This is the time of year that Eli Manning lives for, the time he summons every shred of resourcefulness, every ounce of moxie and determination, every sliver of that inner swagger that has turned him into a two-time Super Bowl champion.
It is January in the NFL, when Manning was at his best for those memorable playoff runs after the 2007 and 2011 seasons, when the Giants’ quarterback carved his legend onto the wall of franchise history with some of the most transformative plays of his career.
There is the impossible completion he threw to David Tyree, when Manning escaped heavy pressure to get off a pass and the seldom-used wide receiver pinned the ball to the side of his helmet to key the game-winning drive in that colossal upset of the previously unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. And the pass he threw into what seemed like a 10-millimeter opening to Mario Manningham down the left sideline to key the winning drive in another upset of the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.
He won a combined eight games in those two championship runs, earning Super Bowl MVP honors each time, finishing with a total of 15 touchdown passes and two interceptions, and making a case for eventual induction into the Hall of Fame.
Now Manning hopes this January will provide a run that ends with him and his teammates holding aloft another Vince Lombardi Trophy, marking the Giants’ fifth Super Bowl title. It would be a crowning achievement for the 36-year-old quarterback, one that would erase any lingering doubt about whether he deserves to be in Canton after his career is over.
“It’s going to be a great opportunity,” Manning said of Sunday’s showdown against the Packers in an NFC wild-card game at fabled Lambeau Field. “I think you need the best to come out in critical moments, and these are the critical moments. We have to play our game, we have to play smart and just figure out a way to get a win.”
Does Manning still have it in him to get the best of the Packers for a third straight time in the playoffs? Can he follow up on epic wins over Brett Favre in the 2007 playoffs and Aaron Rodgers in the 2011 tournament with another win over Rodgers, the hottest quarterback in the game right now with 18 touchdown passes and no interceptions in his last seven games?
Does Manning still have enough left to summon another month’s worth of wins in his arm? After 210 consecutive starts — including playoffs — over 13 years, is there one more breathtaking run left in him?
His coaches believe there is. His teammates believe there is. Manning won’t make any promises, and he’s not one to puff his chest about all the successes in his career, but he is hopeful about what lies ahead.
If there is to be another championship, Manning almost certainly will have to elevate his level of play above that of a regular season that proved far more confounding than anyone could have predicted.
He had the best collective receiving talent in his career this season, and with Manning coming off a combined 65 touchdown passes the previous two seasons, you would have thought he could have taken his game to an even higher level.
But a combination of inconsistent offensive line play, a weak running game, opposing teams’ insistence on playing a more conservative defense that prevented the long passes that had been so effective in 2014-15, and the possible regression of Manning’s skills after so many years in the NFL contributed to a far more muted season than anyone could have expected.
Manning isn’t at the point that his older brother was last season, when Peyton’s body betrayed him and he was running mostly on fumes by the end. But just as Peyton afforded himself the luxury of walking off into his NFL sunset with a Super Bowl championship, Eli might be at the point where he is more of a game manager than a game-winner.
Manning’s offense has been held to fewer than 20 points in five straight games, and his 26 touchdown passes and 86.0 quarterback rating were the lowest of his three seasons under Ben McAdoo. The Giants averaged only 19.4 points per game, ranking 26th in the 32-team league.
The Giants’ formula for winning no longer revolves around Manning’s arm but around a rejuvenated defense that has become one of the most effective units in the league. With the addition of key players such as Olivier Vernon, Damon “Snacks” Harrison, Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple, and the emergence of young players such as Landon Collins, Devon Kennard and Johnathan Hankins, this is a defense-centric team.
Manning still is capable of hitting the big pass, and his connection with Odell Beckham Jr. is one of the best in the league. But given his decreased numbers and late-season inconsistency, it is fair to wonder if Manning’s greatest days are behind him and whether McAdoo will need to be more conservative with his play-calling as a result.
McAdoo has been a risk-taker on several occasions this season, especially with some gutsy fourth-down decisions, and he certainly will give Manning opportunities to create some big plays now that the postseason is here. But it is an open question whether he will be able to answer the call.
Manning knows there might not be many more chances.
“Until you get into your later years, you just don’t know if you will get that opportunity again,” he said. “So you want to give it your all, give it your best like you always do, but just understand that it is special to get here. You want to try and make a run when you can.”
That chance — and maybe that last chance — is here, and Manning is anxious to make the most of it. He hopes there is one more run of brilliance left in him, another memorable run through January that gives him one more Sunday in February to raise the Lombardi Trophy.
ELI IN THE PLAYOFFS
Comp. pct: 61.5
TD passes: 17
QB rating: 89.3
Comp. pct: 63.1
TD passes: 15
QB rating: 100.1
Comp. pct: 55.4
TD passes: 2
QB rating: 48.4