- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- His stats already said it, but with no interceptions to muddy the picture the eyeball test confirmed it again Sunday: Eli Manning is playing like one of the top three or four quarterbacks in the league and he's carrying the New York Giants right now.
Even on a day like Sunday, when he didn't throw a touchdown pass, Manning's playing so well he's lifting the Giants no matter who the defense is missing or when their running game sputters. Manning makes you forget how the Giants are playing with an overhauled offensive line, or the unproven replacements they've plugged in after losing two old standby receivers.
The reasons the Giants are now 4-2 and winging into their bye week tied for the NFC East lead after Sunday's 27-24 win over Buffalo mostly start and stop with Manning, who caught a lot of heat in the preseason for nominating himself as one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL. But who's laughing now?
Manning is on the way to having the best season of his eight-year pro career at a terrific time for this banged-up, in-transition Giants team that's now playing without five injured starters, plus backup running back Brandon Jacobs. And how good Manning has been is even more obvious than the stats suggest when you ignore the rest of the swirl on the field and just watch him operate for an entire game, especially a game like Sunday's victory over a vastly improved Buffalo Bills team that came to MetLife Stadium with a 4-1 record, and a win over the New England Patriots in its back pocket.
These Giants go as Eli goes now. And he's going to have to keep carrying them like this if they're going to stay in the playoff chase.
"I love wins before the bye week," Manning said. "[Otherwise] it's a long two weeks. ... We did exactly what we set out to do today. We're in a good spot now. ... Things are clicking. We have to make sure we keep that going."
"Eli was superb," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said after Manning finished 21-for-32 passing for 292 yards against the Bills, and led the Giants on the winning field-goal drive after getting the ball back with the game tied at 24 and four minutes to play.
Three of the Giants' four wins have now come on late drives.
"If we are down by less than one score going into the final seconds of the game we feel absolutely confident he's going to give us a score," injured Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck said.
When Manning threw for 420 yards a week ago against Seattle, it justifiably got lost amid his three interceptions and the Giants' overall poor play in their loss. He had the Giants driving for what would've been their third straight come-from-behind win until he threw a pick-six interception near the goal line. And that was a shame for Manning, because he's been otherwise exceptional carrying an offense that's relying on a running game that hadn't had a 100-yard rusher and only one gain of more than 20 yards before Ahmad Bradshaw (104 rushing yards, highlighted by a 30-yard run) accomplished both feats on Sunday along with crashing in for three 1-yard TD runs.
Manning is also working with a receiving corps that lost the Giants' first Pro Bowl wideout in years, Steve Smith, and tight end Kevin Boss, whose unlikely 15.2 yard-per-catch average was very quietly second-best on the 2010 team. But Manning found second-year tight end Jake Ballard for five receptions and 81 yards Sunday, and he keeps going to Victor Cruz even when Cruz seems to make a bad play for every big play. Sunday, it was dropping a pass though he was wide open.
Manning really doesn't have a single big-time offensive star around him now. The closest thing he had coming into this season was Bradshaw or Hakeem Nicks.
Manning has become the Giants' best player, not just their most important player. The gap between him and everyone else on the team has never been as wide or striking as it has been this season. There's no Michael Strahan on defense now, and no all-purpose back like Tiki Barber for Manning to lean on like there were in other seasons.
Manning's now the one pulling the rest of the Giants along with him. And look: He began Sunday's game with the fourth-best quarterback rating in the league (102.3), the sixth-most passing yardage (1,486) and third-best yards per completion (9.06). Manning is on pace to easily surpass the Giants' franchise record of 254.6 yards a game, set by Kerry Collins in 2002.
Manning is playing like a quarterback with a mastery of all the subtleties of the position, not just the broad strokes of the game plan. And again, if you just ignored the other 23 players and focused on him for a while Sunday, the game he played was beautiful to watch. The way he subtly moved up in the pocket or slid a half-step right or left, buying time, was impressive. He instantly recognized where he wanted to go with the ball, and threw it with conviction. He anticipated who would be open before they were, hit guys in full stride, or on their back shoulder even when the coverage was tight. And he's throwing down-field successfully too, not dinking defenses into submission. To Coughlin, even Manning's two throwaways out of the end zone were good decisions.
Manning threw a beautiful deep ball to Nicks for a 60-yard gain that set up a Giants' second-quarter touchdown. But his prettiest throw of the day might've been one that didn't count: It was another deep ball that he threw in the third quarter to Mario Manningham, who split double coverage and caught the ball with two Bills clawing at him as they fell down in the end zone. For a moment it looked like a gorgeous 37-yard touchdown pass. But the play was ruled incomplete (even after Coughlin challenged the call) because Manningham lost ball after he hit the ground.
The Giants eventually had to settle for a 51-yard field goal try by Lawrence Tynes -- which was partially blocked. The Bills got the ball back and drove 60 yards to tie the game at 24.
In other games, the Giants might've wobbled. But the defense finally stiffened. And after getting the ball back with four minutes to play, Manning led them back on a nine-play, 76-yard scoring drive of their own that ended with a Tynes' 23-yard field goal.
The Giants go like Eli goes now. And it's about time someone other than Manning said it: Manning is one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL right now. No joke.
9hEric D. Williams
1dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo