He has been the Giants' most indispensable player for more than a decade now, and has been the central figure in two Super Bowl championship runs and a host of other memorable wins. But two games into an $84-million contract extension, the greatest quarterback in franchise history is now at the heart of an early-season swoon that threatens to grow into a crisis.
Eli Manning blew it down the stretch in Week 1 after a rare mental lapse in which he didn't know how many timeouts Dallas had and instructed Rashad Jennings not to score in hopes of bleeding the clock. And now, another second-half failure that puts his team at 0-2 and in danger of collapsing into a fourth straight season with no playoff berth -- a scenario that will almost surely take down Tom Coughlin in the process.
Manning normally bounces back quite admirably from adversity.
Not this time.
With a chance to put away the Falcons in the second half Sunday, Manning instead lost a fumble just as the Giants were driving for a third-quarter touchdown and a nearly insurmountable 27-10 lead. And after the Falcons went ahead 24-20 on a touchdown set up by Julio Jones' spectacular 37-yard catch, Manning had a chance to produce a win in the final seconds.
But just as he had done in Dallas, Manning failed. A quarterback who has made a reputation of coming through in the clutch, Manning threw four straight incompletions from the 50 to end the Giants' chances.
"When you don't win, it's frustrating," Manning said. "Lose a game, take things very seriously, you get disappointed, because you always know there are opportunities."
Manning has been a money quarterback through much of his career. But with his team in the midst of a significant roster transition, and now less than two weeks into a monster contract extension, the man the Giants need most has failed to play up to his reputation. And his contract.
"We're not making the plays in crucial moments," Manning said. "We're having penalties or mistakes at different times that are preventing us from being as good as we can be. Things are going to happen, fumbles, turnovers and that stuff. We've got to be able to bounce back a little bit better and overcome those things and don't let it affect us for future series."
There was no greater mistake than the one Manning made when he was sacked and fumbled as the Giants were driving deep into Falcons territory. Andre Williams had opened the drive with a brilliant 35-yard run, and Manning got the Giants to the Falcons' 8. But on third-and-2, Manning dropped back and looked for an open receiver, initially avoiding the rush. As Manning was about to release the pass, he was hit by Kroy Biermann and lost the ball. "I was buying some time," Manning said. "Just can't afford turnovers down there in the red zone."
The Falcons scored 14 unanswered points and took the lead with 1:14 left. Manning got no further than midfield. It left the Giants with the ignominious stat of being the first team in NFL history to blow two consecutive double-digit fourth-quarter leads to start the season.
"It's difficult losing, period," said Odell Beckham Jr., who had seven catches for 146 yards and a touchdown. "I feel as though we beat ourselves. We just need to clean it up and find a way to get it done."
It starts with the quarterback.
"Everybody's got to play better," said Manning, who interestingly enough has not thrown an interception in the first two games, the first time that's happened in his career. "Everybody's got to do their part and it starts with me. Let's get back to work and get to it."
Fortunately for the Giants, the rest of the NFC East is struggling and hurting, so there's still plenty of time to work things out. But after three straight 0-2 starts, time is only a factor if your team -- and your quarterback -- are ready to turn things around.
No indication that's about to happen any time soon.