Every position in the NFL has certain game situations that reveal what type of player a guy really is. For a kicker, it is the game-winning field goal attempt as time expires. For an offensive lineman, it is a one-on-one pass-blocking matchup against a talented rusher on an obvious passing down. For a quarterback, the measuring stick is the two-minute drill. And not just any run-of-the-mill two-minute drill, mind you, but one late in the game with his team trailing. That's what separates the men from the boys. Or, at least, the elite from the merely good.
The two-minute drill is, or at least should be, the one time when the entire offense is completely in the quarterback's control. I say "should be" because there have been high-profile examples already this season in which quarterbacks considered to be among the best have looked woefully inept. Most notable was Philip Rivers' mind-bogglingly bad two-minute drill against the New York Jets in Week 7 and Joe Flacco's equally pathetic performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars the very next night.
In both cases, neither man looked like he was in control. Both kept looking to the sidelines for instruction between plays. What is that about?
The quarterback is the ultimate alpha male in a sport played exclusively by alpha males. He needs to take charge and make sure the entire team knows he's in charge. Looking at the sideline, at that point in the game, should no longer be necessary. Win the game.
I've been in the huddle with a wide range of quarterbacks. Some I just knew in my heart would take us down the field for a score, even if a few times they ultimately didn't. Others I thought might be able to get the job done if the rest of us were able to do our jobs at a high level. And yet others, well, didn't exactly inspire confidence among the troops.
The difference between having a guy who you know can get the job done and a guy who you hope can lead the team down the field for the winning score is immeasurable. It's hard to describe why there is such a difference unless you've actually been in that huddle. There's a calmness and a confidence that you simply can't manufacture no matter how much practice time is devoted to it. Quarterbacks must earn those stripes.
That's exactly what Eli Manning and Joe Flacco did on Sunday. Both of these quarterbacks are already considered among the top 10 in the league. Neither, however, is thought to be truly elite. Although consistency is always the key for quarterbacks, each took a gigantic step forward in critical games for his team in a hostile environment Sunday.
Manning had to do it against the Patriots despite the fact he was without his leading rusher, receiver and starting center. Flacco had to go 92 yards for a score and overcome key drops along the way.
Sure, it wasn't the first time these guys have led impressive two-minute drills to win games and probably won't be the last, but it was the most recent opportunity and both passed the test with flying colors. To do it with Big Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady on the sidelines watching is a fact that will not be lost on their teammates, either.
Those teammates know they've got a guy who will deliver when they need it the most. If you don't have one of those, you've got no shot.
From the inbox
Q. I am curious how you could rank Pittsburgh and New England above San Francisco last week. The 49ers have played a significantly tougher schedule than Pittsburgh so far. In fact, the Steelers have played more NFC West teams than the 49ers. And the 49ers have the better defense, better special teams and better running game. How can you rank a 6-2 team that is 2-2 against its only four quality opponents over a 6-1 team that is 4-1 against five quality opponents?
Nick from Gainesville, Fla.
A. My Power Rankings, both here at ESPN.com and on my "ESPN Football Today" podcast, are not set up like a college football poll. By that, I mean I don't base it solely on résumé so far this season. Instead, I base it on which team I believe would beat the other if they played each other in a five-game series at a neutral location. Ultimately, that is the better team in my opinion and should be ranked higher. Last week I still didn't believe that the Niners would win that series with the Patriots and Steelers. As you can see now, after this past Sunday's games, I feel differently.
Q. In lieu of the recent suggestion by the NFL that referees keep a close eye on concussion-like symptoms in players, I wonder, at what point is it the players responsibility? In the example of Kris Dielman, he could barely stand up and when he tried, he fell down. I understand that these men are competitors but shouldn't they care more about their long-term health? A player wouldn't go back in the game if he tore up his knee and couldn't walk, so why would he want to stay in the game if he couldn't keep his balance? A bad knee can be fixed with surgery but another head shot after a concussion could result in death. We have seen this at the high-school level too many times. I don't think anyone would have faulted Dielman if he had waved the trainers over after he couldn't get up.
Tom from Waterloo, N.Y.
A. The good news is that players' mindset about head injuries has changed dramatically over the past couple of years. Is it where it needs to be yet? Probably not, but it is getting there. Rapidly. In Dielman's case, I'm not sure he was able to properly assess his health, given his condition. If anything, one of his teammates should have seen him stumbling and said something to him or called for the trainers. In fact, a lot of times they will do exactly that.
Q. Should Peyton Manning get on a midseason MVP ballot (not first, just anywhere)?
Garrison from Crestwood, Ky.
A. No, and in fact I can't stand this line of thinking. First of all, voters for the MVP vote for only one person -- there is no mechanism to vote for second and third place. Second, the MVP goes to the best guy actually playing, not somebody who got hurt. Basing Manning's value on the people who replace him is flawed logic. What if the Indianapolis Colts had a better backup QB and were 5-4 at this point? Manning wouldn't have done anything differently, yet it would affect what we think of his value. Finally, Manning has never played defense in his career, and the Colts have been simply awful on that side of the ball. That's as big a reason as any that they are 0-9 at this point.
Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in a seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.