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Eli is coming

There's an old Three Dog Night song from 1969 -- and, yeah, we acknowledge that we're conceding a lot of age and dubious musical taste by referencing it, and clearly infringing on Chris Berman territory -- titled "Eli's Coming."

Part of the lyric in the refrain, to continue the dated recollection, is: "Eli's a-comin', [so] you better hide."

OK, so Eli Manning was still roughly 11 years from conception when the song hit the top of the charts. But when the New York Giants' second-year veteran quarterback hit wide receiver Amani Toomer on a 2-yard scoring pass, with five seconds remaining in an electrifying 24-23 comeback victory over the visiting Denver Broncos Sunday, it was the latest indication that Eli is most definitely coming. Or coming on. And a reminder that, if he continues to progress at this rate, and make big-time plays in the fourth quarter the way he has in the past two outings, defenses had better hide.

The heroics of Sunday, in which the youngster rallied the Giants not only from a 23-10 fourth-quarter deficit but also from a disadvantageous field position in the waning minutes of a huge game, was the manner of stuff typically associated with other members of the NFL's most celebrated quarterback clan. And now the youngest limb on the quarterback family tree, at least until Archie and Olivia are grandparents, is beginning to demonstrate that he is emerging as a clutch performer in the mold of his father and older brother.

It's not as though New York general manager Ernie Accorsi needed any kind of vindication or validation for the landmark trade that brought Manning to the Giants in the first hour of the 2004 draft. But whatever skeptics remained -- and isn't the Big Apple an incubator for the doubters -- might consider, well, reconsidering. Every successful quarterback needs a galvanizing moment, one that gets him over the hump and earns him some stripes, and Manning's might have arrived on Sunday afternoon with the clock winding down and the outcome in his control.

When Manning was asked at training camp in Albany, N.Y., this summer, whether the game was starting to "slow down" for him, he emphatically answered that he disliked that term. Fact is, from the way he reacted to the question, it was obvious he despised it. So we're not about to suggest, as some quarterbacks have, that their success comes only when the action de-escalates from furious to frame-by-frame in their mind's eyes. Clearly, though, Manning is seeing the field well, making excellent decisions, delivering the football and, most important, delivering victories, too.

The Giants, at 4-2, are part of a three-team logjam at the top of the NFC East, with the Cowboys only a half-game behind in what is now shaping up to be a brutally competitive division. Beginning with Washington's visit to Giants Stadium Sunday, New York has four division games over the next seven weeks, including a pair with Philadelphia. And so Manning needs to keep improving for the Giants to remain in the thick of a wild and wooly division chase. No reason, based on Sunday's frenetic finish, to think that Manning won't continue his ascent.

Going into Sunday's game, Manning was ranked second in the NFL in the esoteric yet very notable category of fourth-quarter passer efficiency rating. His 104.4 mark trailed only the 137.1 fourth-quarter rating of his sibling, the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning. Eli's fourth-quarter rating actually slipped a tad on Sunday, down to 94.7, but no one in New York figures to mind very much. He completed 13 of 20 passes in the fourth quarter, for 114 yards, one score and one interception. On the winning drive, he connected on nine of 13 for 74 yards, and he threw the touchdown pass to Toomer, who notched only his third score in the last 25 games, under considerable duress.

It was, lest anyone forget, the second consecutive Sunday in which Manning shepherded the Giants' offense to a touchdown on its final possession of the game. The previous Sunday, in a loss at Texas Stadium, he moved the offense 52 yards in only two plays, hooking up with tight end Jeremy Shockey on a game-tying touchdown pass against a Dallas Cowboys defense that had stymied him most of the day. It's not Manning's fault the Giants lost a coin-toss in overtime and never got the ball in the extra period.

So on his final possessions in the last two outings, each time operating from a hurry-up mode, Manning has completed 11 of 15 passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns. One touchdown pass tied a game and the other won a game. Not bad.

Manning will be tested Sunday by Gregg Williams, the clever, conniving and creative Washington defensive coordinator, who will blitz from the parking lot if that is what it takes. Because of the way the Redskins play, sound but scurrying around and hustling to the football, there probably will be some negative plays. Manning will need to make good decisions mentally and good throws physically. But make no mistake: He's doing both right now.

For sure, Eli's coming.

Jordan carries the load
The squeaky wheel, aka Oakland Raiders tailback LaMont Jordan, was well lubricated on Sunday. And while oiling the fifth-year power back might not signal that the Raiders are ready to roll, the fact coach Norv Turner restored some much-needed balance to an offense that had been too skewed toward the pass and sputtering as a result, can't be all bad.

Jordan was outspoken last week about wanting the ball more. He huddled with Turner and pleaded his case, and the result, spurred by Jordan's season highs in rushing attempts (28) and total touches (32), was a 38-17 Raiders victory over the visiting Buffalo Bills. Going into the game, Jordan had logged only 87 carries in five contests and just once, when he rushed 26 times for 126 yards against the Dallas Cowboys, posted more than 20 attempts. In the other four games outside of the Dallas encounter, Jordan averaged a mere 15.3 rushes.

The Raiders didn't award Jordan -- who had never so much as started a regular-season game, and had never carried more than 93 times in a season, during his four years with the New York Jets -- a fat five-year, $27.5 million contract for that kind of non-taxing workload. And Jordan essentially told Turner that last week, during a tête-à-tête in which he cleared the air and requested the football. He got it and, not surprisingly, the Raiders got a victory. Jordan tore through the Bills for 122 yards and a career-best three touchdowns. He added four receptions for 40 yards. And quarterback Kerry Collins had the luxury of being able to do something other than chuck the ball all over the lot to his wide receivers.

It might not always be wise or prudent for coaches to listen to bellyaching players but, in heeding Jordan's supplications, Turner actually got back to doing what he does best. Miscast as a passing game guru, Turner is a coach whose blueprint works best when it includes heavy doses of smash-mouth football. In Turner's previous 14 seasons as an NFL offensive coordinator or head coach, his feature tailbacks averaged 292.6 carries and 333.2 touches per year. And that was counting a few seasons when he was forced to play with backs such as Ricky Ervins (Washington, 1994) and Amos Zereoue (Oakland, 2004), or when Terry Allen was injured (Redskins, 1997 and '98).

Turner's history, though, has been that when he has a stud in the backfield (Emmitt Smith in Dallas, Allen and then Stephen Davis in Washington, LaDainian Tomlinson at San Diego and Ricky Williams in Miami), he saddles up that horse for a ton of carries. Before Sunday's game, Jordan was on pace for 278 carries. On Sunday afternoon, Turner stepped up that pace, and Jordan, a guy who runs heavy and has the potential to erode defenses, stepped up his performance.

Close encounters not kind to Chargers
We know, ever is a long, long time, no matter how the reference is employed. But we're going to use it anyway in assessing that the San Diego Chargers might be the best 3-4 team ever in the modern history of the league. Move the Chargers into the NFC and they'd be among the conference's elite. In the AFC, though, seven of the 14 other franchises in the conference now have better records than San Diego, which playing in the AFC West, might struggle to even secure a wild-card berth in 2005.

The problem for the Chargers is that they can't close out games. They were 6-3 in games decided by seven points or less in 2004, and 2-2 in contests in which the margin was three points or fewer. This year? Well, the Chargers are terrific front-runners, with their three victories by an average of 18.3 points. In tight games, however, the Chargers seem to get, well, a little tight. Their four defeats have been by a total of 12 points, each by four points or fewer.

They lost to Dallas on opening day when, playing without suspended tight end Antonio Gates, the offense faltered in the red zone in the final seconds. After tying the Broncos, they allowed the Denver offense to drive 51 yards to a winning field goal by Jason Elam. In the incredibly intriguing seesaw Monday night game, the Chargers scored late to assume a one-point lead over visiting Pittsburgh, and then the Steelers moved the ball for a Jeff Reed field goal. The most gut-wrenching of the four losses, though, had to be Sunday's defeat at Philadelphia, where the Eagles' Matt Ware ran back a blocked Nate Kaeding field-goal attempt 65 yards late in the game.

Those things aren't supposed to happen to a good team. And since we still think the Chargers are pretty good, especially on the offensive side, losing games in the manner in which they have this year is nothing short of inexplicable. Credit the Eagles' defense, which had been listing a bit in its first five games, for bottling up the incomparable LaDainian Tomlinson. The Eagles not only stopped LT's touchdown streak at 18 straight games, but limited the league's premier playmaker to 7 yards on 17 carries. No small feat there, to be sure, and Philadelphia swarmed to the ball all day. Tomlinson actually had negative yardage in two of four quarters, rushing four times for minus-13 yards in the opening period, and going for minus-1 yard on four carries in the third quarter. Of his 17 carries, seven were for negative yards and only three attempts netted more than 2 yards.

Take nothing away from Eagles coordinator Jim Johnson and his brilliant game plan, because stopping Tomlinson has been virtually impossible this season. But even with their star throttled, the Chargers still led until backup safety Quintin Mikell snuffed Kaeding's 40-yard field goal try and Ware gleefully scooped up the opportune bounce (in baseball, it used to be known as a "charity hop," at least in my neighborhood) and raced down the sideline to put the latest dagger in the Chargers' heart.

You hold Brian Westbrook to 25 yards, grab a lead despite watching Donovan McNabb complete a franchise-record 35 passes and find a way to sneak out of town with a victory, it's quite an accomplishment. The Chargers took care of those first two elements, but failed to complete the third.

Stuck behind Denver and Kansas City in the division, and with the Chiefs looming ahead on the schedule, it's probably little solace to coach Marty Schottenheimer to have media types suggesting he has a great 3-4 team. You have to win the close ones in the NFL to win, period, and as the Chargers demonstrated Sunday, they are creating new ways to lose.

Secondary steps up for Steelers
In terms of young, emerging defensive backs, there may be no better team in the league right now than the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have a secondary that runs deep, runs pretty fast, and is plenty rambunctious. The Steelers went into Sunday's game against the high-octane passing offense of the Cincinnati Bengals with three corners -- Deshea Townsend (hamstring), Ricardo Colclough (shoulder) and Willie Williams (groin) -- on the official injury report. Williams started the game but, one snap into the contest, he was replaced by rookie Bryant McFadden, a second-round draft pick, in the base alignment.

Polamalu Polamalu
Even with the decreased body count (Colclough didn't dress for the game and Williams and Townsend, who played in the sub packages, were limping around), the secondary had a terrific performance. Unheralded free safety Chris Hope had a key interception, arguably the signature play of the afternoon for the Steelers defense, a second pass defensed and six tackles. Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu notched five tackles. McFadden had a pair of stops and two passes defensed, one of which he should have had for an interception. And Ike Taylor, who is starting to come on as one of the league's promising cornerbacks, took on Cincinnati star wide receiver Chad Johnson all over the field and limited him to four catches for 94 yards. The loquacious Johnson, who continued to jaw-jack throughout the game, got precisely half his yardage total on a late-game catch when the outcome was long decided.

Funny thing about the Pittsburgh secondary (and being a native 'burgher we can say this), but it's far more admired around the league than it is by the hometown fans, who never feel the unit plays well enough. But think about this: In his previous nine games, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer had compiled a passer efficiency rating of 100 or more each time, and his mark in the nine-game streak was 113.4. On Sunday, he completed only 21 of 36, just two for more than 20 yards, and his rating was an anemic 53.8.

This could be a Steelers secondary that is good for a lot of years. Polamalu is a monster, a superb hybrid safety who can do it all. Hope, whose contract expires after this season but hopes he can get an extension before the year ends, is a nice complement at safety. Taylor has good size, is in only his third season, and can lock down on receivers. Colclough is a player who, like Taylor, figures to mature in time. And McFadden, a guy touted as a possible sleeper in the first round heading into the 2005 draft, doesn't run all that well but is one of those corners who is around the ball. Even Townsend, another underrated all-around corner, is only 30 years old.

Kevin Colber, the director of football operations, and coach Bill Cowher have done a very nice job replenishing the secondary -- six contributors in the unit were added in the past four drafts -- and it is a bunch that will only improve.

Not lining up
The Dallas Cowboys were concerned that the season-ending knee injury to starting left offensive tackle Flozell Adams might be a devastating one and, in Sunday's ignominious defeat at Seattle, their worst fears were realized. Playing against a Seahawks defense not exactly renowned for its pass rush, and with two tackles who had just 20 regular-season starts between them, the Cowboys surrendered five sacks.

Seattle end Bryce Fisher had two sacks and nine tackles and kept running around rookie right tackle Rob Petitti. New left tackle Torrin Tucker, who had never started a game at the blindside position before, did not fare much better.
In the first six game of the season, the Dallas line allowed quarterback Drew Bledsoe to be sacked once every 16.1 dropbacks, not a great quota but at least acceptable. Bledsoe was sacked Sunday once every 5.8 dropbacks. That's not going to keep the Cowboys' passing game going. Dallas has a problem because, with Adams out of the lineup for the rest of the season, there really isn't much the Cowboys can do. Unless the team wants to sign a guy like Ross Verba, who talked his way out of Cleveland this summer and isn't likely to be coach Bill Parcells' kind of guy, there is no relief outside the current roster.

That means Tucker, who essentially is playing for a new contract, has to hold the fort. And the rookie Pettiti has to play better, too, since Dallas can't keep giving him help with a tight end or a fullback chipping on rushers all the time. The Cowboys have to keep Bledsoe perpendicular and that means relying even more on the running game, insulating their quarterback more, and continue to throw off a lot of three- and five-step drops.

It would help to get tailback Julius Jones, who didn't even make the trip to Seattle as he continues to rehabilitate from a high-ankle sprain, on the field again. Rookie Marion Barber, a fourth-round pick with great bloodlines, had a nice game Sunday, rushing for 95 yards. But Jones, a low-slung slasher, can be a home-run hitter. Until he gets back, the Cowboys might have to try to bunt their way to a few wins. And, remember, the Cowboys are playing in a tightly bunched NFC East. How tight? The loss on Sunday, remarkably, toppled Dallas from first place to last place in the hotly contested division.

Punts:
Baltimore tailback Jamal Lewis managed just 34 yards on 15 rushes Sunday and, through six games, 27 of his 113 carries have been for no yards or minus yardage. Lewis hardly looks like the same power back who ran for 2,066 yards in 2003 and challenged Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record right to the final minutes of the final game of the season. In Sunday's loss at Chicago, Lewis, who some claim is moping over the fact he hasn't gotten a contract extension, had just one carry for more than 3 yards. Of his 15 rushes, six netted 1 yard or less. Lewis is making $3.2 million this season and is averaging 2.9 yards per carry. ... In the four games since Joe Pendry replaced Chris Palmer as coordinator, the Houston offense has had 37 possessions. The unit has punted on 19 of those possessions, fumbled twice and lost two interceptions. There have been 13 series that lasted three snaps or fewer and only 10 on which the Texans managed to cobble together more than two first downs. ... The Lions' victory at Cleveland was only the fourth win in their last 35 road contests. ... In two games since he returned from his drug-related suspension, Miami tailback Ricky Williams has carried 11 times for 7 yards. His longest rush is for 4 yards, four carries have been for losses, and six have netted 1 yard or less. ... Pittsburgh has now won 10 straight road games. Remarkably, going back to the AFC championship game last year, the Steelers are just 1-3 in their last four games at Heinz Field. ... Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy earned his 100th victory on Sunday. ... The 89-yard return by Houston's Jerome Mathis was the first kickoff return for a touchdown in Texans franchise history. ... The Houston passing offense had just 6 net passing yards against Indianapolis and, in the second half, the unit registered minus-4 yards total. ... The St. Louis win marked the first-ever victory as a starter for journeyman quarterback Jamie Martin, 36 years old. ... Rams strong safety Adam Archuleta continues to quietly have a splendid season, adding seven tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery against the Saints. ... The 56 points that Washington scored against San Francisco was the most for the Redskins since they got 56 against Atlanta in November of 1991. ... Redskins tailback Clinton Portis, who had no touchdowns before Sunday, scored three times. Washington wideout Santana Moss registered his fourth 100-yard game in the last five weeks. ... Philadelphia is 7-0 under coach Andy Reid in games following a bye week. ... Dennis Green is 10-2 in games following a bye.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.