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GOLDBERG ON FOOTBALL: Manning gets better as the game goes along

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) _ One play demonstrated the star Eli Manning can become. Another play, a few minutes later, showed that he's still a rookie.

The play that showed his promise came on a third-and-8 in the third quarter, when he dodged two pass rushers, rolled to the right and lobbed the ball over a charging linebacker for a 10-yard completion to Tiki Barber. It kept alive a drive that ended with Manning's first NFL touchdown pass, a 6-yarder to Jeremy Shockey.

But Manning and the New York Giants lost 14-10 to Michael Vick and Atlanta on Sunday. And Manning's stats 17-of-37 for 162 yards with that TD and two interceptions were mediocre.

He sometimes looked lost, as on that second play, which came with the Giants, down 14-7, facing a second-and-5 at the Falcons 28. Manning raised up quickly and tried to hit Amani Toomer on a slant.

Fine, except that Atlanta defensive end Brady Smith had dropped off in a zone blitz and the pass went right to him, ending one of several second-half threats by the Giants.

That's the purpose of that blitz and I bit right into it,'' Manning said.You can call it a rookie mistake, but I shouldn't have thrown it.''

There's a stiff rookie learning curve, something coach Tom Coughlin was well aware of when he decided after a loss in Arizona last week it was time for the first pick in the draft to learn his craft.

Give Coughlin credit. Two weeks ago, when defensive end Michael Strahan, unquestionably the Giants' best player, was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, Coughlin must have feared his team was going nowhere _ although at 5-5 the Giants remain in the playoff race. Last week, after Kurt Warner was sacked six times by Arizona, he decided it was time to go with the kid.

As it turned out, the present may not be too bad.

Warner was sacked 24 times in his last four games, but Manning went down just once _ nimbly sidestepping rushers, as he did on the play to Barber, or throwing the ball away before he got hit.

He also was hurt by several dropped passes in the first half, when he went just 5-of-14 and his passer rating was an anemic 15.8. Shockey dropped at least two and Hilliard and Toomer one each.

The second half was better, as Manning, Coughlin and the rest of the Giants were quick to acknowledge.

``He clearly seemed more comfortable out there, more in the rhythm of the game,'' Coughlin said.

That's why the Giants seemed so upbeat. They had seen the future and it looked bright, at least at quarterback.

``I think he can win now, this year, not just five years from now,'' Barber said.

That might be asking a lot. But the opposition wasn't arguing.

``I'm glad that we got Eli in his first start and not his fourth or fifth,'' said Atlanta coach Jim Mora, who watched Manning nearly rally the Giants from a 14-0 first-half deficit and get the ball to the Falcons 42 on his final drive.

``As everyone knows, he's going to be a tremendous player. He showed great poise and composure. He didn't start out well and he regained his form. They rallied behind him and they played great defense. My hat's off to them and Eli. I think he's going to be just like his brother. I'm glad we got him now.''

Peyton was co-MVP last season and is on course to shatter Dan Marino's record for touchdown passes in a season. Eli may never have Peyton's stats, not in the swirling winds of Giants Stadium.

But even in defeat, he generated a lot of hope.

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