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Best of times, worst of times

The Giants' quarterback is on the upswing in a roller coaster of a season.

Eli Manning is like one of those mechanical ducks that bob along at boardwalk shooting galleries:

One week, the poor play of the inconsistent New York Giants quarterback lifts him to the surface, where the guns delight in blasting away at him. The next, he has played well and temporarily plunged out of sight, his critics forced to aim at another target.

"He's done very well with it," New York coach Tom Coughlin said yesterday, referring to the up-and-down nature of the position. "The quarterback, and I remind him of this, gets normally way too much praise and way too much criticism. He's normally in line right behind the head coach."

This week, as Manning, who has thrown 17 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions, prepares for Sunday's game with the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, everything is ducky again between him and the Big Apple's fickle fans and media.

That's because a week after igniting another quarterback controversy by throwing four interceptions - three returned for touchdowns - in an ugly loss to Minnesota, he salvaged a victory with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives in Chicago.

"It's football," Manning said yesterday. "There are weeks when things don't go your way. . . . [If] you've been playing great and all of a sudden have a bad game, they kind of forget about all the things you've done before. And it can work vice versa, also."

Curiously, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb is looking for a little vice versa himself this week.

Returning to the lineup after missing two games with ankle and thumb injuries, McNabb - though he said yesterday that he had nothing to prove to fans - will find himself in the same kind of position Manning was in a week ago.

Once again, against NFC East rivals, he will have to recapture his confidence and convince hostile critics that he was a top draft pick for a reason.

"You've got to have faith in yourself," Manning said when asked how he played himself out of the doghouse late in the 21-16 win over the Bears, which left the Giants with an 8-4 record. "You can't lose your confidence. You've got to prepare the same every week, and go out there with the same attitude and work at it and get better. . . . It can turn back quickly. You've got to bounce back."

Coughlin admitted that the maddening inconsistency displayed by the quarterback who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft concerned him, but no more than erratic performances by any of the Giants, who with a victory Sunday and a host of other favorable results could clinch a wild-card berth.

"I thought that Eli bounced back well from the week before," Coughlin said of Manning's play in Chicago. Manning was 16 of 27 for 195 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions.

"Even though some things didn't go his way, he continued to stay focused and to play hard, and believed that we could win," Coughlin said.

Perhaps Manning is just one of those quarterbacks who play better when they have less to think about. As Eagles safety Brian Dawkins said, Manning's success Sunday against the Bears - as it did in a comeback win in Philadelphia last season - came when the Giants went to the hurry-up offense.

"We practice the hurry-up a good bit," Manning said. "You simplify what you're doing, and in a way it can simplify what the defense is doing also. You know your looks. You know everybody's on the same page. You can read and react. . . . I don't know if you want to be in it all the time, but when you have to go to it and you can go down and use it successfully, it helps out."

"He enjoys that phase of it," Coughlin said.

Manning also said he anticipated that the desperate Eagles would come at him every way possible Sunday, much as the Giants did to McNabb in their 16-3 Meadowlands win on Sept. 30.

New York, seeming to sense that McNabb had not yet regained his mobility after off-season knee surgery, sacked the Eagles quarterback 12 times that Sunday night.

Asked if his defensive coaches game-planned differently for the healthy McNabb and this year's version, Coughlin evaded the question.

"I think what Donovan brings to the table is that he is still - providing his ankle is OK - the guy that can make plays with his legs. He exhibited that against Miami. He exhibited that against Washington. So you do have that added element to have to try to defend because you don't want him making plays out of the pocket."