Now That's a Quarterback!

010808 manning web Now That's a Quarterback!Who is that guy?

His name’s Eli.

When’d we get him?

Four years ago.

That’s not Eli. Eli threw interceptions. Fumbled. Missed wide-open receivers. Wore lead cleats.

Same guy.

Impossible.

For two seasons, ever since their first-round playoff loss to Carolina in 2006 (after which Tiki Barber fumed that the team had been out-coached), the calculation for beating the Giants boiled down to a simple question: if you take away their running game, is Eli Manning a good enough quarterback to beat you?

Good enough to beat you with his arm—the same one that had strung together five dozen hardly better-than-mediocre starts since he entered the league as the No. 1 overall draft pick.

Good enough to beat you with his wits—even though he seemed to approach the line of scrimmage like a guy opening the front door to a haunted house, a guy with no sang and no froid.

The answer to all of that is, finally, yes. And the Giants have advanced beyond the bar and the pass-arounds and into the main ballroom of the NFL playoffs. Dallas is on the dance card this Sunday.

In the days before the Giants’ memorable 24-14 victory in Tampa Bay, the Bucs’ bratty-faced coach John Gruden, who stalks the sidelines like he’s carrying a slingshot in his back pocket, played a con game. He talked up Eli Manning. Said how good Eli was. How much he admired his talent. When, all along, Gruden’s intention was to expose Eli as a pretender. Following Carolina Coach John Fox’s game plan from way back in ‘06, Tampa loaded up defenders on the line of scrimmage and dared Eli to beat the best defense in the league through the air. Gruden fully expected Eli to come undone. Eli didn’t.

It was the stoutest game of Manning’s professional career.

The Giants have put together ten quarters of top-notch football stretching back to the second half in Buffalo. Well, nine, if you take away the first quarter against the Bucs, when they went three and out in three possessions and totaled negative two yards in offense and visions of that diaper-soiling loss to Carolina two seasons ago perfumed the olfactory recall.

But this, no doubt, is a different Giants’ squad. Kevin Gilbride’s play-calling was a work of football art, an amalgam of bravado and élan. And a different defense, at the root of the team’s success this year, attacked relentlessly and forced turnovers.

It is said that Lionel Hampton used every note on the xylophone (actually, no one ever said this and I have no supporting evidence, but I had you there for a second) and, likewise, the Giants are getting contributions from every player. I’m thinking of Domenic Hixon’s kickoff return against New England. And I’m thinking of Corey Webster. Webster, a defensive back and extraordinarily fast and athletic, has watched every last ounce of the promise he offered waste away the past few seasons. To the point where he lost his job to the hard-hitting rookie from Texas, Aaron Ross. But Webster, filling in for the injured Sam Madison, had the greatest game of his pro career against Tampa. Conventional wisdom had it that the Bucs’ Joey Galloway, would in so many words, hand Webster his walking papers on Sunday. But on either side of the field, Webster matched him deep step for step and made a crucial interception. On top of which, he recovered a fumbled kickoff return.

I’m thinking of Kevin Boss, replacing, at tight end, the Giants’ player of players, Jeremy Shockey! (According to both E. B. White and the O.E.D, there is always an exclamation point at the end of Shockey!). Boss, a rookie from, of all places, Western Oregon, is playing like a rumbling boulder.

Give the coaches their due, particularly Tom Coughlin. He has allowed this team to be what it could be, no matter if he did it in spite of himself and his old-school ways. There is something at work between him and his players, and it is no longer animosity. It’s something beginning to approach the grudging affection you develop for an old man who makes you sore all the time.

What turns out to be right looks so obvious in hindsight. Yet many questioned Coughlin’s decision to play to win against the invincible New England Patriots in the final game of the season, when they already had a playoff spot locked up. By playing to win, and not resting players, Coughlin showed he had no doubts about his men and therefore gave them the freedom to see what they could become. The team grew from their loss to the Patriots.

“I’m not out there to be the fish food, I’m out there to be the fish,” Michael Strahan said in the lockerroom after the New England game. He said he took no “positives” from the loss. But you could see and tell that his teammates felt differently.

It feels like Strahan, the defensive end and team leader, had something to do with this season’s rebound. He’d been critical of Coughlin, but this year, during which he was a hold-out for all of training camp and could have been a major lesion, he gave Coughlin a warm nod of approval. It seemed to quiet the team’s perennially upset stomach.

To watch Strahan emerge from the encased silhouette of his stance and spring explosively into his far bigger opponent is to watch a lion snapping its sinews of death. Strahan is going to the Hall of Fame and is the leader of the team—and still not enough credit is given Michael Strahan.

With the game very much in the balance, Eli Manning trotted out onto the field late in the third quarter on Sunday and led the Giants out of the huddle on their own eight yard line. Surely, this was where Gruden would let his defense swing out from their halyards and kick the ball out of Eli’s hands. Loot all our gold and jewelry and take our women—force a turnover. But Eli led the team calmly downfield. Converting third down after third down.

With each play, Eli stood tall, within the boiling chaos of the pocket, and fired darts at receivers working underneath—Steve Smith and Amani Toomer. Eight and a half minutes and 15 plays later, the Giants had broken Tampa’s cutlass in two. Had taken their best shot—had taken all the shots from everyone they’d heard for the last two years…how they’ll always find ways to beat themselves…how they’re simply mediocre and unimaginative…they they lack heart…how they’d never be winners…and spit it right back.

Let’s call it what it was. Eli Manning’s greatest game. The day he came through. Good for him.

Roger Director is the author of I Dream in Blue: Life, Death, and the New York Giants from Harper Collins.