- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 21, 2004

Six years ago, a standout high school passer watched his big brother take a pounding as the rookie quarterback of a struggling NFL team. Today that teenager of 1998, Eli Manning, gets his first pro start under less than ideal conditions at Giants Stadium.

Manning, the first pick in April’s draft, takes over for ex-MVP Kurt Warner, who was sacked 24 times as the New York Giants lost three of their last four games and slipped to 5-4. Even worse for the 23-year-old rookie is that today’s foe, Atlanta (7-2), has 27 sacks — one shy of the league lead.

“When you’re getting sacked six times and you’re making mistakes, it’s hard for any quarterback to be successful,” said Manning, whose young legs and quick release will make a difference, coach Tom Coughlin believes. “We just need to get something jump-started.”

Thanks to an overachieving defense and running back Tiki Barber’s NFL-record pace for yards from scrimmage, the Giants still own a wild-card spot, but four of their next five games are against teams with better records: Atlanta, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

Although quarterback Michael Vick gets the headlines, defensive tackle Rod Coleman is really the key to the surprising Falcons. In the three games he missed with a knee injury, Atlanta averaged just a third of a sack while allowing 34.7 points and 475 yards. In the six games he has played, including last week’s return against Tampa Bay, the Falcons averaged 41/3 sacks while allowing 13.3 points and 276.5 yards.

Colts-Bears — One reason Manning’s big brother, Peyton, is having a record-breaking season for Indianapolis is that he’s hardly ever sacked, having gone down just six times this year.

And now the surging Bears (4-5) will have to contain him without Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher, who joined star safety Mike Brown and top cornerback Charles Tillman on the sideline following calf surgery.

The Bears have won three straight, but they won’t win a shootout with the 6-3 Colts’ prolific offense. Manning’s five touchdown passes last week are one more than Chicago has all season. Bears rookie quarterback Craig Krenzel is 3-0 despite a 49.4 passer rating.

After scoring touchdowns on just 52 percent of its red zone penetrations in 2003, Indianapolis leads the league with 76.5 percent efficiency. The Colts’ last 17 touchdowns came on passes by Manning, who’s on pace for a record 55 touchdowns, 4,887 yards and a record 122.7 rating.

“Peyton right now is as close to a football god as there is,” Bears defensive end Adewale Ogunleye said. “He’s playing phenomenal football. It’s like Madden 2005. You don’t see the ball touch the ground. You just see completions everywhere and touchdowns.”

Patriots-Chiefs — Three months ago, this looked like an AFC Championship game preview. But while the defending champion Patriots (8-1) have held up their end, the Chiefs (3-6) are being done in by a porous defense — as they were against the Colts in the 2003 playoffs.

Kansas City is 7-10 since last year’s 9-0 start despite a top-ranked offense that gained 497 yards minus injured All-Pro running back Priest Holmes last week in New Orleans. The Chiefs still lost 27-20.

However, 68-year-old coach Dick Vermeil doesn’t regret postponing his retirement after last season and re-upping through 2005.

“Sometimes it takes a little longer [to recover from losses] when you have such high hopes diminish,” Vermeil said. “When they start becoming less likely to occur, many times you can lose an edge. [But] I don’t regret the decision to stay and keep coaching.”

New England held St. Louis and Buffalo to 334 net passing yards while recording eight sacks and five interceptions the last two weeks despite playing without its top three cornerbacks. Undrafted rookie Randall Gay, ex-practice squadder Earthwind Moreland and receiver Troy Brown have been filling in for Ty Law, Tyrone Poole and Asante Samuel.

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