EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Halfway through the season, there is no longer a debate on whether Eli Manning ranks among the NFL's elite quarterbacks.
A career year and five fourth-quarter wins have put Manning in the same category as Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, and helped the New York Giants (6-2) take a two-game lead in the NFC East.
So why the breakthrough this year? Why is everything falling into place for the 30-year-old, who never seemed to get credit despite leading the Giants to a Super Bowl title in February 2008?
Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride says if you take away Manning's 25 interceptions last year his statistics are about the same.
Talk to his receivers, and they see a steady hand at the controls, the same guy who sits them down Fridays for Eli's players' only briefing.
"His confidence is through the roof now," receiver Michael Clayton said. "He's really making some phenomenal checks at the line of scrimmage, not only passing but running the ball. I've played with a lot of quarterbacks in my career, more than 11, and he by far, how he reads coverages is the best of anybody I've seen. Our success is on his shoulders. He's up there. He is a special quarterback, a guy you can count on to put you in the best position to win."
That's what Manning's Friday meetings are all about.
The get-together is usually 10 minutes after practice, giving the wideouts, tight ends and the occasional running back who is invited enough time to run into the cafeteria to grab a bite before meeting in the receivers' room at the Giants headquarters.
Manning is usually in front of the room, ready to make a digital visual presentation of the defensive schemes of — let's say — the San Francisco 49ers — this week's opponent. He has the players imagine certain plays being called and discusses how they will react against the schemes or how other teams have countered those schemes with plays that are similar to ones run by the Giants.
"You try to imagine how they will play out, what everybody's assignments will be and what we need to do," Manning said. "It's different things that maybe haven't come up in practice that we need to talk about to make sure we are prepared for everything. It's mental notes that I have seen and want to relate to them. You can talk to them about it, but visualization gets the point across."
Manning's breakdown usually points out the middle linebacker, the checks on each play, or who's coming on the blitzes. And if saying it isn't enough, Manning usually circles the things he wants players to see when he runs the video.
"I am a big believer in preparation, definitely," Manning said. "There is a lot that goes on. New plays coming in, receivers have to understand what they are doing and you realize: 'Hey it's easy doing this.' Everybody plays coverages and schemes a little different. You might say this is Cover 2, but maybe it's a little different, they're a Tampa 2 team.
"There's a lot that goes into some of our decision making as receivers and quarterbacks," Manning added. "I'm trusting those guys to be in the right spot. If we can talk through something and make sure we are exactly on the same page I might be able to make my decision a half a second quicker, and that might be the difference between a completion and a sack."
Manning seemingly is a half second faster this season. The No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft has thrown for 2,377 yards, 15 touchdowns and six interceptions. He is on pace to finish with 4,754 yards, which would break his career-high set in 2009 by 733 yards and the team record of 4,073 set by Kerry Collins in 2002.
What has made Manning's play so amazing is that he has come through despite losing Steve Smith and Kevin Boss to free agency and veteran Domenik Hixon to a knee injury in the second game of the season.
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