A little more than an hour after their Christmas Eve practice ended, most of the New York Giants had already left for some last-minute shopping or gone home to be with family and friends. In the weight room, quarterback Eli Manning sat on a mat and started stretching. There was more work to be done for the Giants' crucial game with the Carolina Panthers (6-8) tomorrow in their run for a wild-card berth in the NFL play-offs.
Not only has Manning emerged as the leader of the Giants (8-6), he is doing it while having a career season. He has thrown a career-best 26 touchdowns through 14 games and he 179 yards shy of setting a new personal best for passing yards, breaking his mark of 3,762 set in 2005. "It's not one person. When one guy plays well, it's because everybody else is doing their job," said Manning. "Receivers are getting open, offensive line is blocking, we're running the ball better so we are not in a whole lot of third-and-long situations.
"Defence is getting us the ball. So I think it is just a combination of everybody." Manning's play in the past two weeks in games against division rivals Philadelphia and Washington has been outstanding. The 28-year-old QB has completed 46 of 64 for 659 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions. "I think he has been playing great football," offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said. "I wouldn't say just the last two weeks either. He has been playing great for the last six or seven weeks."
The only exception that Gilbride pointed out was the Giants' game in Denver in late November, when the offence did very little. Gilbride said the Giants rely on Manning more than most teams do on their quarterbacks, and he cannot be judged solely on his throws and accuracy. "We ask so much of that position in our system," Gilbride said. "He has to set up the running game, and the run game has been getting steadily better.
"He has to set up the protections, which obviously helps him. "He gives us the chance to have the success that we have had. We are very pleased with the way he is performing." Not only is Manning making plays, he is spreading the ball to his receivers. In New York's 45-12 win over Washington last Monday, the former Super Bowl MVP hit 10 different receivers. Teammates say Manning is seeing the field exceptionally well.
He has thrown only 11 interceptions, which is one more than he had last season in leading the Giants to the NFC East division title and the best regular-season record in the conference. In becoming the Giants' first quarterback to throw for 3,000-plus yards and 20-plus touchdowns for five straight seasons, Manning has accomplished the feat with a basically new group of receivers. Former Giants player Plaxico Burress is in prison serving a two-year sentence on a weapons charge and Giants all-time leading receiver Amani Toomer was not re-signed.
Left receiver Steve Smith and tight end Kevin Boss are Manning's go-to guys and are backed up by a group of role players and youngsters, led by second-year pro Mario Manningham and rookie Hakeem Nicks. Smith has 90 receptions, a franchise record and tops in the NFC, for 1,093 yards and six touchdowns. Nicks, the 29th pick in the draft, has 40 catches for 751 yards and six touchdowns, and Manningham has 51 receptions for 735 yards and five scores.
Nicks said of Manning: "He pretty much sets the tempo and pretty much gets it going, if it's a quick motivational speech in the huddle or whether he is calling the play. He just gets the job done." * AP