"I've been playing quarterback since second grade," says Morris, who now works as an independent QB tutor. "I like to think I'm intelligent. But he was always prepared. I don't think I won a test—not one in four years."
New York City thrives on crisis. Visit for three days, and it's impossible not to get sucked into the tidal rhythm of Page Six snark, chest-beating columnists and nonstop yapping on The Fan. Still, you'd figure know-it-all New York would know better by now, realize that a November swoon is part of Manning's DNA, and just enjoy the ride. But no, three weeks ago, with the Packers and their red-hot QB coming to town, you could feel that old panic rising again. First place is slipping away! What's wrong with Eli?
To have Simms—the Super Bowl XXI MVP who just last summer said Manning was headed to the Hall of Fame—backpedal on a radio show on Nov. 12 was to see another so-called expert sink into analyst hell. Eli, you see, is the Rolling Stones' Satan in shoulder pads: Confusing you is the nature of his game. "No, he is not one of the elites," Simms said on CBS Sports Network. "Because when I hear the word elite, I'm thinking about guys that can make unbelievable plays on the field by themselves."
To a man, Manning's bosses never publicly betrayed any such second-guessing. "I try not to worry about it, because I know at the end of the day he's going to turn things around," says Giants co-owner John Mara. "Eli has a certain calm, a confidence, and that gets passed through the rest of the organization. I don't know how to explain it."
The best attempts focus on Manning's efforts, year in and year out, to take young receivers like Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle in hand, tutoring them on routes and tendencies, building their confidence. Others talk about seeing his car parked at the Giants' facility on off days or the study habits copied from the master. Of Eli's nickname, Easy, Peyton says, "I've never sensed that about Eli. He's extremely intense about his work, takes his craft very seriously. When he and I talk at night, he's studying tape at the same time I am. There's nothing easy about it."
But where Peyton might scorch the lineman who missed a block or the receiver who didn't run the proper route, Eli will inject just a touch of urgency into his voice. "Get that guy blocked; we're going to win the game," Eli will say. "You want to win, right? You want to score touchdowns, don't you?"
Such cajoling might have been comical once, but teammates just nod now. Two Super Bowl MVP awards help, of course, but part of Manning's "magic," as Accorsi called it, is the ability to keep things simple. "I mean, he's beautiful," says Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, laughing the way one does when simplicity prevails.
"You ever go some place and have a burger, and don't know why that place's burger is so much better than others'?" asks Giants tight end Martellus Bennett. "It's a hamburger at the end of the day, but this one's just better. That's Eli."
It does help that Manning has a habit of feasting on big names. He beat Brett Favre in OT in the arctic NFC Championship epic in January 2008; and he completed a team-record 32 passes in taking apart the NFL's No. 2 scoring defense in the NFC title game last January. The last three times Manning has played the Patriots, he was trailing inside two minutes and won. Brady couldn't outplay him, and Bill Belichick couldn't stop him. Aaron Rodgers might be last year's MVP and a model for QB excellence, but on the night of Nov. 25, just as in last year's divisional playoff meeting, he found himself outplayed by Eli on the biggest stage.
Still, the faces of Giants execs gathered in the tunnel following that 38--10 demolition of Green Bay were clearly lit with relief. Teammates ran off the MetLife Stadium field whooping, and the building shook with the chaos of triumph—and finally, here came Manning, last off the field, head down and waving, once, at the crowd. It was his victory, most of all, but he didn't stop. He barely smiled. He knows better.