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Eli finally becoming The Man for Giants

You have to admit, it's been a funny, rollercoaster year for Eli Manning and the rest of his football-centric family.

Perhaps they'd have a happier reunion when he returns Monday to play in their hometown of New Orleans for only the second time in his NFL career if the New York Giants weren't limping into town off a loss and smack in the sadistic part of their schedule. Things might also feel better if his older brother, Peyton, who's been sidelined all season with a career-threatening neck injury, wasn't still feeling obliged to show up for work with an Indianapolis Colts team that is winless without him, and now being urged to ship him out -- thanks for the memories, pal! -- if the Colts can draft Andrew Luck as his replacement.

Eli is playing better than any quarterback in the league right now except for the usual suspects -- the Saints' Drew Brees, whom he'll face Monday night, unbeaten Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay, whom the Giants play next week, and Tom Brady, whom the Giants have already beaten.

In fact, Manning's play has been so good this year, it's almost tempting to wonder if it's not just the stats that are earning him more acknowledgement as a Top 5 NFL quarterback. And it's not just his brief chest-thumping statement on ESPN Radio's Michael Kay Show that he sees himself as an elite quarterback. God save us. That quote has taken on such a weird, months-long half life, that tape may eventually have to be buried in a lead container to make allusions to it go away.

But did you ever wonder if Manning's growing regard -- and that bolder confidence he's showing, too -- could also be traced to the way the other strong personalities that've always been around him have started to go away or recede instead of sucking all the oxygen out of the room?

That was true when the Giants used to have Tiki Barber and Jeremy Shockey and Michael Strahan early in his career, and it was true for Eli before Peyton's enormous on-field shadow and wisecracking off-field personality went temporarily missing this season.

Is Eli seen differently because he's outlasted us -- he is who he is? Is it because he's never been more comfortable in his own skin? Or are the rest of us just appreciating him more now because so much of the clutter and noise around him has cleared?

Did things have to quiet down and, let's face it, grow a little more boring around Eli before his stature could really ascend? Maybe he's stayed the same but things around him have receded.

The Giants are coming off a galling loss in which they were manhandled by division rival Philadelphia, and now they're playing a Saints defense and a smack-talking defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, that isn't that far removed from hitting Brett Favre until he stayed down in their playoff game a couple years ago.

If the Giants lose for a second straight week, it won't be just the media barking about what coach Tom Coughlin on Wednesday called a "fanatical" obsession with his team's previous late-season collapses out of the playoffs.

The Giants' players will be saying grim things, too.

The funny thing about Manning is, in his polite way, he never gives an inch.

And this Giants team has never reflected the straight-arrow, no-nonsense approach he and Coughlin share more than it does now. It's the reason those rare occasions when Brandon Jacobs gripes or Osi Umenyiora gets irked about his contract or Antrel Rolle sticks his foot in his mouth seem all the more glaring.

Eli is The Man now for the Giants -- he's the only Manning left standing in the NFL. He's taken over the Iron Man lead for consecutive games played from his brother.

The apocryphal stories and the true ones have always been a little muddled with Eli -- again, often because of whom he's often been surrounded by.

His dad Archie was New Orleans' most favorite quarterback before Brees came along. Eli and Peyton grew up in the city and they were right there, too, after Hurricane Katrina helping with some of the relief efforts after the levees broke. But Brees not only did that too, he also won the Saints a Super Bowl right after one of the city's darkest moments.

So when the Giants hit the field Monday night, Manning admittedly knows better than to expect any breaks from his hometown crowd. And he probably didn't need to tell reporters on his conference call Wednesday that he's unlikely to be caught outside the team hotel, let alone at any hotspots. The way he talked, don't even expect him to be seen making a beignet run.

"I'm treating it like every other away game," Manning said. "I'm not seeing any family or friends or [doing] any sightseeing."

The Giants know their season is on the line now pretty much every week with six games to go, and getting one of these games against New Orleans or the Packers would help considerably. Lose them both, and the collapse talk returns.

None of the other Giants players were available Wednesday. Eli had the stage to himself. So what was his take on all that?

"We just have to concentrate on having our game plan and being focused and go in there and try to execute to our ability this week," he said.

So, OK, he ain't Jerry Seinfield yet, or even his brother comically shouting "Cut! That! Meat!" in some commercial.

But he's the only Manning quarterback still standing. He's playing better than ever. And he's going back to New Orleans knowing there's a family ethos to uphold.

"I'm going in there as a business trip," Manning said. "I know it's a big game."