Friday October 16th, 2009

Eli Manning was always the third son. The Manning family had four tickets to Saints' home games when he was a kid, and the three boys -- Peyton, Cooper and Eli -- would sit together, and the fourth seat would always go to a friend. "The deal was we were always supposed to rotate bringing a friend, but somehow I never got to bring one," Eli said on Thursday. "But it was a fun time with my big brothers. Dad used to say, 'Make sure Eli gets a hot dog.' ''

With father Archie up in the press box doing the games on the Saints' Radio Network, this was the boys' ritual for five or six years on Saints' home Sundays, growing up a seven-minute drive from the Superdome.

In high school, at nearby Isidore Newman, Peyton and Cooper played regular-season games at the 'Dome. But by the time Eli was of age, the Isidore Newman custom of playing once a year in the big stadium had ended, and he never played there. Never played there in college at Ole Miss. (The Rebels in the Sugar Bowl? Not hardly.) Never played there in his first five years in the NFL.

"This my first time,'' said Eli, now 28 and in his sixth NFL season as the quarterback for the 5-0 Giants, coming to town to play the 4-0 Saints Sunday in the NFL's game of the day. "I never really thought about it much ... well, yes I did. Both of my brothers got to play there, when I was in seventh and eighth grade, and I guess I thought about when it would be my turn. But in high school, not in college or the pros. Then, when we were supposed to play there four years ago, Katrina happened, and they played the home game at our place.''

So it has to be an emotional weekend, no? It might be, but because of the bigness of it, Eli's not giving into the moment. He's not going home to see his folks Saturday when the Giants get into town, not going to dinner with family or friends. Eli will have a Coughlinesque focus this weekend. He'll need it.

Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is one of the great changeup pitchers of any defensive mind in the game, and Manning can be sure he'll see a few things Sunday that he hasn't seen on tape.

But make no mistake about it: This game is not going to be about the cutesy story of Eli returning home. This is going to be about Eli the Sudden Mad Bomber, matching Drew Brees throw for throw.

***

There are many surprising things about the season's first five weeks: The Broncos allowing 8.6 points a game, the other Steve Smith leading the league in receiving, Cincinnati topping the AFC North (deservedly), Tennessee falling off the face of the earth ... and Eli Manning playing like Dan Fouts. And like Peyton Manning.

The best single statistical barometer of quarterback proficiency is probably yards-per-attempt because it measures how far downfield a quarterback is getting the ball on his average pass-drop. Eli's always been a middle- to bottom-of-the-pack guy, averaging, in order, 6.75, 6.21, 6.31 and 6.76 yards-per-attempt in his first four full starting seasons. This year, he's at 8.98, an amazing quantum leap from year four to five. Eli's second in the league to brother Peyton, at 9.09 YPA.

You have to put a faint asterisk on that number because the Giants have played three pathetic football teams -- Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Oakland (combined record: 1-14) -- the last three weeks. But I'll tell you why it's not fluke: Because Eli is a different player, and he's got better receivers as downfield threats than Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer were.

When you watched the Giants of two and three years ago, you often saw Manning hitting receivers out of their cuts, just before the moment of impact with defenders. Now, Manning's throwing the ball earlier -- like his brother, like a smart veteran, when the receivers are just coming out of their cuts, just before they turn to look for the ball.

Getting the ball a couple of steps before impact means the world to a receiver because he can then juke or run past a corner or safety, and these wideouts, in particular, have been very good running after the catch.

The kind of trust he's built is even more impressive considering he's known his top four targets all for three years or less: tight end Kevin Boss and wideout Steve Smith (three years), Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks (one). Amazing. The average age of these four targets is 23.5, and Manning looks like he's been throwing to them for years.

It's a credit to Manning that he's built such an early trust with his receivers, and his accuracy (a career-best .644) reflects that. But give the receivers credit too. Smith and Manningham, in particular, have boosted Manning's yards-per-attempt with their quickness (Smith especially) and speed after the catch. You watch Smith, Manningham and Nicks, and you say: They've done this before.

"When you watch Eli now versus early in his career,'' said the Saints' defensive coordinator Williams, "you see an offensive line doing a great job setting up the pocket and giving him time. And you see him not forcing the issue downfield. He forces nothing. His receivers make clean catches with room to run after the catch. He anticipates them coming open, as opposed to throwing when he sees them open. By then, it's usually too late for the receiver to do anything with the ball after he catches it.''

Manning said the downfield playmaking ability of the young guys has opened up offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride's playcalling. "These receivers fit in better to what coach Gilbride wants to call,'' Manning said. "Finally, the plays I've never really liked now work. It's not that I didn't really like them, it's that we didn't have guys open on them; guys weren't winning the battles downfield. Now you've got Steve making great double-moves, especially out of the slot, and Mario's got great agility downfield, and Nicks is so strong after the catch. Those are great traits for downfield receivers to have.''

I expect the Saints won't think they can get to Manning consistently on Sunday, and Williams is likely to play more defenders in the back, trying to interfere with his passing lanes. But it won't be a Williams gameplan without a few jailbreak blitzes. But only a few. Why?

"We're playing a patient veteran,'' Williams told me. "Like his brother.''

Ray Lewis, LB, Baltimore

It's the last game between two of the top 30 players of all time. You can look it up in Monday Morning Quarterback the book ($25.95, Sports Illustrated Books, out this week in bookstores everywhere, or Amazon or Barnes & Noble online, and may I deliver one to you personally at the conclusion of this column?).

I have Brett Favre 16th and Lewis 29th on my list of the 100 greatest players of all time. Never say never with Favre, of course, but with AFC and NFC teams crossing paths once every four years, he and Lewis would have to be fairly ancient to meet in a non-Super Bowl. Baltimore's defense is slipping (5.5 opponents' yards-per-attempt last year, 7.48 this year), and Favre's been playing well enough to put another dent in that. But this game could well come down to Lewis against the other star Viking offensive players -- Adrian Peterson.

"Where Ray will impact this game the most is in run-defense,'' said his former coach, Brian Billick. "Cedric Benson stretched the defense last week, and Ray's going to have to be very good against Peterson to be sure that doesn't happen again.''

What of the Favre-Lewis matchup? "Ray has always had a great appreciation for his place in history,'' Billick said. "I'm sure he appreciates that this duel may never happen again.''

1. Trade Winds around some big names. The Chargers would love to get a few calls for Shawne Merriman. Ditto the Browns and Brady Quinn. Want Larry Johnson? He's healthy, and you might get the Chiefs to budge if you talk a decent draft pick. Terrell Owens is going nowhere, by the way, except on a plane to New Jersey for the game with the Jets.

2. Trade deadline chatter. In other words, cell phones to the ears of Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Scott Pioli, Mike Tannenbaum (notice a pattern of godfather and godsons there?), George Kokinis, Al Davis, A.J. Smith. They'll want to make deals.

3. Jeff Fisher making a decision he has to make. With the Titans 0-5 and out of it, it's time to see what Vince Young has, and there's no better time than Sunday in Foxboro.

4. The Steelers plugging a very big hole. I remember sidling up to Mike Shanahan as he watched a Steelers' training camp practice this summer, and him saying it's the defensive ends who make the Pittsburgh defense a real force. "Smith and Keisel are great players, and no one knows it,'' Shanahan said. Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel.

Well, Smith's out for the season after rotator-cuff surgery this week, and three 6-3, 300-pound guys (Nick Eason, Travis Kirschke and first-round pick Ziggy Hood, a wide-body defensive tackle in college who's still adjusting to the 3-4) will fill in. How well could determine whether the Steelers repeat in the AFC North. The first step is Sunday against the Browns.

5. The re-emergence of Troy Polamalu. He lives. He suits up. He takes the field. He breathes fire. Wear the big-boy pads Sunday, Jamal Lewis.

6. The Jets breathing fire when they take the field. Rex Ryan ripped everyone connected with the team except the flight attendants on the charter after the 31-27 loss at Miami Monday night. He labeled last week's practices "horrible'' and implied jobs were at stake this week. I'd pity the Bills, this week's victims at the Meadowlands, if I had any pity left after watching the Raiders last week.

7. Where Peyton Manning will be watching his brother's Reunion Game at the Superdome. Convenient week for the Colts' bye, isn't it? Eli tells me he doesn't think Peyton will be at the game. If he is, I bet the FOX cameras find him.

8. The Bengals' quest to stay relevant. Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson provide the challenge for Sledgehammer Maualuga and friends Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, where I do believe the Bengals will take the field in first place at home this late in the season for the first time since mastodons roamed the earth.

9. Jon Gruden sidestepping every coaching rumor in America. I believe the latest he's been connected to is a high school job in a Toledo suburb. "I have no comment,'' Gruden said when reached by the Toledo Blade.

10. All Limbaugh, all the time, on the pregame shows. Wake me when it's over.

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