Giants' Manning emerging from older brother's shadow

IRVING, Texas -- New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning saw the text message just minutes after his team's 21-17 divisional playoff win over Dallas.

His older brother, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, had sent his congratulations even though Peyton's team had been bounced out of the playoffs by San Diego earlier that afternoon. This is how the Manning siblings apparently operate. They show their love for each other regardless of the circumstances.

What made this moment all the more poignant for Eli is that this finally seems to be his time to shine in the NFL. He's playing his best football at the best possible time, and the Giants are one win from the Super Bowl because of it. Yes, New York did a good job of harassing Tony Romo and stifling Terrell Owens on Sunday, but you can't underestimate Manning's performance. For all the great things that are happening for the Giants, the most obvious good news is that Manning is growing up in a hurry.

Of course, you'll never hear Manning expand on that topic. He'd much rather talk about the team's performance and the opportunity to meet Green Bay in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, the same Packers team, by the way, that beat the Giants back in Week 2.

"We're finding ways to win games, and that's really nice to see," said Manning, who completed 12 of 18 passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns. "It seems like whenever we need something to happen, somebody steps up to make a play. And it usually seems like it's a different person each time."

Although the Giants are getting tremendous contributions from a variety of unheralded players, Manning's production has been the common denominator in their two playoff wins. Three weeks ago, you never would've predicted this, not with the way Manning was playing then. He had a five-game stretch when he was especially awful -- he threw eight interceptions and four touchdowns between Nov. 25 and Dec. 23 -- and his own general manager, Jerry Reese, said Manning looked "skittish" while tossing four interceptions in a 41-17 loss to Minnesota. That's how bad it was for Manning: Even the higher-ups were piling on.

The impressive thing is that Manning never let those low points weigh him down. He started turning his season around with a four-touchdown performance in a season-ending loss to New England. He completed 20 of 27 passes against Tampa Bay in the Jan. 6 NFC wild-card win.

Overall, Manning has posted a passer rating of at least 100.0 -- which is excellent -- in each of his past three outings.

"You can see that Eli is relaxed and confident right now," said Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress. "And when you have that going for you, it's easy to play well. When he had those bad games, everybody was getting down on him, but if people could've seen him around us, they would've known that stuff didn't bother him."

Several of Manning's teammates say his response to that adversity was one example of how he has become a stronger leader in his fourth season. They say he's more demonstrative when discussing adjustments on the sideline and more vocal when addressing teammates on the field. Left tackle David Diehl adds that Manning's preparation has impressed the team this year. In fact, some joke that he must be sleeping at the team facility with all the hours he's putting in these days.

What can't be disputed is that Manning clearly is doing something right. He hasn't thrown an interception in the postseason, and he's moving the chains. Sunday's game was another example of that. Manning doesn't deserve a lot of credit for the score on New York's opening drive -- wide receiver Amani Toomer took a short pass, broke two tackles and raced 52 yards for a touchdown on that play -- but Manning certainly gave his team a big lift later in the half. In fact, he probably delivered the most important drive of his career right before halftime.

The Cowboys had just gone on a 20-play, 90-yard scoring drive that ate up 11:28 when the Giants took possession with 53 seconds left in the half. New York trailed 14-7, and it would've been easy to just run out the clock. Instead, Manning drove his team 71 yards on seven plays and ended the possession with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Toomer.

"It was really big for us to get a touchdown right before halftime," Manning said. "We'd been on the sidelines for what felt like forever, so to get a touchdown right there was huge for our momentum."

When the Giants look back on this postseason, they will see that moment as one of the major steps in Manning's development. He didn't have happy feet. He displayed no clueless expressions. And his shoulders definitely didn't slump. He played with the confidence and focus that are normally the trademarks of his older brother, and you could see that his teammates believed in him. This is what made Manning's play Sunday so notable.

Drives like those make it easy to think the Packers will see a different quarterback from the one they beat back in early September. It's also apparent that Manning finally is creating his own identity in this league.

"Everybody expects him to be like his brother and throw all these deep balls that lead to big plays," said Giants cornerback R.W. McQuarters. "But that's not Eli's game. He relies on his running game, and he dinks and dunks his way down the field. The thing is that when you get into the playoffs, that's how you win games -- by limiting your mistakes."

We actually didn't need McQuarters to confirm that for us. Just a quick check of which Manning sibling is still standing in this postseason says all you have to know about the current success of Eli's approach.

Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.