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Manning silences critics with Super run

PHOENIX -- Tom Coughlin still remembers that first minicamp, the one in which then-rookie quarterback Eli Manning -- with all of an hour's worth of exposure to the playbook -- struggled through his inaugural NFL practice.

"He's on the field with all the New York media, and they didn't think he had a very good practice," the Giants' coach said. "And I'm thinking to myself, 'Well, let's be a little bit smarter than that about understanding where the young guy's coming from.' He didn't even know the cadence yet."

It didn't matter. He was a Manning. He had been the top overall pick of the 2004 draft. He was supposed to be great. And from that point forward, fairly or unfairly, he would continue to be judged by that sky-high standard.

Through most of his first four seasons with the Giants, Manning usually found himself on the wrong end of that judgment. As Peyton Manning soared with the Indianapolis Colts, kid brother found himself facing endless questions about whether he, too, had the right stuff. Was his personality too soft to allow him to be an effective leader? Why wasn't he consistently making big plays? How come he threw so many interceptions? When would he finally arrive as a big-time quarterback?

Things have changed recently, of course, which is a large reason why the Giants are in Super Bowl XLII.

"He's been very efficient, very accurate, under all conditions, under any circumstance," Coughlin said of his quarterback. "He's never lost focus and has not turned it over. He's playing as well as we've seen him, and I think there's much more to come."

That had better be the case. Otherwise, the Giants could be in big trouble against the high-flying New England Patriots on Sunday.

The Eli Manning scrutiny has ranked among the bigger media themes of Super Bowl week. It is unlikely to ever go away, especially given his pedigree (including his father, Archie, a former NFL quarterback) and the fact he plays one of the most high-profile positions for one of the NFL's most high-profile franchises.

Still, if he leads his team to victory in Super Bowl XLII, he will have pulled off a stunning achievement that will give him and his teammates a prominent place in history. Whether anyone declares that Manning has finally arrived at that point won't matter to him or anyone else connected with the Giants.

In the meantime, Manning's game will continue to be analyzed to death. His play in the last four games, beginning with the four touchdowns he threw in the season-ending loss to New England, has prompted all sorts of discussion about a quarterbacking rebirth.

Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride on Manning: "The pieces around him are playing at a level that has allowed him to showcase his ability. I think the line has played very, very well, giving him a chance to feel comfortable in the pocket. I think our receivers have done a terrific job for him. Our running backs have done a nice job. All of sudden, all the pieces are falling into place and you can see what a talented guy he is."

Giants receiver Plaxico Burress on Manning: "When he puts his mind to it, he can go out and compete with the best of them. It all comes down to all of us helping him out, also. He's not a one-man show. We need to protect for him to give him time to throw the football. When we're doing our jobs out there as receivers, getting open and catching the football, everybody (looks better). One of the major reasons I came (to the Giants from the Steelers) was to come to him. We've thrown a few touchdowns since I've been here, we've made a few plays. Now we're sitting here at the Super Bowl."

Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour on Manning: "Over the course of the season, you have kind of seen him grow in front of your eyes."

Manning on himself: "I think as a quarterback you're always going to be a leader. You're always going to be in charge of your offense, getting the guys ready to play. ... I try to tell them before the game what we expect to do, what we have to do to win the game, what kind of game it's going to be and go out there and try to lead by example. I'm not a screamer, I'm not a yeller. I go out there and just try to lead by example."

The Patriots' primary defensive focus will be to stop the Giants' highly effective rushing duo of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. The Pats will likely have strong safety Rodney Harrison close to the line of scrimmage, where he can provide run support, and leave his top receiver, Burress, in single coverage, likely against Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel. Manning will try to challenge Samuel by trying to connect with Burress on skinny posts.

New England's base coverage will be a Cover Two zone, which is something the Giants have frequently seen throughout the season and the playoffs. Manning has shown good patience against this scheme. Rather than foolishly try to force deep throws that can be intercepted, he takes whatever is available underneath with short and intermediate passes. In many cases, that will have him looking for veteran Amani Toomer, who does an exceptionally good job of finding holes in zone coverage.

The 6-foot-5 Burress and 6-3 Toomer tower over the Patriots' shorter cornerbacks, 5-10 Asante Samuel and 5-9 Ellis Hobbs. That height advantage was a factor in the Giants' ability to push the Pats to the brink in their 38-35 loss to New England on Dec. 29.

"We are going to do some similar stuff that we did (in the last meeting) and try to take advantage, not just of the corners, but of the whole defense," Toomer said. "We had some pretty good success on them earlier and, hopefully, we can build upon that success and put a few more touchdowns on the board so we can win this game."

"It's always difficult for us being 5-10 or 5-11 going up against those guys," Samuel said. "You've just got to fight. You can't let up. You've got to fight every down."

After the previous meeting with the Giants, New England's defenders expressed deep disappointment over their performance. To a man, they believed they were unfocused and listless through the first half.

Their greatest frustration was allowing Manning and his receivers to combine for four scores while coming up with only one interception -- the last Manning has thrown to date.

"We can't let them throw for four touchdowns and expect to beat the New York Giants," Harrison said. "That's crazy and ludicrous for us to think that we can have success doing that. So as a secondary, we can't give up the big play, we have to compete on every single play and we have to make our share of big plays."

Manning can go a long way toward spoiling those plans by showing the considerable poise, focus, efficiency, and accuracy he has demonstrated in his last four games.

As far as Manning is concerned, he is simply being the same guy he has been since that first minicamp.

"I'm a guy who, after a good game or bad game, doesn't get caught up in what people are saying," Manning said. "I don't read the papers or watch the TV networks to see how people are rating me. I rate myself based on what I see from film, what coaches tell me and I learn from that.

"But it doesn't take away from my competitiveness. I still love to win and I still hate to lose. I go out there and try to have a calming effect on the players whether things are going great or poorly. I'm not going to get rattled."

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