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
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
There are many surprising things about the season's first five weeks: The Broncos allowing 8.6 points a game, the other
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
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
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
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.''
It's the last game between two of the top 30 players of all time. You can look it up in
"Where Ray will impact this game the most is in run-defense,'' said his former coach,
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
Well, Smith's out for the season after rotator-cuff surgery this week, and three 6-3, 300-pound guys (