In an alternate universe, Ben Roethlisberger is starting at quarterback for the New York Giants this weekend.
It's a universe where the Chargers don't give into the Manning family's 2004 draft semi-extortion to get Eli onto a team other than the one in San Diego and the Giants moved onto their second choice and selected Roethlisberger. How much that would have changed the course of the NFL we will never know, although it's probably not something than any Steeler or Giant fan wants to contemplate.
What we do know is that Roethlisberger and the Steelers are showing a lot more comfort in their offense than they had in the early weeks of the season. They are up to 10th in the league and tore apart a Redskins team in Week Eight that had given the Giants a very hard time the previous week.
Part of that has been thanks to the ascension of Jonathan Dwyer to the starting running back spot -- he's the first back with consecutive 100-yard games for Pittsburgh since 2007 -- but a lot of it has been Roethlisberger accepting the new realities of his offensive world. He might complain about dinking and dunking his way down the field in Todd Haley's offense, but the results are looking mighty good.
Pittsburgh is holding onto the ball for more than half the game, they are converting third downs at a spectacular rate and they've allowed just 13 sacks despite the fact that Roethlisberger has a habit of holding the ball as long or longer than any quarterback in the league. And they've turned the ball over just six times all season.
The Giants defense has been shredded in almost every game this season, but they've been able to help the team win games by taking the ball away from the opposition. We're going to tread into dangerous territory here given how little the Giants and their fans like to be reminded that football, all sports really, carry a degree of randomness that can't be expected to carry over from game to game.
Plenty of turnovers come about because of strong play by the defense, of course, but there are also ones that come about by different means. The bounce of a fumble, the hands of a safety or a receiver running a different route than his quarterback was expecting are all ways that a ball winds up in the hands of the defense one week and then passes harmlessly the next.
The Giants defense needs to start doing a better job of controlling the things that are in their power, because Stevie Brown's takeaway rate just isn't sustainable. The best way for the Giants to do that is to have their best players start playing like it.
Jason Pierre-Paul has been doing his job without much problem, but it's becoming a bit of a broken record to say that Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora aren't living up to their outsize reputations. It's not just about sacks, but about hurries and hits that change the mindset of a quarterback as well as doing something to keep teams from moving the ball on the ground.
So far this year, Umenyiora has played like his first priority is avoiding an injury that would get in the way of his next payday and his success at that pursuit does nothing for the Giants. Tuck's been a bit more visible, but had no more impact.
That's left the secondary to fend for themselves, which hasn't worked out too well for anyone but Brown. Corey Webster has been particularly bad and needs to start giving the team something more as a cover corner if they are going to stop getting lit up by quarterbacks good and bad on a weekly basis.
The Giants are 6-2, but they'd be the first to tell you that the first half (and even the second half) of the regular season doesn't mean anything. The Giants need to be better on defense to reach their goal and this week would be a pretty good time to start.