ALBANY, N.Y. - When he lines up under center Saturday night at Giants Stadium, Eli Manning will see the same Carolina Panthers defense he saw a year ago when he made his first NFL preseason start.
The Panthers may see a different Manning, though.
"Is there a difference from last year? Absolutely," Giants center Shaun O'Hara said. "Last year he'd come in and you could see him, in his head, going over formations and plays and trying to think, 'Where am I going? What am I doing?' Now, he comes in and calls the play and knows what he's doing, how to do it. He's not thinking, he's reacting."
The Giants' fortunes will rise and fall on Manning's continued development. The 2004 No. 1 draft pick spent the first half of last season on the bench, then took over from Kurt Warner and played abysmally in some games and passably in others, before putting together three praiseworthy performances to end the season.
With Warner in Arizona after being released by the Giants in the offseason, Manning is the undisputed starter. In a 17-14 loss to Cleveland last week, he was efficient in completing 6 of 8 passes for 53 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Plaxico Burress.
Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme, who played high school football in Louisiana at the same time as Manning's older brother Peyton, said Eli may be the better athlete of the two.
"Peyton would tell you that, too," Delhomme said. "Eli is a big, good-looking kid who can throw the ball well. The thing that separates Peyton is his work ethic and how he prepares himself. Eli went to Ole Miss and did pretty darn well without the best cast around him. I think he'll do just fine. He's just a very good athlete who can throw the ball extremely well."
The Giants' loss to Cleveland last week served as a coming-out party for 6-foot-4, 266-pound rookie running back Brandon Jacobs, who gained 73 yards on 12 carries and had a 43-yard run called back for a holding penalty. That was one of 15 penalties the Giants committed, for 121 yards. They also were sacked five times and committed three turnovers.
The Panthers beat Washington 28-10 last week for their 10th consecutive preseason win, and were bolstered by the return of several players who missed most of last season with injuries. The most significant was wide receiver Steve Smith, who missed all but one game in 2004 with a broken leg, a year after leading the team with 88 receptions for 1,110 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Kick returner and special teams standout Rod Smart (knee), running back DeShaun Foster (clavicle) and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins (shoulder) also were in the lineup after finishing the 2004 season on injured reserve.
Both New York coach Tom Coughlin and Carolina coach John Fox said their starters will play into the middle or end of the second quarter Saturday. Manning said he was looking forward to facing the Carolina defense.
"It'll be a good test for us," he said. "They do a lot of blitzing, so we'll see some different looks. I think we'll see where we stand on everything we've been working on and understanding our offense. It's going to be a big challenge to go out and make sure we're in synch with all our offensive adjustments with the blitz."
Saturday's game will be a combination homecoming and farewell for veteran Panthers wide receiver Ricky Proehl, who was lured out of retirement for one more season after the team released Muhsin Muhammad in a salary cap move. The 37-year-old Proehl attended New Jersey's Hillsborough High School and went to many Giants games with his parents, who had season tickets.
"I think it was '76 when I started going to the games," said Proehl. "As a kid that is where all my dreams started, in that stadium watching Phil Simms and Mark Bavaro and Lawrence Taylor and Phil McConkey. It is always a special place for me."
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