Pour on the pressure, but 'you're not going to get to Eli'

GLENDALE, Ariz.-- The text message was sent to Eli Manning before the NFC wild-card game at Tampa Bay, before the divisional playoff game at Dallas, before the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay.

Slow and steady wins the race, it read. No unforced errors.

And every game the slow, steady Manning and -- sorry, Tiki, but it's true -- his New York Giants finished first in each postseason race. They beat the Bucs. Beat the Cowboys. Beat the Packers.
With one more win, this time against the undefeated New England Patriots, the only Manning brother without a Super Bowl ring will be Cooper.

If you're looking for one of the 1,000 reasons Eli of January 2008 is better than Eli of, say, September 2007, those text messages thumbed out by David Cutcliffe aren't a bad place to start. Hardly anybody knows Eli better.

Cutcliffe was Eli's head coach at Ole Miss and Peyton Manning's offensive coordinator at Tennessee. If he were any closer, Cutcliffe would be in the Manning family photo.

Anyway, Cutcliffe has watched Eli with the Giants from the very beginning. Four seasons of games here, four seasons of games there. But it wasn't until earlier this month, when Manning completed 20 of 27 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns in his first postseason victory as a Giants starter, that Cutcliffe recognized the Eli of Ole Miss.

"It really hit me hard watching the Buccaneers game," said Cutcliffe, now the head coach at Duke. "That's Eli."

That's right. The footwork, the alignment, the timing, the passing rhythm, the decision-making -- it was just like Saturday afternoon at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium all over again.

"It's what I'd seen at Ole Miss," Cutcliffe said. "To be honest with you, I hadn't seen that a lot."

Nobody had. But that's the thing about Manning. You thought the pressure of playing in New York, for the Giants, for coach Tom Coughlin and his world-famous Coughlin sideline stink eye would somehow turn Manning into a 225-pound facial tic? You thought wrong. Maybe we all did.

Manning didn't melt into a puddle. He crystalized. He got better in little ways that added up to big ways. He stared down the legacy of his famous football name, he mocked the preseason noise of former teammate Tiki Barber, and he disproved a New York media that didn't think this -- a Manning-led Giants team in the Super Bowl -- was likely, even possible.

"People can try all they want," Cutcliffe said. "You're not going to get to Eli."

He's always been that way. His mother, Olivia, says he gets his calm from his late grandmother. But grandma never had to deal with what Manning has dealt with these last four seasons.

Take Tuesday's media day. About midway through the Giants' hour-long interview session, an attractive TV reporter wearing a white wedding dress worked her way into the crowd surrounding Manning and shouted, "Will you marry me?"

Manning answered in the same even tone he uses to answer questions about the Cover 2.

"Sorry," he said politely to the woman, "I'm taken for."

It's hard to get a rise out of the guy. Barber came close (he questioned Manning's leadership abilities), but otherwise Manning generally keeps his emotions to himself. When he was in high school, Manning came home from playing in a basketball game and his parents asked, "Well, how'd it go?"

"It went fine," Manning said. "We won."

Except that they won because Manning scored 30 points, including the game-winner. Cooper had to tell them. Eli wouldn't.

Nothing has changed. Win or lose, Manning doesn't gloat or sulk. He treats those kinds of emotions with indifference.

"You can't listen to it, whether you're playing great and they think you're the king of the world and can't do anything bad," Manning said. "[Or] when you're not playing your best football and they're saying everything they say, you can't buy into it. You got to listen to yourself. You got to listen to your players and coaches."

Manning always has followed his own football sensibilities. Maybe that's why he's less surprised by his success than the rest of us. To him, this season's 10-6 record, the 3-0 playoff mark, the interceptionless postseason streak is all part of the natural progression. There's been no football epiphany. This is what he's supposed to do.

"I think he's turned the corner," said former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, who engineered the 2004 draft-day trade that brought Manning to New York. "You can't do what he's done down the stretch and say it's a fluke. It's too sound. I think he's there."

"People have started to appreciate him a little more," said Giants center Shaun O'Hara. "Eli is a talented quarterback and we've been telling people that for the last four years. I think now people are finally starting to believe us."

Leaps of faith were hard to come by earlier in Manning's career, mostly because of what his old man, Archie, calls "the yo-yo thing: up and down, up and down." This season was no different.

Up: 28 of 41 for 312 yards and four touchdowns in the opening-day loss at Dallas.

Down: 8 of 22 for 59 yards and zero TDs in a midseason win against dreadful Miami.

Way down: 18 of 52 for 184 yards and one TD in a loss at home against Washington.

Up: 22 of 32 for 251 yards and four TDs in the loss against New England. . . 20 of 27, two touchdowns, no interceptions at Tampa Bay in playoff opener. . . highest quarterback rating of his 61-game NFL career (132.4) in the playoff win at Dallas.

Way up: In polar cap conditions at Lambeau Field (wind-chill of minus-24), 21 of 40 for 251 yards and a trip to Super Bowl XLII. Did it bare-handed, too.

Accorsi knew how good Manning could be. He knew it on Nov. 2, 2002, while sitting outside in the cold of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium as Manning nearly pulled off an upset against favored Auburn. Accorsi would later write in his scouting report that Manning possessed "magic," had "rare" talent and could be better than Peyton.

Two years later he traded quarterback Philip Rivers and three more draft picks, including a No. 1 in 2005, to the San Diego Chargers for Manning.

"Listen, I took a lot of heat," said Accorsi. "But [Manning] took more because he's the player."

Archie knew how good Eli could be, too. Late last season, in an interview with author Tom Callahan, Archie said it took until Eli's senior year at Ole Miss before the Rebels became his team. "Next year, I'm serious, might be his senior year," Archie told Callahan.

He was right. In his fourth season with the Giants -- his senior year -- Manning has turned Accorsi and Archie into prophets.

"It just goes to show if you throw enough crap on the wall, it might stick," said Archie, the No. 2 overall selection in the 1971 NFL draft. I'm kind of reluctant to talk about stuff. I've never heard [Eli] make an excuse, so why should I make one? But I think people forget about the transition for a young quarterback."

The Giants were in transition too.

Barber, the team's career rushing leader (and a favorite check-down receiver), retired -- and then promptly criticized Manning. Jeremy Shockey suffered a season-ending leg injury in mid-December. An ankle injury forced Plaxico Burress to miss long stretches of practice time. Scapula and hamstring injuries caused third wide receiver Steve Smith to sit out the better part of 12 games.

"Just because you have a bad day. . . or something goes wrong, it doesn't mean you can't do it," Eli Manning said. "It's part of football and growing up, and just understanding that it's how you bounce back from those things. We've dealt with a lot, but we've been able to bounce back and get to this position."

Nobody does bounce better than Manning. His quarterback rating has gone from 73.9 during the regular season to 99.2 during the playoffs. Up. His interception totals have gone from 20 during the regular season to zero in January. Up.

What's next? Cutcliffe won't divulge the contents of his most recent conversation with Manning. But it's safe to say pre-Super Bowl XLII confidence levels are up. Way up.

"They're going to win the next one," said Cutcliffe, who will be at Sunday's game. "They're going to beat the Patriots, too. I have no doubt."

If it happens, you already can guess what Manning will say if Olivia and Archie ask about it afterward.

"It went fine. We won."

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.