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Super Mann's reversal of fortune

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

IRVING, Texas -- If someone told you on Nov. 11, 2007, that Eli Manning would be the MVP of Super Bowl XLII, you probably would've laughed. On that fall afternoon, Manning threw two interceptions and was sacked five times in a 31-20 loss to the Cowboys at Giants Stadium.

The New York tabloids responded with subtle headlines such as "Out-Manned," and talk radio revisited the 2004 draft for the 300th time. But Manning's numbers weren't the only thing that frustrated Giants fans. It was the fact that he looked so feeble in comparison to Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who threw for 247 yards and four touchdowns.

Romo's ability to improvise -- a sidearm fling for a touchdown with a defender in his face -- and his charisma caused critics to judge Manning even more harshly. The Giants had given up so much for what was supposed to be NFL royalty, while the Cowboys lucked into a franchise quarterback.

The loss that day ended a six-game winning streak and dropped the Giants to 6-3. No one could've watched Manning that day and predicted he would be leading his team to a Super Bowl title three months later.

Now the roles have been reversed. The Cowboys will arrive in the Meadowlands on Sunday as a battered team that is simply trying to hold on until reinforcements arrive in two weeks. Romo is recovering from a broken right pinkie, and won't even attempt to play Sunday. But even when he returns against the Redskins after a bye week, he's facing questions that no longer surround Manning. Until he wins a playoff game, it's hard to consider Romo an elite quarterback.

In his absence, the Cowboys have made a mockery of the position. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett convinced owner Jerry Jones that his good pal Brad Johnson could be an adequate fill-in if something happened to Romo. But in two games, Johnson has been the opposite (inadequate). His mastery of the horizontal passing game has Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo licking his chops. The fact that a grass-roots campaign for journeyman Brooks Bollinger is under way speaks to the futility of Johnson.

Oh, and I'm starting to think that Jones is leading the campaign. I've heard from Valley Ranch sources that the Cowboys' owner was furious that he was sold a bill of goods on Johnson. And in an embarrassing slip during Terrell Owens' local radio show, Hall of Famer Michael Irvin pretty much confirmed that. For those of you who haven't seen the YouTube clip, Irvin leaned over and mentioned to T.O. that Jones had called him Sunday night to tell him how upset he was about Johnson's play. About that time, a startled T.O. reminded Irvin that the mics were still hot.

As I told Irvin on Wednesday, it might be the first time T.O. has been involved in a conversation where he's the actually the voice of reason. But enough about the Cowboys.

Anyone who thought Manning would rest on his laurels after winning a Super Bowl hasn't spent any time with him. He and his bride-to-be made a quick escape to a tropical island for a couple of weeks, and then he returned home to focus on the 2008 season. (We won't bring up the "Sex and the City" movie premiere in New York).

Some of the greatest quarterbacks -- John Elway, Dan Marino -- spend most of their careers chasing the validation that comes with winning a Super Bowl. But in a sense, Manning won a Super Bowl before any of us were convinced he was an elite quarterback. To Manning's credit, that point is not lost on him. Standing there listening to him talk after the stunning win over the Patriots, I was struck by how he talked about wanting to figure out why the Giants didn't play that way throughout the 2007 season.

He celebrated his accomplishment -- his first title at any level -- and then started identifying the flaws in his game. When Manning showed up at training camp in Albany, N.Y., one of the things he wanted to focus on was the deep ball. He was frustrated that star receiver Plaxico Burress was out with another injury, but he spun it into a positive by spending more time with young receivers such as Steve Smith, Domenik Hixon, Sinorice Moss and Mario Manningham.

When I asked him Wednesday about Burress' recent suspension and subsequent benching, he talked about his faith in other receivers. By his genteel standards, he almost came across as defiant.

"We have a lot of wide receivers, and I have total confidence in them," he said. "It's not like we haven't felt that, in the first quarter of the last game and the Seattle game when he didn't play, that we couldn't still run our offense and be just as effective."

At this point last season, Manning had thrown nine interceptions and fumbled three times. Heading into Sunday's game, he has nine touchdowns and four interceptions, three of which came in the Giants' only loss. So what changes has Manning made?

"I think maybe now I'm not trying so hard to make plays that are not there," he said. "Really just trying to play the game and understand the situation of what's going on."

A year after looking overwhelmed in that loss to the Cowboys, the Giants have an enormous advantage at the most important position on the field.