The Monday Tavern

Every Wednesday during the season, I’m at NFL Films working on the Showtime “Inside the NFL” show, which allows me time to talk football with former Giants quarterback Phil Simms, NBC’s Cris Collinsworth, NFL Network’s own Warren Sapp and many others who visit on a weekly basis.

Simms has a great passion for the game. He loves to talk football and loves to tell stories about his life and times playing for legendary Giants coach Bill Parcells. Last week, the conversation centered on the Saints offense, specifically how Drew Brees throws the ball to his wide receivers even when they’re covered. It’s hard to understand the “why and how” Brees makes these throws, but rarely are they intercepted since he always puts the ball in a spot where only his receiver can make a play. Simms recalled a time at practice when Parcells walked over to him and said, in his wonderful New Jersey accent, “Simms, you know Bavaro (Mark Bavaro the Pro Bowl tight end) is open even when he’s covered, so throw it to him.”

Sunday, covering the Colts-Rams game was a career highlight because I got to admire the work of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning up close without having a rooting interest. I also heard Parcells’ words loud and clear as Manning was sensational throwing to his covered receivers and putting the ball in spots where only they could catch it. His game preparation is well known, but afterward, he told me that he went back and watched Super Bowl XLII between the Giants and the Patriots to learn more finite details about the Steve Spagnuolo defense. Winning football games is being able to cover the many details that present themselves each week, and Manning leaves no stone unturned, regardless of the quality of the opponent. He takes every team seriously, and his drive for perfection is a remarkable trait.

Since Manning entered the league in 1998, he’s achieved a quarterback rating over 100 in 40 percent of the games he’s played. Meanwhile, over half of the teams have had more than 10 different starting quarterbacks. As the quarterback carousel goes round and round, Manning has been able to live in the continuity of the system. As he told me, “I have only played in three systems my entire life -- high school, college and the pros.”

As the famous French writer Francois de La Rochefoucauld once said, “I have always been an admirer. I regard the gift of admiration as indispensable if one is to amount to something; I don't know where I would be without it.” I greatly admire Mr. Manning, and without having to root against him, watching him perform is just plain incredible.

Sunday’s best

The Saints have now won games running the ball, throwing the ball, playing great defense and, Sunday, coming from behind. They’re a well-oiled machine, and their success this season lies in their will to succeed. They’re determined, and they finally have the toughness to win it all.

Bengals running back Cedric Benson has turned his career around on and off the field. His play yesterday didn’t surprise me as he was determined make a statement against his former team. But what did surprise me was the Bears’ inability to get lined up correctly on the Bengals’ unbalanced line. They were outnumbered and out-flanked.

Speaking of the Bengals, if quarterback Carson Palmer plays as he did Sunday, the Bengals are going to be in the playoff run all season. He found his grove throwing the football, especially hooking up with Chad Ochocinco. Palmer had only four incomplete passes all day and five touchdowns. The Bengals’ offense needed that kind of game from him.

The Arizona Cardinals have struggled playing football on the east coast in the past, but not anymore. They’ve found their stride as a football team, and beating the Giants on their home field was a tremendous win. If defensive tackle Alan Branch plays like he did last night, along with Darnell Dockett, the Cards’ tackles would rival any NFL team.

The will of the Steelers is something to admire. Last year, they came from behind to win games, and yesterday, they fought long and hard to give the Vikings their first loss of the season. Pittsburgh’s defense played over 36 minutes, but at the end of the game made the plays that matter most.

The Jets’ running game is operating at full strength right now. The past two weeks, they have rushed for over 300 yards each game, and line coach Bill Callahan deserves a ton of credit. Callahan, the former Raider coach, was drenched with Gatorade by Jets players after beating the team he led to the Super Bowl in 2002. Well done, Bill.

The Sunday funnies...

I wasn’t a math major, but the point differential in the 12 games played was 254, which means the average margin of victory was 22.1. What has happened to all the close games we used to see? Normally, more than 70 percent of games are decided by seven points or less. Not this year.

When the Chicago Bears take their show on the road, they just play bad. Between all their turnovers and the lack of run or pass defense, the Bears can’t function well enough on the road to be considered serious contenders for a playoff spot.

The Browns’ quarterback situation is a mess. Brady Quinn losses his job after two weeks, and meanwhile, Derek Anderson keeps his job with his 41-percent completion rate. It might be time for Brett Ratliff in Cleveland. The Browns’ offense has not scored a touchdown in four of seven games this year.

As good as Jake Delhomme played during the regular season last year, he is playing badly this year. The Panthers have to make a change, regardless of the big deal they gave him this offseason. If they don’t make a change at quarterback, there will be a ton of changes coming off the field in Carolina.

On the lookout

Have the Packers improved since their bye week two weeks ago, or have they just played some very bad teams? The emergence of rookie first-rounder Clay Matthews has helped their defense force turnovers. They’ll need to prove they’re for real when Mr. Favre comes back to town this weekend.

I’m at the point where, if I was an opponent playing the Vikings, I’ve seen enough of Percy Harvin taking the ball to the house on kickoff returns. He’s proven he’s for real as a return man, so don’t kick the ball to him. You’re only asking for trouble.

No one is more on the lookout for the ball in the air, or can read quarterbacks’ eyes, better than the Saints’ Darren Shaper. He is a ball magnet, but he’s getting some competition from rookie Jairus Byrd in Buffalo. Byrd has two picks in each of the last two games. Sharper is great, and Byrd is proving to be great, too.

Sam Aiken of the Patriots takes over for the departed Joey Galloway and runs the right routes, is in the right spots, break tackles and makes plays. Two catches for 66 yards and a touchdown is an impressive outing for a guy who was not even supposed to be a starter when the season started.

On the lookout for all fantasy fans...

Shonn Greene of the Jets was a productive zone runner at Iowa, gaining 100 yards in every game he played. Sunday, filling in for the injured Leon Washington, Greene started his own pro streak, gaining 144 yards on 19 attempts along with two touchdowns. Nice way to begin a career.

Beanie Wells, where have you been? All year, I’ve been saying you’ll be the man in Arizona, and finally you proved me right Sunday night. Wells has all the talent to be a dominating force in the Cards’ offense.

Odd the beaten track

The 49ers have to build on their second half in Houston, and this week, as they travel to Indy to play the undefeated Colts, they must find a way to make plays in the passing game. Alex Smith looked very good and deserves a chance to see if he can be productive when he starts.

The Bills had nine first downs in the game and eight punts but got the win. Ugly, but any win in Buffalo is a good win, especially when Ryan Fitzpatrick is the starter. Fitzpatrick is 5-10-1 over 16 games as a starter.

Lost in Sunday’s great game between the Saints and Dolphins was the fact the Dolphins lost the time-of-possession battle as their defense was on the field for 33 minutes. No wonder they gave up 22 fourth quarter points. They clearly were tied.

Three-step dot drops…a dot dot dot thought...

…Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall is a talented back, but how can the Steelers trust him to carry the ball at crunch time? He has lost two fumbles the last two weeks at critical points in both games.

…We know the Bucs are bad on either side of the Atlantic, and changing quarterbacks is not going to help this team. Rookie first-rounder Josh Freeman is going to struggle when he becomes the starter.

…49ers first-round wide receiver Michael Crabtree is talented and proved he was the best receiver in the draft. Maybe not the fastest, but the best.

…Jason Smith, the Rams’ rookie offensive tackle, was moved from right tackle to the left during the game and then had to handle the Colts’ Dwight Freeney. Playing Freeney is hard enough for any player, but moving from right to left for a rookie makes it impossible. I’m not sure I agree with the Rams coaches’ logic.

…The playoff hunt begins now in the NFL. November games have huge implications, and for the winning teams the next games become even more important. Is it Sunday yet? I can’t wait for the Vikings and Packers and one more look at Peyton Manning up close and personal.

Head coach of the week

Ken Whisenhunt, Arizona Cardinals

I was talking to a coach yesterday, and he was mentioning to me that the critical aspect of the NFL right now lies in understanding what kind of team you want to be. If you win with offense, keep adding offensive players and make sure the team stays true to its roots. Two weeks ago, Whisenhunt proclaimed that he was going to be a passing team and junk trying to become a two-back run team. Now the Cards are in command in the NFC West and look like they have found themselves.

Assistant coach of the week

Bill Callahan, New York Jets

I’ve been around some very talented coaches, and Callahan ranks at the top of the list. He has been in some very unfortunate situations as a head coach, especially in Oakland, where the owner failed to extend his contract and made him a lame duck after he took the team to its first Super Bowl in 19 years. Callahan broke down the next year, as did the Raiders, so the win Sunday against his former team was sweet. The Jets have rushed for 300 yards two weeks in a row without running the wildcat. Callahan is well respected by his players, and the fact they drenched him with Gatorade shows how much they appreciate his coaching. I have always respected Bill as a person and a coach.

Follow me on Twitter: michaelombardi

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