In all of the NFL oddities that exist this season, here's one that we might never wrap our heads around: The Giants might be 8-0 if not for Rex Grossman and Charlie Whitehurst.
Instead, they are 6-2 with wins over Michael Vick, Ryan Fitzpatrick and — in dramatic fashion, reviving the ghosts of XLII — Tom Brady.
It hasn't been pretty. There's nothing suggesting it will be pretty going forward from here. But you have to give your ultimate due to a Giants team that went into Foxborough without its starting center, top wide receiver or leading rusher.
In their stead, Jake Ballard (a taller, whiter David Tyree perhaps, carrying on the No. 85 tradition well), Ramses Barden, Steve Weatherford, Spencer Paysinger and Victor Cruz were heroes. All of those players, besides Barden, were undrafted, and he has spent more time on injured reserve in his NFL career than on the active roster.
All huge performances, from Ballard's incredible show as a receiver to Weatherford's punting, dropping kicks at the Patriots' 10-, six-, 18-, 10- and seven-yard lines in the first half.
But Eli Manning gets the biggest bear hug tonight. He was the difference Sunday. It has flown below the radar, but he has been excellent this season. In fact, the Giants can't spell "elite" without E-L-I. (Just couldn't help myself.)
"I think he told all of the New York media that he was an elite quarterback, and he just continues to prove it," Giants DE Justin Tuck said. "To come out and lead us to another victory ... I've been here seven years with him (and) I'd dare to say he's probably playing his best ball in those seven years."
Manning makes plays when he has to. That red-zone INT was regrettable, but he rallied his team in Brady-like fashion with the chips down in a hostile environment.
It was all there on the final drive. The seam pass to Ballard for 28 yards on 3rd-and-10 with just over a minute left was sinfully good. The 12-yard scramble, when no one in the stadium saw that coming, was well-timed. The TD pass on 3rd-and-goal to Ballard was the capper.
In the locker room after the win, Brandon Jacobs (who had some powerful runs) lifted Tom Coughlin on his shoulders. But Eli lifted his team on his shoulders on the field.
Indeed, New York was the center of the NFL universe in Week Nine.
The Jets capped off their tide-shifting divisional win over the Bills — one that would be rendered even bigger when the Giants later won — rather early. Their offensive game plan was flawless right from the start.
They had a well-orchestrated mix of power runs with Shonn Greene, draws and screens to LaDainian Tomlinson and quick slants to, well, pretty much every Jets receiver. TE Dustin Keller also had a few big catches. Other than a pair of pass-interference calls downfield on passes intended for Santonio Holmes, the Jets didn't go crazy with the deep ball. Jets head coach Rex Ryan was calling it straight: His team needed to get back to the run, which they started in the second half of Week Seven and continued against the Bills.
Defensively, they had a few wrinkles, but ultimately the win was as dominant physically as it was cerebrally.
"I also knew that our team was going to come out guns a-blazing," Ryan said. "Our guys were loose and focused — we were all week, and we're at our best when we play that way. Obviously we had too many penalties in the first half and we turned the ball over, so that was the biggest disappointment."
The mistakes? Oh yeah, there were plenty. Two turnovers (including an endzone INT), a missed field goal and nine penalties marred a fairly dominant effort, but the best thing you can say is that they cleaned things up after halftime.
But like the Giants, the Jets care little for style points. Playing ugly is when both teams are at their best. That's the real "New York State of Mind" this season: a pair of tough-minded, scrappy teams that no one will want to face.
Controversial call of the week
The Browns, Dolphins and Patriots have different ways of doing business.
Peyton Hillis has had a nightmare season, going from beloved Madden cover boy worthy of a long-term extension to a player the Browns appear willing to part ways with and do so without regret.
The latest in his saga was missing a Boys and Girls Club event on Halloween, chalked up by Hillis as a miscommunication, and it very well might have been. But after the very public money squabble, skipping a game with strep throat on the advice of his agent and this nagging hamstring injury that has kept him from the lineup, the public appears very skeptical.
On Friday I was talking to a former teammate of Hillis' and I asked about the player's personality, which has come under attack in Cleveland.
"He's a different kind of cat, man," the player said of Hillis. "We liked him, most of the guys liked him, but he wasn't always a great teammate. He wasn't always dependable. He wasn't always there all the time, you know?
"I don't know, he was just ... a little different. We never hung out."
Pressed for details, the player pled the fifth. Damning? Not quite, but hardly an endorsement of Hillis' character.
In Hillis' place Sunday, the Browns were forced to go with Chris Ogbonnaya, who fumbled on his first carry, which the Texans recovered. He finished with 28 yards on 13 carries, and that included a 10-yarder. After watching Trent Richardson on Saturday, I am convinced the Browns will use one of their two first-round draft picks on him.
The Dolphins had to deal with Vontae Davis this week after he reportedly showed up to practice either drunk or badly hung over, smelling of alcohol. It reportedly led to an altercation with teammate Brandon Marshall, who openly talked about the incident afterward. The team chose to sit Davis, and it serves him right that he had to watch the Dolphins' impressive 31-3 win from home.
The Patriots, however, chose to play Julian Edelman (and sit Kevin Faulk) after Edelman was charged with assault and battery after a Halloween night incident in which he allegedly touched a woman inappropriately.
But Edelman was out there Sunday, shagging punts in the Patriots' loss to the Giants. The team issued a statement this past week, saying, "The Patriots are aware of the reports regarding Julian Edelman and will defer any comment to his representatives at this time.'' Edelman's agent, Don Yee, said they would "vigorously" battle the charges.
Different teams, different ways to skin cats.
The wow factor
This week's edition gives a nod to the defenses, even if they don't get their proper credit for what they accomplished on Sunday:
Perhaps NFL players caught a little LSU-Alabama Saturday night. Whatever the influence might have been, defenses ruled Sunday in Week Nine.
Early this season, it appeared that offenses were going to dominate this season. We've seen a slow trickle back to normalcy, but Sunday was a nearly across-the-board victory for fans of the other side of the ball.
Yes, there was some bad QB play, too, with an injured Sam Bradford battling John Skelton in one game and a rusty Carson Palmer trading so-so throws with Tim Tebow in another.
But we must pay homage to some impressive defensive showings leaguewide.
We're in a fantasy football era, and it's fun to watch some of the best quarterbacks throw the ball all over the yard. But it's also great to see defenses matter again. I was beginning to worry they were not part of the equation anymore.
Entertainers and icons
This goes out to the most odd, confusing division of them all:
Right now the AFC West is a total circus. Any guesses on which team is the best?
The Chargers frustrate because of their talent but seeming inability to finish games. One game they blow an 11-point lead (at Jets in Week Seven), two weeks later they come tantalizingly close against the undefeated defending champs.
Do the Raiders have a chance? Carson Palmer made some 2006-like throws and started to quiet the compensation talk a bit, but he also threw three picks and the team committed 130 yards' worth of penalties. Not a smart team always.
The Broncos are a strange lot and probably have no business being in any kind of race, not with their QB play or with the state of their secondary, but you have to respect a team that can run the ball the way they did Sunday.
But right now, the oddest team of the lot has to be the Chiefs. A win Sunday would have made them only the fifth team since 1970 to start 0-3 and then win five straight, but they were absolutely taken out of the game early against the winless Dolphins. The fact that, of the previous four teams to make that mark, only one made the playoffs is beside the point.
The Chiefs have to play better than they did Sunday against Matt Moore. They must face Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Jay Cutler, Aaron Rodgers and Palmer, not to mention having to defend the running of Tim Tebow twice, which can throw a defense off a bit.
What a strange, completely wide-open division. One the Chiefs could win if they straighten themselves out.
Ten takeaways of the week
Here are 10 things I took from Week Nine as we steamroll past the halfway mark of the season:
1. Just as Eli got the best of Tom Brady, Joe Flacco trumped Ben Roethlisberger. What a shocking and massive win for the Ravens, who had turned in two straight subpar efforts against two bad teams in the Jaguars and Cardinals. In a muddled AFC playoff picture, why can't the Ravens emerge as conference champs? And good for Flacco, who needed this kind of game — turnover-free, hit-absorbing, question-answering, poised, clutch and smart. He takes his warts and probably always will have his critics, not unlike Eli Manning, but Flacco just led his AFC-best Ravens to a season sweep over the Steelers. It doesn't get much bigger than that. Those are career-defining types of drives.
2. Frank Gore is an MVP candidate. Not should be — is. He has done what no 49er ever has done: rushed for 100 yards in five straight games. After looking to me to slow down and show far less lateral quickness last season, Gore has been revitalized. So every time your friend brings up the Chris Johnson contract as a reason not to sign backs to big contracts, you can parry that argument with Gore as an example of some (committed) backs being well worth the dough. I am assuming that Matt Forté and Fred Jackson fall under the same category of being worth it. The argument that running backs shouldn't get paid because of how Hillis and Johnson have performed this season just doesn't hold water, in my book.
3. Speaking of Jackson, it just wasn't the Bills' day. Maybe they watched the video this week of me predicting them to earn the best record in the AFC, but they came out flat offensively and then were bludgeoned repeatedly by the Jets. For as strong as the Bills were on the line of scrimmage against the Redskins on both sides of the ball, they absolutely were mauled in the battle up front against the Jets. "I'm assuming we lost it," Bills C Eric Wood said. "We didn't run the ball well, and they got some pressure on (Ryan Fitzpatrick). I'd have to look at the tape to see how everybody else did, but we didn't really get anything going. We got stopped on a 4th-and-1 and a 3rd-and-1; it's disappointing."
4. The Packers have a bad habit of staking teams to leads on the road, and I suspect the team they eventually lose to in the regular season (foreshadowing) will learn a lot from the Chargers' game plan on Sunday. Yes, believe it or not, they did a lot of good things against Green Bay despite the 45 points allowed. A team with a strong run game, a great tight end (or two) and a defense that has enough DBs to match their receivers will compete with the Pack. I don't know who will beat them. Maybe the Lions, maybe the Giants. But I don't see more than two losses all season, not with Aaron Rodgers on the field. I feel stupid even saying it, but no player is even in his stratosphere right now. Anyone still hanging on to the "Tom Brady is still better" dream has to watch the entire Patriots tape against the Giants again and not just the final two minutes. Rodgers: four TD passes, five incompletions vs. the Chargers. He's playing a different game right now.
5. Speaking of the Giants, how in the world are they not double-teaming TE Rob Gronkowski on the 4th-and-8 TD reception that could have proven to be the Patriots' game-winner? Brady had looked his way the previous two plays in close, and Gronk nearly had both despite shaky throws. Of course, Brady also left some time on the clock, which Eli Manning manipulated well.
6. A.J. Green made a great catch on a post-corner route as the Bengals were driving early in the fourth quarter, and he knocked out two Titans DBs on the catch. It was a big-boy effort, the kind Green has been dishing since his first game in the NFL. What a bright future he has. Mature, smart, gifted. Perfect target for Jay Gruden and Andy Dalton to use for years to come.
7. Jake Long hasn't had a typical Jake Long type of season (which Dolphin has?), but he and the rest of the offense did a nice job on Chiefs OLB Tamba Hali, holding him to two tackles and one meaningless QB hit Sunday. There was help from the backs and tight ends, and Hali moved around some, but the Dolphins accounted for him well.
8. Since 2007, the three best November-and-beyond teams, in terms of records, entering Week Nine have been the Chargers (28-7), Patriots (27-9) and Colts (29-9). I can't think of three colder teams — at least compared to what we expect from them — than these three. At least the Colts have a semi-excuse.
9. By season's end, will the Redskins' offense be worse than last season's Panthers unit? The latter group scored 12.2 points per game; after scoring 28 in the opener, the Redskins have put up 22, 16, 17, 13, 20, zero and 11 points. That's trending in the wrong direction. The fans choose to hate offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, whose play-calling isn't creative enough, or something. What a crock. Short of a magic wand, what exactly is he supposed to do with a group that has John Beck at quarterback, Roy Helu at running back, Jabar Gaffney and Leonard Hankerson at receiver, Fred Davis at tight end and mostly schlock on the offensive line. That's not a lack of creativity, that's a lack of talent to work with. Kyle can thank Dad for picking those rotten groceries.
10. I still don't think Julio Jones will end up being worth the draft bounty the Falcons paid for him, but what a player he is when healthy. The acrobatic catch for his first touchdown in traffic was impressive, but he turned in the better athletic play with his 80-yard catch-and-run. The Falcons quietly are dangerous (how many times have we said that?) with a full receiving group, but they cannot forget to run the ball like they did when Jones was out of the lineup. They also have to prepare for his next injury. He was banged up a lot in college, thanks to his physical style.
Top five, bottom five
My top five and bottom five NFL power-ranking votes this week:
1. Packers: Over-under on Rodgers turnovers this season: Six. That includes fumbles, which he never seems to lose.
2. 49ers: The score wasn't too pretty, but they dominated the Redskins and frankly toyed with them a bit. But that's two games in a row they let a bad team back in the game by not scoring enough points.
3. Ravens: Flacco was 17-of-27 passing in the second half for 156 yards and a TD, which was thrown to a receiver who had (unofficially) dropped at least four passes.
4. Steelers: Not much more Darth Vader, er, James Harrison could have done to help his team win.
5. Patriots: Funny that I voted them fifth but then picked them to drop their third straight, to the Jets, next week. I still can't give up on them yet.
28. Seahawks: Getting thin in the secondary. International-model-thin.
29. Cardinals: Patrick Peterson is truly an exceptional athlete. Cards just need 25 or so more of him.
30. Dolphins: Effort has been great last 3-4 games. Execution finally followed. Pride matters.
31. Rams: Decision to go for it deep in Cardinals territory late in fourth was a bit strange.
32. Colts: News that Peyton Manning might want to leave for Andrew Luck's benefit? Frankly shocking, really.