- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Phil Simms is a very smart guy who happened to say a very dumb thing two weeks ago, and hey, these things happen. In his role as a CBS analyst, Simms started arguing a case already settled when he claimed Eli Manning does not qualify as an elite NFL quarterback.
In a world where attention spans are shorter than the margins on fourth-and-1, it seems like Simms made this observation six months ago. But as it turned out, Sunday night marked the first game Manning played since No. 11 decided to jump right out of your faded 1986 New York Giants program and hit No. 10 from the blind side.
Simms wouldn't include Manning in the exclusive club of quarterbacks who "make unbelievable plays on the field by themselves," apparently forgetting the miracle escape and heave to David Tyree in the first Super Bowl victory over the Patriots and the you-gotta-be-kidding-me throw to Mario Manningham in the second.
Whatever. The second-greatest Giants quarterback of them all took it to the greatest in the early hours of Manning's bye week, kicking the man while he was down (no touchdown passes in his previous three games, one touchdown pass and six interceptions in his previous four), and this was Eli's first chance to respond with a right arm he swore wasn't falling apart faster than his quarterback rating.
His first chance to respond against Aaron Rodgers, one of Simms' chosen few.
And on cue, Manning didn't just blow the Green Bay Packers out of the ballpark with the same kind of presence and poise that eliminated Rodgers from last year's playoffs and Brett Favre from the 2007-08 tournament; he broke Simms' franchise record for touchdown passes for the hell of it, too.
Eli's three scoring throws in the Giants' 38-10 victory gave him 200 for his career, and as he walked out of MetLife Stadium with the record tucked neatly inside his bag, Manning addressed Simms' criticism for the first time.
"I never read anything into it," he told ESPNNewYork.com. "Our PR guys with the Giants told me about it, and I just didn't think much about it. I wasn't playing at a high level, and I needed to play better than what I was, and I already knew that. So I was just trying to go out there and play better."
Asked if Simms' remarks had motivated him, Eli would only say, "No, not really." Of course, Eli being Eli, he would never admit that a slight or three had fueled the fire within. But as much as Manning maintains he rarely pays attention to the criticisms of columnists and talk-show hosts, Simms wasn't some garden-variety talking head trying to fill time between beer ads.
He was a wildly successful Giant saying some not-so-neighborly things about another wildly successful Giant. He was a one-time Super Bowl MVP declaring that a two-timer isn't "elite," which was the whole point of Eli's improbable march to a second title, wasn't it?
"Phil called me about it," Manning's father, Archie, told ESPNNewYork.com outside the Giants' locker room. "I cut him off and said, 'Phil, don't even worry about it. Eli didn't mention anything to me.'"
Simms told Archie he didn't want Eli's mother, Olivia, to be upset with him. "And I told Phil, 'Nobody's mad at anybody,'" Archie said. "We understand it. We just haven't gone there. It's kind of the way it is in New York. In New York, things like this can come up again."
The bygone debate over whether Peyton's kid brother is an elite quarterback, Archie meant.
"Anyway," Eli's father said, "you all know him well enough to know that these things don't bother him."
On the other hand, Archie and Giants GM Jerry Reese are among those who will warn you against letting Eli's room-temperature approach to almost everything fool you. There's a passionate competitor behind that mask, they say, the kind of competitor that surfaced in the first quarter of a game that would end the Giants' two-game losing streak and any notion that their quarterback was locked inside a permanent slump.
Eli Manning made the home crowd roar, and yes, he'd done that a zillion times before. But not like this. Not on a third-and-7 scramble out of his father's playbook. Not by running downfield with bad intentions -- that's right, bad intentions -- and lowering his right shoulder into Tramon Williams to deliver a little pain and punishment at the end of his 13-yard run.
"It sparked our sideline, that's for sure," Tom Coughlin said. "That wouldn't be recommended on a normal basis, but in that case to see him do that I think kind of sent the message to the rest of our team as well, in terms of whatever you have to do to succeed, do it."
Manning said he thought he might need an extra yard for the first down, and that the typical slide into second base might not have cut it. Cruz wasn't the only Giant who said, "uh-oh," when Eli led with his throwing shoulder and crashed into Williams.
But when it was over, a proud Manning wondered out loud if he'd catch some heat from teammates. "Or maybe," he said, "they'll be proud of me in the meetings tomorrow."
Though he maintained he wasn't suffering from a fatigued arm during his recent fade, Manning said he returned from the bye week with "a little extra pop" on his fastball. "There was no doubt that he was going to come back and play well, in my mind," Coughlin said. Eli had told him the Green Bay game felt like another season opener.
"I thought that was a very good sign," the coach said. "I was very confident that he would come back and be Eli."
Eli was Eli, and so the 7-4 Giants left the building with a two-game lead in the NFC East. Asked in his postgame news conference about setting the franchise touchdown record, Manning said, "Any time you're mentioned with Giants players, Phil Simms and Charlie Conerly and some of those quarterbacks, it's an honor."
No, Manning didn't take the opportunity to return any volleys at Simms; it's not his way. Giants co-owner John Mara did some of the talking for him, speaking with an edge as he batted away the former quarterback's critique.
"Who cares what the definition of elite is?" Mara told ESPNNewYork.com as he left the stadium. "All I know is we can win Super Bowls with the guy, and that's the only thing that matters to me. The rest of it is all noise. I didn't lose any sleep over it, and I'm sure Eli didn't either.
"The guy's been the Super Bowl MVP twice. What else does he have to do?"
Nothing. Back in the summer, Simms said as much when he declared Manning and Coughlin future Hall of Famers.
But he called an audible during Eli's slump, a terribly misguided one, and on Sunday night Manning didn't just deliver a loud and clear answer to Simms.
He lowered the boom on him.
2hEric D. Williams