Eli Manning and Jason Pierre-Paul were in vastly different stations in their career when the 2011 season began.
Manning was a Super Bowl champion quarterback who was on his way to becoming the best at his position in Giants history, a player whose streak of consecutive starts made him one of the most durable quarterbacks ever to play the game. Pierre-Paul had never started a game. A former first-round draft choice (as was Manning), he was considered a defensive end with enormous potential, but had relatively few tangible achievements.
Despite their differences entering the season, Manning and Pierre-Paul have, in their own way, each had breakout seasons. Today, they were rewarded for their outstanding play when they were named the Giants' lone representatives to the 2012 NFC Pro Bowl team.
"It's a real honor," Manning said. "Obviously, when you make it to the Pro Bowl it's because your team, the offensive line, my receivers are doing a great job protecting me, getting open, making plays. It is an honor. Considering some of the other quarterbacks in the NFC who have had outstanding seasons, I'm really thrilled and truly honored to be named to the Pro Bowl team."
"It means a lot," Pierre-Paul said. "I don't really understand the whole Pro Bowl thing, but it means a lot. It means I'm doing good."
Wide receiver Victor Cruz, who, like Pierre-Paul, had his first huge season, and guard Chris Snee are second alternates to the team. Snee made the Pro Bowl each of the previous three seasons.
The Pro Bowl will be played on Sunday, Jan. 29 in Honolulu. Neither Manning nor Pierre-Paul hopes to play in the game. Because the Pro Bowl will be played the week before Super Bowl XLVI, players from the teams in the title game will not play in the Pro Bowl.
This is Manning's second Pro Bowl selection. He was selected in 2008, when he completed eight of 11 passes for 111 yards, a touchdown and an interception in the NFC's 30-21 victory. He is the first Giants quarterback to be selected to two Pro Bowls since Phil Simms, who played in 1985 and 1993.
"It's a great time, just to see some of the other athletes, guys you compete against, guys that you respect and watch them play and get to hang out with them, get to talk to them, get to see their personalities outside of football," Manning said. "It's a very laidback and fun time. Obviously, with the new way that the Pro Bowl has gone, you don't really want to be playing in the game. You'd rather be getting ready for the Super Bowl. So hopefully that's the case and we'll see what happens."
Manning, who led the Giants to victory in Super Bowl XLII four years ago, has had his finest statistical season when the team most needed him to. The Giants' rushing attack has uncharacteristically struggled this season and is ranked 32nd and last in the NFL as the Giants head into their Sunday night showdown with the Dallas Cowboys that will determine the NFC East championship. But with Manning having thrown every one of the team's 556 passes, the Giants are ranked fourth in the NFL – their highest ranking since 1973 - with a franchise-record 293.5 passing yards a game.
Manning's passer rating of 90.3 is 10 points higher than his career average entering the season and four points higher than the previous career best he posted in 2008. He has set a Giants record with 4,587 passing yards. With 556 passes and 335 completions, he needs 13 attempts and five completions to set marks in those statistical categories. Manning has thrown 26 touchdown passes, including an NFL record-tying 14 in the fourth quarter. His 16 interceptions are nine fewer than he threw in 2010.
With seven 300-yard passing games, Manning has established another single-season record. He has three 400-yard games, which tie for the second-most in a season in NFL history. Manning has led the Giants to victory six times in games in which they trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter.
"I think I have thrown the ball well, but again, I think the receivers have done a good job," Manning said. "We had some guys step up, so a lot of credit goes to them. I feel like I improved on some things. There are still some improvements to be made, and obviously my whole mindset is the team having success and us winning games. At this point right now we have a chance to make it to the playoffs and win this last game versus Dallas. That's the mindset right now. I'm not losing focus. I'm not going to be planning any reservations in Hawaii right now. I'm trying to get ready for Dallas and get ready to play that game."
Pierre-Paul didn't have anything close to Manning's pedigree when the season began. He had played just one season of major college football at South Florida when the Giants selected him on the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft. As a rookie, he played in all 16 games but started none of them and finished the season with 4.5 sacks, including two apiece in back-to-back games vs. Jacksonville and Washington.
The second-year pro was destined to play a bigger role this season, but with injuries to Osi Umenyiora (who has missed seven games) and Justin Tuck (who sat out four), Pierre-Paul was needed more than anyone anticipated. And he came through in a big way.
Pierre-Paul has started 11 of the Giants' 15 games. He has at least a half-sack in 11 of them and multiple sacks in five of them. Pierre-Paul's total of 15.5 sacks is the NFL's fourth-highest and is the most by a Giant since Michael Strahan had 18.5 in 2003.
"With Tuck and Osi being out, it gave me a chance to show my coaches that I can perform at a high level, even though they didn't expect me to have a breakout season," Pierre-Paul said. "Just feel the joy right now. I'm having a good feeling even though I knew I could do it all along. I'm happy because everybody sees it now. They know that I am one of the key players that the Giants have on their team."
The 6-5, 270-pound Pierre-Paul – who turns 23 on Sunday - was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his dominant performance in the Giants' 37-34 victory in Dallas on Dec. 11. He led the team with eight tackles (six solo), including two sacks of Tony Romo. The first resulted in a safety for the Giants' first points. The second sack was on a third down in the third quarter and forced the Cowboys to punt from their own 43-yard line. Pierre-Paul also forced a Felix Jones fumble that was recovered by Deon Grant and led to a field goal. He secured the victory by blocking Dan Bailey's 47-yard field goal attempt with one second left in the game. If good, the kick would have tied the score and sent the game into overtime.
When the season began, it might have seemed outlandish to project this level of production from Pierre-Paul. But he insists he knew he could do it.
"Honestly, I told my best friend, 'This year I'm going to do way better than I did last year because I know what I'm going into, I know what to expect,'" Pierre-Paul said. "Last year, I didn't know what to expect and I didn't know too much of the playbook. This year I knew that everyone was starting from scratch again and I knew that I was going to have a breakout season this year. Nobody else did, but I told my best friend and he was like, 'Yeah, I believe you.' And sure enough, I did."
Pierre-Paul knew the first time the Giants took the field that he would have a big year.
"When we first started preseason and we played against Carolina and I recorded two sacks in that game, I said, 'Okay, this year is my year, I can do it this year,'" Pierre-Paul said. "That's when I was like, 'Let me just play to my full potential' and that's what I've been doing ever since. However many snaps I play for, when I'm on the field I going 120 per cent. Not 100 per cent, but 120. That's how I've played ever since."
The Giants now have three Pro Bowl defensive ends on their roster. Umenyiora was selected in 2005 and 2007, and Tuck played in the game in 2008 and 2010.
"(Pierre-Paul) definitely deserves it," Manning said. "He's had a phenomenal year. It's amazing, it doesn't look like he ever comes off the field. Making sacks, but also making a lot of tackles, just being around the football, knocking balls down, causing fumbles, getting safeties – he's all over the place. He definitely deserves it."
As do they both in what has been a breakout season for both Manning and Pierre-Paul.
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