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GOLDBERG ON FOOTBALL: Manning, McNabb and Brees give NFL an airlift

The NFL loves touchdowns, especially touchdown passes. So it has to love Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb and Drew Brees.

The NFL loves touchdowns, especially touchdown passes.

So it has to love Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb and Drew Brees. Plus Terrell Owens, who has made McNabb into a touchdown throwing machine, and Antonio Gates, who has done the same for Brees.

After last weekend's games, there had been 440 touchdown passes in the NFL this season, 35 more than after 10 games last season. That's an increase of 8.6 percent. And that's before Manning threw another six TDs on Thursday against Detroit.

Manning, McNabb and Brees have accounted for that increase all by themselves.

Manning is on course to break Dan Marino's record of 48 in a season with 41 through 11 games. Last season at this time, he had 19.

McNabb, who has thrown for 22 touchdowns, had just seven at this time in '03. Give a large portion of credit for that to Owens, who has a league-leading 13 TD receptions since joining the Eagles in the offseason.

And Brees has 19 touchdown passes for San Diego after just seven at this point last season. In fact, he wasn't even playing a year ago, having been benched for Doug Flutie. Flutie had three and the Chargers 10 after 10 games.

Gates, the rapidly improving tight end, has nine touchdown catches.

Don't necessarily credit the increase in TD passes on the new rules interpretation that cracks down on illegal chucks and holding. Some teams have had all sorts of trouble throwing the ball for scores: including Thursday's game in Dallas, Chicago has just five touchdown passes all season, and the Giants and Ravens each have just seven.

And it's not as if the TD passes are part of a points explosion. Scoring is at just about the same level as last season: after 10 weeks, the average points per game was 41.9 compared to 41.5 a year ago.

The new rules interpretation?

I don't think it's had any effect on us,'' Manning says.I've not seen many penalties; in fact, I can't remember the last defensive penalty we've had for that. It's not changed our plays or anything.''

There may be a better answer: receivers.

Owens, of course, has done wonders for the Eagles, giving them the first real threat since McNabb arrived in 1999. In fact, in recent weeks, Freddie Mitchell and Todd Pinkston have begun making plays because they're being ignored by secondaries.

They're double-teaming T.O. and rolling coverage toward him,'' McNabb says.So you just want to take full advantage of it and give these other guys opportunities to make good plays for us and they've been doing a great job with that.''

Brees now has Gates, the second-year tight end tied for the league lead in receptions with 62, and whose nine touchdown receptions are tied for second with, among others, Reggie Wayne of the Colts.

Wayne is one of the reasons Manning is doing so well. He has improved markedly, and Brandon Stokley has remained healthy for most of the season, giving the Colts three threats at wide receiver. As Philadelphia's opponents do with Owens, Indianapolis' rivals double-team Marvin Harrison, who used to be the only real receiving threat.

One more note: Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper is second to Manning with 27 touchdown passes. But that's not much of an increase for the Vikings, who like the Colts play in a windless dome and throw the ball around.

Last season at this point, they had 23 TD passes, 16 by Culpepper and seven more by Gus Frerotte, who took his place when Culpepper was injured for three games.

Culpepper's stats also prove the importance of prime receivers. Eighteen of his 27 TD tosses came in the first five games. Randy Moss injured a hamstring just before halftime of that contest in New Orleans, and in the five games since, Culpepper has thrown for nine TDs and the Vikings are 2-3 after starting 4-1.

Moss is another example of how much a receiver helps. Despite his injury, he still has eight TD catches.

DIRTY DOZEN: The top six and bottom six teams based on current level of play:

  1. Pittsburgh (9-1). The sign of a good team is winning on a bad day, as the Steelers did in Cincinnati.
  1. New England (9-1). The playmakers continue to make plays, but the Pats need to get healthy in the secondary.
  1. Philadelphia (9-1). Owens is a huge difference-maker.
  1. Atlanta (8-2). Michael Vick is still inconsistent. Watch out as he improves.
  1. San Diego (7-3). Relatively soft schedule coming up.
  1. Baltimore (7-3). Help for the defense: Kyle Boller is starting to improve.
  1. Washington (3-7). A good defense can't do anything with no offense.
  1. Carolina (3-7). Two wins, but only against 49ers and Cardinals.
  1. New Orleans (4-6). Last in every defensive category and the owner is getting angry.
  1. Oakland (3-7). Should really try to start over instead of patching up with old guys.
  1. (tie) San Francisco (1-9); Miami (1-9). The loser of Sunday's clash of the titans gets to be No. 32 by itself.
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