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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Fitzgerald plays like the Larry Fitzgerald of old; Eli plays like an old Eli Manning

Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald greets Giants quarterback

Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald greets Giants quarterback Eli Manning after their game, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. Credit: AP / Ross D. Franklin


Eli Manning and Larry Fitzgerald go way back, from finishing third and second in the 2003 Heisman Trophy voting to going first and third in the 2004 NFL Draft to sharing the 2016 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award to fashioning Hall of Fame-caliber careers over 14 seasons.

But when they crossed paths at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday in the Cardinals’ 23-0 rout of the Giants, they looked to be in very different places as the season winds down.

One of them more than doubled the passer rating of the other. That would be Fitzgerald, who in addition to catching nine passes for 119 yards and a touchdown completed his first career pass — for 21 yards to Jaron Brown in the second quarter. Passer rating: 118.8.

Manning, meanwhile, regressed from last week’s standout effort against the Eagles, going 27-for-45 for 263 yards and two interceptions, along with a fumble that the Cardinals’ Robert Nkemdiche returned 21 yards for a touchdown.

The Giants fell to 2-13, and both teams will miss the playoffs. But while Manning forever has those two Lombardi Trophies on his resume and Fitzgerald has none, the latter at least got to wear a smile as he headed off into the Christmas Eve night.

Fitzgerald, 34, has said he is not certain whether he will play next season. He did not shed any light on that subject after becoming the oldest player to catch at least 100 passes for at least 1,000 yards in a season.

Manning, who will turn 37 on Jan. 3, has said he does plan to play on — whether with the Giants or another team.

It was difficult to watch him flounder at the helm of a dysfunctional offense — 1-for-14 on third downs, 43 rushing yards on 20 carries — at the site of his greatest triumph, against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII 10 years ago.

There was no point in sugarcoating it. “Obviously, hey, we didn’t convert on third downs, didn’t score, so obviously I didn’t play well enough,” he said.

The trick for the new general manager and coach will be figuring out whether he is a victim of a depleted supporting cast and still has some good years left in him or whether he is in decline. He sure looked spry against the Eagles a week earlier. Sunday, not so much.

Manning said he will not think about his future until after the season finale against the Redskins, which interim coach Steve Spagnuolo said he will start. But he acknowledged that the losing-est season in Giants history has worn on him.

“It’s been tough,” Manning said. “Obviously, I think for older players, it’s tougher to go through a season where you’ve been out of the playoffs for a while and the team’s struggling. You only have so many more opportunities left. So it’s been tough. But yeah, I think after next week, we’ll just kind of look forward to moving on.”

Fitzgerald was in a far lighter mood after the game, joking about his passing prowess by saying, “I was hoping that I was going to be able to throw it deeper, but I had to take what the defense gives me. That’s what I was taught.”

Said Manning, “Larry played outstanding, been a good buddy of mine for a long time, known him since college. He was doing it all today — catching, throwing and scoring touchdowns. Tremendous player and tremendous person.”

Spagnuolo, who also is the defensive coordinator, said he should have ordered more double-teams of Fitzgerald. Ya think?

When Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was asked if it was an appropriate way for Fitzgerald to go out if this was his last home game, he said, “I don’t get into all that ‘last home game’ stuff. But yes.”

Manning, on the other hand, will find himself playing the last home game of the season — and perhaps of his Giants career — before what figures to be a sparse, chilled crowd on New Year’s Eve.

Insert your own joke about ball drops here.

New York Sports