Sunday, January 8, 2012 Updated: January 10, 2:27 AM ET
Eli's legs help carry Giants to victory
By Ian O'Connor ESPNNewYork.com
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Eli Manning is a tortoise in a game of hares, a quarterback who would much rather you hit him from the blind side than challenge him to a 40-yard dash.
He is a professional athlete who is more professional, less athlete. And yet there is a certain something about Manning, a clarity in the chaos that allows him to see escape routes and -- without warning -- to move his lead feet toward those escape routes at a pace that leaves faster men swinging and missing in his wake.
The New York Giants already knew their quarterback could win a Super Bowl by deking and dodging his way through a swarm of pass rushers and landing a miracle heave on David Tyree's head. Sunday, the Giants discovered that Manning could alter the dynamic of a first-round playoff game at home by taking off for 14 yards and rousing the league's worst rushing attack from its long winter's nap.
Eli Manning an "athlete"? His 14-yard dash Sunday made a believer out of Chris Snee.
"I will never, ever call Eli an athlete," Chris Snee had said in the buildup to Giants 24, Atlanta Falcons 2.
"Well," Snee said on the way to Green Bay, "maybe he is a little more athletic than I initially gave him credit for."
Maybe, maybe not. But when he walked by Snee in the immediate wake of his very first home playoff victory, Manning reminded the offensive lineman that world-class athleticism isn't a requisite trait for a world-class quarterback.
"Fourteen-yard average," Eli told him.
"That's what he had," Snee said, "so I couldn't really argue with him."
In fact, the box score said Manning had a 6.5 yard average on two rushing attempts, a stat barely registering on a day when Brandon Jacobs went hard for 92 yards, Ahmad Bradshaw for 63. But even to a semi-educated football eye, the running backs didn't account for the biggest run, and the high-flying receivers didn't account for the biggest play.
Atlanta was holding a 2-0 lead -- Greg Maddux had a one-hitter going -- when Manning faked a third-and-2 handoff to Jacobs, dropped back and looked downfield. Six minutes into the second quarter, the Giants had no successful third-down conversions to their name, and the MetLife crowd was already giving off that uneasy vibe felt in the old place in the squandered postseason openers of '05 and '08.
John Abraham was closing fast on Manning, and the quarterback felt the heat of his vile intentions, stepped up and took off through the gaping hole that had been the left side of the line, kicking free of the diving, flailing Abraham.
In their youth, Eli and big brother Peyton would question father Archie about the genes that made him a nimble runner. "Why didn't we get them?" they'd ask. Eli and Peyton made do without.
As Eli "raced" Sean Weatherspoon to the sideline, he huffed and puffed and, finally, mercifully, hit the brakes and veered out of bounds. An Aaron Rodgers-eat-your-heart-out moment this was not.
But something funny happened on the way back to Lambeau Field. The crowd woke up. Eli's teammates woke up. Soon enough Jacobs was blasting through the right side for 34 yards, Bradshaw was plowing through Atlanta defenders for 9 more, Jacobs was actually breaking a tackle on fourth-and-1 and Manning was completing a 4-yard touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks to finish off a 13-play, 85-yard, seven-minute-and-thirty-two-second drive that suddenly left Atlanta looking overmatched.
"The timing of the play," Tom Coughlin said of Manning's scramble, "was outstanding."
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Manning threw three touchdown passes against no interceptions and badly outclassed the jittery Matt Ryan, suffering through a case of Sanchezitis, and yet Eli wasn't the most conspicuous star of the game. The defense pitched a shutout, twice burying Ryan under a fourth-and-1 pile. Nicks reclaimed a place on Victor Cruz's stage, scored twice and broke Atlanta's resolve by making a short catch and slicing through four defenders on his way to a 72-yard touchdown.
But in the end, Manning's awkward dash was the play that changed everything. "I don't think anyone's game-planning for me to run the ball," Eli said through a crooked smile. "But obviously there are a couple of situations where you have to do it, and if things open up I'm not scared to run it and get a few yards."
Fourteen is more than a few, especially in the book of Eli. Manning managed a grand sum of 15 rushing yards on 35 regular-season attempts. He has 365 rushing yards in eight years, and he's never topped 80 -- a good half for Cam Newton -- in a single season.
Staying home, in the pocket, is one way of staying healthy. Manning never misses a start, or a chance to avoid a direct hit by turning away from a pass-rusher on the charge. That truth inspired Eli's backup, David Carr, to compare him to "guys who get out of a car when they are drunk, they just get hit or fall down the stairs and look like idiots.
"You see these web cams and stuff, these guys walking on the street, falling on the stairs, and they don't get hurt. It is kind of the same way. He doesn't really tense up."
Manning doesn't do panic; he plays a postseason game in January with the same room-temperature approach he'll apply to a preseason game in August. Outside the winning locker room Sunday, surrounded by family and friends, Coughlin shook his head when asked about his quarterback's unbreakable poise.
"Eli gets better every year," Coughlin said, "and yet his hat size never changes. He's a great example for everyone around here."
Manning punctuated his performance with the sweetest 27-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham, another reminder that he can survive and thrive on a day when Cruz played more like an undrafted kid out of UMass.
"Eli obviously is playing at another level than he was in '07," Justin Tuck said of the Super Bowl MVP.
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Of course, Manning's Sunday wasn't without a blemish or two -- nothing comes that easy to Eli. On a third-and-1 in the closing minutes of the first half, after mistakenly concluding that his previous pass to Nicks had secured a first down, Manning threw something of an indifferent ball to the receiver that fell incomplete.
Yet the new and improved Eli, the one unafraid of putting himself in Tom Brady's league, referenced the curious play call and made it clear he wasn't the only Giant in the dark. "I think everyone might have been a little fooled," he said, "thinking we had the first down right there. Otherwise we probably would've run the ball or done something just to get the first down."
No, Eli isn't Peyton's little brother anymore, just aw-shucksing his way through everything. He didn't hesitate to call his 14-yard run "a big, big play," even if it was the ugliest big play of them all.
Manning was a proud owner of his first home playoff touchdowns, his first home playoff victory and his second postseason trip to Lambeau Field. Eli will try to do to Rodgers what he did to Brett Favre, and football people know enough to give him a fighting chance.
If this professional athlete isn't much of an athlete, he's a hell of a professional.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.