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Early crossroads for Manning

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Tom Coughlin is trying to do with the Giants what he did with the Jaguars: Build his team around a young quarterback.

"He's shaving. Come on," Coughlin said when it was suggested Eli Manning has the looks of a teenager. "He's very mature. He's very serious. He's been around it all his life. He wants to be the best quarterback in the NFL and he's expressed that to me many times."

Coughlin and Manning will lead the Giants (6-3) into Alltel Stadium on Monday night for a game the Giants will probably need to win to maintain sole possession of first place in the NFC East. The Jaguars (5-4) may be facing a must-win game in the team's quest to qualify for the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

"It's obviously a situation where we're fighting for a wild card spot. We're very much in the middle of having that opportunity and that's why I say what we do from here is what's most important," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said.

Ironically, Manning and the Giants will be opposing a quarterback Coughlin drafted in his final season as Jaguars coach. David Garrard replaced Byron Leftwich as the Jaguars' starting quarterback three weeks ago and will attempt to run his record to 3-1 with a win over his former coach.

Manning is in his third season and would appear to be at an early crossroads in his career. His 81.0 passer rating is right in the middle of the NFL quarterback pack, and so is the Giants' number 17 ranking among the league's pass-offenses.

So where does Manning go from here, up or down? He's coming off a poor performance in a 38-20 loss to Chicago in which Manning threw for 121 yards, two interceptions and a 28.3 passer rating. He would've been more harshly criticized in New York this week had his coach not ordered a 52-yard field goal attempt that was returned 108 yards for a touchdown.

"That was the play that turned the game around and I take full responsibility for it," Coughlin said.

Running back Tiki Barber has carried the Giants offense on his back the last two seasons. He currently leads the league in rushing and Coughlin said he believes Barber is "playing the best football of his career." Barber has a thumb injury but Coughlin expects Barber to "play through it."

Coughlin, of course, is the number one storyline for this game, since this will be his first return to Jacksonville since being fired as Jaguars coach following the 2002 season.

"I think it's going to be exciting for the town. I'm sure both staffs will be working hard this week to put together a good plan," Del Rio said.

Both game plans are likely to feature the running game. The Giants are number three in the league in rushing and the Jaguars are number six.

The Giants sustained a costly injury last Sunday when they lost left tackle Luke Petitgout to a broken fibula. Coughlin's team has also been without star defensive end Michael Strahan, who will miss at least one more game with a foot injury.

Defensive tackle Marcus Stroud has returned to practice for the Jaguars and it's hoped he'll play for the first time since Oct. 1. Defensive tackle John Henderson and cornerback Rashean Mathis have battled through hamstring pulls the last couple of weeks but the worst may be behind them. Del Rio expressed hope at the beginning of the week that his team's health was on the upswing.

Once the spotlight leaves Coughlin, it'll fall on the Jaguars wide receivers, who turned in a dismal performance in the Jaguars' 13-10 loss to Houston. Del Rio counted seven dropped passes – not all of them belonged to wide receivers – and two Matt Jones drops deflected into the hands of Texans defenders. They contributed to four interceptions for Garrard and a 25.5 passer rating. That means Garrard's and Manning's combined passer rating last Sunday was 53.8.

"This game is rough and you have to put in extra hours," Manning said. "Whether you have a laid-back coach or a coach who's a little more intense, you, as a quarterback, still have to put in more hours than what's called for from your coaches. You have to stay after and watch extra film and work. You have to be more prepared than the other players on your team."

Especially if you play for Coughlin.

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