A closer look

Hovering somewhere between the untested rookie he is and the poised veteran he'll become, Eli Manning survived his first NFL start Nov. 21 against the Falcons as best as anyone could have hoped for.

With the likely exception of Manning, no one realistically expected perfection his first time in the driver's seat. And to be honest, there were times when his inexperience forced him to swerve into oncoming traffic.

But when it was over, and the final score indicated it wasn't everything he hoped for, he just went home, had a little something to eat and began to think about the next day.

"I didn't feel nervous or too pumped up," Manning said. "I just wanted to make fast decisions and fast reads."

Despite the 14-10 loss to Falcons, Manning delivered a performance with enough upside to make even his cautious coach see light at the end of a quickly darkening tunnel.

"I think there was a spark," Tom Coughlin said. "I thought our players and our sideline were alive. I thought it was very electric. I thought the team was supportive of each other. I thought we were going back and forth and making plays and I thought that was the key. The players were tuned into what needed to be done against a team that has a lot of great playmakers."

Almost more than winning itself, Coughlin wanted Manning to give his team reason to feel excited about the last six weeks of the season. Manning did that with play more consistent than memorable.

"There wasn't anything I would describe as a best decision," Manning said. "You just want to make sure you're going through the right progression with the defense. There were times when I didn't, but that's all a part of being young."

What he couldn't do was avoid a defeat that had the Giants fighting for their lives Sunday against the Eagles. They knew a loss ended hope of a division title in the already lopsided NFC East.

But through it all, Manning made enough of an impression to validate the Giants effort to get him, even though his quarterback rating (45.1) was nearly half of Kurt Warner's for the season.

"I thought Eli did a really good job and handled himself well," said Patrick Kerney, the Falcons defensive end. "He had a lot of pressure on him, which has to be very tough to deal with. He's got some good receivers to work with, so I think he has a very bright future."

After the loss, Manning stopped briefly to talk to his father, Archie, the former Saints quarterback. It was Archie Manning who told his son it wasn't as important when he got his chance to start, as it would be not to lose the spot once he had it. And that's what Eli Manning did.

"I think Eli played great," Tiki Barber said. "He made some right decisions. He responded well."

In completing 17 of 37 for 162 yards and one touchdown, a 6-yarder to Jeremy Shockey in the third quarter, Manning met about all of Coughlin's requirements for him.

"I think so," Manning said. "Dealing with all of the attention on this, I tried to make it as normal as possible. I thought I did a good job of that and everybody around me did."

Ironically, the first touchdown pass thrown by Eli, Archie and Peyton Manning were all from six yards.

On instruction from the staff, Manning got rid of the ball quickly, perhaps too much so, which helped him avoid all but one sack, which ended his first possession. He commanded his huddle and was instinctive at the line, calling a pair of third-period timeouts when he sensed problems. He led an efficient 16-play, 72-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter, capitalizing on the short routes the Falcons defense was giving and stepping up in the pocket to hit Shockey for 18 yards on third-and-13 to keep things moving.

"We're all men out there," offensive tackle Luke Petitgout said. "It's not like he's out there peeing in his pants about this. He's a man and he handled the situation just like you'd expect a man to handle it. His overall presence was great. He was encouraging and showed great leadership before the game."

Coughlin said Manning pleased him by adjusting well to the game's speed; something the coach was very concerned about.

"And the more he played, the more he got into the game," Coughlin said. "The more he saw, the better he reacted and the more aware he was of where he was on the field. He had a lot of things that were under his control and he did a real good job with them."

If there was a problem it was with delivery. Manning was errant with many throws, leading to two interceptions and contributing to six dropped passes.

"I got just a little too rushed at some times," Manning said. "Sometimes, the receiver hadn't even turned and I was trying to get the ball out of my hands, rather than just waiting that extra half-second to see and set my feet and step into it and throw the ball like I can. I think the more I practice, the more I continue to see defenses and learn schemes, I'll get more confident and make better decisions."

Manning also couldn't deliver on his last chance to win, a two-minute drive that began at the Giants 26 with 1:52 to play. After a defensive holding penalty wiped out a sack and Manning's fumble on the first play of the drive, he completed a 7-yard pass to Shockey and watched Barber run up the middle for 13 to put the ball on the Falcons 49 with 1:17 to play. But three incomplete passes, including a final one to Shockey on fourth-and-3, ended his dream for a storybook finish.

"It's a position you want to be in," Manning said. "That's what it's all about when playing quarterback. Obviously at the end of the game you would like to be up by 20 points and not have to worry about that. But football is about making plays when it counts and when there is 1:52 and you have the ball and you have to score a touchdown, that's your job. You have to drive them down there and get points and score to win the game."

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