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Falcons-Giants: Eli Manning belongs among NFL’s elite quarterbacks

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Eli Manning hangs around in front of his locker looking like a kid about to be sent back upstairs to change into something more presentable. He’s wearing a long-sleeve gray T-shirt, and a pair of well-worn baggy jeans, which on closer examination are patched just above the knee; you can see the faint outline of stitches. His hair is still damp and only half-combed, and a thick brown flap shaped like a beefsteak hangs over one eyebrow. His feet are bare.

You search in vain for a hint of stardom or glamour in Manning. Where is the daring, dodging comeback artist who set a new NFL record for fourth-quarter touchdowns with 15, to lead the New York Giants into the playoffs? Where is the competitive egotist who showed up Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC East title, twice? You wait in vain for Manning to reveal this side of himself, to say something boastful, or even self-congratulatory. The main thing you wait in vain for are the words that Manning has every right to say: “I told you so.”

“Less is best,” he murmurs.

Back in the preseason, a New York radio jock asked him: Is he an “elite” quarterback? Manning made the mistake of answering mildly but frankly, “I consider myself in that class.” The statement brought jeers down upon his head. News outlets acted like he was deluded. “Elite” meant keeping company with war horses like Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, who complete 60 percent of their passes and throw for twice as many touchdowns as interceptions, and who rally teams in the fourth quarter like they are Henry V storming Calais.

Elite? Try barely top 10. Manning didn’t even make it into a poll by the NFL Network to name the top 100 players in the league. No way the 31-year-old with his plain boyish face, placid outward demeanor and string of uneven seasons belonged in that category.

Yet he does. There are plenty of statistics to make the case Manning is as elite as any quarterback this season: 4,933 yards, 29 touchdowns to just 16 interceptions, with six game-winning drives and five fourth-quarter comebacks. But more interesting than any number is this emerging fact about Manning: He almost never performs badly against other so-called elite quarterbacks. The better his opposite number is, the better he plays.

“You play to circumstances,” he says.

On Nov. 6, he beat Brady and the New England Patriots, 24-20, when he drove the Giants 80 yards in eight plays over just 1 minute 21 seconds to the winning score. Four weeks later against Rodgers and the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, he went 23 of 40 for three touchdowns and delivered a 69-yard, nine-play drive to tie the game with 58 seconds left. Only to stand frustrated on the sideline as Rodgers and the Packers surged back down the field in less than a minute for a stabbing 38-35 victory that helped them to a 15-1 record.

Then there were his performances against Romo, supposedly his vastly more athletic superior. “I will never call Eli an athlete,” his lineman Chris Snee teases. “Listen, when you watch him run it’s the most awkward thing.” But that’s just sandbagging. No one with his knack for evading the rush and completing passes under pressure is unathletic. “He’s got good footwork, and he’s as tough as they come,” Snee adds more seriously. And no one who wins from behind the way he does is easygoing.

Needing to win three of their four games for the NFC East title, all Manning did was put his best play of the season on the field. His 24-of-33, 346-yard performance in the season-ending, must-win game with the Cowboys, for a 31-14 victory, has been much advertised. But buried in that larger statistic was the stunning fact that he went 8 of 9 on third-down passes.

If you’re looking for a clue to Manning’s real personality, there it is. We’re beginning to learn that underneath the gentle, murmuring facade there is a scalding competitiveness — one that is all the more dangerous for being so unspoken. The unassuming act? It’s actually a lack of vanity, and a thick-skinned toughness. The flat, even demeanor? It’s a quest for efficiency.

“He’s just as happy on the sideline if he’s handing it off 30 times or if he’s throwing for 500 yards,” his backup David Carr says. “If you’re standing one-on-one with him, you can’t tell if he’s done either one of those things.”

Great quarterbacks are supposed to show some overt flair, histrionics, right? They’re supposed to gesticulate like Manning’s older brother Peyton, or fling their hair and their temper around like Brady. Eli Manning comes on as colorless, undemonstrative by comparison. He never raises his voice, his teammates say. The only time “is when I forget to go in motion,” Victor Cruz says. “Other than that, he keeps it pretty even. He doesn’t panic, he doesn’t get overly flustered and that counts for a lot. You know, Eli, he’s just calm, he doesn’t yell, he just tells us the plays and we line up. There’s never anything out of character.”

Nevertheless, he has impressed his personality and character on the entire Giants team. The Giants, like him, are a bunch of underestimated gray shirts who beneath their drabness bulge with heavily muscled ambition. Just when you think they are unsensational, they turn deadly. They lead the league in big plays — they have struck for 18 of 40 yards or more. That’s more than Brady, Brees or Rodgers. “We’re calm and we don’t panic, and we remain disciplined, especially in those games when we had to come through with late comebacks,” Manning says. “When we are up against the wall and things seem bad, that seems to bring out our best play.”

Argue all you want about what defines elite. Is it completion percentage, aerial yardage, come-from-behind ability, lethalness in the red zone? Manning has shown all of them this season.

“I’m just grateful he’s ours,” Giants defensive back Antrel Rolle says. “He believes he’s an elite QB; he feels it and understands it and proves it week in and week out. I’ll take No. 10, and I’d ride and die with him. I wouldn’t rather have anyone else.”

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