colts' defense, meanwhile, collected two more takeaways for a league-leading 33.

Houston's strategy was to pound running back Domanick Davis (23 carries, 128 yards) at the heart of the defense and go after Manning with corner blitzes. It worked to a degree, getting Manning out of rhythm in the second half. As the Texans found out, it takes more than that to beat the Colts.

Et cetera

The Steelers not only clinched their division title by beating the Jets, they also helped the New England Patriots secure their third AFC East title in four years. For Steelers coach Bill Cowher, it was division title No. 8 in his 13 seasons. ... The end-zone interception thrown by wide receiver Randy Moss in the Vikings' loss could be the play that sinks coach Mike Tice if the team doesn't recover to make the playoffs. ... The Steelers' 11-game winning streak leads the league, but the San Diego Chargers (10-3) are next with seven. ... The Cleveland Browns have the league's longest losing streak at seven.

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