By TOM CANAVAN
AP Sports Writer
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Chris Snee took a couple of quick stabs at how much Eli Manning has changed since the two came into the NFL as rookies with the New York Giants in 2004.
“He’s got some hair on his chin now,” Snee deadpanned, before letting a smile spread across his face. Then he pointed out that Manning was older.
The two-time Pro Bowl guard finally gave up.
“Honestly, the guy has been a cool customer ever since was a rookie in the same huddle as me,” Snee said. “He is not fazed by any situation or rattled. He is the best prepared as any guy I have ever been around.”
Unflappable Eli. Elite Eli. Take your pick.
There’s also: Super Eli — maybe for a second time.
Manning and the Giants (11-7) take on the San Francisco 49ers (14-3) in the NFC title game on Sunday with the winner advancing to Indianapolis for a Super Bowl showdown against either the Patriots or Ravens.
Whatever happens, Manning isn’t going to change. That’s what teammates love about the quarterback who comes from a family of quarterbacks.
There is no ego. Just a desire to work hard and win. Nothing upsets the 30-year-old.
“I don’t think you are supposed to change,” Manning said Friday. “I think the reason I had success whether in high school or in college and some success here in the NFL, is because you don’t change your personality. You don’t change whether you are having success or tough times. You try to work hard and stay confident and support your teammates and be a good teammate, and play the game the way it should be played.”
Manning, who threw for a career-best 4,933 yards and 29 touchdowns this season, is a creature of habit. He shows up every morning at the Giants’ headquarters around 7 a.m., wears the same clothes at most practices and leaves nine hours later after taking almost every snap in practices.
He’s a prankster, too. He loves to take teammates’ phones and change the language to anything other than English.
“He has gotten me plenty of times,” long snapper Zak DeOssie said. “I don’t even remember the last language. He just switches it. It took me an hour to figure it out.”
When it comes time to work, Manning doesn’t fool around. He comes in Tuesdays — his day off — to break down the film on the upcoming opponents, while familiarizing himself with the game plan. On Fridays, he holds a meeting with his receivers and shows clips of what they should expect on game days.
“He understands based on coverage where we would like the ball to go,” offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said. “He’s not going to be overwhelmed by what’s going on. He’s been through it enough times. We’ve had enough success with it that he plays very confidently. I don’t think the situation overwhelms him and I think he has a very profound understanding of what we’re trying to do offensively.”
Manning also knows sometimes things go wrong, which is what happened to an unproven receiver named Victor Cruz on the Giants’ third play from scrimmage this season.
Cruz dropped a third-down pass that would have given the Giants a first down, then went to the sideline and sulked.
Manning walked up to him almost immediately and told him to forget about it, that Cruz would make plays for the team.
Cruz has done exactly that — over and over — in setting a single-season team record with 1,536 yards receiving.
“I’m going to remember for a long time,” Cruz said. “It was him trusting in me and believing in me and understanding there were a lot more plays to be made. He is one of those guys who never seems to hone in on something negative.”
Veteran defensive end Dave Tollefson said Manning was one of the first people to welcome him to the Giants after they signed him off the Oakland Raiders’ practice squad in 2007. The two have become friends and their wives have gotten to know each other.
“He is still the same guy and I think that’s what makes him who he is,” Tollefson said. “This is such an emotional game of highs and lows and it’s like he has this great poker face. He just really absorbs emotionally a lot of information and puts our team in position to win games instead of melting down when it gets too hot. That’s tough man, I couldn’t play quarterback. I have a great arm, but we have a quarterback so I don’t play quarterback.”
Being a quarterback in New York isn’t easy. Linebacker and then-defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka was drafted in the first round two years after Manning. One of his first recollections was the quarterback was taking a lot of heat in the media.
“I always say you are never as bad as they say and never as good as they say,” Kiwanuka said. “You have to have your own mindset and you have to have your own understanding of where you fit in. It’s tough, but he handles it very well.”
That’s one of the things that former 49ers quarterback Steve Young admires about Manning. He is his own man.
He is nothing like his brother, Peyton, who is more outgoing and doesn’t hide his emotions on the field.
Young says Eli seems to say that “if it’s going good, that’s good and if it’s going bad, OK.”
“I think that’s maybe the best compliment you can give Eli is that he doesn’t want to be his brother, so he doesn’t want to have everyone saying, oh, he’s just like his brother and I’m saying, it’s just the opposite,” Young said. “He’s become as effective as his brother, but in an Eli way and that might be the best compliment.”
Tackle David Diehl has protected Manning since the day the son of Archie joined the Giants.
“He is not a rah-rah guy and just says things to say stuff,” Diehl said. “You can’t fake that. If you do, people see right through you. He always speaks from the heart. We know he is 100 percent prepared to go out there and play great football. He has that cool confidence about him.”
Manning has had his moments of misery in his Giants career, with the worst possibly being a start in his rookie season against Baltimore. He finished 4 of 18 for 27 yards and two interceptions. His quarterback rating was zero, and Ray Lewis and the Ravens toyed with him.
Manning usually walks to the line of scrimmage and will identify the middle linebacker by number: “50 is the mike.”
Diehl has a vivid recollection of what happened when the Giants came to the line in that game.
“They were called out: ‘No! I’m the mike. No. he’s the mike.’ I have never been in a game in that situation,” Diehl said.
Manning spent the ride home on the train talking to Gilbride about the experience.
“It’s all part of the growth that has taken place,” Gilbride said. “He’s been through so much now and we’ve seen so much that it would take a lot to unnerve him now. That doesn’t mean that people aren’t going to do something that surprises us — people always do things that are a little different than you prepared for. But he has a great grasp of what our concepts are.”
Gilbride said Manning has had other moments of disappointment in his career, but he has done a great job of hiding them from everybody.
Teammates appreciate that.
“With Eli, you get what you get, it is what it is and that’s what attracts guys to want to play for a guy like that,” Tollefson said. “There is no hidden agenda. It’s not about sponsorships. It’s about the NY on the side of his helmet and winning football games and everybody wants to be a part of that.”