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.
Hakeem Nicks (38 catches) and Mario Manningham (27) are producing as expected but Manning has found a way to mix in second-year wide out Victor Cruz (34) and second-year tight end Jake Ballard (23) to fill the holes along with running back Ahmad Bradshaw (24).
Nicks said Manning's meetings are never one-sided.
"It's him leading it, but it's open for discussion," said Nicks, who missed last week's game with a hamstring injury. "I'll say: 'E I think I can do this on this certain play and he'll go 'OK', I think you could, too,' and we'll do that," Nicks said.
Minnesota tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, a Giant from 2003-06, remembers Manning's meetings.
"His film work and just knowing and diagnosing these defenses quickly and being able to know where to throw the ball, that's what always made him successful," Shiancoe said. "He has the physical attributes, but that work off the field is very important. And it's showing with Eli. He's always been a guy in the film room extra. First one in, last one out."
San Francisco cornerback Carlos Rogers played against Manning for six seasons with the Redskins, so he has seen most of his progression.
"It's a combination of him having total control of the offense and the receivers knowing what they're doing," Rogers said. "When those guys were younger I think it was a struggle, knowing where to go and running their routes at the right depth, things like that. ... They pretty much know what they are doing now."
Manning has had a big part in the development of the young receivers.
"The fact he comes up to me and tells me where he wants to go with the ball at times, and what he is looking at on defense, and where he thinks I will be open, it's just great," said Cruz, who leads the receivers with four touchdowns. "To have a guy like that in your ear, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, it's great."
Cruz also knows he has been successful because nothing seems to bother Manning. In the opening game of the year, Cruz dropped an easy third-down pass on the opening drive. After the play, Manning walked up to him and told him he would get his chances again.
"That is one of his top traits, that whether it's good or bad, he's the same guy," offensive lineman Kevin Boothe said. "You don't get him too riled up and you don't get him down. It's an even playing field with him. I think it's almost like a calming influence when you come into the huddle regardless of what happens."
Gilbride has seen a steady growth in Manning's development with the biggest change being the drastic reduction in interceptions. He attributes it to Manning being a little more careful.
Manning also has reached the point in his career where Gilbride can use things not in the game plan and know his quarterback can make them work.
"Now if it's a first-year, second-year guy, I don't know that you can ask him to do that, but he can do it," Gilbride said. "He's like an extension of our coaching staff out there, so he does a good job. I think it's a combination of the guys around him are playing well enough that you can see his play at such a high level and I think it's continued development with (Eli)."
AP Sports Writers John Krawczynski in Minneapolis and Janie McCauley in San Francisco contributed to this story.
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