“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.