- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers knocked down Eli Manning on the last play, drove his offensive line into him while he was taking a knee, and Greg Schiano would say he did this kind of thing at Rutgers all the time, a claim that explains more than Schiano even knows.
The Tampa Bay coach came off as an amateur-hour novice, and calling this stunt bush league would be an insult to bush leaguers everywhere. Tom Coughlin rightfully scolded him afterward, turned the postgame handshake into a loud and profane lecture on NFL protocol, and then threw this hard jab Schiano's way from behind a postgame microphone:
"I don't think you do that in this league."
Translation: This isn't the Big East, Greg, and we're not Norfolk State.
"That was a first," Manning would say. "Obviously, I think it's a little bit of a cheap shot. We're taking a knee, we're in a friendly way, and they're firing off. That's a way to get someone hurt."
But Eli Manning never gets hurt, a fact as responsible as anything for the two Super Bowl parades. He has never missed a start over an injury, and the Buccaneers weren't about to buck that trend.
Manning doesn't get hurt. He doesn't get angry. He does get even.
So it's no surprise that he recovered from three second-quarter interceptions, picks that contributed directly to 21 Tampa Bay points and a 24-13 halftime deficit, and delivered one of the most prolific passing games in league history just in time to stop his New York Giants from opening the defense of their title with an 0-2 record.
Manning threw for 510 yards in this 41-34 victory, the NFL's eighth-best sum of all time and three shy of Phil Simms' franchise record. Manning threw for 243 yards and two of his three touchdowns in a 25-point fourth quarter, when Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks kept running Olympic sprints through an overwhelmed Tampa Bay secondary that, of course, included Tiki Barber's twin brother, Ronde.
"He is just calm, he's resolved, he's unflappable," Cruz said of the quarterback who hit him on the home-run ball that changed everything, the 80-yarder that victimized Barber with 6:48 to play. "He was the same guy he was in the Super Bowl. He didn't panic. He wasn't yelling or anything like that. It was normal play calling and we were just following orders."
Manning connected with Cruz for 179 yards, with Nicks for 199. Eli made it all happen by completing 31 of 51 passes, by becoming the first Giants quarterback ever to win a regular-season game while throwing more than 50 times. He needed this kind of game, or this kind of half, after being outplayed by Tony Romo in the opener and after committing an unholy trinity of turnovers Sunday that made Coughlin angrier than he would be with Schiano.
"It's like sticking a dagger right here," the Giants coach said, pointing to his heart.
Coughlin said something to Manning near the bench following the second pick, and his body language suggested it wasn't "Hey, are you free for dinner?" After Eric Wright returned the third pick 60 zig-zagging yards for a score, leaving Eli to tumble out of the end zone at the end of his vain pursuit, Coughlin planted his hands on his hips and screamed in disgust.
"He takes it more seriously than I do," the coach assured of Manning.
At halftime, the two-time Super Bowl MVP was booed off the field and into the tunnel. Coughlin told his team its character would define the second half, and sure enough it did.
"A lesser group of men," the coach said, "would've had trouble."
Manning is the undisputed leader of those men, and so he led them on the decisive 80-yard drive. When it was over, Manning headed for the tunnel with the game ball in his left hand as he raised his right hand to the crowd. John Mara, team owner, greeted his franchise player at the locker room door, and they disappeared into the room together.
"Eli never ceases to amaze me," Mara would say. "You're never out of a game with him at quarterback."
In his postgame news conference, Manning would criticize himself for the interceptions, for putting so much pressure on the defense, and he would poke fun at himself, too, when told his 510 passing yards ranked him among the league's 10 best performances.
"If you count all my interception yards," he said, "I'd probably be No. 1."
Eli doesn't often veer off his clichéd and carefully worded script, and he certainly doesn't often accuse opponents of playing dirty. But there's something of a killer behind that colorless public figure with the two championship rings.
So as he walked out of his news conference and toward the MetLife Stadium exits, Manning was reminded of something big brother Peyton had mentioned following his one Super Bowl victory. Peyton said that Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks often get a pass the following season, and that he most certainly didn't want one.
On his way out the door Sunday, Eli was asked by a reporter if he felt the same way.
"Yes," he said. "I'm going out there competing every week, trying to get better, trying to make good decisions. I'm not worried about the standard people hold me to. I'm worried about the standard I have for myself. That standard of preparation and of doing what my team needs me to do isn't going to change."
Manning never changes and never blinks; he has long been among the most resilient players in the league. Deep into his first championship season, he threw four interceptions against the Minnesota Vikings, who returned three of them for touchdowns. Eli was so dreadful that the man who drafted him, Ernie Accorsi, fled the scene around halftime.
"Hey," a fan shouted at Accorsi as he headed for his car. "Thanks for leaving us with this mess."
Manning rebounded from that 2007 disaster to win it all, and somehow he overcame a 7-7 record last season to do the same. In Week 2, 2012, Eli overcame some maddening turnovers and the absurd choice to throw a pass to a wide-open Will Beatty in the end zone rather than to a wide-open Ahmad Bradshaw in the end zone.
"I saw it," Coughlin said of Bradshaw, "but evidently he didn't."
"He" being Eli Manning, the quarterback who was ultimately knocked down by a cheap shot.
The quarterback who would rather get even than angry.
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