By Dave Caldwell
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Victor Cruz was so happy the New York Giants finally won a game late Monday night that he tossed his shoes into the crowd on his way off the field.
Then came Eli Manning. He half-heartedly pumped a fist, smiled a little, flipped his wristbands into the seats and seemed to accelerate as he ran through the tunnel, cut to his right and entered the locker room. Woo hoo.
You can't say Manning was the star of the Giants' 23-7 victory over the absolutely punchless Minnesota Vikings, but at least Manning did not mess up Monday -- though he came awfully close twice. He and Tom Coughlin, the coach of the mighty, 1-6 Giants, will take that.
Manning admitted after the game that he was happy. Then he said, "When you play and don't win after a while, you kind of forget that feeling -- that winning feeling. It's good to get it."
It was midnight Tuesday. Manning was standing behind a lectern on a podium set up in an extra locker room at MetLife Stadium before maybe a dozen reporters. He wore a gray suit, a maroon tie and a couple days' worth of beard that almost made him look reckless.
Manning is hardly reckless. What he was, as the Giants lost their first six games, was imprecise and inefficient, the Un-Eli. He entered Monday's game with nine touchdown passes, 15 interceptions and a 64.0 passer rating. How bad is that? Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder had a 65.9 rating, and the Vikings kept him on the bench for the entire game Monday.
But Manning compiled a 81.1 rating Monday, his highest since the season opener, by throwing for 200 yards, one touchdown (on an underthrown pass) and, more important than anything, no interceptions. Coughlin praised Manning's vision, which seems like faint praise but apparently means a lot to Coughlin.
"It's obvious that he was very, very concerned about taking care of the ball," Coughlin said. "He did a nice job with that. That's a good positive, too."
Eli Manning has won twice as many Super Bowls as his older brother, Peyton, but he'd fallen laps behind Peyton in the family quarterback sweepstakes this year. Peyton has been so good, and the Denver Broncos have been so superior, that Eli, in contrast, looked like a lost soul.
But then, in a spectacularly hyped Sunday night game, the Broncos lost to Peyton's old team, the Indianapolis Colts. Twenty-four hours later, Eli's Giants won. They still don't have a realistic chance to catch Dallas (4-3) for first place in the dreadful NFC East, but...
"I think we have a shovel now to start digging out of the hole," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said.
Manning is not the type of player to come up with cute little analogies like that. Someone asked him if Coughlin had said anything at halftime to inspire the team to build on a three-point lead, and Manning smiled and replied, "I'd like to say I remember exactly everything Tom says."
They still love him here. Among the thousands who wore replicas of his No. 10 jersey Monday were a man in an ape suit and a red-and-blue leather helmet, and a 43-year-old man named Mariano Rivera, who walked on to "Enter Sandman" and participated in the coin toss.
Minnesota won it. But the Vikings deferred, and the Giants took the ball and held onto it for 17 plays and more than nine minutes. On the third play from scrimmage, Manning scrambled for six yards and a first down.
Later, though, Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo almost intercepted a Manning pass that was so far off the mark that the play-by-play sheet did not list an intended receiver. He barely missed the streaking Hakeem Nicks in the end zone. The long drive ended with a field goal.
Manning's vision was not so hot on the Giants' next drive, when he missed spotting a wide-open Cruz, ended up dumping the ball instead to the one-and-only Bear Pascoe, and the Giants had to punt. And Minnesota's Marcus Sherels returned it 86 yards for a touchdown.
But Manning had already discovered something about the Vikings: They had a darn good pass rush but were unwilling to concede any deep passes. He completed four of five passes -- and Cruz drew a 23-yard pass-interference penalty -- on an 82-yard drive that ended with a 24-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Rueben Randle.
Randle said he was supposed to run a slant pattern, but Minnesota cornerback Chris Cook took away the inside, so he broke outside, and Manning laid out a pass that Randle out-leaped Cook to catch. Manning is still great at improvisation, Randle said.
"He's always positive, no matter what the situation is," Randle said. "He knows he's our leader. He can't get down."
The Giants built on their lead with two second-half field goals and a touchdown scored by -- no joke -- Peyton, as in Hillis, the fullback whom the battered Giants had signed Wednesday.
Manning unintentionally drew a laugh at his postgame news conference when he said, "I thought Peyton played really well." As if he was a good judge of Peytons everywhere.
But the Giants were also lucky. Sherels could have given Minnesota the lead in the second half when a pass from Manning hit him in the hands with open field in front of him. But it bounced out. Two plays later, Sherels fumbled a punt that led to the Other Peyton's touchdown.
The Giants' defense did hold Adrian Peterson to 28 yards, and Josh Freeman, the Vikings' third quarterback in four weeks, misfired on 33 of 53 passes. But the Giants took the victory and moved on: Philadelphia, a bye, then Oakland. They might not lose again for a month!
"This is a resilient bunch, and I've been saying that all year long," Cruz said.
Super Bowl XLVII is in 103 days at MetLife Stadium, and the Giants, who practice just across the parking lot, are still long shots to be playing in it -- even longer than the hated Jets, who are somehow 4-3. But the notion is not as preposterous as it was at kickoff Monday night.
Manning said of the strategies used by the Minnesota defense: "We didn't let any of that cause any mistakes for us."
Not exactly "Play Like a Champion Today," Eli. But it will do, for now.
Dave Caldwell lives in South Orange, N.J., and is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal. He has written about football for The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times.