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Giants' Eli Manning doesn't sound like a quarterback ready to step down

"I still feel strong," Manning said. "I think I can still play and still make the throws and run an offense and win football games."

Giants quarterback Eli Manning answers questions from the

Giants quarterback Eli Manning answers questions from the media Wednesday in East Rutherford, N.J. Photo Credit: AP/Tom Canavan

Eli Manning will know when it’s time.

He doesn’t believe that time has come.

“I think you know when it’s done or when your body can’t do it, or you can’t stay healthy or you can’t make the throws,” Manning told me Wednesday in the Giants’ locker room. “So, I still feel strong. I think I can still play and still make the throws and run an offense and win football games.”

With speculation persisting that Manning may very well be making his final start for the Giants as they close out the regular season against the Cowboys on Sunday at MetLife Stadium, Manning himself insists he’s not thinking along those lines. Nor is he convinced there is a definitive answer about what lies ahead.

“No, just worried about this game and finishing the season, going out there and playing hard,” Manning said. “I view it as the last game of this season, and that’s it.”

But perhaps the more revealing issue is whether Manning himself believes his days as a highly functional quarterback are behind him, and that he himself believes it is time to go. With a miserable first half of the season in which he put up some of the most disturbing statistics of his career, and after a dispiriting performance at rain swept MetLife in a shutout loss to the Titans still complicating the evaluation process moving forward, Manning doesn’t sound like a quarterback about to step down or be pushed aside.

Manning is coming off arguably his best game of the season, albeit one in which the Giants were beaten by the Colts in a 28-27 comeback performance by Andrew Luck. And Manning did throw an interception on his final drive as he attempted to drive the Giants for what would likely have been a game-winning field goal. It was the latest in a string of quality games over the second half of the season – with the one notable exception being the Titans game when the offense was completely snuffed out, especially running back Saquon Barkley.

He turns 38 next month, an age when many of the game’s best quarterbacks have called it a career. Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Steve Young and Phil Simms all left the sport at 38. And while there have been several noteworthy exceptions – Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Drew Brees and Warren Moon foremost among them – 38 is still a line of demarcation for even the greatest passers in NFL history.

But pay close attention to the requirements Manning himself lists as the ones that will be the parameters of his decision. Or the decision the Giants make for him as they consider whether to bring him back next season or pursue another veteran or commit to a first-round quarterback from next year’s draft: You have to stay healthy and you have to make the throws.

Well, Manning has never missed a start due to injury since taking over as the Giants’ starter midway through the 2004 season. And as he has consistently shown over the second half of the season, he can make the throws when given proper protection from an offensive line that was at the heart of his problems over the first half. Case in point: Under heavy pressure against the Colts, Manning fired a 55-yard completion deep down the left side to Sterling Shepard in the first half of Sunday’s game.

“He did a great job of moving around in the pocket, and he was able to get the ball to hit me pretty much right in stride,” Shepard said. “He can still make the throws, and I don’t see where a lot of people come from when they say he can’t.”

There are no guarantees moving forward, not for Manning and not for the Giants. Coach Pat Shurmur said last week he wants Manning back next season, and while he and general manager Dave Gettleman will undoubtedly consider all options in the forthcoming off-season, there is a good chance they will conclude that Manning is their best alternative.

There is a lot to sort out before that, including the fact Manning is entering the final year of his contract and might need to accept a revised deal to loosen the salary cap burden. But the primary focus will be on whether Manning can still play at a high enough level.

How much longer does Manning want to play?

“I’ve never thought about, I want to play this many more years or that many more years,” he told me. “That just never came up.”

Does he want to come back?

“We’ll figure it all out,” he said. “We’ll figure it all out next year.”

Next year is coming soon.

Next year begins next week.

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