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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Image of Eli Manning with an injury is sobering

Eli Manning looks at an official during a

Eli Manning looks at an official during a game against the Washington Redskins at MetLife Stadium. (Dec. 29, 2013) Credit: Getty

The dream was for Eli Manning to walk out of MetLife Stadium for the last time this season on Feb. 2, after hoisting his third Lombardi Trophy.

The reality was that Manning left the building Sunday carrying a pair of crutches and wearing a protective boot on his lower left leg.

It was one last indignity in a season that began with the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware intercepting his first pass and ended with the Redskins' Josh Wilson intercepting his final pass -- Manning's team-record 27th INT of the year.

But as bad as it got for the Giants quarterback between those bookends -- an awful year in which he managed only 18 touchdown passes and had a passer rating of 69.4 -- it was the image of the injury that might linger.

Not because the high ankle sprain he suffered upon being taken down by Chris Baker on an incompletion -- the pass before the interception -- late in the first half is expected to hinder him in 2014; Manning was confident that rest and rehab soon will have him as good as new.

The lasting message all concerned should take from Eli's bent ankle was that although he appears to be indestructible, he is in fact human and thus susceptible to having his performance and health damaged by others.

Memo to general manager Jerry Reese: Get your franchise quarterback some new offensive linemen and backs, lest those miserable statistics and alarming crutches become a pattern.

Asked if better protecting Manning will be a priority in the offseason, coach Tom Coughlin said, "It will be an objective, for sure."

Not surprisingly, Manning didn't bite on that topic, suggesting merely that the offense's woes in general and his in particular resulted from "a combination" of factors. "I have to make better throws and decisions sometimes," he said.

That is true, and it was to the bitter end, when Manning stayed in the game despite the injury, threw the ball flat-footed and got too little steam on a pass that deflected off tight end Brandon Myers to Wilson.

Manning saw the play was well covered, but "I didn't think I was going to pull it down and run it at that point and tried to fit it in there and it ended up being tipped up and intercepted. So it didn't work out well for us."

Not much did this season, although the Giants won seven of their last 10 games to finish respectably.

But even as they secured a 20-6 victory over Washington in a wet, mostly empty stadium, they endured one last round of injuries -- including offensive tackle Will Beatty's fractured leg -- and narrowly averted catastrophe with Manning.

"It just felt like he kind of bent me back and my foot was stuck," Manning said. "I knew it was hurt a little bit at the time and just hoped it wasn't worse, and I'm very happy to hear it was just a sprain."

Manning said only "you never know" when asked if he would have missed a game for the first time in his career had there been one next week. He did say, "I think it's serious, but it will heal and I'll have the offseason to do that, so I'm not worried about it being a lasting effect."

That's encouraging, but those in charge of what goes on around Manning ought to be concerned about the lasting effects of a shaky support system.

Eli turns 33 on Friday and doesn't have many more seasons to waste in his prime. Meanwhile, he is reduced to limping around in a boot and hoping his second-favorite team gets to fulfill his dashed Super Bowl wish.

"I'll watch, obviously, the Broncos and be rooting hard for my brother [Peyton] and for them to play well," he said. "Hopefully, they can be in this building in a month or so."

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