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The Best Manning for the Job Might Be Eli

Special to The Times

The question is not so much whether Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning will break Dan Marino’s NFL record for touchdown passes in a season -- he probably will -- but whether, down the stretch, he will thrive or fold in the big-game competition that’s surely ahead for the Colts.

Manning hasn’t always been at his best in tight games against first-class teams. New England quarterback Tom Brady prevailed on opening night, 27-24. Later, when Kansas City’s slick offense made it a shootout there, the Colts lost, 45-35.

Manning’s specialty is beating up on lesser teams.

That’s not to say he isn’t a great passer. Most NFL folks say he’s the best the league has.

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He’s most effective, though, when out in front -- or when ballcarrier Edgerrin James is setting up Manning’s play-action passes, and freeing him from blitzers.

The only bad plays Manning has made in recent years have been when good defensive teams have subjected him to heavy pressure.

Eli Is Smoother

The New York Giants, now starting a young quarterback who may be better than Peyton Manning, will take on Philadelphia today.

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That would be Eli Manning, Peyton’s kid brother, who made a neat debut last week in a game that Atlanta narrowly won, 14-10.

The question is whether Eli has the size to survive in his vicious world. He has the height, 6 feet 4, but at 218 pounds is comparatively small-framed. Brother Peyton, who rises 6 feet 5, is a well-packed 230 pounds.

Otherwise, they seem much the same after growing up with Archie Manning, the NFL’s best-ever quarterback-who-couldn’t-win.

Archie was drafted long ago by the awful New Orleans Saints, who have never improved.

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Eli isn’t on much of a team, either, but he does have a great running back, Tiki Barber, and three grade-A pass catchers, Jeremy Shockey, Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard.

In the pressure of Eli’s maiden NFL start, there were a few misses and a few drops last Sunday, but all that seemed to be mainly passer-receiver unfamiliarity. Giant receivers had been catching passes from Kurt Warner, the previous starter, and it often takes a while to adjust.

Primarily, Manning’s throws were arriving sooner than expected because he unloads faster than Warner.

Partly in response, probably, to those who said Warner held the ball too long, Eli held it only long enough to make very fast reads.

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If at times he lacked Peyton’s accuracy, it was probably because ,he was unused to game-time speed.

In action, though, Eli is not only quicker than Peyton but smoother.

Vick is a Target

The Atlanta Falcons will take the NFC’s second-best record (8-2) into their game against New Orleans today. And they’re playing like an 8-2 team. But their quarterback, Michael Vick, has the look of an injury waiting to happen. Either he doesn’t know how to protect himself or he doesn’t care.

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Quarterback sliding is as much a part of football today as the draw play but Vick never goes down until he’s tackled. He hasn’t even learned to take a glancing blow. He keeps going until someone hits him solidly.

That seems a strange way for a 215-pound NFL quarterback to proceed in this day of 300-pound tacklers. Carrying the ball, Vick is a fast sandlot-type runner, so quick and talented that his focus is only on moving around or ahead.

Last week, bigger Giants tackled Vick unsparingly four times on his first touchdown drive alone. But he got up and kept running or passing and getting hit until he had a 14-0 lead at halftime, after which the Falcons seemed to relax.

The West Coast offense, which Vick’s new coaches have put in this year, could have been designed for him. By spreading around the pass receivers, the West Coast spreads out the defensive players, creating lanes for Vick to run through. Yet he won’t last if he doesn’t learn to slide.

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Patriots Too Tough

The New England Patriots won a 27-19 game Monday in Kansas City, winning the usual way -- on the leadership and defensive designs of Coach Bill Belichick and the pass plays and leadership of Brady.

Belichick’s planning was illustrated in one small defensive instance in the first quarter. After a failed Kansas City run on first down, the Patriots, counting on the Chiefs to pass on second and nine, blitzed, rushing all but two defensive backs.

The Chiefs, who had been rolling from their first offensive series, lost so much ground on that sack that quarterback Trent Green’s third-and-long completion fell a yard short of a first down.

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The blitz led to the punt that kept Kansas City away from a big start.

Brady’s powerful passing was best illustrated during a surprisingly quick two-play, 72-yard move on successive passes to the game’s key touchdown in the third quarter, the first a 46-yard bomb to David Patten, the second a mid-range bullet to Deion Branch, who, on a 26-yard play, ran it in.

The bomb was actually thrown twice. The first time, Brady, with an easy 46-yard delivery, just missed Patten’s outstretched fingers. Then, on the same play, throwing the same way to the same speeding receiver, Brady hit him in the hands with a shot that covered half the field.

The meaning wasn’t lost on the league: The Patriots have a quarterback who can do a three-inch correction on a 46-yard pass in the pressure of Monday night football.

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Rams Stop Rams

The St. Louis Rams are 5-5 going into Monday night’s game at Green Bay, where they might well demonstrate that they don’t have the defense, special teams or blockers to hang with the Packers.

The only thing the Rams can offer is the NFL’s best pass offense.

In a 37-17 defeat at Buffalo, the Rams beat themselves again last week. After a 17-all first half, they came out running in the third quarter, calling mostly ineffective power runs and difficult third-down passes, allowing the Bills to parlay some ordinary pass plays and an 86-yard punt return into the 20 winning points.

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When the Rams were playing more aggressively in the first half, they opened leads of 10-0 and 17-14.

But their signal-caller, Coach Mike Martz, was growing more conservative by the minute, and no passer can succeed consistently throwing on third and long.

Thus, third-and-long passing was the undoing of quarterback Marc Bulger in Buffalo.

Foes Let Bettis Run

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The Pittsburgh Steelers are another team trying to win conservatively with third-down passes after often futile early-down runs. And so far, they’ve made a 9-1 record with their phenomenal rookie passer, Ben Roethlisberger.

Defensive coaches, however, are beginning to catch up to Pittsburgh’s simple offense, even though they don’t mind that Pittsburgh’s old running back Jerome Bettis is still piling up 100-yard games

Defenses let Bettis have his fun on first- and second-down plays, knowing he can’t do any real harm, while concentrating on ways to thwart Roethlisberger on third down.

If it’s true that Roethlisberger won’t have so much to beat today when 3-7 Washington comes to town, it’s also a fact that the 4-6 Bengals made all kinds of trouble for him last week with a variety of third-down blitzing schemes.

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It was good experience for Roethlisberger, who will doubtless see more of the same from the Redskins and five more defensive teams this year.

Bengal quarterback Carson Palmer, who threw two big touchdown passes in the first half, was going to win the Pittsburgh game until Roethlisberger made two plays in the same series.

First, from the Bengal 41, he threw a 26-yard pass to tight end Jerame Tuman at the Bengal 15. Then after Bettis got the obligatory handoffs on first and second down, Roethlisberger fired a third-down touchdown pass eight yards to fullback Dan Kreider.

If Roethlisberger doesn’t make the Tuman and Kreider plays (who are those guys?), Pittsburgh is a goner and Roethlisberger’s unprecedented undefeated career start ends at seven. It doesn’t take 20-20 vision to see that it won’t last much longer unless his coaches open up their offense.

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