EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Eli Manning created some waves this summer putting himself in the same class with Tom Brady in a radio interview.
Manning had only won one Super Bowl compared to Brady’s three, and the New York Giants were entering this season after missing the playoffs a very un-Brady-like two straight years.
There seemed to be no comparison.
Closing in on the midpoint of the season, Manning is right there with Brady in the NFL statistics as the Giants (5-2) get ready to take a trip to New England to play the Patriots (5-2) in the teams’ first regular-season game since they meet in the Super Bowl in February 2008.
Brady is the league’s second-leading passer behind Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay. Manning is third.
Brady has thrown for 2,361 yards and 18 touchdowns, hitting on 67.6 percent of his passes for a 104.4 quarterback rating. Manning has connected for 2,127 yards, 13 touchdowns, and is hitting 64.7 percent of his passes to complete a 102.1 rating. Manning has thrown five interceptions, three less than Brady.
“Well, the question was if I thought I was an elite quarterback and basically, I was just saying that I did,” Manning said when asked of his Brady comparison. “I’m usually not into the business of ranking and rating quarterbacks and comparing myself to other guys. Looking back, I thought I gave an honest answer, and I don’t regret anything.”
Teammates don’t downplay how much Manning means to them.
“There is so much he does that he doesn’t get credit for,” Giants guard David Diehl said. “He doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. For us. It’s something that we see. It’s the way that he works, the way he prepares either out on the field or breaking down film or getting with the wide receivers or checking and making alerts and audibles at the line of scrimmage. He’s just playing great football for us.”
Talk to any of the members of the Giants’ offense, and there is no doubt Manning is their leader.
That has never been truer than this season. Four of the team’s five wins have come in the fourth quarter, which is when the 30-year-old has played his best. In fact, his fourth-quarter numbers rank No. 1 in the league.
Manning has hit 49 of 70 passes for 710 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 10.14 yards per attempt. He has only thrown two interceptions in the quarter with both coming in a loss to Seattle. The first tipped off the hands of Giants’ receiver Victor Cruz at the Seahawks 5 yard line and was returned for a touchdown and the other was a last-second heave with the game already decided.
That’s not bad for someone who threw 25 interceptions in 2010 and lost five fumbles. Manning has only six turnovers at this point.
“I am just trying to be smart,” Manning said. “Our team hasn’t been in situations where we’re down by multiple touchdowns late in the game and you are trying to force things. I have worked hard on my accuracy, making sure the ball is where it needs to be. The receivers have done a good job of getting open and being in the right spot.
“The linemen are protecting well where I don’t have to throw it before I’m ready or while getting hit. Tipped balls are hitting the ground and not going into other people’s arms. A lot of things come into that, but I am making good decisions, making my reads and putting the ball where it needs to be.”
Manning isn’t the most athletic of quarterbacks. He is not going to elude a big rush — the Patriots might have nightmares about that — or scramble for a first down or even throw on the run much. His arm isn’t rifle-like, although the touch he puts on the ball is very good.
While that may sound average, Manning has come a long way from the guy who won the Super Bowl MVP with his game-winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress in the 17-14 Giants win over New England.
“I have just tried to continue to learn and understand our offense,” said Manning, who will be making his 111th consecutive start. “I’ve been in the same offense since (the Super Bowl). I tried to grow and understand defenses and schemes. We have a lot of players on this offense who weren’t in that game, so I have grown with these receivers and players the last three years. That game doesn’t come into that much thought this week. (I’m) getting ready for this defense. They are doing different things. I just expect to go in there and play well.”
What has been remarkable about this season is that Manning has played well after losing two of his top targets to free agency — wide out Steve Smith (Philadelphia) and tight Kevin Boss (Oakland).
In their place, Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham and the surprising Cruz have stepped up on the outside while Jake Ballard has been a find at tight end.
Domenik Hixon, who suffered his second straight season-ending knee injury, said Manning is reaping the reward of his hard work, noting he is always out on the field working with his receivers, talking to them after practice and preparing for opponents.
“He studies a ton of film,” Hixon said. “To me, his football intelligence is probably the best in the league. Like I said it’s paying off. He’s working all the time, on and off the field. Even on the days that I am here doing physical therapy, he’s watching film. To me that’s what it takes to be where he is at now.”
For Manning, the here and now isn’t thinking about Super Bowl XLII. It’s getting ready for the Patriots again.
“These games are fun, when you play against good teams,” Manning said. “When you think of the Patriots, you always think of a team that is always in the playoff picture, always a talented, well-coached team. These are easy games to get excited for. You just want to go in there and play the style of football we know we can play.”