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Despite inconsistent play, Eli Manning still key to Giants' success

FootballTom CoughlinBaltimore RavensNew York GiantsSuper BowlAtlanta Falcons

For nine years, New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin has had a front-row seat to watch his quarterback, Eli Manning, mix scintillating performances with woeful outings.

But despite Manning's flaws and missteps, Coughlin would never have gotten his two Super Bowl rings without the mercurial quarterback. That's why even after New York stumbled badly in last Sunday's 34-0 battering by the Atlanta Falcons, Coughlin's confidence in Manning hasn't wavered.

"Eli is our leader," Coughlin said. "He is our leader on offense, and he provides the spark that rallies our whole team around. Even our defense and our special teams revolve around him."

If that's true, how Manning fares will play a significant role in Sunday's contest between the Giants and Ravens, two teams that urgently need a victory.

A Ravens win would give them the AFC North title and a home game in the first round of the playoffs. A New York victory would move the reigning Super Bowl champion one step closer to capturing the NFC East.

That prospect — more than his personal highs and lows this season — is what drives Manning.

"The only way I can look at it is that we have two games left and a chance to make the playoffs," he said. "In that sense, you can be proud of that and happy about that. It can always be worse, and it can always be better. This is the circumstance that we are in, and we have to be excited about our opportunity."

Manning is in the midst of a wildly erratic stretch. He has alternated victories over the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints in which he compiled seven touchdowns against just two interceptions with losses to the Washington Redskins and Falcons in which he has tossed just one touchdown and two interceptions.

He looked particularly inept last Sunday. He threw for just 161 yards and was intercepted twice by Atlanta's defense.

That inconsistency has given doubters new fodder to question Manning's resume against other multiple Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, like the New England Patriots' Tom Brady and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger. But Manning said he has avoided the temptation to feel frustrated by his play.

"It's just football," he said. "Not every game goes as planned. You just have to play to the opportunity that you have and the situations that you're in and try to make the best decision, the best play you can make on every play.

"That's what I am working on, that's what I am trying to do. All you can do is try to learn from the previous game, but really understand what lies ahead of you, what the future is and what you can deal with, what you can worry about and just try to go out there and play your best."

The Ravens have no preconceived notions about which Manning will show up Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. Cornerback Cary Williams said everything regarding the defense's game plan revolves around Manning, and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said the Ravens can't expect to unnerve Manning as easily as they have attacked other quarterbacks.

"I think you can do that with a lot of quarterbacks, but with him, he's a veteran quarterback that has won some Super Bowls," Ngata said. "So you just can't bet on those things and think you're going to rattle him and forget that he can get hot again. So you just have to make sure that you play consistent football throughout the whole game or the game can get out of hand."

Statistically, Manning ranks in the middle of the pack in the NFL in completions (294, which is good for 13th), passing touchdowns (20, tied for 15th) and completion percentage (60.4, 18th). But Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said those numbers are just a small glimpse into Manning's impact on a game.

"You look at their routes and the balls that he's thrown that are great passes, and those are the ones that you really look for, and those are the ones that you kind of expect," Pees said.

Coughlin is expecting to see the quarterback who has amassed 23 game-winning drives in the regular season. After all, that's what he is accustomed to witnessing.

"He's spectacular," Coughlin said. "I've enjoyed every second of it — from the time that he was drafted, going through the difficult times that every young quarterback goes through when they are first initiated into the game, and then watching his development and the way he's played in big games.

"A year ago, when we came from behind seven times, and he just put his team on his back and brought our team to victory seven or eight times with two-minute drives at the end. … It's been a very, very unique experience to coach an outstanding player like Eli."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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