SANTA CLARA, Calif. – This had always been the time for Eli Manning to do his best work: Fourth quarter, his team tied or trailing, and needing a clutch play from the quarterback.
Manning has fashioned a well-earned reputation for coming through in the clutch, winning more games in the fourth quarter than almost anyone of his generation. A two-time Super Bowl MVP with two of the most remarkable comebacks in playoff history, Manning has a chance to go to the Hall of Fame in large part because of his exceptional play with the game on the line.
There was one more moment to savor on Monday, only this time felt just a little more special for Manning. He’s now an embattled 37-year-old quarterback fighting to hang on to the starting job he has held for all but one game since midway through the 2004 season. Coach Pat Shurmur wouldn’t give him any assurances the last two weeks that Manning would remain his starter for the foreseeable future, leading to speculation that rookie Kyle Lauletta or journeyman backup Alex Tanney might get a look-see for a team that went into its bye week at 1-7 and already hopelessly out of playoff contention.
But as he has done so many times when you least expect it, Manning summoned some of his best play with his back – and his career – placed firmly against the wall.
He threw three touchdown passes, including the game-winner, in a 27-23 win over the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in what could very well be his final Monday Night Football appearance.
It was the 36th game-winning drive for Manning, who has choreographed more of these comebacks since 2004 than anyone else except draft classmate Ben Roethlisberger and Saints quarterback Drew Brees, both of whom have 40.
“It doesn’t get old,” Manning said afterward. “It’s fun playing in those games and having a two-minute drive to win it. Those are the situations you want to be in. You want to have a chance. To come through is exciting. The team needs that. We can win. We just had to do it.”
Taking over from his own 25 with 2:46 left to play, Manning took the Giants into the end zone on a nine-play drive, making key throws along the way to tight end Evan Engram on a 31-yard out route and running back Saquon Barkley on a 23-yard pass to his left before hitting Sterling Shepard on a three-yard touchdown with :53 left in regulation.
The Giants’ defense withstood a furious comeback attempt by undrafted free agent Nick Mullens, who took apart the Raiders in his NFL debut in Week 9, and Manning’s moment was secured.
“Wins mean a lot, especially after the season and what we’ve had to go through as a team and what I’ve had to go through and the questions and this and that,” Manning said. “Just to be able to have a two-minute drive to win a football game, hopefully we can just focus on some positive things for at least one more week.”
The questions have been wearing on Manning, who has had to fend off speculation that his days as the Giants’ starter are numbered. And even with Monday night’s comeback, those questions won’t entirely vanish, because there is still a chance Shurmur wants to get a look at either Lauletta or Tanney.
But Manning at least bought himself some time.
“It’s more just getting asked about it,” Manning said of the possibility of losing his job. “It doesn’t bother me what people say, it’s answering questions about it, I guess.”
He’d rather not answer the questions, but he understands why they’re there. Coming into Monday’s game, he’d thrown just eight touchdown passes, putting him on pace to have the fewest in his career over an entire season.
“You want to go out there and play football,” he said. “I want to be with my teammates, prepare, practice and go play football and get wins and feel good about what we’re doing.”
He insisted he felt no more pressure going into this game than any other, even with all the questions about his future.
“No, you just think about your preparation, of what you’ve got to do,” he said. “I felt good about this team. I felt good that we had the skillset, we had the people, we were prepared for that situation. I’m just excited about the opportunity.”
It doesn’t guarantee him any more than playing into next week. But for a quarterback and a team under siege, a vintage Manning performance was good enough for now.