Manning knocks aside yet another challenge

LANDOVER, Md. -- New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning sent an extremely clear message to the Washington Redskins on New York's first series in a 23-7 win Sunday. The Giants weren't going to be daunted by the Redskins' talented secondary. They also weren't going to be intimidated by a chilly drizzle that fell all afternoon.

And as soon as Manning hit wide receiver Amani Toomer with a perfectly thrown 40-yard touchdown pass, everybody else realized that as well.

"We were all wondering how we would play in the rain," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said, "and that play was a real quick answer for us."

There shouldn't have been too many concerns about Manning's ability to deliver in the inclement weather. He has been proving all season that he can handle just about any challenge thrown in his direction. Sure, the Giants have a great running game and a defense that has dominated without the retired Michael Strahan and the injured Osi Umenyiora. But they also have a confident quarterback, one who keeps reminding us of how far he has come over the past 12 months.

Think about it. Manning was coming off one of the worst performances of his career at this time last season, a four-interception debacle in a blowout loss to the Minnesota Vikings that had some people wondering about the Giants' postseason chances. On Sunday, he delivered a far different result: 305 yards on 21-of-34 passing with one touchdown and an interception. It was the first time in more than a year Manning had surpassed the 300-yard mark.

Of course, he downplayed the fact that he has shown substantial maturity this season.

"I always feel confident in this offense," Manning said. "We just have some new guys who have really stepped up and played well for us. Guys like Derrick Ward and Steve Smith and Domenik Hixon are all playing bigger roles for us. So it's not just about me having confidence in myself. It's about me having confidence in all the guys around me."

Manning obviously isn't afraid to trust the weapons at his disposal. On a day when his best receiver was dealing with yet another controversy -- Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in the right leg while at a club Friday night -- Manning once again spread the ball to a variety of other targets. Toomer caught five passes for 85 yards. Ward and Hixon added five receptions each. Overall, six Giants receivers had at least one catch Sunday.

Those numbers are all the more impressive when considering how much Manning had to deliver for his team in this contest. It's no secret that the Redskins love to play man coverage, and they often committed eight defenders to run support Sunday. But as Manning said, "If a team loads up the box against you, you have to make some plays in the passing game. And that's what we've been able to do."

Manning's comfort level is easily the biggest reason for the Giants' success when teams try to stifle the team's running attack. What became quite apparent in last year's Super Bowl run is that he's not going to be the kind of record-setting quarterback that his brother Peyton has been for the Indianapolis Colts. That's not Eli's style, and the Giants don't want to play that way either. Instead, he has become quite effective as a game manager, a savvy signal-caller who is doing his job just like everybody else on the team.

Manning's statistics support the ease with which he's playing. He has thrown 18 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions while completing a career-high 62 percent of his attempts. After years of never posting a passer rating higher than 77.0, Manning also has a rating of 91.6.

"Eli really has grown in terms of being able to take whatever the defense is giving him and not forcing things," Giants right tackle Kareem McKenzie said. "People don't really understand what it takes to move the ball and score points in this offense. Whether we have to run or pass to win, he does a good job of putting us in the right situations."

Manning actually has played so well that it's time to stop wondering if Burress' off-the-field problems will ruin this team's chances of repeating as Super Bowl champions. As talented as Burress is, the Giants have won 11 of 12 games this year without significant production from him. They've seen Hixon blossom and Toomer contribute timely receptions. In other words, Burress isn't as crucial an element as he once seemed.

And let's not forget that the Giants did just fine without former tight end Jeremy Shockey last season. When he sustained a season-ending injury in December 2007, the Giants became a better team and Manning became a more established leader. That twist of fate ultimately made him a steadier quarterback in the postseason. So it's a safe bet that Manning will elevate his game if Burress isn't around when this season's playoffs start.

Manning understands that there will be more teams committed to stopping the Giants' running game. He also realizes the postseason will bring more pressure now that the Giants have a Lombardi Trophy to defend. But there's no question that Manning is prepared to keep building on the success he has had all year. And the more he grows, the more likely it looks that the Giants could be celebrating another championship when this season ends.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.