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Manning turning the corner

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Eli Manning is at his best when he comes at opponents quietly. He'll make key changes that people don't notice until they're ready to make their move.

Even then, Manning rarely takes credit for the move. He is sly to the point that opponents say they know it was him, but they confess that they're not completely sure.

"It could be the other quarterbacks, but Eli is pretty stealth," New York Giants guard Chris Snee said.

The twist is that Snee is a victim, not a compatriot, of the work in question. While the aforementioned scenario could describe how Manning has played over the first two playoff games this season, it's really about the practical jokes he plays on teammates.

A Manning favorite is to change someone's cell phone or iPod to the Spanish mode, leaving them confused about how to fix the setting. Running back Brandon Jacobs couldn't make calls one day until he got to a store. Snee had to get someone else's iPod to figure out how to reset it.

"He keeps us loose around here," Snee said before turning mockingly serious. "He does it quietly. He's not really man enough to own up to it."

Jokes aside, what Manning has done in getting the Giants to the NFC championship game on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers is display a consistency that has escaped him for most of his four seasons. In the process, he is changing the language people use when discussing his abilities.

Through much of this season, when Manning tied for a league-high 20 interceptions, the discussion continued to be about failed expectations, lack of leadership and a perceived unmotivated approach to the game.

In two playoff games, Manning has completed 31 of 45 passes for 348 yards, four touchdowns and, most importantly, zero interceptions. His rating of 123.2 for the two games is almost 50 points higher than during the regular season (73.9).

"I don't think I'm dong anything different," Manning said. "I'm just trying to take what the defense is giving me. It is just a matter of being in a good situation in the game. We are not having to force things down the field, our defense is doing a great job, or we are jumping out and getting a lead and we are not trying to catch up where you feel like you have to make plays. Just playing smart."

That's a decent way of downplaying what Manning is doing. But anyone who has watched Manning play over a stretch of games can see that he has been far more accurate and focused over the past two games.

When he completed 20 of 27 passes against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild-card round, he was rarely off target. He didn't make receivers reach into awkward spots or stop their routes. Manning's excellence was in the subtle parts of the game. He showed great vision and awareness. He read the changes that Tampa Bay's defense tried to throw at him, pulling the ball down on several occasions rather than falling for what the Buccaneers were trying to do to him.

Against the Dallas Cowboys, Manning was again quietly efficient, throwing only 18 passes. He was electric when he had to be, completing four of seven passes on a 71-yard touchdown drive with only 47 seconds remaining in the first half. But he didn't force anything at other times. Over the two games, he has also avoided taking too many bad sacks, with the exception of a 12-yard loss against Dallas.

Still, on Sunday against Green Bay, the question of consistency will again hang around Manning. That's the fate you face when you play in New York, particularly when you force your way there as Manning did – pushing the San Diego Chargers to deal him leading up the 2004 NFL draft.

The burden of such a deal is expectations in a place where people aren't afraid to tell you when you've failed to reach them. To his credit, Manning hasn't folded in the face of criticism.

"I just think he is a real competitive guy, I don't think a lot of people really understand that," Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer said. "I think that is why he is probably playing a little bit better than most people expect, except people in our locker room."

Toomer described a time from Manning's rookie season when he and Manning auctioned off a personal day of working with kids on passing and catching. Eventually, Toomer and Manning split up the kids among them and played a two-on-two game.

"Here I am trying to keep the kids from getting bored and he's running plays trying to win. Reverses, flea flickers. That's how he is," Toomer said.

That afternoon display was nothing compared to Manning's locker room stunts. At least one phone theft resulted in him taking a humorously indiscreet photo with the camera function, sending the picture to the teammate's friends and family, then topping the whole thing off by making it the screen saver on the phone itself.

"Yeah, that's a good one," Giants center Grey Ruegamer said before describing Manning's photo subject. "Really, who wants to see a picture of my ass come up on their cell phone or have it show up every time you open your phone?"

According to Ruegamer, Manning even once went so far as to display "toilet humor" on a teammate's phone. Suffice it to say, the picture of how Manning is playing these days is a lot prettier.

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