Manning making big plays in fourth quarter

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Word reached Eli Manning through one of the Giants' patriarch's grandsons that Wellington Mara, 89 years old and failing fast, had awoken in his suburban Westchester County, N.Y., home for the final, frantic minutes of Sunday's victory over the Broncos. Mara has witnessed generations of NFL stars, all the way back to the Polo Grounds at 9 years old, when a young Red Grange galloped over his father's Giants.

One more Sunday for the old Giants owner, one more star on the football field. When it was over, a 24-23 victory over Denver on two late touchdown drives, Manning had helped put a smile across the patriarch's face just before Mara nodded back to sleep. No one can be sure how many more Sundays Mara has left in his life, but his lifelong family business has been left to the youngest in the first family of NFL quarterbacks.

Manning has a chance to take New York now, the way a quarterback hasn't taken it since Joe Namath. The Yankees and Mets are long gone, the Jets are a mess and the Knicks are destined for the draft lottery. Manning has a chance to be a star in New York, where the football landscape is desperate for one.

Manning hasn't been perfect, but he's been unblinking and dramatic. Most of all, he's found a way.

That's the job of an NFL quarterback.

"I am still making mistakes," Manning said. "Two drives in two games does not mean that you have things figured out."

It just means that Manning is on his way. From where Manning had been as a star-crossed rookie -- overcome with the magnitude of the job -- to where he is now is remarkable. A lost, scattered kid a year ago has transformed into the reasons the Giants pushed so hard to make Manning their quarterback. He's good, and he gets better every week.

"To be so young and to have that kind of poise is just rare," Amani Toomer said.

No one cares about the statistics when you've gone 83 yards in the final 3 minutes against one of the NFL's hottest teams, when you're scrambling for first-down completions and tossing touchdown passes with five seconds left on the clock.

No one cares about 23-for-42 for 214 yards on Sunday. Folks care that Manning has played his best ball in the fourth quarter, the way that a quarterback with the Denver Broncos did over and over again.

After being scorned by John Elway in 1983, beaten by him with "The Drive" four years later and then losing to him in the following year's AFC championship game, Giants GM Ernie Accorsi wondered whether he would ever have a franchise quarterback on his side. Accorsi drafted Elway for the Baltimore Colts out of Stanford, only to have his owner, Robert Irsay, crumble under the No. 1 pick's trade demands and undercut Accorsi with a late-night trade to Denver.

Years later, Accorsi used Manning's refusal to play for the Chargers as the opening to switch quarterbacks on draft day 2004 and get his franchise arm. With Plaxico Burress, Jeremy Shockey and the rejuvenated Toomer, these Giants have passing weapons. What they need is resolve out of a porous offensive line and some stability on defense. Yet after getting the Giants into overtime in Dallas a week ago, Manning would get a victory over the Broncos on Sunday. Suddenly, New York is 4-2, awaiting Washington for an NFC East fight for first place next Sunday in the Meadowlands.

"Usually, when you have a young quarterback out there, you think, 'Just don't turn it over,'" Giants defensive end Michael Strahan said. "Let your other superstar players give us a chance to win. Well, with Eli back there, he is the superstar player. He's the guy who's going to make those plays."

With less than a full NFL season under his belt, Manning is demonstrating a deftness to get out of jams, and do it with calm and resourcefulness. Down 23-10 to the Broncos, there was Manning, making his move on Sunday in the Meadowlands.

"He gets in these situations and he fights his way out of it," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "He comes over to the sidelines and he's the one who has the most poise."

Mara never could be sure that he would live to see the best days of Manning. On Sunday, he got a glimpse of the greatness that was anticipated.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His new book, The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty, is available nationwide.