“Well I think you expect that we’re gonna play well when the pressure’s on, and we’re gonna find a way to win the game.  And we did that today, although it was a difficult game.”

–Tom Coughlin

We’ll get into specifics later in the week, but for now, here are some general thoughts on today’s game:

It wasn’t the sharpest performance, but how can you not be very happy? Sure, the Bengals were a bad team in the previous two games, and having slipped to 0-3, there’s a good chance they’ll be a bad team from this point forward.  But make no mistake: they were a very good team today, led by a quarterback and an offense that didn’t look far removed from 2005, when they were one of the decade’s best.  As Coughlin and a lot of the players have said, give credit to the Bengals for playing an excellent game and putting our defense on its heels.

Last week, I wrote: “Two games into the season, the Super Bowl Champs couldn’t be more encouraging.”  Does this statement hold true three games into the season?  It’s an interesting question.

On one hand, for the first time this year, we didn’t play that well.  (Digression: Some have said we didn’t play that well in the first two games, but they’re wrong.  We did.  Even though the score was a little too close to comfort at points during both of those games, we dominated on a play-by-play basis.  Footballoutsiders.com, which calculates play-by-play stats based on situation and opponent, put us in the top spot in their advanced rankings this past week.  This is cold, scientific stuff, not some ex-jock bloviator being like, “They’re the champions, and until they’re not, they’re number one in my book.”)

Back to the point.  We didn’t play that well today for the first time all season.  I suppose if we had blown the Bengals out, that would’ve been a little more encouraging than gutting out a game we could have very easily lost.

But…  doesn’t this hard-fought win answer questions that weren’t addressed during our two dominant performances to start the year?  Pardon the cliche, but wasn’t there something “character building” about this game that is both a building block and a source of optimism going forward? After today, don’t you have a really good feeling about this team?

Going into the bye, we are where we wanted to be: 3-0 and healthy (though I’m not sure what happened to Aaron Ross’ shoulder…).  If anything, the struggle today will keep us grounded during the bye week as we prepare for the second half of our easy six-game opening stretch.  At this point, you’d have to say that a 6-0 start is likely, and anything less would be a disappointment.

**

Is there anyone out there who isn’t thankful Eli Manning is our quarterback?  At the 4:39 mark, was anyone not utterly confident Eli would take us down for the go-ahead touchdown?

Giants fans, do not take this feeling for granted.  Though it may be too early to call Eli Manning a “great quarterback” – the Super Bowl notwithstanding, there isn’t quite enough evidence yet to support this claim – there’s no doubt that he’s a clutch quarterback, a quality somewhat distinct from greatness.  By the end of the year, NYGMen predicts we will be able to count Eli as one of the game’s great, clutch quarterbacks.

I happen to be reading Ralph Vacchiano’s book, Eli Manning: The Making of a Quarterback, which I plan to review/discuss some time in the near future.  The book’s intro is written by Ernie Accorsi, who was famously smitten with Eli ever since laying eyes on him as a junior at Ole Miss in a game against Auburn.

The roots of Accorsi’s infatuation with Eli date back to 1970, his first year as the PR coordinator for the Baltimore Colts.  It was then that Accorsi first encountered John Unitas, the Platonic ideal for a quarterback whose form Accorsi has been trying to capture ever since.

Accorsi tells the story of noticing in Colts training camp in 1970 that Unitas has lost velocity on his ball, attributable to an elbow surgery two years before and old age.

“I turned to Milt [Davis, a Colts scout] and said, ‘Milt, he can’t throw like he used to.  Can we win with him throwing like that?’

“Milt, quite fatherly, turned to this brash rookie employee, put his hand on my shoulder and said: “Ernie, listen to me.  You evaluate the great quarterbacks on one element alone: Can they take their team down the field, with the championship on the line, and into the end zone?  That’s how you evaluate a great quarterback.

That, Unitas could still do.  We won the Super Bowl that season.”

And so Accorsi paid a King’s ransom for Eli Manning.  And three years later… “17-14 is the final score.  One touchdown, we are world champs.  Believe it, it will happen.”

(No, I’m not forgetting about the Asante Samuel and Brandon Meriwether near-picks on the final drive.  But you have to admit, Ernie was right: there’s something about Eli.)

**

So this was the trap game, it turns out.  It didn’t take the form of a flat performance against a bad opponent as we had feared heading into last week.  Instead, it was a flawed performance against a desperate and dangerous team.

**

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how easily we could have lost this game.  Sure, there are plenty coulda-woulda-shouldas we Giants fans could break out, but the Bengals clock management at the end of regulation was egregious.  If you’re a Bengals fan, you’re very, very pissed: your team just squandered its last, best shot to save its season.

You saw it, but to rehash: With 32 seconds left and a timeout remaining, the Bengals had just completed a 9-yard pass to Houshmenzadeh, giving them 3rd and 1 at the NYG 14.  But they took 20 seconds before snapping the ball for the next play, which became an 11-yard pass to Antonio Chatman.  This gave them first and goal at the 3, but left them with only 4 seconds.  They had no choice but to bring in Graham to kick the field goal.

So in the span of 32 seconds, with a timeout to burn, the Bengals ran just two plays.  Based on how they were moving the ball on that drive, is there anyone out there who thinks they wouldn’t have won the game if they had run a third play during that time?  Shit, they could have easily run four plays.

**

Today’s game added to the mounting pile of evidence that Brandon Jacobs is the third best running back on the team.

Yes, I know the Bengals game-planned against the run, which makes Jacobs’ 14 carries for 35 yards (2.5 YPC) a little misleading.  And of course Ward’s draw-plays were more conducive to success, which makes his 80 yards on 9 carries (8.9 YPC) a little misleading too.  As Jacobs-apologists would have you believe, it was Jacobs’ bulldozing his way to a succession of 2.5 yard-runs that “softened” up the defense for Ward.  (As for his latest dropped past… well, that’s beyond even their excuses.)

But my question is this: Is there anything that can happen on the field that can change the coaching staff’s preconceived notion that Jacobs is our best back deserving of the vast plurality of carries? 

Alas, probably not, and the egregious misallocation of resources will continue.  Today, Jacobs got 56% of the carries.  Ward got 36%.  Bradshaw got 8%.

This week – during which we nearly lost, and all three of our division rivals won impressively – proved it: We cannot rest on our Super Bowl laurels.  We need to improve this team if we want to beat out the tough-ass teams in our division.  Earth, Wind and Fire in its current proportions is not a “winning formula,” as the coaches and many in the media might think, but rather something that might preclude us from being as good as we need to be to defend our crown.