Needed: One More Evolutionary Leap for Eli Manning

Nothing has been more amazing to witness during this memorable Giants campaign than the spectacle of Eli Manning putting together an entirely new skill-set in the space of his last four games.

As the Super Bowl looms, he’s turned from a shaky, inconsistent signal-caller into an elite quarterback capable of taking charge of a game. And each week, starting with the final regular-season game and continuing through the playoffs, Manning added something new.

For most of his young career, Manning threw off his back foot when under pressure, a habit that took velocity and accuracy off the ball and produced underthrown passes and, too frequently, interceptions.

Two games after a dismal loss to Washington in which Manning completed only 18 of 53 passes thanks to that very tendency, a new quarterback emerged against the Patriots’ stifling defense in Week 17. New England pass rushers hounded Manning for much of the game, but the young quarterback stood in the pocket and stepped up before making throws, as evidenced by a touchdown pass to Kevin Boss with 13 seconds left in the first half. Manning avoided the rush coming from the right side, checked down as he stepped up and pump-faked before finding his tight end.

After throwing the game-ending interception to Ellis Hobbs in the loss to New England, the Giants’ Wild Card tilt in Tampa Bay showed a whole new side of Manning. There were no more high throws to wide-open receivers (such as the one Hobbs nabbed) or attempts directed to the wrong shoulder that would all to often result in turnovers. On a touchdown drive early in the second quarter, Manning made five of six completions all over the field, including a screen pass through traffic to Brandon Jacobs. That drive spoke volumes: Manning stopped forcing passes downfield and instead, completed shorter throws, letting his talented wideouts make plays after catches. He hasn’t thrown an interception in 85 postseason pass attempts, but the more important number is his completion percentage in the playoffs: 62.4 percent, over six points above his season total.

The divisional round against the Cowboys revealed Manning’s newfound ability to look off coverage and enable his receivers to get free. With 42 seconds left in the first half, Manning bought his receivers an extra second on the two throws to Steve Smith and a beautiful completion to Boss on third-and-ten. That’s the kind of subtle change that makes the difference between a nearly flawless touchdown drive and a three-and-out.

All of those these elements came together against a stingy Packers defense, with an added touch: Manning played to his receivers’ strengths. Plaxico Burress thrives on quick slants, which Manning threw to him for most of the game. At the end of the first half, when Packers cornerback Al Harris tried to bump Burress at the line to throw off his timing, Manning utilized his receiver’s height and fed him a pass over the top in between Harris and safety Atari Bigby. And on Toomer’s athletic sideline grab with under three minutes left in the third quarter, Manning wisely led the veteran with a throw about four yards ahead of him, knowing that Toomer would be able to reel the ball in and drag his feet.

Of course, none of those vanquished defenses were equal to what the Patriots have. The Giants will have to hope that Manning has one more surprising development in store.

Needed: One More Evolutionary Leap for Eli Manning