For Eli the Best Birthday Gift of All

TAMPA, Fla. -- There were so many people to be happy for, beginning with fans who waited seven years for a playoff win. Then there were the feel-good stories sprouting from every corner of the locker room.

From cornerback Corey Webster, the second-round pick on the verge of being labeled a bust. From center Grey Ruegamer, who filled in masterfully for the injured Shaun O'Hara. From Amani Toomer, who was around when the Giants last won a post-season game.

But nobody wearing a Giants uniform deserved a louder round of applause than the fresh-faced kid who celebrated his 27th birthday on Thursday and threw himself a party on Sunday.

A belated Happy Birthday, Eli.

Nobody has taken more abuse in the media than Elisha Nelson Manning. Nobody. Not Michael Strahan, who hurt the team badly by sitting out training camp. Not Tom Coughlin, the clubhouse leader – by a slim margin over Isiah Thomas – in media firings.

Nobody.

And if that isn't enough, Manning has become the personal punching bag of the Barber family, most recently Ronde saying Eli "can be had.'' Not on Sunday, when Manning spread the ball to seven teammates and made sure four of them spiraled into the hands of Plaxico Burress, Barber's man.

So the sight of Manning jogging off the field in his red Giants baseball cap – first playoff win in hand, a turnover-less 20-for-27 masterpiece screaming from the stat sheet – instantly became my favorite scene of the 2007-08 season.

"I'm really happy for Eli,'' Brandon Jacobs said after Manning led the Giants past Tampa Bay 24-14 and into the conference semifinals at Dallas. "He dealt with a lot of drama and from a lot of people who didn't really know what they are talking about.''

Whether we've been too hard on him is debatable. Manning's beauty has been in his method of handling criticism. He's never raised his voice, never, outside of a soft reply to Tiki Barber's jabs, even come across as defensive. Manning's belief in himself has been a far greater weapon than his right arm.

At times he's looked like the Frank Stallone of the Manning family. Constantly reminded that he's no Peyton. Regularly getting refreshers on how he's killing the Giants. But Eli has plugged along, and even after the Bucs game, given the perfect setting to rip another Barber, Manning passed.

"You just disregard it,'' he said of Ronde's comments, same old even Eli tone. "It doesn't make a difference to me what a player says.''

But Eli was wonderful against New England nine days ago. And you know what? He was just about as good against the top-rated pass defense in the NFL. Once again he was poised as can be looking off two and three receivers before finding an open teammate. Once again he was accurate, shrugging off a couple misses and staying clear of turnovers.

Manning has come to symbolize this Giants team. Not the prettiest thing on the field. Certainly not the most talented, at least not yet. But forget that stuff about his juvenile expressions following bad plays. The guy is darn tough. If he weren't, he might have crumbled by now.

Look at the Bucs game. Manning was 2-for-4 for 9 yards in the first quarter. His offense went three-and-out on its first three possessions. He didn't get the Giants a first down until almost 2:00 into the second quarter with Tampa leading 7-0.

But he hung in there, loosening the Bucs defense with a few short completions. Manning was 9-for-10 for 99 yards on consecutive touchdown drives in the second quarter. He pretty much clinched things with a beautifully led 15-play, 92-yard touchdown drive making it 24-7 with 8:03 left.

"It was a great team victory today,'' Manning said in typical unselfishly dry Manning style.

He will never be Joe Namath with the media. Manning is carving his own identity. His game begins with toughness.

They got a shot

Sports talk radio will be filled all week with fans and hosts giving their take on the Giants' chances in Dallas. The Giants will be a touchdown underdog. But in this crazy season, who's to say they can't beat the Cowboys in their own building?

Here are five reasons the Giants can win:

1. They just won their eighth straight road game.

Yeah, we are aware that their only road loss came in the season-opener at Dallas. But this is a different Giants team than the one that lost the opener.

"We like people to hate us, I guess,'' Michael Strahan said of Big Blue's road rage. "We love to hear people say, 'You (stink).' We are all we have on the road and we stick together.

"I don't think it bothers anyone to play in Dallas. I think some of us are looking forward to it.''

2. The Giants are hot and the Cowboys are not.

Dallas has lost two of its last three games, to Washington and to Philadelphia, and had a stale 20-13 win over Carolina.

And get this: In those three games, Tony Romo is a combined 51.1 percent passing with one touchdown and five interceptions. Against Philly, Romo was 13-of-36 with three interceptions and no touchdowns.

3. Two words: Eli Manning.

Manning probably has more confidence than at any point in his career. He had a huge game against New England and followed it up with a rock-solid performance at Tampa. They are two eye-opening signs that Manning has turned a corner into becoming a consistent quarterback.

Oh, and Manning loves ideal weather conditions, and chances are he'll get them in Dallas.

4. Dallas will need to beat the Giants a third time this season to advance to the NFC title game.

It's difficult to beat the same team three times in the same season, especially in a league marked by parity. The Giants are clearly a better team than the one that lost those games to Dallas. Can the Cowboys say the same thing?

5. The Giants' secret weapon: Steve Spagnuolo.

Big Blue's defensive coordinator has put together some brilliant game plans lately. His men dominated Buffalo a couple weeks ago. His schemes absolutely baffled Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia.

Given a third shot at a successful game plan against Dallas, Spagnuolo just might piece together a masterpiece. Nobody in the Giants' locker room would be surprised if he did.

Asked about pressuring Romo the way they pressured Garcia, defensive end Justin Tuck said, "If we are able to do that, we'll get some similar results.''


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