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IN THE quiet days of last spring, during the hush of the NFL lockout, Eli Manning lured the remnants of his Giants receiving corps to a high school in Hoboken, N.J. The football field sat inside a running track, next to an iron fence and a concrete wall. There was nothing flashy about the operation.
The scene fit well with Manning's vision: to build a strong rapport with his hodgepodge receiving unit and return to the level of elite quarterback, where he believed he belonged. "He was tired of people talking about how many interceptions he threw last year," says his father, Archie, of a career-worst 25 picks in 2010 and a second straight year of missing the playoffs. "What he was saying was, I've been around for seven years. I know I can play this game."
The makeshift camp lasted two weeks, with participants ranging from 2009 first-rounder Hakeem Nicks to former practice squad player Victor Cruz, who had ample time a year ago to launch a clothing line on the side: Young Whales. "We were tired of paying money for designer clothes," Cruz says of his venture with former Giants defensive tackle Nate Collins, "so we decided to start our own."
On Sunday at Lambeau Field, the Giants made a postseason splash fit for a Leviathan, dismantling the defending champion Packers in a 37--20 win that proved New York is much more than a rugged defense. The Giants can fill the air with spirals too—the signature trait of an NFL season of pyrotechnic offense and pinball scoring. Against a Green Bay D susceptible to the big play, Manning completed 21 of 33 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns, celebrating with small uppercuts into the Lambeau air.
In the first quarter he hit Nicks on a 66-yard catch-and-run when safety Charlie Peprah missed a tackle, putting New York up 10--3. Then, with the Giants leading 13--10, the ball on the Packers' 37 and six seconds left in the first half, Manning heaved a Hail Mary to Nicks, who leaped in front of Peprah and Charles Woodson to haul it in, the ball sticking to his face mask.
Manning also outperformed presumptive MVP Aaron Rodgers, who was sacked four times and harassed constantly by Giants pass rushers. Said New York coach Tom Coughlin of Manning, "Nobody sees what he does behind the scenes. He is looking for every little advantage. He loves playing against the best competition, but it is all about doing the best for his team."
Even with a Super Bowl MVP on his résumé, Manning has never looked more in control of his throws, or more comfortable. Once viewed as too docile to lead, he is the face of a team that will streak into San Francisco to play for the NFC championship, one game from a second trip to the Super Bowl in five years.
"He has such a quiet confidence," says Giants co-owner John Mara, who says he wouldn't trade Manning for anyone in football. "And he just makes big play after big play. It gives the entire franchise confidence."
Says Manning's oldest brother, Cooper, "There are different ways to be a leader. We've seen that through the years. Joe Montana was not a fiery guy. Eli, to his credit, is not trying to be anybody he's not. And it's worked."
OVERSHADOWED BY voluble teammates like Michael Strahan and Tiki Barber early on, Manning has now imbued the Giants with a stoic vibe that seems ideal for the pressure-filled postseason. On Sunday they will face a San Francisco team with a fast, physical defense, but New York's offensive line has been especially sturdy of late. Manning had all day to dissect the Packers' defense, which sacked him only once, and he whistled passes to his targets with ease.