Eli Manning living up to expectations just in time for Super Bowl

Glen Farley

Eli’s bumming?

Not anymore.

“He’s a guy that’s composed, a guy that’s playing a heckuva lot better than what he played in the middle and the first part of the season,” New England Patriots strong safety Rodney Harrison said about the New York Giants’ quarterback. “(He’s) a guy that just looks like a veteran quarterback, making smart decisions, not turning the ball over. (He’s) very, very accurate and just taking the Giants’ offense on his shoulders and leading.”

It may very well be that, years from now, Dec. 29, 2007, is looked back upon as the date of Eli’s coming-out party.

“He’s come out,” Patriots inside linebacker Junior Seau said, “with flying colors.”

On that December night in the Meadowlands, the Giants’ fourth-year quarterback tied a career high by firing four touchdown passes, completing 22 of the 32 passes he threw for 251 yards with just one interception in his team’s 38-35 regular season-ending loss to the Patriots.

Since then, nearly a month has passed.

So has Manning - 85 times - with nary an interception as the Giants have moved past playoff opponents Tampa Bay, Dallas and Green Bay to advance to Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Ariz., against the Patriots next Sunday. Manning has now thrown 93 consecutive passes without an interception since cornerback Ellis Hobbs picked him off last month.

Now, a football fandom that not all that long ago was calling for Manning’s head is resting much of its hopes on his right arm.

“Eli,” Seau said, “has been playing out of his mind.”

While some of Manning’s numbers may not be off the charts – he is, after all, only averaging 200.7 yards passing per game – there’s no denying he is protecting the football.

“He’s just taking care of the ball,” Patriots outside linebacker Adalius Thomas said. “I mean, no turnovers in the playoffs. If you don’t turn the ball over, you give yourself a greater chance to win.”

Could it be that at the age of 27 (Manning’s birthday was Jan. 3), Peyton’s little brother is growing up on us?

“He’s making less mistakes,” said Hobbs, whose pick came on a Manning overthrow of wide receiver Plaxico Burress. “That interception was nothing special that I did. It was just a mistake that he made overthrowing the guy and I was there to catch it.

“I think he’s done a great job simplifying his offense – cutting down extra routes, extra reads and just executing the simple game plan. That’s basically what they’ve been doing, allowing the people that need the ball in their hands to be great athletes and make plays.”

“He’s throwing the ball very well,” Thomas said. “Running the ball is taking a lot of pressure (off him) as well. Plaxico has been playing big and when he’s not throwing to Plaxico, the other guys have stepped up: (wide receiver Amani) Toomer and (wide receiver Steve) Smith and (tight end Kevin) Boss. So you really can’t just focus on one guy because he’s really going through his reads and delivering the ball where it’s supposed to be delivered.”  

Look no further than the Giants’ 23-20 overtime win in last Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at Green Bay for evidence of that. Taking what the Packers – namely, cornerback Al Harris – gave him, Manning completed 11 passes to Burress, a Giants postseason record that produced 154 yards.

“I think he’s just been really smart with the football,” Patriots outside linebacker Mike Vrabel said. “I think he’s making plays. Everybody made a big deal about his interception total in the regular season, and he hasn’t thrown one – I don’t think he’s really come close to throwing one – in the postseason.”

“The way he threw the ball last week I thought was exceptional given the conditions and the tight coverage that Green Bay had on them,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “There wasn’t much space to get some of those passes in there and he threw the ball very accurately both on the intermediate and down-field routes and receivers made some big catches.”

This was what was expected of Manning, but has often been lacking in him, since the Giants made the Draft Day 2004 trade for him, sending quarterback Philip Rivers and three picks to the San Diego Chargers in exchange.

Prior to the regular-season finale with the Patriots, Manning’s interceptions this year equaled his touchdown passes (19-19) prior, and his career numbers to that point in time (73 TDs, 63 interceptions) weren’t much better.

Connecting on 62.4 percent of his passes (53 of them) for 602 yards and four touchdowns with nary an interception, Manning has amassed a postseason passer rating of 99.2 that absolutely dwarfs his regular-season number of 73.9.

Throw in that regular-season finale against the Patriots, which came a week after a downright frigid performance (7-for-15, no touchdowns, two interceptions) at wintry Buffalo and, in his last four games, Manning is 75-for-117 for 853 yards and eight TDs with just the one interception by Hobbs.

Yes, Manning is managing just fine at the moment, thank you.

“Every quarterback has to manage the game,” Seau said. “Whenever you manage a game, you do what you do best and you take whatever the defense gives you. You have the game come to you instead of trying to force the game onto yourself. That’s probably the better option. He’s been able to do that.”

The Enterprise