Starr: Me and the Rise of Eli Manning

The New England Patriots have a reputation for taking the least provocation and turning it into bulletin-board fodder that stokes the football machine. The most notable such occasion this season was when a little-known Pittsburgh Steelers safety, in the starting lineup only because of injury, guaranteed a victory over the Pats. The Patriots stomped the Steelers and made it pointedly personal by repeatedly throwing touchdown passes to whichever receiver the mouthy kid was supposed to be covering.

Past Patriots teams have credited trash-talking Steelers and Chargers teams for helping to motivate them to subsequent upsets in the playoffs. And, of course, one can view this entire undefeated season as one giant extended middle finger to every coach, player, league official and pundit that branded the Patriots cheats following the "Videogate" flap in the first game of the season.

By contrast, the Pats are remarkably discreet and respectful in their public comments, parroting their coach, who is masterful at making every opponent sound like the second coming of Lombardi's Green Bay championship teams. Despite my loyalties-I attended the Pats' very first game at age 12 and remain among the Foxboro faithful on Sunday-I am not discreet or respectful, neither of those being recognized virtues for sports columnists. Which is why last month I committed a little indiscretion by trashing New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning in my "All-Starr Blog." I mocked Peyton's kid brother for popping up in a watch commercial with the constant refrain "unstoppable," when, at that point in his career, he was the very antithesis-just about the most stoppable quarterback in the NFL.

Now I fear that it was my attack that Eli posted on his locker mirror to inspire him. Could it have been my critical words-"pathetic," "weak-armed," "foolish" and "not even a quarterback of the second rank"-that helped transform Eli into the very Manning that might wreck my beloved team's bid for immortality in the Super Bowl? Truth be told, I was not exactly the only sportswriter to find the talents of Eli Manning to be underwhelming. He could have papered the entire Meadowlands with trenchant criticisms from my peers.

It was the timing of my remarks, coming a few days before the team's penultimate game of the regular season, in Buffalo, that is telltale. Most of the NFL experts have seized on the Giants' final regular season game against the Pats, an unexpected Super Bowl XLII preview, as the turning point in Manning's and the Giants' season. Since the game was meaningless except for the Patriots' historic quest for an undefeated regular season, the conventional wisdom dictated that Giants coach Tom Coughlin rest his quarterback and other key starters for the playoffs. Instead Coughlin and his team came to play. Manning was brilliant-almost Tom Brady's equal that day-as the Giants gave the Pats all they could handle before losing 38-35.

To my mind the transformation came a week earlier in Buffalo, when-desperate to clinch a playoff spot and avoid a must-win game against the Pats-the Giants rallied for 21 points in the fourth quarter for the victory. The comeback was not spurred by Manning's arm but rather by the legs of the unheralded running-back duo of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. Still, a team is only as composed down the stretch as its quarterback. And Manning, who so often has revealed that deer-in-the-headlights look at critical junctures of games, appeared commanding and in control.

I tried to figure out what transpired between Game 14, a dispiriting Manning & Co. performance against division rival Washington, and Game 15's spirited, come-from-behind triumph in Buffalo. And, of course, I came up with my blog attack. There was one other minor matter that was different that week. The Giants had a rookie at tight end. The team's stalwart tight end, Jeremy Shockey, a four-time Pro Bowler, had gone down with a season-ending injury late in that loss to the Redskins.

And then it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, this Manning metamorphosis wasn't about me. Rather, might it be possible that the removal of Shockey, despite his talents, was-particularly for Manning-a case of addition by subtraction. Could it be that Manning, already rid of one critic when Tiki Barber took his superstar act to broadcasting at last season's end, was further liberated when Shockey was sidelined? Could it have been Shockey rather than the opposition defenses that was making Manning skittish?

Shockey has always been something of a "me" guy. And I get the impression that some of Manning's anxiety has resulted from his trying to keep his volatile tight end happy and a fair share of his mistakes stem from the same: the quarterback either spending too much time looking for Shockey or trying to force the ball in to him. As a journalist I have always appreciated Shockey's scattershot candor, which spares nobody. It is a delicious counterpoint to my hometown team, on which everyone is in lockstep and never is heard a disparaging word. But as a fan I've come to recognize the value of the Patriots' team-first approach. The reporters may want to know what has gone wrong the last two weeks when record-setting receiver Randy Moss catches only one pass per game. The Pats only want to talk about who won.

Back to Eli, because ever since whenever-Buffalo or New England-he has been, if not quite unstoppable, damned impressive, and worthy of that number one spot in the draft that Giants fans had begun to fear was a total waste. Now that he has ceased to be a Giants-killer, Manning has the chance to play giant-killer by besting the mighty Patriots. If he proves up to it, he will stand alongside two legendary quarterbacks who were architects of stunning Super Bowl upsets: Joe Namath, who beat the NFL for the upstart AFL, and Tom Brady, who ushered in this Patriots dynasty by besting the Rams' "greatest show on turf." I hope Eli is not up to it. And if it turns out he is, well, then I pray I had nothing to do with it.