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Giants' Manning silences critics - for now

Vic Carucci |

TAMPA, Fla. -- Calling upon the wisdom that comes with the experience of 12 seasons as a Giant, Amani Toomer quickly grasped the reality of the situation.

Sure, quarterback Eli Manning had an impressive performance in leading the Giants to a 24-14 wild-card playoff victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sure, he was efficient and effective. Sure, he notched his first postseason win -- which was the Giants' first since their rout of Minnesota in the 2000 NFC Championship Game -- in three tries.

But Toomer, who caught seven of Manning's passes for 74 yards and a touchdown, wasn't ready to conclude that his quarterback had finally answered his legion of critics.

"Well, you know, it's New York," Toomer said. "He had a great game today, but there hasn't been a lot of time when I've been in New York where they've actually loved the quarterback."

No, the Eli Manning Fan Club probably isn't a whole lot larger now than it was before the biggest triumph of his four-year career. Though he completed 20 of 27 passes for 185 yards and a pair of scores against the Buccaneers, the next round of questions are inevitable:

What is he going to do in seven days against the Cowboys in Dallas? How will he respond when the playoff stakes climb even higher? Will he throw interceptions? Will he lose fumbles? Will he do the things that he has done, time and again, to make so many of us question his worthiness as the top overall pick of the 2004 draft?

That remains to be seen.

This is what we do know: Manning has played well in his last two games. On Dec. 29, he gave a virtual lights-out showing, connecting on four touchdown passes as the Giants nearly spoiled the Patriots' perfect season. On Sunday, he wasn't anywhere near as dynamic, but he did make a huge difference as the Buccaneers consistently crowded eight defenders at the line of scrimmage to stop the run.

The Bucs dared Manning to win the game with his arm. He did. He outplayed his far more experienced counterpart, Jeff Garcia, who threw two interceptions and piled up most of his 207 passing yards in garbage time.

He gave a fairly resounding "take that" to Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber, who before the game told the New York Post, "(Manning) can be had, we know that."

Manning's success was far from instant. After one quarter, the Giants had minus-2 yards of total offense and hadn't produced a single first down.

"The start of second quarter, we finally got something going," Manning said.

With the Bucs leading, 7-0, and the Giants at their own 47-yard line, Manning completed a pair of hitch routes to Plaxico Burress and Toomer. Burress' went for four yards, while Toomer broke a tackle and wound up with a 17-yard gain to the Tampa Bay 32. Now the Giants' offense had some rhythm, and the drive ended with Manning's 5-yard touchdown throw to Brandon Jacobs.

The scoreboard said it was a tie game, but Manning had clearly gained a significant edge against the Buccaneers' defense. He was in a groove, comfortably throwing screens and other short and intermediate passes. He wasn't looking for the game-breaker. He just wanted to keep the chains moving, keep the ball out of the Bucs' hands, and keep getting points when they were there to get.

"My thought process was to play really safe, don't force anything," Manning said. "They do a great job getting turnovers. You want to get the ball out quick, don't throw interceptions, and don't get back there too long where they can cause a fumble."

Check, check, and check.

Two more additions to Manning's list of accomplishments: He did a nice job of using pump fakes to move defenders out of position and create more room for his receivers, and he took a sack rather than deliver a poor throw while under duress.

"He didn't try and force anything and make the bad play," Toomer said. "He'd miss a throw and he didn't let it affect him; he was onto the next play."

"This was a great game, a playoff game, a lot of pressure on him and he stood in there," defensive end Michael Strahan said of Manning. "It didn't start out so great for our offense or our defense, but he hung in there and made the plays and made the throws, didn't turn the ball over, and controlled the tempo of the game."

Manning's critics might not find that very exciting. When they think top overall draft pick, they think gaudy numbers and spectacular plays. They want Tom Brady-to-Randy Moss. At the very least, they want what Manning's big brother, Peyton, does.

They also want much more emotion and passion. When they don't see it and they see three interceptions returned for touchdowns (as was the case against the Vikings this season), they decide Manning doesn't have what it takes to lead the Giants to a Super Bowl.

Maybe they're right, but Toomer doesn't think so.

"Everybody says, 'Oh, he doesn't have the fire,'" Toomer said. "But there's more than one way to lead a team, and he showed it today. You don't have to be a rah-rah guy to get people to respect you. Everybody on our team really respects him a lot."

How far does that respect go outside of the Giants' dressing room? A game such as the one he had against Tampa Bay, a week after the one he had against New England, certainly seems capable of changing some opinions. A similar showing against the Cowboys, in a winning effort, would change even more.

Yet, to follow the sage wisdom of one of the most experienced Giants, even that might not be enough for a New York quarterback.

Manning understands that.

"We have been in the playoffs the last three seasons, and I haven't played particularly well in the two games before," he said. "And just to come in here and play well, give our team a chance to win the game and make some big plays, that was quite a situation to be in.

"But now you can't be just satisfied with what you're doing. It's about the bigger picture and keeping this thing going."

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