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That would be the turning point for most teams, but these first-place Giants treat momentum like a disease. On Sunday they scored 52 points to beat the Saints, yet the usual spectacular-shaky mix—Manning threw four touchdowns and two interceptions, one a pick-six—had analysts mapping the ways they could miss the playoffs entirely. Meanwhile, the Redskins and the Cowboys are surging, and oh, yes, Peyton has come back from oblivion to fashion one of his typically flawless campaigns in Denver. Eli, in other words, has 'em all right where he wants 'em. Life just feels better when it's played like an endless two-minute drill. "I definitely don't get nervous," he says. "That's maybe the difference with other people. They may think, If we don't score here, we lose. I look at it the other way: Hey, we're about to win. It's two minutes, we're about to throw it every down—and as a quarterback that's what you want. When you're down, you got nothing to lose."
There have been low-key star quarterbacks before, of course. But Bart Starr and Bob Griese carried themselves like NASA engineers. Eli Manning, peering out from under a 10-year-old's haircut, is the NFL embodiment of cognitive dissonance. He inspires confidence despite stretches where, as former Jets QB Boomer Esiason says, "he can look like he has no clue." At certain harried moments Manning resembles no one so much as Dukakis in the tank. No wonder his favorite Seinfeld episode is "Bizarro Jerry," where everything is reversed. In Eli's world last is first, omega man trumps the alpha males and the lesser quarterback always wins.
"He doesn't fit," says Esiason, who co-hosts a sports talk show on New York's WFAN. "When he's fundamentally sound, he looks good, like a Manning. When he's not, he's gangly, all over the place, and when he runs, the whole thing is awkward. To have two Super Bowl parades and be on the lead float, looking like a bobble-head doll? What is going on here? But that's the beauty of Eli. I can't tell you just how amazing his story is. If I had a vote, even if his career ended today, he'd be in the Hall of Fame."
So now he has this reputation. "King of the Game-Winning Drives" is what ESPN dubbed Manning two weeks ago, after a 17--16 loss to the Redskins. But it wasn't just media talk. Holding that lead with 3:51 to play, Washington's offense had taken the field with one mission: "We can't give Eli the ball back," said Redskins tackle Trent Williams. "We have all the faith in the world in our defense—but we didn't even want to give him a chance. He does this for a living. He's a killer on those fourth-quarter drives."
Back in 2002 the only NFL man who saw the killer, who saw that something "rare" below the surface, worked for the Giants. Then again, general manager Ernie Accorsi couldn't have been more primed. He had grown up worshipping Johnny Unitas in his heyday, after all, and he had joined the Colts as their p.r. director in 1970, when Johnny U's elbow was all but shot. Don't worry about the arm, scout Milt Davis told Accorsi; judge a QB by his ability, with a title at stake, to lead a team downfield and score. Everything else is secondary.
Unitas led Baltimore to a Super Bowl V win over the Cowboys that season, and Accorsi never forgot the lesson. Sixteen years later, as G.M. of the Browns, Accorsi was just 5:32 away from winning the 1986 AFC Championship Game when he watched Denver's John Elway complete a little outlet pass to Sammy Winder from his own two-yard line. Oh, no, Accorsi thought. The Drive, Elway's heroics, decades of Cleveland misery now felt gut-wrenchingly inevitable. "Some quarterbacks have that," he says. "Something deep in their soul makes that happen."
Sixteen years after that loss, Accorsi sat frozen in the stands in Oxford, Miss., watching Eli Manning, an Ole Miss junior, pick apart heavily favored Auburn and thinking, Oh, yes. Accorsi's ensuing scouting report, typed up in all caps, has become a talisman of New York sports, up there with Clyde Frazier's fedora and Jeffrey Maier's glove. In it he refers to Bobby Boyd's old quip about Unitas's two best qualities: his left testicle and his right. The kid had little talent to work with, Accorsi says of Manning, "but he kept bringing them back. It was cold and windy, and Auburn would go right down the field, and now he had like a minute and three or four seconds and he single-handedly took them down the field and right at the end threw an interception in the end zone. But he was always trying to win—I saw that."
What Accorsi and other outsiders didn't see, however, is the odd cocktail of goofiness and unrelenting will bubbling beneath. The year before Accorsi's first sighting, Eli had started for the first time, against Alabama: In the sophomore's SEC coming-out party, he threw for 325 yards, erased a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit, marched the Rebels 59 yards in the final two minutes and snapped a 10-game losing streak against the Tide by throwing the winning touchdown pass with 46 seconds to play.
But more than his performance, it's the night before the game that stuck with David Morris, Manning's Ole Miss backup who would end up rooming with Eli for four years and becoming his best friend. (For those who call Manning "easygoing," it's worth noting that at first the two didn't like each other; they competed tensely for the job, and it was only after Eli—driving his squad some 80 yards to the winning score with less than two minutes left in the spring game his freshman year—established supremacy for good that the tension dissolved. Eli kept the needle handy, though. "To D-Mo," he later scrawled on a photo of himself scrambling during the Super Bowl XLII pass to David Tyree. "You're the best backup quarterback ever!") "His demeanor before a game is very unusual," Morris says now. No one sleeps harder than Eli, but Morris figured the prospect of facing the South's marquee program would cause concern. Instead, he returned from the bathroom to find Eli midair, shorts wedgied where no sun shines, bouncing on the bed and bullfrogging his knees up to his face, over and over. We play Alabama tomorrow? Morris thought. What is this?
The two eventually stopped giggling long enough to get down to business: their weekly signals test. Taking turns, each would try to stump the other with the most obscure, complex combination of hundreds of sets and plays and audibles, silently running through the sideline sign language. The other had to bark out the play—"Gun, flop-right, duo, X-jet, roll 98, X-flood"—and whoever got the most right earned bragging rights.