IN THE quiet days of last spring, during the hush of the NFL lockout, Eli Manning lured the remnants of his Giants receiving corps to a high school in Hoboken, N.J. The football field sat inside a running track, next to an iron fence and a concrete wall. There was nothing flashy about the operation.
The scene fit well with Manning's vision: to build a strong rapport with his hodgepodge receiving unit and return to the level of elite quarterback, where he believed he belonged. "He was tired of people talking about how many interceptions he threw last year," says his father, Archie, of a career-worst 25 picks in 2010 and a second straight year of missing the playoffs. "What he was saying was, I've been around for seven years. I know I can play this game."
The makeshift camp lasted two weeks, with participants ranging from 2009 first-rounder Hakeem Nicks to former practice squad player Victor Cruz, who had ample time a year ago to launch a clothing line on the side: Young Whales. "We were tired of paying money for designer clothes," Cruz says of his venture with former Giants defensive tackle Nate Collins, "so we decided to start our own."
On Sunday at Lambeau Field, the Giants made a postseason splash fit for a Leviathan, dismantling the defending champion Packers in a 37--20 win that proved New York is much more than a rugged defense. The Giants can fill the air with spirals too—the signature trait of an NFL season of pyrotechnic offense and pinball scoring. Against a Green Bay D susceptible to the big play, Manning completed 21 of 33 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns, celebrating with small uppercuts into the Lambeau air.
In the first quarter he hit Nicks on a 66-yard catch-and-run when safety Charlie Peprah missed a tackle, putting New York up 10--3. Then, with the Giants leading 13--10, the ball on the Packers' 37 and six seconds left in the first half, Manning heaved a Hail Mary to Nicks, who leaped in front of Peprah and Charles Woodson to haul it in, the ball sticking to his face mask.
Manning also outperformed presumptive MVP Aaron Rodgers, who was sacked four times and harassed constantly by Giants pass rushers. Said New York coach Tom Coughlin of Manning, "Nobody sees what he does behind the scenes. He is looking for every little advantage. He loves playing against the best competition, but it is all about doing the best for his team."
Even with a Super Bowl MVP on his résumé, Manning has never looked more in control of his throws, or more comfortable. Once viewed as too docile to lead, he is the face of a team that will streak into San Francisco to play for the NFC championship, one game from a second trip to the Super Bowl in five years.
"He has such a quiet confidence," says Giants co-owner John Mara, who says he wouldn't trade Manning for anyone in football. "And he just makes big play after big play. It gives the entire franchise confidence."
Says Manning's oldest brother, Cooper, "There are different ways to be a leader. We've seen that through the years. Joe Montana was not a fiery guy. Eli, to his credit, is not trying to be anybody he's not. And it's worked."
OVERSHADOWED BY voluble teammates like Michael Strahan and Tiki Barber early on, Manning has now imbued the Giants with a stoic vibe that seems ideal for the pressure-filled postseason. On Sunday they will face a San Francisco team with a fast, physical defense, but New York's offensive line has been especially sturdy of late. Manning had all day to dissect the Packers' defense, which sacked him only once, and he whistled passes to his targets with ease.
Despite losing wideout Steve Smith and tight end Kevin Boss to free agency, Manning has been able to quickly build chemistry with his young receivers, thanks in large part to his work in the spring. Against Green Bay he hit six different targets, connecting on quick slants, deep crossing patterns and back-shoulder throws. Nicks was the big fish, with seven catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns. "I have always been told that big-time players step up in big-time games," says Nicks, the 29th pick out of North Carolina.
Cruz has stepped up all season. A 2010 undrafted free agent from UMass, he played three games last season and had no receptions. But in the spring Manning saw the speed and the possibilities. Now Cruz is his best deep threat and owner of the franchise mark for receiving yards in a season (1,536 on 82 catches). "It's a great credit to Victor," Manning says. "He's worked extremely hard learning this offense. We did get together a good bit in the off-season, to make sure we're on the same page of how we're going to read things. He's done a good job understanding how to get open in a zone, beating man coverage, all of those things."
Manning felt good enough about his receiving corps that he didn't publicly campaign this summer for the Giants to bring back Super Bowl XLII hero Plaxico Burress, who was reinstated last July after serving two years in jail on weapons charges. Manning was content to go to battle with his workout warriors from the spring. "With Eli in charge," Nicks says, "we can get the job done."
AS MANNING'S FAMILY waited for him by the visitors' locker room, Archie recalled the moment this autumn when he told his wife, Olivia, that 2011 would be less stressful with only one son under center; big brother Peyton sat out the Colts' season recovering from neck surgery. "Just three hours of nervousness instead of six," Archie said.
By the end of the Giants' win on Sunday, Archie had changed his mind. "That still felt like six hours," he said.
None of it bothered Olivia, who was beaming when she spotted her son in a crowded hallway. Over a mass of bodies, she reached out and grabbed his hand. "We'll see you in San Francisco," she said.
Manning, the quarterback of many throws and few words, just nodded.
JOHN BIEVER (MANNING)
STAND AND DELIVER Poised in the pocket, Manning spread the ball evenly among six receivers, hitting Mario Manningham (82) and others time and again for the sort of big plays that have carried the Giants all year.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (MANNINGHAM)
[See caption above]