EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- From about 10 yards away, across the line of scrimmage as both teams huddled in the second quarter awaiting instructions from their respective sidelines, Keith Brooking stole a hard glance at quarterback Eli Manning.
And just what did the Atlanta Falcons three-time Pro Bowl linebacker see when he stared into the eyes of the New York Giants rookie, the first overall choice in the 2004 draft and a youngster who was making his first regular-season start?
Pretty much what Brooking anticipated.
"He didn't blink, I know that, and I didn't figure he would," said Brooking, following a 14-10 victory in which the Falcons made just enough plays on both sides of the football to preclude the heir to the NFL's throwing throne from authoring a storybook conclusion to his debut as the Giants' latest savior. "Through the whole game, I think, he maintained his poise. He never looked like a guy who was thinking, 'What the hell am I doing here?' But that's what you expect with someone from his family. I would have been surprised, to tell you the truth, if it had been any different."
It has been 23 years since the world determined that Elisha Nelson Manning, youngest of the three sons of Archie and Olivia, has name. And on Sunday, despite some stretches of inconsistency and deficiencies more reflective of inexperience than sheer incompetence, Manning demonstrated he probably possesses game as well.
Manning completed 17 of 37 passes for 162 yards, with one touchdown pass, a pair of interceptions and a passer efficiency rating of 45.1. It was difficult after his first loss, a defeat that wasn't settled until Manning threw incomplete to tight end Jeremy Shockey on a fourth-and-three play with 45 seconds remaining, to discern whether the quarterback rating or the quarterback who registered it was more modest.
This much, however, was clear: Manning wants, and needs, more.
More playing time. More opportunities to throw the ball vertically instead of the ultra-conservative game plan with which he was saddled Sunday afternoon. More looks at opposition defenses in general. And plenty more support from his receivers.
Before the game, but without specifically mentioning the advent of the Eli Manning Era, coach Tom Coughlin told his team he needed plays from his playmakers. Especially in the first half, when Atlanta jumped to a 14-0 advantage with long scoring marches on two of its first three possessions, Manning could have sued his teammates for lack of support and made a pretty convincing case.
On the flip side, Falcons quarterback Michael Vick principally took matters into his own hands, and feet. Vick completed only a dozen passes, the sixth time in 10 games that he has posted 12 or fewer completions. He connected with his wide receivers just four times and concentrated mostly on getting the ball to his favorite target, Pro Bowl tight end Alge Crumpler, who had four catches for 47 yards and both Atlanta touchdowns.
But the elusive Vick also rushed for 104 yards, marking the fifth time in his career that he has gone over the century mark, a career record for an NFL quarterback. His team's top rusher for the year, Vick is now on pace to become the first quarterback in NFL history to run for 1,000 yards in a season.
Manning lacks such improvisational skills and on Sunday, the players he counted on to come up big for him too often let him down.
By unofficial count, Giants receivers dropped four balls, and failed to make plays on two more passes regarded as catchable. Case in point: On a first-and-10 play from the Atlanta 42-yard line late in the half, and operating from an "empty" alignment, Manning hung in the pocket, scanned the field, and appeared to mentally move through all his progressions before finding Shockey in the middle of the Falcons' "Cover 2" zone. The ball clanged off the tight end's chest and, two plays later, the Giants punted.
In semi-defense of the New York receivers, there were times when Manning delivered the ball a half-foot or so behind his target, or perhaps a hair too late. But any quarterback, and especially a rookie making his first start, needs his receivers to bail him out once in a while. The Giants starting wideouts, who don't have a touchdown catch now through 10 games, haven't posted bail yet this season. And, despite Shockey's dissatisfaction at not having the ball come his way enough, he still drops too many passes.
According to the official play-by-play, 12 of Manning's 37 attempts were directed at Shockey and the tight end finished with five catches for 45 yards and a score.
"I know I have to throw the ball better," acknowledged Manning, who will continue as the starter when the Giants host the Philadelphia Eagles next week. "I know that I can be more accurate. There were times I didn't set my feet, when I didn't step into my throws, or when I just didn't get the ball there in time. I got a little too anxious at times and I just hurried some stuff."
Unlike predecessor Kurt Warner, sacked a league-high 39 times including 24 in the last four outings before being benched by Coughlin last Monday afternoon, Manning showed some knack for escaping trouble and buying time in the pocket. He was sacked just once by an Atlanta defense that ranked No. 4 in the league in quarterback kills, drilled two nice passes while moving forward in the pocket, and showed nice touch when he got beyond the tackles with some bootleg and "waggle" actions.
But there were also two glaring mistakes in execution, an interception thrown to Falcons cornerback Jason Webster late in the first half on a deep hook, and one to defensive end Brady Smith on a play when Atlanta coordinator Ed Donatell dialed up a well-timed zone blitz. That play was a killer, coming with the Giants at the Atlanta 28, trailing by only a 14-7 count late in the third quarter.
On the play, Smith dropped into the left flat, and Manning allowed he never saw him. It was only the second or third time Donatell used the maneuver, and he certainly saved it for an opportune time. Donatell and several of his charges noted that the Falcons didn't change their scheme for Manning and that seemed to be the case. Hardly a blitzing team by nature, Atlanta largely held true to form.
"I think our attitude coming in was, 'Let's just let him play and see what happens,' and kind of adjust to that," Donatell said. "If he had gotten hot, maybe we would have fired him up a little. But the action never dictated that and we pretty much played our game."
At the same time, the Giants game plan didn't mandate, either, that the Falcons resort to much of the exotic. New York attempted to control tempo with tailback Tiki Barber (107 yards on 21 carries), but the Giants rarely tested the Falcons deep, and Manning's longest completion of the afternoon was for 18 yards. The Giants ran a safe collection of screens and hitches and hooks and, by unofficial count, Manning had only two attempts of more than 25 yards.
But even with the close-to-the-vest game plan, and the roller coaster nature of the game's pace, Manning was still in position to pen a happy ending when New York got possession at its own 26-yard line with 1:52 remaining. The Giants had only one timeout, however, and the Atlanta coverage was forcing everything between the hashes. On fourth-and-three at the Falcons' 42-yard line, Manning straightened quickly and threw low for Shockey.
And this time, Brooking, again studying the rookie quarterback's eyes, read in them exactly where Manning was going with the ball, and knocked the attempt away for his second pass defensed of the contest.
"Hey, he's a rookie, you know?" Brooking said. "But he won't be a rookie for long."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.