What's different this week for the New York Giants is that the guy who throws the ball for the other team doesn't go to the Pro Bowl. He doesn't have three stud receivers and a big-time tight end. Rex Grossman and the Washington Redskins have played admirably in spite of a crushing rash of injuries, but when you play the Saints, Packers and Cowboys in three consecutive weeks, the Redskins' array of offensive weapons doesn't terrify you.
What's the same this week for the Giants, however, is their own list of flaws and issues. They might get star safety Kenny Phillips back, but he's not going to magically fix every coverage problem they had Sunday night in Dallas. They still have to wonder whether they'll get anything from the run game, enough from the pass rush, and whether the offensive line can hold up for a third straight shorthanded week. After beating the Cowboys to move back into first place with three games to go, the Giants are in the driver's seat. But the "check engine" light is still beaming at them from the dashboard.
The Giants don't care, however, that the schedule appears to get easier at this point. And although coach Tom Coughlin has called the secondary a "grave concern," in general the Giants don't worry too much about what people perceive their problems to be. There is one important aspect of the Giants that makes them extremely comfortable right now, regardless of the situation. And that is Eli Manning, who's the most constant and reliable element of their team.
"The thing that has been impressive with Eli is that the running game has not been as productive as it was a year ago because of injuries and yet he has still taken the bull by the horns," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said on a conference call with New York reporters Wednesday. "He is playing exceptionally, just going through his reads, and if you look at the sacks, touchdown-to-interception ratio, usually when someone does that it means the running game is going good and the passing game is going good. Even though it may be because of injuries, he has really taken over and done a fantastic job."
Manning is the Giants' Most Valuable Player and one of the most valuable players in the league. He has become, without question, the most clutch quarterback in the NFL. He has led six game-winning drives this year for a team that has only seven wins. Five of those drives brought the team back from fourth-quarter deficits. In short, when the Giants win, it's because of Manning. Without him, they'd be competing with his injured brother's team for the rights to draft Andrew Luck.
"He's just always the same," Giants guard Chris Snee said after Sunday night's win. "I think that's what makes him great. Obviously, he's got great ability, but the fact that he's always the same guy in the huddle, on the sideline, no matter what's going on. That's just so important when you're playing games like this and you're trying to win games in December."
I've always thought it was a myth that so-called "clutch" players actually raised their game in big-time situations. I think a clutch player is one who remains the same in situations that cause less mentally tough players to make mistakes and underperform. I covered Derek Jeter with the Yankees for a number of years, and that's how I'd describe him. He's always the same, no matter the situation. He doesn't get rattled and doesn't let the magnitude of the moment affect him at all, let alone rattle him.
Manning is that kind of player, which is why, when the ball is in his hands in the fourth quarter, he (and, by extension, his teammates) can be so cool. He's not thinking, "Oh my God, we're running out time! Do we spike it here or do we run a play? Oh, man, I hope I don't mess up." He has the ability to just keep playing football, the way he knows how to play it, no matter what's going on around him.
"He makes it simple and he has the confidence in us," Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks said this week. "We are to the point in our offense where we know what we're doing, and he knows that we know what we're doing. It's more confidence now, and he's putting the ball out there and letting us go get it."
The next assignment is the Redskins, a division rival who beat the Giants in Week 1 and got their season off to an ugly start. The Giants could be thinking about revenge. They could be letting down after a brutal schedule stretch. They could be anywhere on the emotional spectrum between those two poles, and there are players in their locker room who are and who will spend the week swinging between them. But no matter what happens, no matter how they play on defense and no matter what the Redskins throw at them Sunday, the most important thing that's the same for the Giants this week is the guy playing quarterback. And they know, if the game is within reach in the fourth quarter, they like their chances with Eli Manning throwing the ball.