Randall Cunningham is a jazz riff come to life. The rest of the National Football League pounds along to a head-banging, rock-and-roll beat. Cunningham skips and darts, stops and starts, goes up, down and all around. He is a ghost in the machine, the definition of improvisation.

The Philadelphia Eagles have him on their side, and, brother, are they fortunate. They are a bratty, mediocre lot given to making bold pronouncements that, if not for Cunningham, would never stand up on Sunday. He is the Most Valuable Player in the NFL. Period.Already this season, he has rescued two games with last-minute touchdown drives, and kept the Eagles alive in game after game when all others around him, including his coaches, were failing and falling. Sunday, his jazz routine threw a big, messy splotch into the New York Giants' previously perfect season, leading the Eagles to a 31-13 victory at Veterans Stadium.

The players were crowing afterward about smash-mouth defense, strong blocking and run-pass balance - all those button-down things about which football teams crow. They mentioned Cunningham, too, but almost as an afterthought, as in, "Oh yeah, Randall was great, too." Shame. They should understand by now. They wouldn't have a chest to pound if Cunningham wasn't at the peak of his myriad powers.

That was the NFL's best defense he tore apart, only it isn't really correct to say he tore it, because it was more subtle than that, a little rip here, a snip there, a nick here, another there. He spent the entire afternoon with the Giants breathing on his shoulder pads, surrounding him, one never more than an outstretched arm away. But they couldn't touch him. They reached out and went for the kill again and again, and, always, he was gone, off in another direction. A ghost in the machine.