COOPER MANNING was watching his baby brother, Eli, from a luxury box above Raymond James Stadium, unable to generate an appetite despite the tempting finger foods spread out before him. As Cooper sat with his wife, Ellen, and his parents, Archie and Olivia, the Giants had fallen into an early hole against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their NFC wild-card game, and Cooper kept excusing himself so he could go to the bathroom.
"I couldn't eat, but I peed a lot," said Cooper, the oldest Manning brother. "I think that means you're nervous."
While Cooper was fighting anxiety, down on the field Eli had his own worries. He was trying to win a playoff game as a former No. 1 pick, a New York quarterback and little brother to Peyton Manning, star of stage, screen and the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts.
"You wouldn't wish that on many people," Cooper said of Eli's plight. "But he's a cool customer, no matter what hand he's dealt. People are starting to figure that out."
By afternoon's end Cooper's concern had eased considerably. In smartly directing the Giants' 24--14 victory, Eli emerged from Peyton's shadow long enough to notch his first postseason win, send New York into the divisional round against a Dallas Cowboys team that has beaten the Giants twice this season and claim some family bragging rights. Peyton lost his first three playoff games and didn't win one until his sixth NFL season; after failing in his first two attempts, Eli got his first postseason win in his fourth year in the league. "You couldn't ask anything more from him," Giants defensive end Michael Strahan said afterward. "It was a great performance by Eli."
After a herky-jerky start to his career, Eli is standing a little taller in the pocket these days. Though Tiki Barber, his retired backfieldmate, opened the season by calling Manning's attempts at leading his team "comical," Eli has warmed to his generalship this season. His voice has more heft, his throws more zip. He has taken to loosening up the locker room with practical jokes and is finally playing his best football in the Giants' biggest games. "It's not an easy thing to do, playing quarterback at this level," receiver Plaxico Burress says. "Everybody doesn't get it overnight."
Before facing the Bucs, Eli called an audible and reached out to Peyton over the phone, asking for some help. Tampa entered the game with the league's No. 2 defense. The Colts had beaten the Bucs 33--14 in Week 5. Peyton's instructions, according to Eli, were clear: "Be patient and take the short stuff."
Patience, though, has not been a hallmark of Eli's young career, which has been pocked with risky throws and heaves off his back foot. He had 20 interceptions during the regular season, tied for most in the league, and completed only 56.1% of his passes. The Buccaneers, boasting an NFC-best plus-15 turnover margin, had every right to expect a few errant passes. "The fact that he led the league in interceptions, we at least have to be optimistic about it," Tampa cornerback Ronde Barber said on the Thursday before the game.
The Giants couldn't have started more slowly. At the end of the first quarter Manning was 2 of 4 for nine yards, the offense had totaled minus-2 yards, and Tampa had taken a 7--0 lead.
But on the Giants' first drive of the second quarter, Manning started finding his receivers on short hitch routes, moving the ball downfield with high-percentage throws to Burress and Amani Toomer. He went 5 for 6 for 49 yards on the drive, capped by a five-yard touchdown pass to running back Brandon Jacobs that tied the score at 7.