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No better time than now for Giants to turn Manning loose

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- With the availability of running back Ahmad Bradshaw an issue now, it's clear where the New York Giants must turn next ... and I'm not talking about Brandon Jacobs or Danny Ware. Nope, it's Eli Manning who steps to center stage.

If I'm the Giants, I take the handcuffs off the guy, run the no-huddle offense and let him wing it. Simple as that.

Yeah, I know, he might not have Hakeem Nicks or Mario Manningham this weekend. I understand. But I also understand he's going against the world's worst pass defense and has been lights-out in the fourth quarter -- or when there's the greatest urgency.

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In fact, nobody does it better in the fourth quarter than Manning. His 119.3 passer rating not only leads the NFL; four of the Giants' five victories have been fourth-quarter comebacks from a tie or deficit --including last weekend's 20-17 defeat of Miami.

For whatever reason, Manning seems like a different quarterback when games are tight, and the heat is on -- and again I'll cite that fourth-quarter record. There, Manning completes 70 percent of his passes, with six touchdown and two interceptions. The rest of the time? His completion percentage is down to 62.5, with seven touchdowns and three interceptions.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that maybe, just maybe, Manning is better winging the ball in a more frenzied, less predictable, attack. So take off the leash and let him fly. It's not as if we haven't seen him do it before.

Look at the 2007 playoffs when Manning distinguished himself by making big plays when it counted most. In the club's divisional upset of Dallas, he was sensational in the team's last drive of the first half -- pushing the club 71 yards in 46 seconds and punctuating the series with a critical touchdown with 11 seconds left.

Then there's Super Bowl XLII, and we all know what happened there. It was Manning who drove the Giants 83 yards in 2:07, clinching it with a perfectly thrown 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress to hang the season's only loss on New England.

My point is: The greater the urgency, the better Manning seems to play. So put him in a hurry-up offense more often, and let Eli be himself. Let him throw and throw and throw, just as he's done in the fourth quarter this season.

When Manning was asked this week to explain his fourth-quarter success, he said, "It's nothing you think about," and I guess that's where I'm going here. I don't want him thinking. I want him doing what comes naturally, instinctively, and that's passing the football.

"Why does he seem so much better in the fourth quarter?" I asked offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride.

"I think that we've been in situations where we've had to win the game," he said, "so we've gone to our open-it-up mode and let it play out. He's been with us doing the same stuff, doing it over and over again and getting more confident. The supporting cast has done a great job for him, guys have gotten open and the protection is excellent. So it's a combination of a lot of things."

Only the supporting cast almost certainly will be reduced, so it's time to adjust on the fly and try something ... well, different. So try Manning more in hurry-up offenses and see what happens. I know what it's done in the fourth quarter this season. Let's see it work before then.

"Well," said Gilbride, "when we've gone hurry-up without [the urgency] we haven't been successful. It's only been in the two-minute [drill], where we're just throwing it."

So just throw it.

Pittsburgh did a week ago when it played New England, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger stepping back 55 times to pass. On all but five of those snaps he got the ball off, completing 36 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns. It was Big Ben at his best, and all I know about Eli Manning is that he's at his best when the Giants are scrambling in the fourth quarter, and he's running a hurry-up offense.

So take a hint from Pittsburgh and cut the guy loose. Manning has proven he's more dangerous in the fourth quarter, and the Steelers proved there are plays galore to be made in the middle of the Patriots' defense. So do what's necessary and make Manning stand and deliver.

Look, I understand he's handicapped, and that where the Steelers had Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery and Heath Miller, Manning could be -- maybe will be -- without his two best receivers, Nicks and Manningham. Nevertheless, you do what you have to do, and what the Giants must do is keep Manning throwing to Victor Cruz, Jake Ballard, Bear Pascoe, Jacobs, Ware, I don't care ... just keep him throwing.

"He really is playing that well," said Gilbride. "The key is: Can we continue? We're losing a couple of guys who are important cogs in that whole thing. The running back has done a tremendous job of shoring up the protection, so losing Ahmad is going to hurt. And losing Hakeem, who's a terrific receiver, forces teams to defend you a certain way which will open up some opportunities for Victor and Jake Ballard. Each week it plays out differently, and some guy has to step up."

Now, more than ever, that guy is Eli Manning.

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