It's the prime time for Manning

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Eli Manning of the New York Giants looks

Eli Manning of the New York Giants looks to pass against the Dallas Cowboys. (Jan. 1, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept.

Happy birthday, Eli Manning!

The big guy turns 31 Tuesday, certainly not old in the real world and certainly still in his prime as an NFL quarterback but no longer quite eligible to be called "young.''

In addition to his Super Bowl ring, the man has a wife, a daughter and a biological clock whose meter officially is running as an about-to-be-over-30-year-old.

Hence the sense of urgency as Manning began 2012 Sunday night with the NFC East championship game against Dallas at MetLife Stadium. He was trying to avoid a third straight playoff-free January, which would have been a depressing waste of time and talent for an elite quarterback at the height of his powers.

Fortunately for the Giants, Manning "came through big time,'' as Tom Coughlin put it. The Giants won, 31-14, behind Manning and his usual partner in big-play drama, Victor Cruz.

Manning finished 24-for-33 for 346 yards, three TDs and a sizzling 136.7 passer rating. Cruz caught six passes for 178 yards, including a 74-yard touchdown.

Nice, and certainly a division title worth celebrating and savoring. But the big win ensured nothing more than a wild-card playoff game against the Falcons, with the Giants needing a win to avoid going four seasons without advancing in the playoffs.

Of course, Manning could never win another postseason game and still retire with a cherished place in Giants fans' memories because of what happened in January-February of 2008.

That could well be the fate of his brother Peyton, who has only one championship on his resume, will be 36 next season and is aging fast. But it would be a huge disappointment if Eli does not make a serious run at a second ring before it is too late. A playoff victory would be a nice start.

Manning is not an easily embraceable star, but over time he has worn down and won over most fans with his performance and imperturbability. This was the latest example of that.

After back-to-back subpar outings, he led the Giants to a 21-0 lead, finishing the first half 15-for-20 for 199 yards and two TDs, including the 74-yarder on which Cruz did most of the work after the catch.

An awful third quarter threatened to derail the Giants, as the Cowboys got to within 21-14 with 10:15 left in the game. But on a third-and-7 from his own 28, Manning looked in vain for Mario Manningham, then turned in desperation to Cruz deep downfield. "I saw him down the middle of the field,'' Manning said of the 44-yard completion. "I didn't think it was a risky throw . . . A huge play at that point.''

Manning connected with Cruz again for a 20-yard gain, setting up the field goal that put the Giants ahead 24-14. The capper came on the Giants' next drive, when Manning passed to Hakeem Nicks for 36 yards on a third-and-5, then found him again for a 4-yard touchdown.

The first major glimmer we got of Manning's attributes came six years ago Monday, across the parking lot at Giants Stadium, also against Dallas. Manning secured his first career win when he checked out of a pass play and handed off to Tiki Barber for the deciding touchdown with 11 seconds left in a 28-24 win.

Barber set the Giants' single-season rushing record on the play, which was a risky call. If Dallas had stopped him, time might have run out. But Manning, who threw three TD passes that night, saw a flaw in the defense, made the decision and saw it pay off.

There have been many big games and big decisions since then in a career now eight seasons old. After Sunday night's dramatics, Coughlin was asked if this has been Manning's finest season in their time together. "He's had a lot of good ones, believe me,'' he said. "I think we'll wait and see.''

In other words, let's wait and see what the rest of January brings. It's been a mostly good ride for Manning in his near-decade at the helm. But it's past time for another playoff payoff.

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