Eli Manning has been hot and cold this year. This week he faces off against an improving Packers defense and red hot rookie Casey Hayward.
One of the hallmarks of the modern football fan is need to make lists. We want to know not only who is the best football player is, but we want to quantify all of players playing and put them in some sort of logical order. There are some players who make this task easy, they are simply the best at their position (see Aaron Rodgers) and others are clearly the bottom of the barrel (see Mark Sanchez). Other players are a bit more difficult to nail down, they probably aren't the best…but they are still pretty good. We confound ourselves trying to place them properly…is this guy a top five quarterback or top ten? Is he elite or just a franchise quarterback? How clutch is he and what are his stats? On and on the conversation goes. There aren't many players that fit this situation quite like Eli Manning.
Manning has been an interesting story from the moment he entered the NFL. Since then his career has been a roller coaster of Super Bowl highs and head scratching lows. The biggest problem is that his career still seems to be able to go from one extreme to the other at a snap of the fingers. Take this year for instance. The first few weeks of the season he and Giants were rolling with Manning looking like he could be a MVP candidate. Then November came around and Manning’s game went ice cold. This doesn't mean that things are over for Manning and Giants though, we Packer fans know that at any moment Manning could snap out of his slump and suddenly become one of the best QB’s in the game once again.
Unlike the Packers, the Giants have basically a one-two punch in the passing game, unlike the plethora of weapons and options for Rodgers. The good news for Giant fans is that it’s a pretty good one-two punch with Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz being a good pair for Manning to work with on Sunday. The real secret of the Giants success through the air is going to be the ability of Manning to spread the ball around between these two and possibly a variable third (RB Ahmad Bradshaw or whichever TE decides to step up for the Giants) to catch this defense off balance. This will probably mean attempting to pick on rookie Casey Hayward.
In all honesty Packer fans are probably hoping that Manning picks on Hayward too. To say that Hayward has surpassed expectations is understanding the matter right now. Put simply, Hayward is already one of the best corners in football. Period. Don’t believe me? Right now opposing QB’s throwing to Hayward have a passer rating of 28.5, the best in the NFL. He’s tied for second in the NFL for interceptions with five and also possess the second most passes defended with 19. He’s done all this while only starting in four games. Throw in the fact that he is a sure tackler and shows instincts beyond that of a rookie, and the case for Casey Hayward takes on more steam.
Tramon Williams will probably take the talented Hakeem Nicks more often than not, leaving Hayward to cover Victor Cruz. This should be a good matchup between two newcomers to the star stage of the NFL, but it is the matchup between Manning and Hayward that may prove more interesting to watch. As stated above, Hayward has displayed better instincts than the average rookie cornerback….really he has shown more instincts than most second or third year cornerbacks as well. Will Manning be able to throw off Hayward and outsmart him? Or will Manning, who has been known to make bad decisions, throw an errant pass in Hayward’s direction?
If the Packers can shut down the high flying Giants passing attack then they will more than likely be able to pull out the victory. So far Hayward has been crucial to the resurgence of the Packers’ defense and has shut down some good passing attack, including the "best passing offense in the NFL" just last week against the Lions. A strong performance by Hayward should be able to lead to another interception or two…which may just change the outcome of the game.