- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tom Coughlin broke the news that Eli Manning had fired up his teammates in a pregame meeting, and there was some shock value attached to the scene. The coach has never been much of a glasnost guy, and normally the quarterback would rather absorb a hit from the blind side than organize a pep rally.
Manning tried to play it cool ("I don't think it was any big speech"), minimize its effect on the New York Giants' 36-7 shredding of the Carolina Panthers on Thursday ("I don't think it changed anybody's performance") and even challenge Coughlin's interpretation of this as noteworthy ("I've been doing that as long as I can remember"), but this time the old coach would have none of Eli's aw-shucksing bunk.
Coughlin had already revealed that Manning "inspired" his teammates by telling the likes of Andre Brown and Ramses Barden that they were capable of filling in for the likes of Ahmad Bradshaw and Hakeem Nicks, and that they were talented enough to make game-changing plays.
"He provides the confidence for these guys when their opportunity comes," Coughlin said.
Manning started his rah-rah day at the team hotel. "And his message was very important," Chris Snee said as he walked to the winners' bus, smartly backing his father-in-law (Coughlin) over his friend (Manning). "Whenever Eli speaks, guys really listen. He's not the type of guy to talk a lot, so when he really calls us in and speaks, every guy is tuned in."
The Giants were down Bradshaw, Nicks, David Diehl and others. They were working on a painfully short work week, just like Carolina, and their brutal schedule suggested they needed to avoid a 1-2 start like the plague.
So Manning found a way to do what he did at Ole Miss -- he elevated his teammates. That's why Ernie Accorsi made Eli the franchise's most important draft-day acquisition since Accorsi's old boss, George Young, went for Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor. Eli made inferior talent around him better in the do-or-die SEC.
This time Manning elevated his offensive teammates, especially the second- and third-stringers forced into the lineup, by reassuring them. According to Brown, Eli told them the following:
"We have a lot of playmakers on this team, and you are out here for a reason. ... We believe in you, and you wouldn't be on this team if we didn't believe in you."
And Andre Brown, waived by half the league and twice by the Giants, ran more like Jim Brown, finishing with two touchdowns and 113 yards on 20 carries.
Barden, he of the 198 career receiving yards? He ended up with nine catches for 138 yards.
"He's been waiting for this kind of chance," Coughlin said, "and he got it."
The Giants have been waiting for this kind of game, too. If they become the first repeat Super Bowl champions in franchise history, this will go down as the night they fired a warning shot over the league's head, the night they proved they did not spend their offseason victory-lapping and salsa dancing.
They had their excuses, too, if they wanted to make 2012 something more than an after-hours party in disguise. They had stolen a title last season after winning half of their first 14 games, and they had done it again at the expense of poor Bill Belichick -- as if he wasn't haunted enough by the excruciating loss in Super Bowl XLII, the NFL's clubhouse leader for heist of the century.
The Giants had already delivered two improbable parades over five years, had already planted Manning and Coughlin on a downhill course to the Hall of Fame (on roller skates, Coughlin's mentor, Bill Parcells, would surely add), and not even the most irrational season-ticket holder would burn his or her ticket and his or her personal seat license.
Why go all-in, again, when the last time the Giants committed to the two-peat cause and won 10 of their first 11 games, Plaxico Burress blew the whole thing up? "One selfish act," Coughlin called the Burress shooting. The Giants won their next game and then lost four of their last five, including the one-and-done playoff game with Philly.
"I thought we were the best team in football," Coughlin would say.
And no, they never got a real chance to prove it.
But Thursday night, the 2012 Giants found religion in Billy Graham's backyard. They found all kinds of reasons to believe they can overcome almost anything -- except another nightclub shooting, of course. Victor Cruz was reduced to a mere afterthought, and Manning still followed up his 510 passing yards against Tampa Bay with 288 more here, completing 27 of 35 passes without throwing a pick.
His counterpart, Cam Newton, was intercepted three times and held to 6 rushing yards on six carries. With his video-game blend of size, strength, accuracy and speed, Newton is accustomed to being the best athlete on the field -- at least when Jason Pierre-Paul is not sharing that field.
JPP was at his elastic best, stretching those Play-Doh arms into Newton's passing lanes, and helping Osi Umenyiora and the rest make life hell for Carolina's franchise star. The Giants' signature pass rush -- mostly dormant over the first two weeks -- had suddenly reappeared, and Coughlin was thrilled to welcome it back.
That defensive front is everything to Coughlin, who understands better than most that an NFL coach needs two things above all else to win a championship: a great quarterback, and the ability to figuratively kill the other guy's great quarterback.
"If I was a fan of the Carolina Panthers," Newton would say, "I would be holding my head down in shame of the product that was out there tonight."
Down 23-0, Newton embarrassed himself with his Superman celebration of his 1-yard touchdown run. "I probably wouldn't have done that," Justin Tuck said in a quiet moment at his locker, "but I'm not Cam Newton."
Eli Manning isn't, either. He doesn't have Newton's physical talent, but he endures all the same. Before Thursday night's game, Manning figured it was time to talk the talk with his teammates.
"Just give them a few thoughts to think about," he said.
The Giants absorbed the message and played like the defending champs they are. If they go ahead and win a third ring, history might show that Manning started the run right here.
Not with his arm, but his mouth.
Eli Manning's pregame pep talk propelled the Giants over the Panthers.