"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
27 Nov 2007
by Ned Macey
Analysis of an NFL upset usually involves multiple dimensions. In the Meadowlands last Sunday, the Giants fell 41-17 almost exclusively because of their inept passing attack. The Vikings scored three touchdowns off of Eli Manning passes and brought another interception back within the ten-yard line. The game was an unmitigated disaster for the Giants quarterback and exposed New York as a team that built an impressive record by feasting on mediocre competition.
As a former number one pick with the last name "Manning," Eli has been subjected to a great deal of unfair scrutiny. He is in no way as good as his brother, but he has established himself as an average quarterback in this league. This year, however, he has struggled mightily at times, and his lack of accuracy down the field has proved to be his undoing.
Before we get to the negative, perspective on Manning's ability is necessary. His status as the first overall pick hardly guaranteed success. Nine quarterbacks were drafted first overall between 1990 and 2005. Of those nine, the only two who are clearly better players than Eli are his brother Peyton and Carson Palmer. Arguments on behalf of Drew Bledsoe or Michael Vick are reasonable, but Manning appears clearly a step ahead of Alex Smith, David Carr, Tim Couch, or even Jeff George. He is, in fact, average for what a first overall quarterback has come to be.
Had Manning been drafted at the top of the third round, he would be a steal. If he had come out of nowhere, like Carolina's Jake Delhomme, we would appreciate his moxie and rarely lament his shortcomings. Instead, his background has made him a convenient target for criticism.
All that being said, Manning should not be above reproach, and his performance on Sunday is certainly worthy of criticism. The Giants offense was short its top two running backs and playing a Minnesota defense that excels against the run. Their fate was therefore placed in the right hand of their franchise quarterback.
Manning actually came out sharp, orchestrating a scoring drive on the Giants' first possession. From that point forward, he floundered. He was 3-17 the rest of the first half with two interceptions. That level of play goes beyond embarrassing to a world of incompetence known only to rare talents like Ryan Leaf or Doug Pederson.
The Vikings' game plan highlighted a strong reason for Manning's decline this season. The Vikings attacked Manning the same way they did Philip Rivers a few weeks ago: heavy blitzing. This blitz attack dialed up by defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier was more diverse than the game plan against San Diego. The Vikings came from all angles with linebackers and safeties.
With a heavy blitz coming, the most elementary counter is the screen pass. The Giants have been one of the great screen teams of recent seasons with Tiki Barber at running back. Without him, the screen game hardly appeared, and the end result was Manning forcing wild throws down the field.
Just three weeks ago, the retirement of Barber was being treated as a non-issue. Brandon Jacobs stepped in admirably for Barber on running plays and was among the most productive runners in football. The Giants were 7-2 and widely considered one of the best three teams in the NFC. The loss of Barber was almost being treated as addition by subtraction.
Barber, however, was not just a great runner but also a real weapon out of the backfield in pass patterns. Manning threw frequently to Tiki on both designed passes and dumpoffs to great effect. Last year, Manning had a DVOA of 12.4% when he threw to running backs. This year, it is an abysmal -21.0%. For those more interested in traditional numbers, Manning has ranked ninth in pass attempts to running backs each of the past two seasons. Last year, he was eighth in yards, while this year he is 15th.
Barber's retirement is obviously not the sole reason for Manning's struggles this season. Plaxico Burress has battled an ankle injury and practiced only rarely. The offensive line has been adequate but rarely provided outstanding protection. Still, Barber provided stability and identity to the offense that also served to open up opportunities for other receivers.
The truth is that the Giants were not 6-2 because of the retirement of Tiki Barber, Clubhouse Lawyer. The Giants were 6-2 because they are a pretty good team that was beating up on inferior competition. Not one of the first six teams they beat currently sports a winning record. Even including their most recent win against 6-5 Detroit, the Giants have not beaten a team in the top 10 of Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings. Their best win came over a 12th-ranked Eagles team that was banged-up that week, featuring Donovan McNabb and two dozen extras from Invincible who were still hanging around Philadelphia begging for a tryout.
The good news for Giants fans was that before Sunday, they had only lost to exceptional teams in Dallas and Green Bay. That obviously changed against Minnesota, a flawed team with some exceptional parts that is sitting on the outskirts of the playoff race. The flaws are a horrendous pass attack and a suspect pass defense. Just last week, that pass defense allowed 344 yards passing to the hapless Oakland Raiders. Not once this season has the Vikings primary quarterback thrown for more yards than the opponents.
Some of that, of course, has to do with the Vikings' outstanding run defense and very good run offense. Opponents go to the air early and often, while the Vikings are content to grind it out on the ground. In all but two games, the Vikings have had the leading rusher among running backs.
Defensively, the Vikings are finally hinting at changing their strategy after nearly two years of exposing the same liabilities. In recent weeks, they have sacrificed run defense to help improve the pass defense. These tweaks have not all been successful -- the embarrassing 34-0 loss to Green Bay comes to mind -- but the net gain has been a positive. The Vikings have won three of their last four games and effectively embarrassed Rivers and Manning.
The blitz-heavy approach featured in those two contests may return in the next three weeks against a series of easily rattled quarterbacks: Jon Kitna, Alex Smith, and Rex Grossman. In fact, the Vikings can seriously start thinking about playoff possibilities in the woeful NFC. The only somewhat difficult road game remaining is at Denver, and the only opponent with a winning record is the somewhat fraudulent Lions. At 5-6, the Vikings have a solid chance of finishing at least 8-8, which could get them into the tournament if the tiebreakers go their way.
One other key from Sunday's game that will be imperative for a Minnesota run is the mistake-free play of Tarvaris Jackson. Jackson is exhibiting very mild growth as a quarterback. His 60-yard touchdown pass to the emerging Sidney Rice on the second play of the game was an outstanding throw. He also had several nice scrambles. Most importantly, in a game the Vikings defense was dominating, he did not make a crucial mistake (although he did fumble in the first half, only to luckily see the Vikings recover for a first down).
The Vikings' lack of faith in Jackson was apparent by the constant slamming of Chester Taylor into a defense stacked to defend against the run. Taylor carried 31 times for only 77 yards. Adrian Peterson may return from injury this upcoming weekend, but even he would have struggled for yards given the lack of holes Taylor was provided.
For the Vikings, it is too soon to tell both if the Jackson-Rice combo will provide a legitimate passing attack or if their pass defense can consistently harass opposing quarterbacks. The season-long performance says assuredly not, but recent hints of competence can surely encourage Vikings fans. The truth is, the Vikings currently rank 10th overall in DVOA rankings, ahead of the Giants. They should not have to be hoping for lucky bounces going forward, but lamenting unlucky bounces that cost them games against inferior teams in Detroit and Kansas City earlier this season.
For New York, the headlines have already been written. They will limp into the playoffs and be exposed, with the story spun as another late-season collapse. The difference this year is that the Giants were never very good. Tom Coughlin may lose his job over the perceived fade, but he has performed admirably given the team's talent. Nonetheless, his ouster may be deserved for having forced his franchise quarterback's security blanket into early retirement before the season.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
54 comments, Last at 28 Nov 2007, 9:49pm by Jin