It is the most difficult challenge for any NFL team, and the outcome usually translates to success or failure during any given season.
Sometimes you get lucky. You swing a draft-day trade for Eli Manning, you build your team around him and you enjoy a dozen seasons of stability and two Super Bowl championships.
Sometimes you trade for a journeyman in Ryan Fitzpatrick, and somehow it’s the right move at the right time with the right player. Even if the trade was almost an afterthought.
Funny how these things work out, and funny how the performance of these two quarterbacks now will go a long way toward deciding their respective teams’ fate on one of the most important Sunday afternoons in New York football you’ll ever see. Maybe as important as the last time the Jets and Giants met near the end of the 2011 season, when Manning and Mark Sanchez faced off — and saw their careers diverge shortly thereafter.
Manning went on to win his second Super Bowl after his short throw to his right turned into Victor Cruz’s 99-yard touchdown. Sanchez? His run with the Jets ended with his ouster after the 2013 season.
Neither team appears good enough to go on a Super Bowl run this time, but there still will be plenty on the line when the teams meet for the first time in a game that counts since that season-defining contest at MetLife four Decembers ago. And there’s a strong likelihood that the difference will be how each quarterback performs.
Manning, who had been enjoying one of the best statistical seasons of his career heading into last week’s game against Washington, could have taken a monstrous step forward with a road win. Instead, he threw three interceptions — two of which could be blamed on his receivers not catching well-thrown passes, the other of which was on Manning, pure and simple.
He’s now in familiar territory, although not in a good way. Manning routinely has been involved in backs-to-the-wall- type situations, many of his own doing, throughout his career. Now he finds himself in another predicament, thanks to last week’s loss. A win over Washington would have given the Giants a two-game lead in what has been a hopelessly mediocre NFC East. Instead, they’re in a first-place tie at 5-6, and their playoff fate is wholly uncertain.
Their predicament is eerily similar to the one they faced the last time they played the Jets. A loss to Washington the week before left them 7-7 heading into the Jets game, and they wound up winning that one and the following one against Dallas to win the division title. Then they ran the table in the playoffs, including a second straight Super Bowl win over the Patriots.
“Just hoping we can go out there and play well and get a win,” Manning said. “They are a good team, they’ve got a good scheme and good players, so we’ve got to be at our best and we’ve got to play our best football. Just hopefully we can make some plays and get in position to win the game and in the fourth quarter, make the plays we need.”
Only once in Manning’s career have the Giants won the NFC East title with relative ease, although even that year was marred by some late-season misfortune. In 2008, they breezed to a 10-1 record as defending Super Bowl champions. But Plaxico Burress’ self-shooting the following week undid the entire season; the Giants won the division with a 12-4 record but lost in the divisional round of the playoffs.
The Giants need Manning to be at his best in a clutch situation again, something he has found a way to do more often than not. Especially in the team’s two Super Bowl runs. They need him to show off his powers of selective memory by forgetting what happened the week before. It’s another of Manning’s strengths: being able to shake off poor performances by bouncing back the following game.
“It’s just what you do,” he said. “You kind of look forward to your next opportunity and that is this game and be excited about this and going out there and having a game plan. If something happens the week before, it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen again.”
Unlike Manning, Fitzpatrick has rarely been involved in a playoff run during his meandering NFL journey. In his 11-year career with six teams, Fitzpatrick has never won more than six games in a single season.
He seemed to have the Bills on the right track during the 2011 season, getting off to a 5-2 start. But he and the Bills staggered the rest of the way and finished 6-10.
Fitzpatrick formed an important relationship during his run with Buffalo that eventually would help him in his current situation. Chan Gailey, then the Bills’ head coach, now is the Jets’ offensive coordinator.
Give Fitzpatrick credit for his persistence to get this far. He has managed to hang around all these years and just last week started his 100th career game in the Jets’ 38-20 win over the Dolphins.
“Being a seventh-round pick, being a guy who wasn’t really recruited to play college football, it’s been a pretty cool ride,” said Fitzpatrick, who was drafted out of Harvard in 2005.
There may be no better opportunity than this one for the 33-year-old quarterback, who seems to have found a home despite an unlikely set of circumstances.
Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan, a former Texans personnel executive, traded with his old team to get Fitzpatrick as a backup to Geno Smith. Then came the Aug. 11 punch to Smith’s jaw from linebacker IK Enemkpali, and Fitzpatrick has been the starter ever since. First-year coach Todd Bowles is almost certain to stick with Fitzpatrick the rest of the season.
This really does seem about as right-time, right-place a situation as Fitzpatrick could want.
“You think about that a little bit,’’ he said, “the fact that I came to this team, was able to step into an offense that was full of veteran guys that have played a lot in a system that I’ve played in with a coach in Chan that has a lot of trust and experience with me. So there’s a lot of things that feel in place for me that I’ve been able to appreciate this year. I’ve just got to continue to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Bowles thinks this is the perfect moment for Fitzpatrick.
“Sometimes you have to bounce around to find your home,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of guys bounce around on practice squads and different teams before they became stars. It was his time. He’s at the right age. He’s got the right mindset. He’s got the right demeanor, and it’s his time.”
It’s the best — and possibly the last — chance he’s got to make an impact in what has been his most successful season. A win over the Giants and a potential trip to the wild-card round of the playoffs, and the journey will almost be complete. The only thing missing: a Super Bowl run.
Manning already has put together two championship seasons, and he’s hoping for another chance. Fitting that he has to go through the Jets again to try to get there.
Two quarterbacks, two divergent paths, one momentous opportunity that awaits.
Chances are one of them will make the play that decides where the next step will take them.
1970Giants Shea Stadium (J)22-10
1974Jets Yale Bowl (G)26-20
1981JetsGiants Stadium (G)26-7
1984GiantsGiants Stadium (J)20-10
1987GiantsGiants Stadium (G)20-7
1988JetsGiants Stadium (J)27-21
1993JetsGiants Stadium (G)10-6
1996GiantsGiants Stadium (J)13-6
1999GiantsGiants Stadium (G)41-28
2003Giants Giants Stadium (J)31-28
2007GiantsGiants Stadium (G)35-24
2011GiantsMetLife Stadium (J)29-14
*(G), (J) indicates home team