From the look in his eyes to the sound of his voice, you can tell this is different for Eli Manning.
With a chance to reach the playoffs for the first time since his last Super Bowl run after the 2011 season, the Giants quarterback’s heightened sense of awareness is obvious. He looks at you with a sense of purpose that is as pronounced as it’s ever been, and his voice grows louder as he describes the sense of urgency and excitement now upon him and the Giants.
“These are fun moments to be in, and you understand that it’s meaningful games at the end of the year,” Manning told Newsday as he prepared for this critical game at MetLife Stadium against the Lions, who lead the NFC North and could be competing with the Giants for a wild-card berth. “It’s exciting, and it’s a great position to be in. We have to keep winning to give ourselves a shot. Take it for what it is and enjoy winning games and having the record, but now we have to take advantage of being in this situation.”
The Giants’ four-year playoff drought after Manning’s second Super Bowl title already has claimed Tom Coughlin, and playing for a chance at a third championship has Manning as motivated as he’s ever been. But he also knows that he must elevate his level of play, which has shown signs of slippage because of a variety of circumstances.
Part of it may be related to the fact that he’s less than a month away from turning 36 and hasn’t missed a game since midway through the 2004 season; the sheer wear and tear of playing 208 straight games, including playoffs, may be having an effect on his performance.
Another complicating factor is continued problems along the offensive line, which has struggled to provide adequate pass protection through much of the season. And the fact that the Giants’ running game has been consistently woeful takes away a legitimate play-action passing game that benefits a pure drop-back passer in Manning.
Whatever the case may be, Manning is the first to admit he must do better.
“Just need to play well and see if we can get a little rhythm offensively and start performing at a higher level than what we’ve been doing these last few weeks,” he said. “There’s been ups and downs, and it’s like that every season. It’s not always going to be perfect, not always going to be pretty.”
The Giants are a dismal 25th in the NFL with 19.6 points per game, nearly a touchdown less than last year’s average of 26.3 points per game. A year after the Giants scored at least 30 points in a game seven times, they have not reached the 30-point level once. In last Sunday’s potentially season-changing 10-7 win over the Cowboys, they emerged victorious only because Odell Beckham Jr. took a short slant route 61 yards for a third-quarter touchdown and a resurgent defense made the lead stand up.
Manning had two lost fumbles and an interception, and might have ended up with two more picks had Cowboys defenders been more sure-handed. Despite his personal struggles and the offense’s collectively underwhelming production, though, Manning believes there is a benefit in how the Giants have been winning most of their games through a 9-4 season. Only one of those wins came by more than seven points — a 27-13 decision over the winless Browns — so the fact that the Giants have been in so many close games is a positive, in Manning’s opinion.
“We’re finding ways to win,” he said. “We’re making plays when we need to, and those are good qualities to have. Winning close games, there’s something to be said for that, and we have to be proud of that and happy about it. But we can’t be satisfied with the way that we’re playing, because we feel we can play better.
It starts on Sunday against a Lions team that has won five straight games. This will be the Giants’ final home game as they attempt to build on a 6-1 record at MetLife Stadium. Their exhilarating win over the Cowboys, whose only two losses all season have been to the Giants, keeps them in the NFC East race and the wild-card chase. And if they can win out against the Lions, Eagles and Redskins, there’s an outside shot at home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Manning won’t look that far ahead, but he does believe this year’s team can duplicate the kind of late-season flourishes the 2007 and 2011 championship seasons featured. Thus, the increased level of excitement for the 13-year veteran.
“Each season is different, and there’s still a lot of season left here,” Manning said. “It’s going to come down to these last three games, and we have to play well, have to keep winning, to give ourselves a shot.”
With a defense that looks capable of winning a championship, it’s now up to Manning to do his part. There’s no guarantee, especially given his own recent struggles and advancing age. But with the finish line in sight and with a sense of relentless optimism no matter the circumstances, Manning believes he’s up to the task.
“This is big football, but you’ve got to relax and enjoy it,” he said. “We have a lot of guys who haven’t been in these situations, and we have to make sure they’re not getting tense. The preparation has to be intense and hard, but the games, you have to enjoy the process. Enjoy the moment.”
That moment is now.