Manning experiences breakthrough

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

TAMPA, Fla. – Quarterback Eli Manning ended one prevailing trend of his career. Now, the New York Giants have to see if they can end another.

For the first time in his four years as a pro, Manning won a playoff game. More specifically, it was his best outing in a game of this significance as he efficiently guided New York to a 24-14 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday in the first round of the playoffs.

Manning completed 20 of 27 passes for 185 yards, two touchdowns and, most important, no interceptions. While this wasn't a defining game, it was perhaps an awakening of the talented young man who the Giants traded for shortly after the San Diego Chargers took him No. 1 overall in 2004.

"We have been in the playoffs the last three seasons and I haven't played particularly well in the two games before," said Manning, who was far more loquacious than usual. In fact, there were moments when the normally unemotional Manning sounded downright excited, describing drives and specific plays in great detail. Gone was the hang-dog, scolded-child look that has defined Manning to this point.

"Just to come in here and play well, give our team a chance to win the game and make some big plays, that was quite a situation to be in," Manning said. "But now you can't be just satisfied with what you're doing. It's about the bigger picture and keeping this thing going."

Tom Coughlin, the lame-duck coach seeking a healthy contract extension after spending about a year on the hot seat, talked about how "steady" and "efficient" Manning was this game. Again, this is in contrast to how impatient Coughlin was with Manning a year ago.

In the grand scheme, the Giants now face the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional playoffs next Sunday. Dallas swept the two regular-season games, winning both with relative ease.

The popular thinking is that it's hard to beat one team three times in a season. Problem is: popular thinking is wrong.

There have been 17 situations since 1970 in which a team has attempted to complete a three-game series sweep, 11 resulting in sweeps.

Those are hardly insurmountable odds for the Giants, but the point is simply that the better team usually wins. For the majority of this season, Dallas has been better than most teams in the NFL, which is why it is 13-3. However, the Cowboys haven't played particularly well over the past month, going 2-2 in December and playing downright awful against the Washington Redskins in the season finale in a game that was meaningless for the Cowboys.

By contrast, New York is a team playing with obvious momentum. Over their past three games, the Giants came back from an early deficit to run away from the Buffalo Bills, went toe-to-toe in a loss to the undefeated New England Patriots and then took care of Tampa Bay with the ease of one of the balmy winter breezes blowing across Florida's Gulf Coast.

In many ways, this was a Manning-type day. One of those beautiful days where you can picture him waking up late in his frat house bedroom, then rolling out to the intramural field for a game against Delta Upsilon.

That's the way Manning has appeared to play for most of his career, in sharp contrast to his hyper-kinetic brother Peyton. It's one reason why he has thrown more interceptions than any other quarterback in the league since '04 and also why he has infuriated Giants fans and teammates over the years.

But Eli Manning also bested his accomplished brother in an important way Sunday. He won a playoff game in his fourth season in the league. It took Peyton six years to do so.

On Sunday, Eli Manning did that by being different than normal. He was focused, being patient when necessary without exposing himself to a bad play.

"My thought process was to play really safe, don't force anything. (The Buccaneers) do a great job getting turnovers. You want to get the ball out quick, don't throw interceptions and don't get back there too long where they can cause a fumble," Manning said.

Tampa Bay, which has leaned heavily on its defense this season, tried all sorts of games with Manning. The Bucs had their linebackers flash into passing lanes at odds times. Manning saw through it and patiently waited as receivers such as Amani Toomer, who led the way with seven receptions for 74 yards and a touchdown, worked to get open.

The patience also produced a critical 15-play, 92-yard drive in the third quarter that put the game out of reach against a Tampa Bay team that isn't appreciably different than it was in the 2005 playoffs. In short, the Bucs have been able to patchwork their way into the playoffs in recent years, but they are far from a threat, particularly in a league where quarterback play is getting better and better.

Specifically, the youngest Manning was much better than expected. On Sunday, Manning made progress; significant progress.

Will that be enough to appease the critics? Probably not completely, but it may quiet them for awhile.

"You know, it's New York," Toomer said. "There haven't been a lot of times since I've been there when they've loved the quarterback."

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