He has been here so many times and been so cool and calculating in finishing things off with a game-winning score, it’s that much more stunning when it doesn’t happen.
Give Eli Manning the ball in the fourth quarter with a chance to win, and you like your chances. The Giants’ quarterback has owned this time of the game, making a strong bid for Hall of Fame consideration with those two spectacular drives at the end of Super Bowl wins over Bill Belichick’s defenses.
There have been 28 fourth-quarter comebacks in the regular season, more than all but eight quarterbacks in NFL history. And it’s not inconceivable that he’ll get significantly closer to big brother Peyton’s record 45 such comebacks. But Sunday against archrival Washington would not be one of those rich moments to add to the Manning legacy. Instead, Eli was at the heart of the Giants’ 29-27 loss and a chance to start 3-0.
But with the game on the line and the ball in his hands, Manning threw it to the wrong team twice in the fourth quarter. The first was an end-zone interception on a pass intended for tight end Will Tye, and the second was the game-ender on what should have been an easy check-down pass to running back Shane Vereen. Instead, safety Su’a Cravens stepped in front of Vereen and picked the ball off at the Giants’ 41 with 1:02 to play.
“(Cravens) made a good play,” Manning said. “Shane had a little inside breaking route, and he undercut it. I didn’t think he’d be able to get all the way underneath it, so bad decision by me. I should have gone into my next progression.”
The pass to Tye came off a blitz, and Manning was forced into a split-second decision. He briefly saw the second-year tight end from Stony Brook over the middle, but threw it too far ahead of Tye, who was cut off on his route by Quinton Dunbar, who made a spectacular, one-handed interception.
One more shocking than the next.
“I had Tye on a post route, just tried to give him a chance and (Dunbar) made a better play on the ball,’’ Manning said. “Again, poor decision, poor throw right there. I could have gone into my other progressions and possibly gotten it to someone else.”
What made the interceptions even more jarring: Manning wasn’t trying to hit one of his three playmakers: Odell Beckham, Victor Cruz or rookie Sterling Shepard. If you’re going to lose a game, better to give any of those guys a shot in those situations.
Those three were targeted on 21 of Manning’s 38 attempts and totaled 15 catches for 264 of his 350 yards. But they didn’t factor into the equation on what turned out to be the game’s two biggest plays. And don’t forget the fade to running back Bobby Rainey in the end zone in the third quarter, a ball that nearly was picked off. Bobby Rainey? Really?
“We expect everybody to make plays,” Manning said, defending his choice of targets. “Shane’s been a big playmaker for us. Will Tye has made plays for us. It depends on the coverage and where guys are and how things are going, and that’s how it worked out.”
Beckham was particularly agitated after the end zone interception, and had to be calmed down on the sideline. Was he upset he didn’t get the ball? “I don’t remember,” said Beckham, who still doesn’t have a touchdown catch this season.
That was a convenient answer on several questions for the star receiver, although Manning acknowledged Beckham needed to be calmed down after the play. “Just try to figure out what was going on, why he was frustrated,” Manning said, declining to be more specific. “He was making plays.”
It was one of several moments when the Giants lost their composure, and Manning was none too happy about it.
“Just needed everybody to stay calm,” he said. “Don’t need to get rattled, don’t need to get fired up. You can get excited, celebrate with your teammates, but I don’t know why (it happened). We just have to do a better job offensively by everybody, just staying calm and staying in our rhythm.”
Manning knows he needs to look no farther than the mirror to see who needs to be better. “I want to go out there, play well, I want to win the football game,” he said.
Although he didn’t produce another of his trademark comebacks, Manning did provide more evidence of his equanimity in the face of adversity.
“It’s going to ruin my night, maybe, but I’ll be ready tomorrow and bounce back,’’ he said. “We have a long season, we’re doing a lot of good things, making plays. I’ll learn from it and get better.”
A surprise meltdown in the fourth quarter, yes. But as we’ve seen from Manning’s ability to recover, it’s unwise to expect there will be many more in the weeks ahead.