Giants need two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning to show up

ByIan O'Connor ESPN logo
Friday, December 23, 2016

PHILADELPHIA -- The recent case for legitimate New York Giants contention was easy to make. The team had just about everything it had in the championship seasons of 2007 and 2011, including a smothering defense, an opportunistic playmaker or two and, of course, a quarterback who handled the pressure of the postseason with a-walk-in-the-park ease.

In other words, the 2016 Giants were beginning to shape up as a potential third dose of bad news for the Bradys and Belichicks.

Of course, that case is built around the assumption that Eli Manning is still capable of elevating his play and carrying his team when it matters most. On Thursday night, with Manning winging the ball more than five dozen times in a formless 24-19 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the argument that the Giants represent credible Super Bowl contenders became harder to make.

"They scored touchdowns," the losing coach, Ben McAdoo, said. "We kicked field goals."

Above all, it is Manning's responsibility to score touchdowns, to put points on the board. The Giants haven't scored 30 points in a game all season, and they haven't scored 20 since they managed 27 last month against that Triple-A team in Cleveland.

Manning certainly had his opportunities to change that on Thursday, especially after his pick-six put theGiants in an early 14-0 hole. He came out firing in a game of catch-up and threw a career-high 63 passes. But instead of finding Odell Beckham Jr. for two or three touchdowns that would clinch the Giants' first playoff spot in five years and scare the Patriots and Cowboys and every other hopeful straight, Manning threw one touchdown pass (to Sterling Shepard) and three interceptions (two to Malcolm Jenkins, including the pick-six) in a performance that breathed new life into these questions:

Is Eli still the quarterback he used to be?

Is Eli still capable of going on a tear and becoming a three-time Super Bowl MVP?

Manning completed 38 of those 63 attempts for 356 yards, and it was the first time he had cleared the 300-yard mark in two months (he failed to clear 250 in seven of his previous eight games). Padded by the circumstances, these stats couldn't cloak the interceptions, the fact that Manning couldn't finish two potential game-winning drives in the final five minutes and the fact that he missed Beckham on the sequence in the closing seconds that could've deleted every bad memory from this lost night at the Linc.

On the Giants' second-to-last play from the Eagles' 34, Manning saw Beckham make a double move to the middle, and he missed him in the end zone on what appeared to be an overthrow. The quarterback called it "a desperation moment" but maintained that Beckham was open.

"It was there," Manning said, "and we didn't make it, and it could've been a winner."

Beckham later assigned himself the blame for running out of gas at the worst possible time.

"I should've been able to burst under that ball and score," he said.

Either way, Manning got hit on his release on the following play, and his pooch-punt of a pass was caught by the Eagles' Terrence Brooks.

"A couple of plays away from winning that football game," Manning said with a sigh.

He has been around long enough to know that you can say that about 85 percent of NFL games.

What now? The Giants remain a safe bet to reach the playoffs, but what can they expect from Manning when they get there? His father, Archie, has watched Eli more closely this season -- if only because the retired Peyton is no longer dividing Archie's game-day attention span.

"Now my stress level on Sunday afternoons is three-and-a-half hours -- instead of seven," Archie said.

Before this game against the Eagles, the Manning patriarch told that he thought Eli had shown a lot of patience as the Giants' offense has tried (and mostly failed) to develop a balanced approach this season.

"They basically get dared every week to run the ball," Archie said. "That's kind of hard on everybody on the offense."

Although the running backs have shown a few signs of late life, it has been harder on Eli than anyone else. He's the franchise quarterback, the guy banking an average wage of $21 million. It's his job to make it work with or without a running game and with or without an offensive line providing him the requisite time and security.

Manning hasn't had a winning season since 2012. With Tom Coughlin gone, people have been quicker to look at Manning sideways, quicker to wonder if he's deep into the back nine of his prime.

That's OK. Archie has heard all kinds of questions and doubts about his youngest son over the years.

"I know Eli is criticized at times for not being emotional enough or, some people say, for not being a leader," Archie said. "But from what I read, the people in the Giants organization think he's a good leader. They're all different ways to play the quarterback position, and I think you've got to be yourself. Eli is himself. He goes about his job in a good, workmanlike way."

The father mentioned his son's consecutive starts streak, now at 209 (including the postseason) and counting.

"I'm always proud that Eli answers the bell," he said.

Eli has answered it in January and February better than he has from September through December. Before he faced an Eagles team that had lost five straight, Eli's chances of breaking a 2-2 tie with Peyton on the Super Bowl championship front seemed stronger than they did around midnight, with Carson Wentz in the role as winning quarterback.

"They've played in a total of six Super Bowls," Archie said of his sons, "and there's never been even a one-sentence conversation between those two about [who has more rings]. That's just not what they do. Eli doesn't have a bigger fan right now than Peyton, and Peyton's got more time than he's ever had to watch Eli and support him. They just don't compete in football. They don't compete -- they support."

Eli needs support from all corners in the coming days. On one hand, he has earned the benefit of the doubt through those two epic Super Bowl victories over the Patriots. On the other hand, he'll turn 36 in a couple weeks, and he suddenly doesn't look a day under 39.

"You've got to turn it up in the playoffs," his old man said.

Eli used to do that like few franchise players could. But now? Now he looks like a two-and-done quarterback. If he wants to see the Bradys and Belichicks one more time, Eli Manning had better pick it up in a hurry.

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