Could there be a worse time for Eli Manning to make his debut as a starting quarterback in the NFL? It's bad enough that the youngest Manning has to first face the Atlanta Falcons, who sacked mobile Brian Griese seven times Sunday, and be compared to his opposite number, the incomparable Michael Vick. But he's being asked to replace his understudy, grizzled Kurt Warner, at a time when New York football fans are quite disgruntled over both the Giants and Jets combining to lose four straight games after each had visions of division titles.
Then there's the problem of having to live up to other rookies who were drafted lower than he was. Lose to the Falcons and Giants fans will swear they knew all along the club would have been better off holding on to Philip Rivers. Win and it'll still be almost impossible for Manning to measure up to Ben Roethlisberger, who is 7-0 and according to no less an authority than Bill Parcells, the second coming of Dan Marino.
Manning can't even be the second-fastest starter among rookie quarterbacks. That would be Craig Krenzel, the fifth-round pick of the Chicago Bears. He is 3-0 as a starter, and has already won a start in Giants Stadium, for crying out loud.
Oh, and if you think all that makes for a stressful debut, let's not forget: Eli's big brother, Peyton, has thrown 31 touchdown passes in nine games, two more than he threw in 16 games last year when he was league co-MVP.
When Marino set the NFL record for touchdown passes, 48, in a season 20 years ago, it was considered an unbreakable mark. Only two quarterbacks have thrown more than 40; Marino did it twice and Kurt Warner threw 41 during the Rams' Super Bowl run in 1999. But Manning could do to Marino's record what Mark McGwire did to Roger Maris's home run mark, when he blew by 61 homers and didn't stop until 70. Manning, having thrown 20 touchdowns in his last five games, is on pace to throw 55. And the fact that the Colts' defense is dreadful means opponents are always in the game against Indianapolis. That means the Manning named Peyton isn't going to be on the sideline in the fourth quarter like a Heisman favorite in September; he's going to throw until his right arm falls off because that's the only way the Colts are going to stay in contention.
You don't want to get anywhere near Peyton's shadow right now, even if you're accustomed to living in it, as Eli must be. Still, New York Giants Coach Tom Coughlin has made the right move. Warner was sacked six times by the Arizona Cardinals, which means he has no chance to survive the Falcons, who don't necessarily cover anybody but can certainly pound the quarterback. It used to be that a coach would never replace a quarterback when the team has a winning record, and the Giants are still 5-4.
Then again, the entire NFC seems to be 5-4 or 4-5. The second half of the season began Sunday, yet it's impossible to separate the pretenders from the contenders. If the Vikings and Packers lose this Sunday, while the Bears and Lions win, all four teams in the NFC North would be 5-5.
Go ahead and try to figure who's the pretender, the Rams or Seahawks. They could both be pretenders and the real contender in the NFC West could be — get this — the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals have three winnable road games (Carolina, Detroit and Seattle). Seattle will play five of its remaining seven games at home, but the Seahawks have been the second-biggest fraud in the league this year, behind the Chiefs. Even so, Seattle ought to beat out the Rams, who won't be riding the Mike Martz train as long as he would like.
Martz's public challenge of his team worked nicely at home Sunday, but let's see how it plays outdoors Sunday in Buffalo against a hard-hitting defense, and at Green Bay the following week.
There's just no comfortable pick in the NFC. At 7-2, Atlanta might be a smart pick over Philly at this moment because, while the Eagles have no depth at running back and some obvious holes on defense, the Falcons have T.J. Duckett and Warrick Dunn to run the ball, and a defense that is statistically down in the rankings because of a huge loss to Kansas City but suddenly starting to smack people around. Beyond the Eagles and Falcons in the NFC, though, who is there? The Vikings aren't a dominant offense with Randy Moss sidelined. The Bears can't keep climbing with linebacker Brian Urlacher out for the next four to six weeks. Maybe Brett Favre, based on his 80 seconds of magic Sunday against the Vikes, is still somebody the whole conference should fear.
But no team inspires fear right now like the Steelers. Who in the NFL wouldn't want Ben Roethlisberger? Who wouldn't trade their roster for the Steelers' roster, which runneth over with receivers (Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El) and runners (Duce Staley and The Bus, Jerome Bettis)? If the NFL had college-style rankings, the Steelers would be No. 1, followed by the Patriots at No. 2. All the juice is in the AFC, especially now that Baltimore appears to have an able-bodied quarterback interested in being a big-time player.
The rap on Kyle Boller, who stunk so often early in the season, wasn't that he couldn't, it was that he wouldn't. But if Sunday's performance in the Meadowlands against the Jets is any indication, perhaps Brian Billick has reached the kid. And if that's the case, if Baltimore has a functioning quarterback who can help that team in the final six weeks of the season, then watch out. Baltimore's running game is better than Pittsburgh's. Baltimore's defense is better than Pittsburgh's. A mediocre passing game for the Ravens might lift that team to the top of the AFC, above Jacksonville and Denver and San Diego and the clock-mismanaging Jets. That would put them just below the Steelers and Patriots, who are the class not only of the conference, but the league.
The bye weeks are over, and while that doesn't sound the bell lap in the NFL, it does signal that it's time to separate the pretenders from the contenders. And it's into this madness that young Eli Manning steps, asked after very few rehearsals to star on Broadway.
Not even Peyton was immediately ready for that, and, chances are, neither is Eli.