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Aw, shucks — Eli is getting better

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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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He still looks like the fourth-grader whose mommy just combed his hair, packed his peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich and stuffed his mittens in his pocket. The problem with Eli Manning all these years has been that he has played that way, too.

Eli Manning

Eli Manning is backing up his tough talk this season.

Jason O. Watson

This has always been the fallout of being Khloe Kardashian or, from another generation, Jan Brady. But Manning’s overshadowing, overbearing superstar brother and all-around great guy, Peyton, has been out all year with a serious and — no matter what the Colts say — career-threatening neck injury.

Eli is the last Manning standing. But now, with his brother out of the way, and with the New York Giants also having cleared away the talent from Eli’s offense, this Manning is doing something that everyone, including me, had given up on him ever doing:

He's becoming an elite quarterback in the NFL. The numbers suggest he’s there now, behind Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and New England’s Tom Brady. Truth is, Manning's not there yet. But he is closing in.

The thing is, at the start of the year, a radio guy in New York asked him if he considered himself a top-five, or maybe top-10 quarterback. And Manning, aw-shucksed his way into saying that, well, gosh golly, yes, I do. Tom Brady won a Super Bowl, and then kept developing, and I’d like to do that, too.

Or something like that.

Everyone laughed. Up to this point in 2011, he has lived up to it. He has climbed into the top 10. But if he wants to reach the true elite, this is his big chance. Yes, he has won a Super Bowl already. That counts. But the cool kids have managed to keep him out of their club anyway.

POLL

  • Is Eli Manning one of the NFL's elite QBs?
    • Yes
    • No, but he will be someday soon
    • No, and he never will be

Now, the Giants — 5-2 and in first place in the NFC East, thanks entirely to Manning — are about to hit a killer part of their schedule. It’s an opportunity for Manning to face the elite. The Giants will play New England on Sunday, and then San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Green Bay and Dallas.

That’s four first-place teams and two more with an opportunity to reach the playoffs.

But more important for Manning’s status, it includes matchups against QBs named Brady, Vick, Brees, Rodgers and Romo.

Of course, Manning thought he was already in that group.

The thing is, this year he has led his team to victory four times when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter. He has done it without his favorite targets, receiver Steve Smith and tight end Kevin Boss, who left as free agents. He doesn’t have Tiki Barber to help him out anymore, as he did years ago. He doesn’t even have his brother’s shadow to hide in.

Manning is on his own, and he’s carrying the team.

Fourth-quarter comebacks aren’t supposed to be the stuff of a guy like Manning. He doesn’t fit our image for the guts-end of a tough-guy’s game. Of course, maybe he has just had a few good games, a longer stretch than normal for his usual inconsistency.

But it’s also possible he is now developing and defining a new bravado, the kind that stands staring at you with an earnest smile and an awkward look.

We tend to form impressions about quarterbacks based on how they walk or look or talk, or something. Brady is cool on field and off, with the varying hair ideas and a supermodel wife. Michael Vick is tough and fast, Drew Brees able to make big plays at big moments, Peyton Manning meticulous and an absolute boss. Romo is a pretty boy, and soft. Jay Cutler is a loner.

The personalities all seem to match their play somehow. Tim Tebow is a break from that. He’s a strong, hard-working, gutsy good-guy, which is supposed to be rewarded. The fact that he’s not an NFL-level quarterback, at least not yet, has been disconcerting.

Eli Manning is a bumbling goofball. That’s not supposed to work.

You know, maybe that nerdy kid walking down the hall in school, pushing his glasses back up his nose could be a quarterback after all. The only reason he isn’t? We direct him away from football.

We should have seen the change in Manning this year. Maybe he has actually been developing into a trash-talker, but we didn’t notice because he does it in his nicey-nice way.

“Well, the question was if I thought I was an elite quarterback, and basically, I was just saying that I did,’’ he said the other day, still trying to explain away what he said in the preseason. “I’m not usually in the business of ranking and rating quarterbacks and comparing myself to other guys. Looking back, I thought I gave an honest answer, and I don’t regret anything.’’

I didn’t say he was good at trash-talking. Someone might want to give him some pointers.

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No. 1: Do not trash-talk with an apologetic tone.

When Plaxico Burress was released from prison and visited the Giants, hoping they would take him back, Manning hid out in a meeting room. He also didn’t make a push to get Burress back on the team.

“We are working around here,’’ Manning told reporters at the time. “I didn’t know when he was in. I didn’t know when he was meeting . . . I’ve got 10 receivers here that I’m trying to get prepared for practice today.’’

Manning was ripped for that, for not having the leadership skills to take a stand on Burress. We didn’t notice that it was a stand: Manning was blowing off Burress, pointing out that the team’s former pain-in-the-butt isn’t the center of the team.

Well, Manning, now 30, has the league’s third-highest quarterback rating. He has completed nearly two-thirds of his passes for 2,127 yards, more than 300 a game. He also has 13 touchdown passes and just five interceptions. Last year, he threw 25 interceptions.

Of course, it’s more iffy now than ever to measure quarterbacks by the numbers. But Manning has the late comebacks. And he has done it with a calmness that would be called cunning if he had a different personality.

You just wonder what he’s thinking now, looking at this upcoming stretch that could define him. He is thinking about how he beat Brady once before in the Super Bowl, and how Brady snubbed him on the pregame handshake. @#%$ him. And the people who laughed at him for counting himself among the NFL’s elite? @#%$ them, too.

Aw, shucks. You know he’s not thinking that.

Tagged: Broncos, Colts, Patriots, Giants, Jets, Eagles, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Plaxico Burress, Eli Manning, Tim Tebow

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