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Eli explained

My four theories behind Manning's recent resurgence

Posted: Friday January 25, 2008 12:06PM; Updated: Tuesday January 29, 2008 6:54PM
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Eli Manning
Giants QB Eli Manning has not turned the ball over a single time in the playoffs.
Simon Bruty/SI
Super Bowl XLII
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Entering the Giants' final regular-season game a month ago, Eli Manning was an embattled quarterback. The Giants were 10-5, assured of making the playoffs for the third consecutive year, but Manning hadn't played well since a Nov. 18 win at Detroit.

In the five-game stretch prior to the regular-season finale, the Giants had gone 3-2, largely on the strength of the running game and defense. Though the weather had been brutally unkind to the passing game on two of those Sundays, Manning's numbers still were brutal: a .451 completion percentage, with four touchdowns and eight interceptions.

As we know now, Manning's resurgence has been vital to the late-season run that landed the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. In the narrow loss to New England, and in the three road playoff wins, Manning has been a 64 percent passer, with eight touchdowns, one interception and 213 passing yards per game, on average. What happened?

My four theories:

1. Plaxico Burress is practicing, and his chemistry with Manning is better than ever.

Remember the Manning-to-Burress second-half completion on the right sideline in Green Bay, when Burress made an acrobatic catch while tumbling out of bounds but kept his feet inbounds long enough to make the catch? Burress told me after the game that, leaving the huddle, Manning told him he wasn't going to have much time to throw on that play, so as soon as he felt he had enough for the first down and was open to cut the route off, he'd throw it to him.

As another player told me, "If Plax wasn't practicing a little more the last few weeks, would he and Eli have been able to be on the same page on that play -- and on a few others in this game?''

Burress cut off his square-out just past the first-down marker; Manning made a perfect throw and Burress made a perfect catch.

Burress, who played the game of his life Sunday in Green Bay, is one of the guttiest players I've seen in years. Both of his ankles hurt; he's playing with a torn ligament in his right ankle. Have you noticed you don't see Burress gesturing angrily for the ball anymore? It's because he's gained tremendous respect for Manning, and because he knows Manning is doing everything he can to get him the ball as often as he can.

2. Steve Smith has become the reliable third receiver the Giants have never been able to develop in Sinorice Moss.

For whatever reason, Manning has never clicked with Moss, who has had injury, effort and ability questions surrounding him since being a second-round pick in 2006. Not so with Smith, a tough little Welker-ish guy who can find a hole in the middle of the field and provide Manning a trusted third option after Burress and Amani Toomer.

Smith's December return after missing 11 games with a fractured scapula and then a hamstring injury has coincided, roughly, with Manning's revival. In the last four games, Smith has 12 catches for 131 yards. That's nine fewer than Moss in his 13 regular-season games. Clearly, Manning enters the Super Bowl with the best three-wideout combo he's had in his career..

3. Big games aren't big for Manning. Watch how he plays. Does he ever look rattled? "It's never been like Eli to be any different when the chips are down, not in high school or college either,'' said his dad, Archie.

Eli has quarterbacked the Giants to a 38-35 loss (that really was a win, for all it did for this team) against New England, in which he nearly matched Tom Brady nearly pass-for-pass, and in the postseason, he's outplayed Jeff Garcia, Tony Romo and Brett Favre. And from the looks of it, he's treated every game the way he'd treat a September game against Kansas City -- important, but not the end of the world. Don't expect him to be wide-eyed and drooling before the Super Bowl. He'll be cool.

4. He looks like he's asserting himself more with the coaches and in the locker room.

It's just a guess, because I don't know his relationship with offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, but it looks as if Eli's not afraid on the sidelines to say, Hey, let's call this play or that play right now. I know it'll work. Or, I'd rather be in the shotgun on this play. You can see his confidence on the sideline and in talking with the coaches on the sidelines that there's a line of communication, not a dictatorial one-way line from the coaches to him.

And maybe Eli needed Tiki Barber to leave the team so that he could exert more influence in the locker room. And maybe the Jeremy Shockey injury isn't the worst thing in the world, because now Eli doesn't have to worry about feeding Shockey the ball X number of times a game or risk his wrath after the game.

There's also, of course, the simple matter of a player maturing before our very eyes. It takes time for a quarterback to develop, and maybe the most important trait Manning has shown in the last couple of months is his quiet resolve not to let the forces of being a struggling New York quarterback beat him down. That shows tremendous maturity for a 27-year-old player. And that's why the Patriots have to be looking at film this week wondering, Just how good is this kid? Will we be able to rattle him now?