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Palladino: Looking At Eli Manning In A New Light

'From the Pressbox'
By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns

Ernie is the author of "Lombardi and Landry."

For all who laughed, or even shrugged it off as a predictable show of bravado when Eli Manning proclaimed himself an "elite" quarterback before the season, it's time to hunker down to a nice helping of urban bird.

This writer will join you at the table, maybe even fight for seconds, for it has long been held in this space that Manning was simply an above-average quarterback. Top 10 certainly, but not up there with the likes of his brother, Peyton, or Tom Brady or Drew Brees.

Well, guess what?

It's time to hang that elite tag on him.

Oh, sure, we're a little late to the party. Manning's teammates have long considered him high on that scale. But it took this late run of regular-season and playoff games to lure in those who regard labels like "elite" and "Hall-of-Fame ready" with the greatest of caution.

Arriving here was no easy task. For one thing, Manning doesn't make it easy to revere his accomplishments. Though he's always respectful and upbeat in interviews, he says little, especially in the way of self-promotion. He gives up nothing while trumpeting the company lines of team, perseverance, and patience.

Though all of that goes to defining an interview subject decidedly in want of a color besides beige, none of it has anything to do with being or acting like an elite quarterback.

What does is what Manning did against San Francisco.

He led. He hung in there. He stood tall as the Niners tried their best to bury him.

As the biggest conference championship audience since 1995 watched Sunday night, Manning took a whopping 18 hits, six of which resulted in sacks. And it's not hard to believe that most of them were not the wrap-up variety, not with a pass-rusher like Justin Smith banging him around for a sack and four hits.

But Manning, always a tough nut, popped up and kept slinging -- a Giants postseason record 58 times, and managed to complete 32 of them.

Perhaps most impressive were two completions that ultimately went for little yardage. One came on the Giants' final series of regulation when, with linebacker Aldon Smith a hair from dumping him for a sack, he found Ahmad Bradshaw open on the side for a 4-yard gain. It didn't amount to much, but it showed a calm and calculated nature. Manning knew exactly who was going to be open, and he got it there to avoid major damage.

The other happened in the third quarter, a little shovel pass to Brandon Jacobs that went for two yards but allowed Manning to avoid a sack inside his own 25.

Awareness of where his receivers are. That's what elite quarterbacks have.

Physical toughness. The great ones have that, too.

Mental toughness. They keep going after it, as Manning did in completing better than 50 percent of his passes despite being under siege almost every time he dropped back.

And does anybody really need to bring up yet another two-minute drill, a slice of time Manning has seemingly claimed as his own? He got the ball back with 1:36 left in the first half, and by the time he was done finding Victor Cruz for 15, 11, 17, and 14 yards, he'd positioned his team for a go-ahead field goal that left just two seconds on the clock.

The great ones are deadly in the two-minute period. In today's game, nobody commands the two-minute drill better than Eli Manning.

Put it all together, and Super Bowl XLVI will feature not one, but two genuinely elite quarterbacks in Brady and Manning. And right now, Manning is playing at just as high a level, if not higher, than Brady.

After all, Brady has thrown three picks in the last two games alone, while Manning has thrown one interception in his last four.

That, too, marks him as elite.

Enjoy the plateful of crow, doubters.

And yeah, save a seat.

Do you consider Eli among the elite? Make your case in the comments below...

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