THE ONLY thing more remarkable than the Giants' unexpected presence in Super Bowl XLII has been the transformation of the quarterback who helped get them there.

The Eli Manning we have watched the last 4 weeks, starting with that near-upset of the Patriots in Week 17 and continuing through three impressive road playoff wins over the Bucs, Cowboys and Packers, bears little resemblance to the one who stumbled through most of the regular season.

In the eight games that preceded the first meeting with New England, Manning completed just 51.4 percent of his passes, averaged 5.78 yards per attempt, and threw just six touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.

In the four games since then, his completion percentage has soared to 64.1 and his yards per attempt to 7.29, and he's thrown eight TDs and just one interception. That one pick came in the 38-35 loss to the Patriots. He hasn't thrown an interception in 85 postseason attempts.

Ask Giants coach Tom Coughlin what has triggered Manning's metamorphosis and he won't even acknowledge there's been one. "This a guy that just consistently goes in that [ascending] direction," he said.

And you thought getting truthful answers out of Andy Reid was tough.

ESPN "Monday Night Football'' analyst Ron Jaworski said one big reason for Manning's turnaround has been a back-to-basics approach to the offense by Coughlin and coordinator Kevin Gilbride.

"They've really toned down the volume of this offense," said the former Eagles quarterback. "As the season has progressed, they've become more of a power-running team. The offensive line coming off the football. Less formation variation. Less motion.

"I believe they are simplifying the reads for Eli. And clearly, he's doing a better job of handling those reads. I looked at the tape of Sunday's game against Green Bay. The Packers really defined his reads for him. They were playing bump-and-run. He knew immediately where to go with the football."

Prior to the playoffs, Manning had just 16 interceptionless games in 57 career starts. This is only the second time in his career he's strung together three games without a pick.

"As he's started to play well, you see the confidence," Jaworski said. "You can see a little bit of a swagger. He knows there's nothing wrong with an incompletion. He's not afraid to throw the ball away and not take a sack. Live to fight another down. He knows he has a good, solid defense. He's using all of his weapons. I just think he has a better feel for the total body of the game."

Jaworski also feels Manning has gotten more comfortable in the pocket. Last season, he often seemed more concerned with the pass rush than finding an open receiver. After Manning's ugly, four-interception performance in a 25-point, late-November loss to the Vikings, Giants GM Jerry Reese suggested the quarterback was "skittish," which is a word in the same neighborhood as "girly man."

"For most of his career, when he felt pressure, he had a tendency to drift backward," Jaworski said. "When you do that, you lose your power. You're not able to plant that back leg and deliver the football.

"When he feels pressure on the edge now, he's stepping up. Now you got your body going forward. Now you have better balance. That's been one of the clear-cut differences I've seen in him in this stretch that he's been playing well."

Around the league

* When Tony Dungy announced this week that he was returning to coach the Colts for at least one more season, the team also announced that assistant head coach Jim Caldwell would succeed Dungy whenever he does step down. When Mike Holmgren announced that he would coach 1 more year in Seattle, the Seahawks made no official announcement about his successor, even though the job has pretty much been promised to assistant head coach Jim Mora. Why? Because the NFL's Rooney Rule requires that teams interview at least one minority candidate for vacant head-coaching positions. So, next year, the Seahawks will go through the charade of interviewing a minority candidate before promoting Mora. That won't be necessary in Indianapolis because Caldwell is African-American.

* When announced this week that he was returning to coach the Colts for at least one more season, the team also announced that assistant head coach would succeed Dungy whenever he does step down. When announced that he would coach 1 more year in Seattle, the Seahawks made no official announcement about his successor, even though the job has pretty much been promised to assistant head coach . Why? Because the NFL's Rooney Rule requires that teams interview at least one minority candidate for vacant head-coaching positions. So, next year, the Seahawks will go through the charade of interviewing a minority candidate before promoting Mora. That won't be necessary in Indianapolis because Caldwell is African-American.

* The NFL averted a labor war 2 years ago when outgoing commissioner Paul Tagliabue strong-armed the owners into agreeing to a collective-bargaining- agreement extension that gave the players 60 percent of the league's pot of gold. The owners can opt out of the deal in November, which seems almost a certainty right now. If that happens, 2009 would be the last capped year of the current agreement. There would be no salary cap in 2010, but the service requirement for free agency would jump from 4 to 6 years. "I think it's really common knowledge our last labor agreement is not our smartest move," Broncos owner Pat Bowlen told Jeff Legwold, of the Rocky Mountain News. "And I'm not talking about [just] the Denver Broncos. I'm talking about the [whole] league. We can't live with this deal."

* Giants coach Tom Coughlin drew a lot of criticism for playing his starters for four quarters against the Patriots in Week 17. But that decision looks like a stroke of genius now. The 38-35 loss gave them much-needed confidence going into the playoffs. "I think it definitely helped," quarterback Eli Manning said. "We played good football. We gave ourselves a shot to win. We fell short, but it got our confidence going. It got us playing good football. It got us back in a rhythm, and from then on, we've been on a hot streak."

* The Eagles own the 19th overall pick in the April draft. They were one of four teams that finished at 8-8, along with Arizona, Minnesota and Houston. But they are selecting behind the other three because the Eagles' opponents had a higher winning percentage (.562). Eleven teams finished 8-8 or 7-9. If the Eagles had lost two more games, they'd be picking eighth rather than 19th.

* Former Eagles coach Ray Rhodes is expected to join the Houston Texans' coaching staff as an assistant defensive backs coach. Rhodes, who has health problems, spent the last 5 years on Mike Holmgren's staff in Seattle. He grew up in Mexia, Texas, which is about a 2 1/2-hour drive from Houston.

* Cowboys owner Jerry Jones already has said he wants Terrell Owens back next season and will pay him the $3 million roster bonus he's due in June. But the team's other starting wideout, Terry Glenn, might not be back. Glenn, 33, needs microfracture surgery on his right knee, which he put off this season in the hope that the Cowboys would make it to the Super Bowl. Because of the extensive rehab time required following microfracture surgery, Glenn might consider retiring.

* One Cowboys player who definitely won't be back is running back Julius Jones. Jones is an unrestricted free agent and intends to test the market. It's clear the Cowboys intend to make Marion Barber the starter next season. They'll look for someone to complement him in either free agency or the draft. Jones rushed for a career-low 588 yards this season and averaged only 3.6 yards per carry as Barber became the Cowboys' go-to running back.

2-MINUTE DRILL

FROM THE LIP

FROM THE LIP

* "The injury report will be out next Wednesday and we're excited to give that to you. That [injury] form will be filled out completely and I can't wait to give that to everybody. I know you're anxious for it, so when it's due on Wednesday, we'll have it for you. Don't worry about that." - Patriots coach Bill Belichick, when asked whether quarterback Tom Brady's ankle injury would prevent him from practicing

* "Well, he's grown a lot more facial hair this year. And his voice has deepened a little bit." - Giants center Shaun O'Hara, when asked whether Eli Manning had matured as a quarterback

* "He's like 5-6, so I guess it's easy to miss him out there. He can hide in the grass." - Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, on wide receiver Wes Welker, who caught an NFL-high 112 passes

* "We are a team that has a chance to contend, and we don't need to be reinventing the wheel every year. I was motivated to retain the consistency, and I know we have done that on the offensive side of the ball." - Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, on the $3 million-a-year contract extension he gave offensive coordinator Jason Garrett

THUMBS UP:

To Packers equipment manager Red Batty, who retrieved the football that the Giants' Lawrence Tynes used to kick his game-winning, 47-yard field goal against the Packers in Sunday's NFC Championship Game and gave it to him. A classy move.

BY THE NUMBERS:

* The Giants haven't committed an offensive turnover in their last 33 possessions, dating back to the fourth quarter of their final regular-season game against the Patriots.

* This will be the 12th time that the two Super Bowl teams also played each other in the regular season. But it's only the second time that they played each other in the final week of the regular season. The other time it happened: 1977, Cowboys and Broncos.

* The Giants are the ninth wild-card team to reach the Super Bowl since the 1970 merger. Wild-card teams are 4-4 in the Super Bowl, but have won three of the last four times they've gotten there.

DID YOU KNOW?:

Mike Carey, who will be the referee for Super Bowl XLII, also was the referee for the Giants-Patriots game in Week 17.