Our experts offer insight on changes in Eli Manning's game, which game will be the best to watch and what will be the surprise of the weekend.
How has Eli Manning changed late in the season?
Sean Salisbury: The biggest change in Eli's game has been the comfort level. It's obvious that he is comfortable every time he drops back in the pocket, and that hasn't been the case in the past. Now that he is comfortable, we aren't seeing the happy feet that had plagued him in the past. He's being authoritative every time he looks downfield and lets go of the football, and his mistakes aren't big enough ones anymore.
I think that comfort is borne out of playing with guys he knows he can completely trust. Early this season, the Giants were taking shots from everyone up to and including their former teammate Tiki Barber. But instead of imploding like they've done in the past, this team came together and stuck it out. They've suffered a spate of injuries and nothing has stopped them from surging forward. Guys like WR Plaxico Burress (ankle) have kept playing despite injuries that probably could've used a week or two of rest. When a young player sees that type of dedication surrounding him, it can almost force him to play better. That's part of what we're seeing in the evolution of Manning.
Eric Allen: Patience has been the key to Manning's recent success. We are no longer seeing the impatient throws when he's being pressured and the poor decision making, and that's why Manning is morphing into a quarterback to be feared. One of the worst things a defensive coordinator wants to face is a patient quarterback who makes good decisions because most defenses are able to be successful by quickening a quarterback's decision-making process and forcing him into a poor decision. That isn't happening against the Giants anymore. Now defensive coordinators have to devise new ways to try to rattle Manning and throw him off his game.
Which game will be the best one to watch?
Salisbury: You can't vote against playoff football at Lambeau Field. The history of that field dictates that this will be fun to watch simply because it seems football was made to be played in Green Bay at this time of year. These two teams match up well against one another, and I expect this to be a heck of a game. We have two quarterbacks who are playing very well and two surging running games that are perfect for playoff conditions. This one is going down to the wire, and we could very well see the beginning of a new era of elite quarterbacks with a Manning win, or the continuation of the current era with a Brett Favre win.
Allen: The AFC Championship Game has two exciting offenses and fantastic defenses playing in a heated game. It has a little bit of everything, and that's why I like this particular matchup so much. You want trash talking? There aren't much bigger trash talkers than Philip Rivers. You want MVPs and record-breaking performers? The Chargers have former a MVP and the single-season touchdown record holder (LaDainian Tomlinson) and the Patriots have the current MVP and single-season passing touchdown record holder (Tom Brady) and the single-season touchdown receptions record holder (Randy Moss).
Oh, and both teams are playing at the top of their games and hate each other. This is what playoff football is all about. This is a game I would gladly buy a ticket to watch.
What will be the surprise of the weekend?
Salisbury: New York Giants' tight end Kevin Boss will continue to play well. A lot of people have been surprised by Boss' emergence as a legit receiving threat for Manning and I fully expect that to continue. I think the Giants will find a way to get Boss in advantageous situations by running him on deep outs and using him to control the middle of the field. The Packers are going to pay a lot of attention to Amani Toomer and Burress, which should open up the game for Boss to make a big impression.
Allen: The Patriots are going to pound the football with Laurence Maroney. Most people think the Patriots can win by just dropping Brady back and flinging the ball downfield, but that isn't the case against this extremely talented defensive backfield. While I don't think any one particular cornerback in the league can handle Moss one-on-one, the Chargers have one of the guys who can come close in Antonio Cromartie. That leaves Quentin Jammer to cover either Wes Welker or Donte Stallworth, which could actually work in the Chargers' favor. This game is going to be much closer than the first meeting in Week 2, and the Chargers are going to see a heavy dose of Maroney.