There was a moment in the first quarter of the New York Giants’ 21-3 rout of the Minnesota Vikings at Detroit’s Ford Field (the game had to be postponed and the locations changed after a blizzard collapsed the Metrodome roof) when Minnesota quarterback Tarvaris Jackson had to come out of the game, and so in, briefly, went back-up Joe Webb (who went two for five with eight total yards). Jackson was only in because the starter—a guy you may have heard of named Brett Favre—was inactive with a shoulder injury (thereby ending his record-by-a-whole-lot streak of 297 consecutive regular season starts). Meanwhile, Sage Rosenfels, the Jewish quarterback who had been Minnesota’s third-stringer until right before the beginning of this season, could only watch wistfully from the opposite sideline, where he was the Giants’ back-up, and wait for the game when Jints starter Eli Manning—whose current consecutive regular season game streak stands at an even 100, putting him sixth on the all-time quarterbacks list—needs to take a series off. Only then will Rosenfels get the snaps he was denied last year for Minnesota and this year, so far, for New York.
Manning, who got his top two receivers, Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith, back from injuries that had kept them out for several weeks, had only a middling day: 22 for 37, fewer than 200 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions. But it didn’t matter, because the Giants D came out to play, accomplishing four sacks and one interception and holding Vikings superstar back Adrian Peterson to merely 26 yards on the ground. And it didn’t matter because the Giants’ running game, on the backs of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, is exploding at just the right time: The two combined for two touchdowns, zero fumbles (important for the turnover-prone Bradshaw), and 219 yards on only 25 carries (do the math: That’s an absolutely sick 8.8 yards per carry). With the Green Bay Packers’ surprising loss to the Detroit Lions, conveniently playing away from home on a weekend when their field was in demand, the Giants, 9-4, are in the playoffs’ driver’s seat, whether through the second wild card slot or, possibly, the NFC East championship. There they are currently tied with the Philadelphia Eagles, who, having beaten the Giants, currently hold the tiebreaker. Next Monday night, the two teams meet again at the Meadowlands.
Guess who’s not going to win the NFC East or make the playoffs? The Washington Redskins, who lost, at home, to the young, scrappy Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 17-16, after driving down the field, scoring a touchdown in the final seconds … and then screwing up, believe it or not, the extra point. Brian Orakpo, the Skins’ stand-out pass-rusher and the NFL leader in holding calls drawn, was blatantly held on the play when the Bucs threw for their final touchdown. It was a horrendously officiated game. But still one the Skins should have won—kicker Graham Gano missed one field goal under 40 yards and another under 30—or at least forced to overtime.
At this point, it is less useful to talk about the Skins’ prospects for the rest of the year—since the best they can hope for is a .500 record (and I wouldn’t bet on that)—and more to discuss the future. The good news is that that future could well include QB Donovan McNabb, who, playing with that horrible offensive line and bargain-basement pass-catching corps, threw for two touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a 100.7 passer rating. McNabb, who has had problems getting through all 16 games in the past, is on pace for his first 4,000-yard season, and has now thrown a touchdown in 12 consecutive games—a personal best for a quarterback who was easily one of the five best in the League during the past decade. That future also could include a running game: Young back Ryan Torain rushed for an exemplary 172 yards, proving there may be something to Coach Mike Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme, which is designed to break out in the second half of the season when defenses are tired, after all. Beyond that, all the Skins need is three to four new offensive linemen, young replacements for their aging linebackers, and a better defensive secondary. Oh, and at least one elite pass-catcher. The problem with the Redskins’ perpetual expectations for greatness is that it does not allow for true rebuilding years. But hopefully, as reality has set in, this can constitute something of one. Which is important, because every team needs those 6-10 rebuilding years.
Every team, that is, except the New England Patriots. In retrospect, it appears that last year—when their defense had no personality, and their offense had a diminished Tom Brady, a lackluster running game, and Randy Moss stretching the field so that Wes Welker could catch eight zillion throws—was their rebuilding year (think of Bill Belichick trading talented defensive lineman Richard Seymour for the Oakland Raiders’ first-round draft pick in the coming draft): They went *only* 10-6, and *only* won the AFC East and lost in the first round of the playoff. They have since gone young and small and quick, on offense and defense; and Brady has decided that the knee injury that killed his 2008 season actually didn’t spell the end of the galactic phase of his career. On Sunday, the Pats, 11-2, defeated the 9-4 Chicago Bears, in Chicago, in the snow, 36-7. (They also missed an extra point, proving it can happen to anyone.) 33 of those points came in the first half. In the past five games, when opponents have been playoff contenders like the Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers (away) and the Indianapolis Colts and New York Jets (at home), they are 5-0 and have not turned over the ball once. On Sunday, Brady threw for 369 yards and two touchdowns. In the snow. His line over the past five games? 118-165, 1572 yards, 15 touchdowns (plus a rushing touchdown in Pittsburgh), zero interceptions. QB rating: 158.3. And there is no 158.4.
Here is how the Patriots, up 27-0, ended the first half:
They are easily the all-around favorite as we head into Week 15.
Our record: 25-14.
Earlier: Week 13: Top of the Pack
Week 12: Second Bye Week
Week 11: The Playoff Hunt Heats Up
Week 10: Melting Steel
Week 9: Enter Sage, and the Giants
Week 8: Bye Week
Week Seven: Three for the Road
Week Six: Just Win, Baby
Week Five: True to Form
Week Four: Winning Ugly
Week Three: A Whole Lot of Crap
Week Two: Three Up, Three Down
Week One: Check The Scoreboard!
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.