All eyes on Manning's first playoffs


Published: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The glare of the spotlight that has followed every move of Eli Manning's blossoming NFL career is about to get much brighter.
Today's wild-card game against the Carolina Panthers at Giants Stadium will be the latest milestone for the younger and (so far) less-accomplished quarterback of the Manning family, following his first victory, first 300-yard passing game and first NFC East title.
Manning admitted last week that after the Giants' 6-10 finish last season he sat home and watched the playoffs - and older brother Peyton and the Indianapolis Colts - with a more discerning eye than he did when he was a youngster.
A season later - and ahead of schedule in the eyes of many - he will be at center stage for the Giants' first home playoff game since a 41-0 rout of Minnesota in the 2000 NFC championship game.
"I think you have to go out and experience it," Manning said. "I don't know if it helps talking to the players who have played in the playoffs before. I think it's just a matter of going out and trying to play the game. When you get to the playoffs and you're playing against good teams, it's a matter of who's going to make the mistake, who's going to make the costly plays that are going to win or lose a game."
In direct contrast to Manning is Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme, a veteran of the Panthers' run to the Super Bowl in 2003. Delhomme, a fellow native of Louisiana, also happens to be a longtime friend of Peyton Manning's who once was a counselor at a quarterbacks' camp Eli attended.
Both quarterbacks have their favorite targets. Steve Smith (103 catches for a league-leading 1,563 yards) has been Delhomme's receiver of choice by a wide margin: running back DeShaun Foster is second on the team in receptions with 34, and wide receiver Ricky Proehl had 25.
Manning has been more egalitarian in the distribution of his passes. Wide receiver Plaxico Burress leads the team with 76 catches, two off his career best, but Manning spread the ball around effectively in the second half of the season to tight end Jeremy Shockey (65) and Amani Toomer (60).
The Giants' offensive edge could come from running back Tiki Barber, whose 1,860 yards rushing this season are a career best. Carolina will counter with Foster, who gained 879 yards despite seeing abbreviated duty in place of injured three-time Pro Bowler Stephen Davis. Foster ran for 165 yards in last weekend's playoff-clinching win at Atlanta.
"I think the way you get the people to not roll their coverages to Steve is to run the ball effectively," Delhomme said. "If we can do that, maybe they'll have to commit more guys to the box and we can get one-on-one opportunities. We say that every week. Run the football to open up the passing game. It worked last week, but it's only going to get tougher from here on out."
Both running backs will indeed have their work cut out for them. The Giants allowed 103 yards per game this season on the ground and held five opponents under 50 yards. The Panthers allowed an average of 92 yards per game, fourth-best in the NFL.
The game also pits second-year Giants head coach Tom Coughlin against Carolina's John Fox, who was the Giants' defensive coordinator when they reached the Super Bowl after the 2000 season. Both men took over teams with losing records and led them to 11-5 seasons and the playoffs in their second year - Fox in 2003 and Coughlin this season.
"This is not Tom's first rodeo," Fox said. "He's been through the test with (Jacksonville) and brought them into a perennial winner. So he knows how it's done."
The game may turn on how effectively an occasionally suspect Giants pass defense can slow Smith. Or, as in many playoff games, it could be a secondary factor such as Proehl or the Giants' special teams that makes the play that's a difference-maker.
Or it could be Manning, summoning up some of his late-game wizardry as he has on several occasions this season and adding a new page to the family archives.
"Sometimes, it's not making all the big plays, it's doing the little things right," he said. "I still have a lot to learn, a lot to improve, but hopefully I can just go out there and play smart football, put our team in situations to win games in the fourth quarter, and keep it close where we have a shot to win at the end."

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