At first it was a slump. Then it was a trend. Then it was a concern.
Yesterday, Eli Manning's season officially turned into a nightmare for the quarterback, the Giants and their fans.
The only question that matters now is whether he will wake up from this awful dream in time to resume what early in 2012 appeared to be a Hall of Fame career in the making.
Manning threw five interceptions, tying a franchise record, in a 23-0 loss to the Seahawks. It was the first five-interception game by a Giant since Jeff Rutledge in 1987. When asked about his bounce-back potential, he said, "I'm not worried about next year right now. I'm worried about next week.''
That's noble, but few outside the Giants' offices and locker room particularly care what happens against the Lions come Week 16, given the broader debacle unfolding in the Meadowlands.
Manning has 16 touchdown passes and 25 interceptions, matching the single-season team record he first tied in 2010 and shares with Charlie Conerly (1953) and Frank Filchock (1946).
(He also passed the late Conerly for the Giants' career mark, with 169 to 167 for his fellow former Ole Miss quarterback.)
It's all difficult to fathom, and as he approaches his 33rd birthday Jan. 3, it begs the question whether this is the beginning of the end, or at least the end of the middle.
"It's shocking,'' defensive end Justin Tuck said. "I know he's a guy that's here before the sun comes up and doesn't leave until after it goes down. I know he's put in the work. It just hasn't really come to fruition for him this season.''
Manning's postgame news conference was more interesting than most of his sessions, including uncharacteristically pointed criticism of his receivers. Although he acknowledged he "didn't play as well as I needed to,'' more than once he noted that his teammates did not win the individual battles they needed to.
"I think each [interception] has its own story,'' Manning said. "Sometimes it's a bad decision or a bad throw, or today it just seemed like their guys made plays. They went up and grabbed some balls and took them away from our guys.''
Manning said the game plan called for taking advantage of individual matchups, but "right off the get-go, we threw a couple of those one-on-one, down-the-field throws and both were intercepted. That's not what you're looking forward to, right away giving them the ball and kind of taking us out of what we were planning to do.''
Later, he said that although his throws could have been better, "you hope some of them aren't intercepted in those situations.''
On the first interception, Byron Maxwell ripped the ball from Victor Cruz. On the second, Richard Sherman out-battled Hakeem Nicks. On the last, Sherman outjumped Nicks in the end zone and tipped it to Earl Thomas.
(When did Thomas know Manning was in trouble Sunday? "From snap one,'' he said.)
Coach Tom Coughlin did not disagree that his receivers at times "got outfought for the ball.''
But he also said he "obviously'' is concerned about Manning. "You perform that way and you have those sorts of results -- there's no way around it,'' Coughlin said.
Tuck said he approached Manning after the game and encouraged him to keep his head up.
"I have no doubt in my mind that he's going to bounce out of this and be the old Eli heading into next year,'' he said. "You can't keep a guy like 'E' down for long. Like I said, you scratch your head and wonder why.''
Join the club.