After yet another modest performance in the passing game and seemingly more proof that Eli Manning’s best days most likely are behind him, it was the emotional leader of the Giants’ defense who offered perhaps the most encouraging endorsement of the Giants’ quarterback Sunday.
The Giants had just beaten the Redskins, 19-10, to finish off an 11-5 season and go into the playoffs with a nice jolt of momentum. And while it was clear that the defense again was largely responsible for the outcome, linebacker Jonathan Casillas said there is no doubt in his mind about what is the biggest factor in determining just how far the Giants go in the playoffs.
Despite mounting evidence that these Giants will go only as far as their smothering defense will take them — with the first test coming from the Packers and red-hot Aaron Rodgers next Sunday — Casillas presented a counterintuitive outlook.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said when asked if the defense will determine how far the Giants play into January — or the first week in February. “I think Eli Manning will be. I think the way he’s played in the playoffs in the past, the way he’s played on the big stages, we’re going to need that from him. We’re going to need him to play Eli Manning ball.”
Just one problem: Manning isn’t playing the way he once did, and the Giants are using a much more conservative formula that is almost completely reliant on a strong defense and an offense more heavily dependent on running well and not turning the ball over.
The Giants have failed to score 20 points in a game an astounding nine times this season — after scoring at least 30 points seven times last year — yet have won 11 games for the first time in eight years.
Manning was remarkable in the Giants’ Super Bowl runs after the 2007 and 2011 seasons, throwing a combined 15 touchdown passes and two interceptions in those eight games and helping the Giants earn upset wins over the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady Patriots. But he has been much more muted this year, throwing 26 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions after totaling 65 touchdown passes his previous two seasons.
Against the Redskins, he was just 17-for-27 for 180 yards and no touchdown passes, although he did complete a beautiful 44-yard pass down the sideline to seldom-used Tavarres King to set up the winning field goal in the fourth quarter.
Afterward, even Manning suggested that the formula the Giants used in beating Washington was what will carry them in the playoffs. (Or it might be their undoing if the Giants’ offense simply can’t hold up its end of the equation.)
Does Manning think he can simply flip the switch now that the playoffs are here?
“I’ve got to play smart,” he said. “I have to do my job. I think we can make some plays, do some good stuff. Obviously, we want to pick it up. But you run the ball, don’t turn the ball over. Hopefully we’ll have some opportunities to hit some big plays in the passing game as well. If we can run the ball, the defense plays great, protect the ball, we’ll be in good shape.”
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was Rex Ryan espousing the virtues of his Ground & Pound offense. But with Ryan now out of a job for the second time after flaming out with the Bills, now it’s Manning at the controls of an offense trying not to mess things up, rather than taking deep shots and racking up points.
Manning is right about that formula, because it revolves around a defense that certainly is good enough to win a Super Bowl.
There was more terrific stuff against the Redskins’ third-ranked offense, which entered the game averaging 25.7 points and 411.3 yards per game. The final numbers against the Giants: 10 points and 284 yards. Kirk Cousins was mediocre, with 287 passing yards, one touchdown and two critical interceptions, both by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
The Giants limited the Redskins to 38 rushing yards (they had averaged 110.5 coming into the game) and made the Washington offense one-dimensional while knocking their NFC East rival out of playoff contention.
Casillas can say what he wants about Manning being the deciding factor in what happens moving forward, but the body of evidence suggests that it is the Giants’ resurgent defense that will determine how long this postseason run lasts.
“Our mindset is offense wins games,” safety Landon Collins said, “but defense wins championships.”