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all eli all the time

Cowboys to Eli: ‘It's On You.’ Eli: ‘No Problem.’

In the four hours between the Jets' victory over the Patriots and the start of the Giants-Cowboys game, an argument could have been made, and surely was somewhere, that Mark Sanchez is already the premier quarterback in New York. That's how good he looked. But then the Giants played, and Eli Manning decisively stole back the day from Sanchez.

In fact, this could very well have been the second-greatest win of Manning's career. Sure, it's early in the season, but how sweet was it to puncture the self-congratulatory mood at the billion-dollar Cowboys Stadium (that NBC announcer Cris Collinsworth kept referring to as "remarkable"; great, Cris, keep remarking on it)? Dallas dared Manning to perform without a running game. Putting eight men in the box, the Cowboys hammered Brandon Jacobs almost every time he touched the ball in the first half — and he did. (Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride could have been more imaginative with his play calling; he repeatedly ran the ball on second and long, even though this did not fool the Cowboys even once, and his inexplicable conservatism led to more red-zone blues.) With their unheralded receivers playing well again (second-year pro Mario Manningham looked like a stud), the Giants moved the ball up the field easily in the first half, but did not produce an offensive touchdown until the third quarter.

Manning was hardly flawless. Twice in the first half, he very nearly threw interceptions in the red zone, including an absolutely dreadful ball intended for tight end Kevin Boss. He seemed to recognize, just as he was releasing the pass, that Boss was tightly covered, and ended up tossing a dying quail at the defender's ankles. But mistakes happen, obviously, and the key thing was that Manning avoided a game-blowing blunder.

Unlike the Cowboys' Tony Romo. He and Manning are a study in opposites. Romo, an undrafted free agent from Eastern Illinois, came into the league with no family pedigree and everything to prove. He lives the life — dating celebrities and all that, while Manning's college-sweetheart wife was shown in the press box last night hanging with her mother in law, sipping red wine and cringing at key moments — and he is a fearsome competitor on the field. In the third quarter, when the Giants played for the pass on the Cowboys' third-and-goal from the three, Romo dashed up the middle for the score, just the play Manning can't seem to make.

As a Giants fan, you wish Manning could do these things. But he has no dash in him. He lumbers. However, you can't help but be happy that in front of 105,000 crazy, hostile fans who regard George W. Bush as a national hero, Manning kept his head, stealthily avoided sacks, and threw no interceptions to Romo's three. If there was one thing to be concerned about, it was that the Giants' defense had four takeaways compared to zero for the Cowboys' D, and yet the game came down to a last-second field goal. That's because the Cowboys totally shredded the Giants on the ground, which was truly awful to watch. It's hard to remember the Giants' run defense ever looking this abjectly weak — the linebackers got the shit knocked out of them on every play. Eli Manning had to play big, and he did. Who knows? Maybe he does have more than one Super Bowl victory in him.

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