When I asked Eli Manning a few days ago if he ever thought about winning NFL Most Valuable Player honors, the Giants' quarterback looked as if I had two heads.
His answer was a simple, polite "no."
"Wow, sorry I asked."
"I appreciate it,'' he replied, "but no, I don't think about it."
Understood. And yes, the question may have been a bit far-fetched, especially for a player on a team that has lost four straight games.
There's also the fact that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is in the midst of a transcendent season for a team that has won 18 straight games dating to last season. The 12-0 Packers might be about to match the 2007 Patriots, the only team to run the table in a 16-game season.
But this much is clear about Manning: He is the unquestioned MVP of his own team, by far the most indispensable player in a season filled with injuries, roster turnover and inconsistent individual performances on both sides of the ball.
And if he somehow can extricate the Giants from their midseason slump, a swoon based largely on the team's defensive failures, and get them to the postseason, perhaps it wouldn't be all that preposterous for Manning to be in the conversation about the league's most essential individual performer.
The Giants are in danger of not making the playoffs as they head into a stretch run that features three divisional games -- including two against the first-place Cowboys -- and another game against the Jets.
But let's face it: They wouldn't even be in this position if not for Manning, who has been largely responsible for their six wins and hardly to blame for their six losses. He's on pace to throw for nearly 5,000 yards (4,941), to match his career high of 31 touchdown passes and to shave 10 interceptions off his career-worst total of 25 from last season.
Manning has transformed second-year tight end Jake Ballard and second-year slot receiver Victor Cruz into essential parts of the offense. And Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham, both of whom have missed time with injuries, continue to thrive in an offense that is more reliant on the pass than ever after years of a run-first mind-set.
Don't forget, too, that Manning hasn't had the benefit of a reliable running game for much of the season because of Ahmad Bradshaw's injury problems and Brandon Jacobs' diminished production. In fact, the Giants -- usually among the leaders in rushing -- are dead last in the NFL in rushing yards per game (83.8).
Manning, 30, now faces arguably the biggest one-month regular-season stretch of his career, and the Giants' fate rests almost entirely in his hands.
The journey begins Sunday night at Cowboys Stadium, where Manning has won his last two games by showing the kind of poise that made him a Super Bowl MVP nearly four years ago. Manning has won three of his last four on the road against the Cowboys, and another win tonight pulls the Giants into a first-place tie with Dallas.
Manning cannot wait for the drama to unfold. "When you're getting into December and you're playing for playoffs and division leads and different things, this is what it's all about," he said. "This is a fun time. I think it's important that the guys look at it like that. It's not something to get nervous about or get anxious. It's something to look forward to, be excited, have great energy, great enthusiasm amongst the team."
It's show time, and Manning feels as if he's ready. So do those around him.
"I think there's a real confidence that we have in Eli, that no matter what's going on around him, he's going to come through for us," guard Chris Snee said. "He's done it before and we feel confident he can do it again."
If he does do it again, it means the Giants can compete in the postseason for the first time in three years. And it means that Manning, easily his team's Most Valuable Player, once again will have displayed why he is the single biggest reason the Giants have hope.