Eli Manning reacts during the first half of a game...

Eli Manning reacts during the first half of a game against the Green Bay Packers at MetLife Stadium. (Nov. 17, 2013) Credit: Getty

Late in the third quarter, with the Giants clinging to a 13-6 lead over the Packers, Eli Manning faced a third-and-4 from his 43-yard line. As he took the snap and dropped back to throw, he spotted Victor Cruz down the right sideline.

Cruz was running between two Packers defenders, but Manning, undeterred by the coverage, fired the ball downfield and placed the pass in just the right spot for Cruz to make the catch. It was good for a 25-yard completion, and set the stage for the eventual winning touchdown in the Giants' 27-13 win.

It was the kind of pass that earlier in the season, given Manning's turnover problems, might have been picked off. But this time, it was thrown with the kind of confidence and authority that was more typical of Manning's stature as a two-time Super Bowl MVP.

"That was a big third down, a big play, a big conversion," Manning told me in the Giants' locker room on Wednesday. "I didn't get to step into the throw as well as I wanted to, but Victor made a good adjustment on the ball. It was a little tight , but it was a big play for us."

And it was another sign that Manning, who had 15 interceptions in the Giants' 0-6 early-season meltdown, was back to himself. While it may be too soon to make any definitive proclamation that Manning's interception problems are behind him, he really is starting to look more like the championship-caliber quarterback we've seen the previous six seasons.

The confidence is back. The interceptions aren't.

Since enduring the worst stretch of his career -- even worse than his rookie season in 2004 -- Manning has emerged from the epic slump a more careful quarterback. He has only two interceptions in his last four games, and one of them was solely the fault of wide receiver Louis Murphy Jr., who went the wrong way on a pattern against the Packers.

At 4-6 and back in the mix for the NFC East title, Manning is getting his game back just in time. And with a mammoth two-game stretch coming up against divisional opponents Dallas and Washington, Manning can't afford a return to his turnover-prone ways. Otherwise, the Giants are done.

"This is where we wanted to be four or five weeks ago, work ourselves back into the mix and have a chance to win this division," Manning said. "This is the next game. That's the way we've been dealing with it. One game at a time and this is the next one. This is a big one in the division."

The last time Manning faced the Cowboys was the beginning of his early-season swoon. He had three interceptions in a Week 1 loss in Dallas. His last pick, which caromed off running back Da'Rel Scott, was returned for a touchdown by cornerback Brandon Carr as the Giants were attempting a fourth-quarter comeback. Manning had no idea things would get as bad as they did, and he may have even resorted to superstition to break the streak. After a road loss to the Bears, in which Manning threw three interceptions and dropped the Giants to 0-6, he stopped shaving.

Manning won't say whether the beard is an outgrowth of his frustration. "I just think it looks great," he said.

On a more conventional note, one thing that's helped Manning in recent weeks is more of a reliance on shorter drops. Yes, there are still five- and seven-step drops for longer routes. But as a way to help an offensive line in transition because of injuries, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride has had Manning go to shorter drops.

"We've probably thrown a little more three-step passing game than in the past," he said. "We've been successful with it, had some good plays. We've done a good job of just doing some new things, some new concepts and they've worked well."

One big advantage of the three-step drops: It often negates opposing teams' pass rush because the ball gets out of Manning's hands more quickly.

"The ball's going to get out a little faster," he said. "You go three-step and you hit guys on slants, you hit guys running, you can still get big plays. You can get 20-yard gains. Just trying to mix it in just to slow down the pass rushers. Defensive linemen sometimes get annoyed when they're rushing hard and the ball is getting out before they can get back there."

Whatever the case, Manning looks like a much better quarterback than he did during the Giants' mind-numbingly bad start.

"He looks a little more comfortable in the pocket," Cruz said. "He's reading the defenses very well, and I think the numbers are better and we're catching the ball and we're making some big plays as of late."

Manning's third-down throw to Cruz was the latest evidence.

"That's kind of one of those Eli throws we're used to seeing him make and one of those throws he's accustomed to making week in and week out," Cruz said. "It's been a progression this year trying to get that ball to us. It's just a matter of trust that he's beginning to grow more and more of in his receivers. He trusts we're going to be there when we need to be and do the right things and make the right adjustments when we need to make them."

More big plays ahead? Manning certainly hopes so. It may be the only way the Giants climb out of the 0-6 crater they created to start the season.


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