Giants' Manning learns the difference between good and elite

It had been seven years and it was tough for those on the outside, in this era that demands a ranking for everything, to categorize exactly what Eli Manning was.

On one hand, he was a Super Bowl champion coming off consecutive 4,000-yard seasons. On another, he had just completed a 25-interception season, punctuated by a four-pick implosion in a must-win spot in Green Bay.

That's why, five months ago, so many eyebrows were arched when Eli Manning went on "The Michael Kay Show" in New York and answered affirmatively when the host asked if he was in Tom Brady's class. And it's why, in the time since, the question of whether or not this quarterback is elite has been jack-hammered into everyone's consciousness.

Forty-nine-hundred regular-season passing yards and two playoff wins later, it seems like we have our answer. As Justin Tuck told me, "The whole team here feeds off two positions -- that's d-line and No. 10." As for just how it's come to that, Manning's explanation starts with self-examination.

"I looked at (the interceptions), and tried to get a common theme," Manning told me on Thursday. "And I looked at all the touchdowns, looked at all the third downs. I looked at everything."

And the biggest thing he dug up, as it turns out, wasn't so much some magic elixir to what ailed him in 2010.

No, this was more about the nature of football. As much as we micro-analyze the sport, and the coaches and players prepare to an absurd degree, what Manning found (or had reinforced) was that, in fact, the line between great and goat is razor-thin.

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"There's gonna be enough good plays out there and enough opportunities to make good throws, and you're gonna have guys open," Manning continued. "And then, there's gonna be those five plays where things are tough, they've got things covered, maybe a guy did the wrong thing. It's what you do in those situations, trying to make good decisions in those moments, that makes the difference."

Manning didn't make this leap explicitly, but I'll go ahead and guess here that he's been better in those spots this year than he's ever been.

Yes, he still threw 16 picks. But there were only three games where he threw more than one, and part of it was throwing 20 more passes and for 900 more yards than he ever has in a season, with his yards per attempt (8.4) a half-yard better than his previous career best. Bottom line: With the running game stuck in neutral all year, and just coming on now, the Giants needed Manning to shoulder a heavier load than ever and he answered the bell, while simultaneously cutting down on his mistakes.

He's not perfect. But that's pretty good.

"You learn every year," he said. "Sometimes, it's things you need to improve on. And you're always trying to make better decisions."

No question, Manning has. Now, the Giants just need him to keep it up for two more Sundays.

And I do think it'll be two more Sundays for New York. Here, then, are my picks …

Albert Breer went 2-2 with his divisional round predictions. How will he fare in the championship round? His picks are below, with home teams listed second:

I'll admit this - I'm still affected after I went gung-ho on the "big guys win playoff games" angle prior to the divisional round, then couldn't pull the trigger on the Saints or Packers going down. So consider this my penance. I think the Ravens make just enough plays on offense, score on defense, and Haloti Ngata's inside pressure is key as Baltimore finally gets over the hump.

Chris Canty made it clear as day to me: "It's no secret. We know it. They know it. This is gonna be knock-down, drag-out." Tom Coughlin, too, has drilled the discipline angle into the Giants' heads all week -- the Niners were an outrageous plus-28 in turnover margin this year, and led the league in field position on both sides of the ball. I think those players took the message to heart. And where Manning's two picks cost them the last time, this time, sound play carries the Giants through. And America gets that Super Bowl XXXV rematch it's pining for. That's the rematch everyone wants, right?

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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