Manning must Eli-vate game vs. Pack

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Eli Manning is a lifelong starter all too familiar with the indignities of being a backup. Just as he was always the other quarterback in Peyton's backyard, Eli will be the other quarterback in Aaron Rodgers' house.

Manning went through the same drill in the early weeks of 2008. He wasn't the guy who took Jessica Simpson to Cabo, and he wasn't the guy who was lionized at Lambeau, and he wasn't the guy who carried the perfect record and perfect smile into the Super Bowl.

But Manning was the guy who beat Tony Romo, Brett Favre, and Tom Brady on his way to being named Super Bowl MVP. And if Eli wants to preserve his shot of becoming the first Giants quarterback -- and the first Manning -- to win two Super Bowls, he'll need to do more against the Green Bay Packers than keep it close and hope for the best from Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul.

Manning will have to elevate, or Eli-vate, the Giants by outplaying the defending champ, Rodgers, who just completed a historic regular season. Rodgers' passer rating of 122.5 even beat Brady's (117.2) from 2007, when the New England Patriots' quarterback broke the NFL record for touchdown passes before the Giants broke his heart.

This year, Manning had 29 touchdown passes against 16 interceptions in 16 regular-season games, and Rodgers had 45 against six in 15. So on a computer printout, this battle of former Super Bowl MVPs -- the first of its kind in the postseason -- doesn't come across as much of a battle at all.

On my 1050 ESPN Radio show last Sunday, Green Bay's Pro Bowl receiver, Greg Jennings, said his current Packers quarterback is better than his previous one, Favre. Hey, there's a reason Rodgers has State Farm's national "Discount Double Check" ads, while Manning settles for those local Toyota spots.

But Manning did throw for almost 5,000 yards, and he did resuscitate the Giants this year when their defense came unhinged. Add his career season to the charmed championship run of his not-too-distant past, and you have a quarterback inspiring plenty of divisional-round faith among teammates.

"When you play in this division and in this city," Lawrence Tynes said, "it feels like every game is a big game, and we're always comfortable with Eli in big games. ... Everyone's anticipating a shootout because of the two offenses, but I think it's going to be a close game and we like our chances. We think Eli gives us as much as Aaron Rodgers gives the Packers."

Tynes was speaking for the special-teamers Friday before Victor Cruz weighed in for the offense. Out of Paterson, N.J., and out of left field, the undrafted, unwanted receiver flowered into a huge New York star as Manning's principal target.

Cruz was in college when he watched Eli win Super Bowl XLII. He knew Manning was good; he just didn't know how good until he was hired as Eli's co-worker.

"Just being around him and understanding him and being able to talk to him," Cruz said, "Eli's definitely better than what I thought. When you're home watching him, you know he's good. But after being in the locker room and in the meeting rooms and after talking to him, you realize his preparation is through the roof and that he's really a great player."

Cruz spoke of Manning's maneuverability in the pocket, his ability "to buy that extra millisecond that he needs to get the ball off." Manning's history of escaping pressure in big games, of winning big games, "is something that's very comforting," Cruz said, "especially in those pressure situations when you need a drive and a score.

"When the ball is in Eli's hands, it gives me confidence knowing he's never going to lose focus or back down from the challenge. He's been in a lot of those situations, and you just know he's going to come through."

Dave Tollefson, underrated pass-rusher, handled Manning's case for the defense. Tollefson said Eli's talent and poise allow the defensive line, linebackers and secondary to take chances they otherwise wouldn't take. On the more hostile side of the ball, the Giants believe that Manning will score enough points to cover their mistakes.

"We talk about it in the D-line room," Tollefson said. "Number 10, that's what makes this team go. We know that, and that's why Eli gives us so much confidence on defense. As much as we think the D-line job is important, you can't win in this league without a great quarterback. I'm not even talking about a good quarterback, but a great one, and Eli's been great for us."

In the Giants' 38-35 December loss to the Packers, Manning nearly went punch-for-punch with Rodgers, finishing with 347 yards and three touchdowns before falling a couple of right hooks short.

"No. 10 is a great fall-back plan for a defense if we're not playing our best," Tollefson said. "To have a guy who can sling it around and improv his way through games and make plays, it's huge in what we do defensively."

Before long, Tollefson got going on Manning's understated approach to leadership, a style ripped straight out of the Derek Jeter playbook.

"Eli doesn't waver, he's never up and down, and he doesn't really say much," Tollefson said. "But if a team scores on us late in a game to take the lead, he doesn't need to say much. You see that look in his eye, that, 'Hey, I'm going to take control. I'm going to make something happen.'

"Another huge thing in Eli's favor as a great leader is that he cares about us. I mean, he truly cares. This is his football team, and he cares about everyone from the guy snapping him the ball to the guy at the bottom of the roster who might not even suit up. That goes a long way in a locker room."

It has to go a longer way on the visitors' side of Lambeau Field. Rodgers is too good, too mobile, for the Giants to win on a violent pass rush alone.

Manning needs to do what he's been doing since his college boy days at Ole Miss -- elevate his team above superior competition. If Eli succeeds, by the close of business Sunday night, Aaron Rodgers will end up as the other quarterback in Aaron Rodgers' house.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.