- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2008

PHOENIX — Eli Manning wasn’t supposed to be in the hangar-like room of the Phoenix Convention Center this morning. He was supposed to be getting ready to fly back to New York with the rest of the New York Giants after their amazing postseason run ended with a victory in Super Bowl XLII.

No one, after all, beats the mighty New England Patriots in the Super Bowl — especially when the Greatest Team Ever holds the lead with just 2:42 remaining.

But it was Manning in the spotlight at the MVP press conference on Sunday in a setting used two days earlier to introduce the NFL’s newest Hall of Famers.

The much-criticized Manning finally emerged from the shadow of older brother Peyton, the masterful quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, and he did so in a big way.

Eli engineered two superb scoring drives in the fourth quarter on Sunday, the last finished off with a touchdown pass to favorite receiver Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left that gave the Giants a stunning 17-14 victory.

“Eli Manning has now etched his name in history,” commissioner Roger Goodell said before presenting the 27-year-old with his new ride.

Peyton has been NFL royalty — is there a commercial he hasn’t made? — since he led the Colts to the playoffs in his second season as a starter back in 1999.

Eli’s road to Super Bowl MVP, however, was much rougher.

Ex-teammate Tiki Barber, for example, in the offseason famously criticized Manning’s leadership skills — merely one of among many pundits to take aim at the Giants quarterback.

Manning, publicly at least, simply shrugged it off.

“I never doubted myself,” Manning said. “I never lost confidence. As a quarterback, that’s the most important thing. When you’re not playing well or you’re losing games, they’re looking at everything you do and dissecting it — my demeanor, how I am on the sidelines, my personality. I’m never going to change. I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I love being in New York, my teammates and the organization.

“I knew I was in the right place. It just takes time. It’s not an easy game. It’s not an easy position to play.”

Unlike his brother, who attended Tennessee, Manning opted to follow their father Archie, a legendary Mississippi quarterback, to Ole Miss.

Eli played well enough to become the first choice in the 2004 draft. However, Manning and his father told the San Diego Chargers he didn’t want to play for them, so he was promptly shipped to the Giants.

Manning sat behind former MVP Kurt Warner for nine games, then took over and kept losing. Manning was battered on consecutive Sundays by the aggressive defenses of the Washington Redskins and the Baltimore Ravens, then met with Giants coach Tom Coughlin.

“Eli was frustrated,” Coughlin said. “He hadn’t played well, had kind of lost his poise a couple of times. He just sat there in my office: ‘Coach, I want to be good. I want to be the quarterback of the New York Giants. I want to lead the New York Giants to victory.’ You saw some of that emotion come pouring out.”

The next week, Manning posted a sterling 103.8 passer rating in a narrow loss to the powerful Pittsburgh Steelers. Two weeks later in the season finale, he won his first game.

The next year, Manning led the Giants to an 11-5 record and a wild card spot, and his passer rating jumped from 55.4 to 75.9. But Manning was dreadful in the home playoff shutout at the hands of Carolina. Manning’s numbers in 2006 were near-identical, and the Giants again lost their playoff opener.

The Giants opened this season 0-2 and trailed 17-3 at halftime in Washington on Sept. 23. It didn’t look like the Giants would get a chance to redeem those postseason defeats this year. But Manning and the defense rallied New York to victory.

Things got better — then worse again. Manning threw four interceptions in a Nov. 25 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. When the Giants clinched their wild card berth in Week 16 at Buffalo, he passed for just 111 yards.

However, Manning was terrific in a defeat in the regular-season finale that proved to be a harbinger, passing for four touchdowns in a close loss to the Patriots.

Manning looked like an MVP in playoff victories on the road over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers and then again against the previously perfect Patriots, throwing for a combined six touchdowns and one interception for a 95.8 rating — all much better than the numbers his adored brother put up in winning last year’s title.

Said defensive end Michael Strahan, the most vocal of the Giants, “Champion! Champion! That’s Eli Manning, not Peyton Manning’s little brother, not Eli who slumps, none of that. Eli Manning is the world champion. I hope everybody remembers that, respects that, understands that because this team goes nowhere without him.”

Receiver David Tyree, who teamed with Manning on the incredible 32-yard pass and catch that kept alive the game-winning drive, said his quarterback has always been cool and calm, that he hasn’t changed, only matured.

But the man running back Brandon Jacobs calls “Easy E” does want to change … on the field.

“I gotta become a better quarterback,” said Manning, whose 20 interceptions equaled a league-high and whose 73.9 rating was lower than those of such lightly regarded quarterbacks as Joey Harrington, Kyle Boller and Brian Griese. “Towards the end of the season, I was playing well, but I’ve got to do it over a whole season, cut down on my mistakes. That’s what I’m going to try to work on this offseason.”

That should be easier with the critics silenced.

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