Insider: Seven Points With Charlie Bernstein

In this week’s edition of Seven Points, we shed light on the best team nobody’s talking about and the newest member of the “elite quarterback club”. We also talk about how rookies helped save the day for several teams, the Miami Dolphins losing when they win, Aaron Rodgers legendary pace and how the AFC West could be won by a .500 team.

“You Can’t Spell Elite Without Eli”

When the topic of the best NFL quarterbacks come up, Eli Manning is rarely mentioned. Manning seems to be judged by Hall of Fame standards, even more so than a normal first-overall pick would be. His lineage is the problem as Eli is often compared to his record-setting brother Peyton, and in most situations the younger Manning comes up short.

That doesn’t mean he’s not a fantastic quarterback.

Eli Manning was on pace to shatter every New York Giants passing record in 2010 before struggling in the second half of the season when New York was forced to play from behind. Eli threw 14 of his 25 picks in the final eight games of the season in which the team gave up an average of nearly 24 points per game.

Manning is usually seen as a shy, somewhat reserved “ah shucks” type of quarterback who is rarely seen out in the New York nightlife. From a distance Eli might seem to lack confidence so he certainly made headlines this offseason when he labeled himself and elite and compared himself to Tom Brady in an ESPN Radio interview.

“I consider myself in that class and Tom Brady is a great quarterback, he’s a great player and what you’ve seen with him is he’s gotten better every year and he started off winning championships and I think he’s a better quarterback now than what he was, in all honesty, when he was winning those championships,” Manning said.

There’s no singular definition of what it means to be an elite quarterback. You pretty much know it when you see it. Some judge quarterbacks by stats and the younger Manning has gone over 4,000 yards passing for two consecutive seasons and is on pace to shatter that mark in 2011. Eli has won nearly 60 percent of his starts and has a Super Bowl title to his credit- that he won over Tom Brady.

The best quarterbacks in the game will give you a chance to win against any team, in any stadium, in any climate and they play their best football in the biggest games. The New York Giants have an excellent chance to beat anyone in the NFL, anywhere, and Eli Manning showed why on Sunday.

In their first meeting against the New England Patriots since Super Bowl XLII, Eli Manning was far from perfect. His 20 for 39, 250-yard, stat-line was pedestrian in today’s NFL especially when you figure in his interception. What Manning did on the Giants final drive is what makes him a special football player.

With the Foxboro crowd in a frenzy following Tom Brady’s 4th-and-8 touchdown pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski, Eli took over on his own 20-yard line down three points with just 1:36 remaining on the clock.

“As an athlete, as a quarterback I think you want the ball in your hand at the end of a game,” Manning said. “I’d rather be down by 3 with 1:30 than up by 4 with 1:30 with Tom Brady and their offense on the field. You just like those situations where you have an opportunity to go win the game.”

Manning calmly led the Giants down the field, placing a perfectly thrown ball to tight end Jake Ballard who made a fantastic catch in traffic to put the Giants in field goal range. Ballard’s catch was not as improbable as the historic David Tyree Super Bowl grab (although they both wear number 85), but when he made the catch you got the feeling what the ultimate result would be.

As you know, Manning finished the drive with a great throw to Ballard in the end zone with just 15 seconds left and the Giants and Eli Manning beat Tom Brady and the Patriots, again. He beat them without his best receiver, Hakeem Nicks and his best running back Ahmad Bradshaw. The win snapped a 20-game regular season home winning streak by New England as well as an 18-game home streak against NFC opponents.

“You can’t spell Elite without “Eli,” Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said following the game.

Eli Manning isn’t Tom Brady, but you’d be hard-pressed to find more than one or two quarterbacks that are playing better than him right now.

Rookies Standout on Sunday

With the lockout virtually cancelling all offseason activities it was expected that the 2011 rookie class would struggle more than previous classes, especially early on. That simply hasn’t been the case as rookies are making their marks all around the league.

On Sunday, several rookies were integral in their teams successes. Falcons rookie wide receiver Julio Jones broke out as the big play guy Atlanta was hoping to get when they traded all the way up to the sixth-overall pick to draft him. Jones caught three passes for 131 yards and pair of touchdowns, one from 50 yards and then a catch and run from 80 yards in the Falcons 31-7 pounding of Indianapolis.

“It gives us another good player, another good option to have the football in his hands,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said about Jones following the game. “He’s a good player, and we’re certainly better when we have him.”

Desperate for help at running back with Felix Jones hurt, the Cowboys turned to third-round pick DeMarco Murray three weeks ago and the results have been extraordinary. In the last three weeks Murray has run for 466 yards while averaging 8.5 yards per carry.

“I think he’s shown us the last three weeks what kind of football player he is,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s breaking tackles. That’s hard to do in the NFL.”

In Sunday’s 23-13 victory over Seattle, Murray gained 139 yards on 22 carries and he leads the NFL with 6.7 yards per carry this season.

There hasn’t been much to cheer about in Arizona as the Cardinals are just 2-6, but first-round pick Patrick Peterson has been a bright spot. Peterson has been very solid at cornerback and downright spectacular as a punt returner. Peterson recorded the second-longest punt return in NFL history as he took one 99 yards to the house in overtime as the Cardinals defeated the St. Louis Rams, 19-13.

“I was like ‘This team needs a play,” Peterson said. “I decided to catch the ball and just run for my life.”

Peterson has three punt-return touchdowns, already tied for the fourth-most in a single season in NFL history and tied with Devin Hester (2006) for the second-most among rookies. Peterson is the first player in NFL history with three punt-return touchdowns in his first eight career games.

All they seem to do is win in Cincinnati as the Bengals won their fifth-straight game and moved to 6-2 with their 24-17 victory over the Tennessee Titans. As usual, the Bengals offensive leaders were rookies, as quarterback Andy Dalton tossed three touchdowns without an interception and A.J. Green led the team with seven catches for 83 yards.

“We’re doing whatever we have to do to win the game, and that’s the biggest thing for the season,” Dalton said after the victory.

In the San Francisco 49ers 19-11 victory over the Washington Redskins, rookie fullback and UCF alum Bruce Miller caught the 49ers only touchdown pass, a 30-yard toss from Alex Smith. Miller is embracing his new role at fullback as he was a two-time Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year before making the switch in San Francisco.

The Best Team Nobody’s Talking About

The Houston Texans are similar to the one friend you may have that’s always fun when you go out, but you can’t count on the guy to follow through with plans. You can’t buy any tickets to a game with this guy because four times out of five he’ll flake out on you. If you call him up right before you’re about to go out he’s game but if you plan something for a week he’ll always stand you up.

The Texans have always looked the part of the next up and coming team, but you could never count on them….until now.

Houston is going to runaway with the AFC South title and few people will acknowledge it, because of the whole “Peyton Manning asterisk.”

“At some point they are going to realize that we are a very good football team,” Texans owner Bob McNair said. “We will let them take their time doing that. We know we have a fine club. We’ll see how far they take us, but they are just playing great football right now.”

Make no mistake, these Texans are real.

No longer does Houston have to win a 35-31 shootout, because they’ve found a defense. They can still win the shootout, but they can also win a slugfest. They can beat you through the air, and they have the best tandem of running backs in the NFL with Arian Foster and Ben Tate.

“It’s fun to watch right now. It’s almost like a competition because they just go back and forth,” Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said of his two backs. ” Arian pounds them and Ben comes in and Ben gives you a lot of speed. They’re a little bit different from that standpoint.”

These Texans can win any type of football game and they’re doing it without arguably the best player on offense in Andre Johnson and their best player on defense in Mario Williams. The defense without Williams is the third-ranked unit in the league and the offense could get their Pro Bowl receiver back next week.

For the first time in their history the Texans are three games over .500 as they sit with a 6-3 record. There’s still a lot of football to play but Houston is a legitimate threat to be playing lots of extra football this winter.

Un-Luck-y Win For Dolphins

Congratulations go out to the Miami Dolphins who avoided 0-16 infamy with their convincing 31-3 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. With the victory Miami showed that at the very least they’re not trying to lose games on purpose.

“This is all about the players,” Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. “These guys did a super job all week long of putting all the garbage behind them.”

All joking aside, nobody in that Dolphins locker room cares even the least about a certain Stanford quarterback who may or may not be available in next April’s draft.

“It’s sick actually, I can’t even fathom those thoughts of those people that conjure up that stuff,” Dolphins tight end Anthony Fasano said on a radio interview on WFAN. “They have never played sports and pretty much aren’t really our loyal fans. I can’t really put any weight into that and I know the players don’t listen to it. It’s a shame, but people are going to talk and we just have to block that out.”

With the victory the Dolphins move to 1-7, far from completely out of “Andrew Luck contention”. Indianapolis is the clubhouse leader with an 0-9 record, followed by the Dolphins and Rams at 1-7. Lurking in the weeds are a group of 2-6 teams which include Seattle, Jacksonville, Minnesota, Carolina and Arizona.

History Being Made at the Quarterback Position

With their 45-38 victory over San Diego, the Green Bay Packers became the third defending Super Bowl champion to start the season with an 8-0 record. The Packers have become so efficient on offense that they’re often overlooked.

The Packers offensive efficiency comes from the strong right arm of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has become so good at the quarterback position that it looks like he’s playing a video game and he has the cheat code. On Sunday, Rodgers day at the office read 21 for 26 passing, for 247 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions for a quarterback rating of 145.8. His quarterback rating topped 110 for the eighth consecutive game, a new single-season NFL record.

“I think Aaron has a lot of strengths. His decision-making is clearly the highest level that I have personally been a part of,” Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said.

To say that Aaron Rodgers has a lot of strengths is like saying that Charlie Sheen has a somewhat eccentric personality. There is simply nothing that Rodgers can’t and isn’t doing on the football field. He can make all the throws with unbelievable accuracy. He’s one of the most athletic quarterbacks on the field who can run for a first down if he needs to. He can call his own plays and diagnose defenses with a coaches eye. Simply put, Rodgers is playing the best football of his career or anyone else’s.

Aaron Rodgers is on pace to shatter Dan Marino’s passing yardage record as he became the first quarterback to throw for over 2,600 yards with 24 touchdowns in the first eight games of the season. On Sunday, Rodgers counterpart, Philip Rivers threw three interceptions. Aaron Rodgers has thrown just three interceptions all season.

“He is a special, special, special, special player,” Packers Pro Bowl receiver Greg Jennings said.

Despite being a Super Bowl MVP, Rodgers looks back to draft day when 23 teams passed on him for motivation. He gets further motivation from the fact that millions of Packers fans still wanted Brett Favre to be the starting quarterback long after he took over.

Don’t dismiss what you’re seeing by Aaron Rodgers as merely great quarterback play. Rodgers is on a streak that hasn’t been seen in NFL history and he simply has no weaknesses in his game. Rodgers has the perfect combination of cockiness plus an inferiority complex that keeps him completely focused and driven. Right now and going back to last year, Aaron Rodgers has been the perfect quarterback.

Ravens Are All Grown Up

Seemingly every year the Baltimore Ravens enter a new season and several experts pick them to win the AFC North and go to the Super Bowl. In the last four years the Ravens have won no division titles and have fallen short of their Super Bowl aspirations- usually at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It appears that 2011 may be different. Baltimore begun the season with a 35-7 blowout victory over their most-hated rivals, but after seven games the Ravens found themselves in a virtual tie with Pittsburgh for first place which set up for a fantastic game between the two clubs on Sunday night.

“Either one of two things are going to happen,” Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “Either we’re the same team from last year or we’re going to show the world how we’ve grown up.”

After nearly 53 minutes of football a familiar stage was set. Baltimore hadn’t trailed all game long and they had a 16-13 lead with the football. Quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked and fumbled, and it was up to the Ravens defense to preserve the lead against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense.

As we’ve seen so many times before, Ben Roethisberger went to work carving up the league’s top defense entering Sunday. After completions to Antonio Brown and Jericho Cotchery, Ben was flushed to his right and fired a 25-yard touchdown strike to Mike Wallace to put Pittsburgh up 20-16 with just under five minutes remaining.

After a three-and-out series by Flacco and the Ravens, it seemed as if we’ve seen this familiar story play out all too often. With Pittsburgh having the football at the Baltimore 30-yard line on fourth down, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin hesitated despite having a timeout remaining and the team took a five-yard delay of game penalty. Tomlin didn’t trust kicker Shaun Suisham’s leg from 52 yards away and Pittsburgh decided to punt.

“I accept responsibility for that,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. “There was some hesitation on my part.”

With one last chance Flacco began from his 8-yard line and methodically made throw after throw to move the Ravens down the field. The Ravens much-maligned signal caller delivered a perfectly thrown pass to rookie Torry Smith in the end zone which went right through his hands. After an Anquan Boldin drop, Flacco went back to Torry Smith down the right sideline.

“For him to keep coming back to me, that meant a lot,” Smith said.

This time Smith squeezed the pass and the Ravens won in Pittsburgh, 23-20.

“You just take it play by play and see where it leads you,” Flacco said. “All of a sudden you find yourself down in scoring position and all you need is one play and that’s what we got.”

With the victory, the Ravens have a share of first place with the Cincinnati Bengals and have a one game lead over the Steelers in the loss column. What’s more important is that they leaped the mental hurdle of defeating Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh.

“They’re a great football team, they’re a really good football team,” Suggs said. “This is the toughest place in the world to win. It says something about our team and it says something about our quarterback. It’s a big accomplishment in my eyes. To be totally honest w/ you, they are the defending AFC champs so they’re still the team to beat. If we played Ravens football throughout when we see them in January they have to come to our house.”

Despite what Terrell Suggs says, Baltimore is now the team to beat in the AFC North and if they can keep it up the road to the Super Bowl will finally go through Baltimore.

Extra Points

Who Wants the AFC West?

Sunday began with a three way tie for first place in the AFC West and it ended….with a three way tie for first place in the AFC West. The Oakland Raiders were soundly defeated by the Denver Broncos, 38-24, the San Diego Chargers dropped their game to the Green Bay Packers, 45-38 and the Kansas City Chiefs lost to the formerly winless Miami Dolphins, 31-3. The division smells like the 2010 NFC West which was won (by default) by a 7-9 Seattle Seahawks team.

Ground and Pound

When you have a quarterback who struggles with accuracy you pretty much have no choice but to run the football. Denver took that to heart as the Broncos rushed for 298 yards against the Oakland Raiders, led by running back Willis McGahee’s 163-yard, two touchdown day. Quarterback Tim Tebow rushed for 117 yards on 12 carries and the pair became just the fifth quarterback-running back duo to each run for 100 or more yards in a game.

Rivers Contaminated

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers had an up and down Sunday as he threw for 385 yards with four touchdowns. Unfortunately with all that yardage came three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. The Pro Bowl quarterback currently leads the NFL with 14 interceptions.

Most Improved Teams

There are now six teams which have already matched or increased their win total from a season ago. San Francisco (7), Detroit (6), Cincinnati (6), Houston (6), Buffalo (5) and Carolina (2) are all having exponentially better seasons in 2011 and it’s possible that five of those teams could qualify for the postseason.

A Shot in the Arm for McCoy

Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy will reportedly miss the rest of the season due to a torn biceps tendon, according to the St. Petersburg Times. The biceps injury is McCoy’s second in as many seasons, although this one is said to be on the right arm instead of the left that he injured in his rookie year. McCoy has played in just 19 games and has four career sacks after being selected third-overall in 2010.

Charlie Bernstein is the NFL Insider for ESPNFlorida.com and ESPN 1080 and 1040 in Orlando/Tampa and Editor-in-Chief of Sports Media Interactive, covering the National Football League, NCAA, and National Basketball Association. Charlie covers the Jacksonville Jaguars for FoxSports and has been featured on the NFL Network and Sirius NFL Radio. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Charlie on Twitter @nflcharlie

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