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A New York twist to a Sunday of redemption

The New York Jets were in danger of plus years, even if the braggadocio never left.

Eli Manning found himself in a similar scenario as his Meadowlands neighbor, with his own reputation on trial in the court of public opinion thanks in part to a past moment of construed cockiness by the New York Giants quarterback.

For Joe Flacco, it was about proving his perceived image in the NFL world was a false case of mistaken identity.

And this past Sunday began like any other for Tim Tebow and Tony Sparano, two people most familiar with being under a microscope of heavy scrutiny and a tidal wave of criticism, though it ended with a totally different feeling than both men's teams had been accustomed to throughout this trying season.

It was a week where vindication was the theme of the day, whether it came in the form of the Jets reinforcing their credentials as a top AFC contender at the most pivotal point of what's been an adventurous 2011 campaign to date, or the rousing comebacks Manning and Flacco each led to take down two of the league's recognized elite teams in hostile and high-profile conditions. Or from an iron-willed Tebow bouncing back from easily the lowest point of his brief professional career to help make the Denver Broncos a sudden viable challenger in the unpredictable AFC West, with the young quarterback's team getting an unexpected push from Sparano's Miami Dolphins squad that finally had enough of being bullied around.

The day's early session was highlighted by the big-talking Jets once again backing up their ever-confident ways with domineering display in an absolute crossroads game. On the road against an inspired Buffalo Bills team it had trailed in the AFC East standings, New York turned back its upstart opponent's attempt to create some buzz of its own with an emphatic 27-11 taking-to-task that wasn't really as close as the final score indicated.

As is usually the case, the loudest statement that Rex Ryan's charges made came from the defensive side. The boisterous head coach's pride and joy was at its stifling best in Sunday's 27-11 shutdown of the Bills, limiting the AFC's highest-scoring entrant to a mere field goal until the game's final stages and making the Harvard-educated Ryan Fitzpatrick appear more like a community college dropout by continually frustrating the scholarly Buffalo quarterback with an intricate mixture of coverage schemes.

Nearly left for dead after going winless on a daunting three-game road trip earlier in the year, the resilient Jets now find themselves with a share of the top spot in the AFC East heading into a colossal showdown with division-rival New England next Sunday at MetLife Stadium, and their trademark swagger squarely in place.

"We didn't listen when you were counting us out," always-combative linebacker Bart Scott said after Sunday's win. "Now you'll be saying, 'The Jets are back,' and we won't listen to that either. At the end of the day we know that you guys [the media] don't know what the hell you're talking about."

The Jets' first-place standing was also made possible by an assist from their fellow North Jersey tenants, with Manning's Giants pulling out a thrilling last-second comeback in the Boston suburbs to deal the mildly-reeling Patriots their first regular-season home loss in nearly three years.

The first meeting between the Giants and Pats since Big Blue's historic upset win in Super Bowl XLII was merely a sidebar to the central topic of Sunday's clash between the clubs, thanks to Manning's unintended flame-fanning comments over the summer in which the notoriously erratic quarterback said he belonged in the same class as his more decorated and well-regarded New England counterpart, Tom Brady.

Those -- and there were many -- that took Manning to task for those seemingly incredulous remarks may be revisiting their stance following the unflappable triggerman's effort this past weekend. The NFL's leader in fourth-quarter passer rating lived up to that lofty status against the Patriots, with Manning engineering a pair of eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drives in the final seven minutes that lifted the Giants to a dramatic 24-20 triumph. The second one was capped by a short scoring toss to tight end Jake Ballard that put the current NFC East front-runners in front with just 15 seconds left to play.

Though Manning was hardly flawless on the afternoon -- he completed just over 50 percent of his attempts and made a bad decision on an end-zone interception late in the third quarter -- his clutch performance down the stretch of Sunday's game and throughout his stellar 2011 season has certainly made a case to at least belong in the discussion for the upper-crust fraternity of quarterbacks in which no one would dispute that Brady (who threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in the game) is a member. A 2-1 career record against the two-time league MVP that includes the memorable Super Bowl win doesn't hurt Manning's cause, either.

"We don't even get nervous anymore," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said about the game-winning drive. "It's like we expect [Manning] to go down and get a touchdown. Honestly, on the sideline, I wasn't even watching the game. I was talking about some plays that we missed, some opportunities with our defense and I was just kind of like, 'Eli's going to get them again. 'You don't even think about it; you just have that confidence."

The measure of redemption that Flacco was presented with during Baltimore's tension-filled encounter with the hated Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at Heinz Field came in a remarkably comparable situation to that of Manning, and may have been an even sweeter moment of glory for the oft-criticized quarterback.

After all, expertly orchestrating a 92-yard series that culminated with a touchdown pass with only eight seconds remaining to give your team a 23-20 win on the road is one thing; doing so against one of the NFL's fiercest defenses and your most heated rival in a setting with potential division-title repercussions ranks as truly a watershed juncture for a player who's often found an uphill battle for respect in spite of a 38-18 career record as a starter and playing a vital role in four away playoff victories in his first three seasons as a professional.

Flacco needed just over two minutes to march the Ravens down the field against the league's top-ranked pass defense, converted three times on either third or fourth down (his 26-yard touchdown strike to rookie Torrey Smith came on a 3rd- and-10 play), and shook off two potentially-damaging drops by his receivers. Not bad for a guy was famously called out by Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley during the offseason, with the Pittsburgh sack artist declaring Baltimore wouldn't win a Super Bowl "in this lifetime" with Flacco under center.

"[Ravens-Steelers] is a game for big men," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh stated afterward. "You've got to shine bright in this game if you want to win this game. And nobody shined brighter than Joe Flacco in this game."

This Sunday's stage wasn't just reserved for headlining teams, however. Sparano's hard-luck Dolphins, losers of 10 straight outings dating back to last December and already an afterthought in the AFC playoff chase at this season's midpoint, showed both pride and purpose in producing one of the most impressive results of the Week 9 slate, a 31-3 road throttling of a resurgent Kansas City outfit that had been riding a four-game winning streak.

And then there's the latest chapter regarding Tebow, a player whose unique yet unrefined skill set, stupendous collegiate accomplishments and well-known personal beliefs have made the affable former Heisman Trophy recipient one of the most hotly-debated topics of discussion of this season. The still- developing signal-caller gave his large contingent of critics their day in the sun by putting forth an utterly awful performance in a forgettable blowout loss to Detroit a week ago, but displayed admirable resolve and a gradual improvement in helping the instantly-relevant Broncos to an eyebrow-raising 38-24 win over the helter-skelter Oakland Raiders on Sunday.

Tebow did have some intervention in the upset, which pulled the projected also- ran Broncos a mere one game off the pace in a crowded AFC West race. Re- energized veteran running back Willis McGahee racked up 160 yards and two touchdowns and Denver amassed 299 rushing yards total on a disoriented Oakland defense that also had badly blown coverages on the second-year pro's two touchdown passes on the day.

But despite Tebow's obvious faults and rough edges as a quarterback, the ex- University of Florida legend is 2-1 since displacing an ineffective Kyle Orton as Denver's starter three weeks back, and it's not beyond bounds to declare his insertion into the lineup as the impetus to the Broncos' mild revival.

Whether Denver really has the stuff to contend in a division where no member has stood out as a true threat will be revealed down the road, though that still looks like a long shot at this point. But in a season where the San Francisco 49ers presently own the NFL's second-best record and the presumed doormat Cincinnati Bengals the top mark in the AFC, would it really be a shock if they did?