If this were a Western movie, or a clichéd newspaper column, it would be about an aging sheriff dueling a young gunslinger in the setting mid-autumn sun, both staggered at times but with the stoic old-timer left standing in the end.
Actually, that is pretty much what happened Sunday at MetLife Stadium when Eli Manning and Carson Wentz met for the first time, with Manning’s Giants surviving for a tougher-than-it-had-to-be 28-23 victory over Wentz’s Eagles.
But this is not a Western; it’s a football story, and an Eastern one at that. And what we saw Sunday confirmed what the stakes are for the 2016 Giants now that they have fully engaged the NFC East race.
Manning is 35, and for the first time, he is the oldest Giant after the unceremonious departure of kicker Josh Brown. Wentz is 23, as is fellow rookie Dak Prescott of the Cowboys. (The Redskins’ Kirk Cousins is 28.)
While the Cowboys and Eagles try to win while building a future, the Giants must win now, before Manning’s Super Bowl window starts to close and the search for a successor gains urgency.
Yes, he is a made Manning for life thanks to those two Lombardi Trophies. But it also is true that he has missed the playoffs in six of his past seven seasons, which is no way to spend one’s athletic prime.
Hey, it’s complicated, as it often has been during the peculiar career of Mr. Manning. Sunday was a handy microcosm.
Manning threw four touchdown passes, three of them for more than 25 yards and the other a lovely fade to Odell Beckham Jr. from the 1-yard line. That one was set up by a 46-yard pass to Victor Cruz.
But he also missed Beckham late in the first half on what would have been a 60-yard scoring pass to put the Giants ahead 28-10, and he threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter.
The first was not his fault, on a ball Nolan Carroll wrestled away from Beckham. The second was, as it was tipped at the line before Jordan Hicks made a diving grab to set up a last-minute drive that stalled at the Giants’ 17.
Manning called them both “cheap” interceptions.
“I hate tipped balls,” he said of the first. “I hate cheap interceptions, and that’s kind of as cheap as they come with the tipped ball at the line of scrimmage.”
Manning said of the picks, “You hate to put those against the stats because I thought we threw the ball smartly; we were safe with the football today.”
As for that too-long throw to Beckham, Manning said he did not feel as if he overthrew the ball.
“I saw him have a big jump and I thought I put it out there in a good spot,” he said. “I don’t know if the sun got in his eyes where he just didn’t find the ball soon enough or didn’t have that second kind of burst, explosion, he normally does when he sees the ball coming.”
Manning said Beckham told him it took him longer than usual to locate the ball. “Maybe that’s a reason, but we have to hit that one,” Manning said.
In the junior quarterback division, Wentz threw two bad interceptions in the first quarter that led to Giants TDs — “I just airmailed them,” he said — and missed Jordan Matthews in the end zone on the Eagles’ last offensive play.
But in between he did plenty of damage, passing for 364 yards. Four different receivers had a reception that covered at least 30 yards.
Not bad for the first rookie quarterback to start for Philadelphia against the Giants since Randall Cunningham in 1985. For the Eagles, it’s a start.
Manning, meanwhile, keeps on ticking, even as his biological clock ticks in the background.
On Sunday, he had a new backup in Josh Johnson because Ryan Nassib was hurt. But during Eli’s reign, being the backup quarterback has been the most irrelevant job in football.
It won’t be forever.