With the Giants clinging to a five-point lead after the Texans had fought their way back from a dismal first half, Eli Manning stepped into the huddle and delivered an unmistakable message to his teammates.
The offense had sputtered after building a 17-point first-half lead, and another lost opportunity might have meant a third straight loss and even more doubts about whether this season would come to much of anything.
This was vintage Eli.
“We’re in position to get three [points] here, but why settle for three when you can finish it with the game in our hands?” Manning said after the Giants’ 27-22 victory, according to rookie running back Saquon Barkley.
“This is an opportunity to go win the football game,” Manning said of his impromptu remarks. “It’s going to come down to this drive. We had a chance to go win the football game.”
And that’s just what the 37-year-old quarterback did. After hearing increasing doubts about whether he could play this kind of game at this age, Manning put together one of his finest drives in what seemed like years. And maybe it really was years, given all his struggles the past two seasons.
He came out smoking at the start, building a 20-3 lead late in the second quarter with some terrific work against an admittedly inferior opponent that now is 0-3 and searching for answers. But the Texans contained Manning through much of the second half and clawed their way back to within a score midway through the fourth quarter.
When the Giants needed him most, Manning was there.
He hit Sterling Shepard for 23 yards on a short pass to his left, then found tight end Rhett Ellison for 17 yards to the Texans’ 35. On a critical third-and-2 from the 27, he hit Barkley on a go route down the right sideline for 21 yards to the 6. Three plays later, he looked off Odell Beckham Jr., who was in double coverage, and found Shepard over the middle for a 7-yard touchdown.
Up 12 with only 2:08 left, it was as good as over.
“The key to the drill at the end was the last drive,” said coach Pat Shurmur, who got his first win with the Giants. “I thought Eli played a good game — I should say a damn good game.”
Manning completed 25 of 29 for 297 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 132.3 rating, his best since Dec. 14, 2015, against the Dolphins (151.5). Playing behind a revamped line that included right tackle Chad Wheeler, who replaced the ineffective Ereck Flowers, and center John Greco, in for injured Jon Halapio, Manning looked mostly terrific in beating the Texans.
Was it enough to convince his skeptics that he’s capable of playing championship football on a consistent basis? No. Not yet, anyway. But it’s at least a reminder that he still has this kind of game in him — the kind of game the Giants have continued to believe has been there despite many misfires in 2016 and 2017.
Manning’s teammates don’t question his capability.
“He’s everything we need to get W’s,” Shepard said. “We just have to protect him. If we protect him, he’s going to make the throws.”
The only way to know if he can go back to the Eli of old — as in becoming a championship-caliber quarterback again — is if he can play like this again. And again.
At least there was some affirmation this time.
“I think [Manning] did what you’d expect a quarterback to do, and he did it at a high level against a pretty good pass rush,” Shurmur said. “He did what quarterbacks should do.”
Up next: the Saints, who come off a rollicking 43-37 overtime win in Atlanta. Get the best of Drew Brees at MetLife Stadium, then we’ll talk.