Eli Manning had a feeling this would come back to haunt the Giants. He was correct.
It had been a positively magnificent showing by the 37-year-old quarterback, who resembled the passer who put together a signature performance in this building nearly seven years earlier. He was throwing darts the way he did on that wondrous evening against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium. Manning sprayed the ball around effortlessly and even finished off a drive with a rare quarterback sneak into the end zone. He was getting the better of Andrew Luck, and the Giants seemed on their way to an upset win over a Colts team that desperately needed a victory to remain in the AFC wild-card race.
Even after Luck got the Colts within 24-21, Manning relentlessly pushed toward the end zone again for what might have been an insurmountable fourth-quarter lead. But after a clutch 8-yard pass to tight end Evan Engram and an 8-yard run by Wayne Gallman left the Giants facing a second-and-2 at the Colts' 7, they had to settle for a field goal and a 27-21 lead.
“Not getting a touchdown when we were down there that last time and had to settle for a field goal, it was tough,” said Manning, who threw for 309 yards and a touchdown. “We had to do a better job.”
In the end, the Giants gave Luck enough time to stage a comeback that overshadowed Manning’s splendid performance. The former No. 1 overall pick, who is a virtual lock to win Comeback Player of the Year honors after returning from a shoulder injury, was the comeback player of the game with a 53-yard drive to win it at the end. Luck hit wide receiver Chester Rogers with a 1-yard touchdown pass with 55 seconds left to give the Colts their first lead of the game.
It held up the rest of the way. Colts 28, Giants 27.
“Tough game,” Manning said. “They’re a good team and they’ve got a good quarterback and can score late on teams. Knew we were going to need more points.”
At least it was an encouraging performance by Manning, whose clunker last week at rain-swept MetLife Stadium in a 17-0 loss to the Titans raised more questions about whether he’s still good enough to figure into next year’s plans. This may have been his best passing game of the season, and it came in a game in which Saquon Barkley, who had become the centerpiece of the offense through much of the second half of the season, was held in check. Barkley gained only 43 yards on 21 carries, but Manning – even without the injured Odell Beckham Jr. – was as good as we’ve seen him in a long time.
“He did a heck of a job,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “I think it was still coordinated. We had the run play-action going, and he did some good things, but we didn’t do enough at the end. None of us did.”
Even after the Colts' go-ahead touchdown, Manning had nearly a minute left for what might have been a game-winning field goal. After Barkley failed to get out of bounds on a 6-yard catch, burning 20 seconds off the clock, a 5-yard pass to Engram got the Giants to their 36 with 31 seconds left, so Manning needed to go deep on the next play. He thought he had Bennie Fowler open down the middle, but he was intercepted by safety Malik Hooker at the Colts’ 35.
All that good stuff – the 55-yard bomb to Sterling Shepard in the first quarter; Manning's fine work with Engram, who had six catches for 87 yards, including a 32-yarder on a seam route to set up the quarterback's third-quarter sneak for a touchdown – and nothing to show for it in terms of the final score.
“Nobody wants to be in a position where you’re not in the playoffs,” Manning said. “You get questioned about how you’re going to play, but there was a lot of heart, defense getting stops, offense moving the ball, scoring two touchdowns the first two drives. A lot of character in this group of guys, and guys competing. Missing a lot of guys [with injuries], but the [other] guys stepped up and made some plays.”
On this day, no one made more for the Giants than Manning.