Eli shows fire ... in his own unique way

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants' banged-up offensive line is a patchwork crew. Their receiving corps, which was already without Pro Bowl possession receiver Steve Smith, is down to just three healthy guys. And the team is coming off a dreadful loss to a 1-7 Dallas Cowboys team Sunday. Now, the Giants are staring at a trip to play another division rival, Philadelphia Eagles, who are challenging them for the NFC East lead.

Yet Giants quarterback Eli Manning would concede nothing Monday. There was a palpable little edge to him at times, same as there had been right after the Giants' loss on Sunday.

"Still frustrated?" a reporter asked.

"Well, more frustrated yesterday," Manning began.

That Manning admitted to being upset at all was a rare public admission. Manning's entire philosophy about navigating New York has always seemed built on the Jeter-esque principle of staying imperturbably calm and saying as little as necessary. But if you want to know what Manning's teammates mean when they insist he constantly shows leadership the rest of us don't always see or appreciate, the 20 minutes that Manning spent talking by his locker Monday provided a good, if typically subtle, insight into what the other Giants mean.

Manning doesn't shout, stomp his feet or do anything publicly that says, "Look at me."

But when times are tough, especially, he can get contrary.

That's been true of Manning at some of the biggest moments in his life, such as when he had the guts to follow his legendary dad, Archie, to Ole Miss after his older brother, Peyton, wanted none of that, or when he told the San Diego Chargers he didn't want to play for them if they drafted him No. 1 overall -- the stand that paved his way to New York.

It shows up on the field, too -- never more famously than that miracle completion he threw to David Tyree after escaping the New England Patriots' pass rush in the dying minutes of the Super Bowl by refusing to go down. You don't pull off any of that if you don't already have some steel in your spine.

The trait shows up in far less momentous things that Manning does, too, such as his reaction Monday when asked if it's only reasonable to accept the Giants' injury-plagued offense could take a step backward against Philly on Sunday night.

"No," Manning said flatly. "We'll run our offense."

Even if rookie Duke Calhoun is his third wideout?

"He has to step up," Manning answered.

But what about the offensive line, with backup Kevin Boothe now ...

"Played for us in the past," Manning said.

OK, but then there's [second-year tackle] William Beatty, who ...

"Started for us before," Manning said.

In other words: No excuses.

Manning could've backed off and thrown out some stock answers about the Giants' dreadful loss, or made a move to get out the door after that. But pointedly, he stuck around for 20 minutes instead.

As usual, he didn't volunteer anything hugely controversial. But he did seem determined to parry back -- strongly, again and again and again -- when one wave of reporters, then a second, then a third, straggled over and asked him if Sunday's flop against the Cowboys raises the old concern that the Giants could be staring at another one of those fast-start/late-season swoons that head coach Tom Coughlin's New York teams have been known for lately.

One reporter began, "Do players really not think about all those past stretches where ...

"I think we're playing Philly tomorrow, that's all I'm thinking," Manning interjected.

"But, you guys don't think, 'How can I avoid ...'

"That's how y'all think," Manning shot back, interrupting again. "I think we're playing Philly. And you prepare. And go forward."

"But," another writer persisted, "there has been a pattern of tough finishes that's developed here other than '07 where ..."

"Why don't we talk about '07?" Manning needled now with another small smile, referring to the Giants' unlikely Super Bowl-winning run.

The net impression from start to finish Monday was as badly as the Giants played against Dallas, Manning still acted and sounded like a quarterback who feels completely in charge. And he still sees a very good team around him, not a team whose 6-3 record is some mirage.

He also seemed determined -- again, in his own way -- to set a tone for this week.

Manning said it's no mystery why the Giants lost to Dallas. It was the same old fixable things that led to their other defeats: Mistakes and penalties and turnovers killed them, none worse than the goal-line interception he threw when Hakeem Nicks didn't finish his slant route and Dallas took it the other way for 101-yard touchdown.

Nicks knows better now. Manning -- not just Coughlin -- immediately made sure of that. But when someone asked Monday if Nicks reacted well to the criticism, Manning seemed slightly amused at the suggestion it had been anything but a one-way conversation.

"He listened," Manning said.

It wasn't long now before everyone else had pretty much left Manning's locker. As Manning started to finally head for the door, he was asked if he'd seen Patriots quarterback Tom Brady rip into his offense on the sideline during a lull in the Patriots' big win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night, and Manning said, "Yeah, I watched some of it."

Has he ever gotten that mad on a football field?

"Sure," Manning said.

But you just choose not to show it?

Manning smiled and stopped.

He couldn't leave without correcting his mistaken assumption too.

"They don't always catch me on film," he said.

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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