New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning speaks to the media...

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning speaks to the media while team members cleaned out their lockers at Quest Diagnostics Training Center on Dec. 29, 2014. Credit: James Escher

Saturday will dawn with two wake-up calls for the Giants:

First, the playoffs will begin without them for the fifth time in six years.

Second, Eli Manning will turn 34.

And if you think the latter has not occurred to the usually non-introspective quarterback, think again.

Manning offered an uncharacteristically candid response when I asked him Monday if the seasons have started to grow more precious at his advanced football age.

"Sure, sure," he said during a half-hour session with reporters as the 2014 Giants parted ways. "I think you see that more and more every year. You will have guys retire or teammates that have been with you a long time no longer with you and you understand.

"Or you see young guys whose careers are shortened because of circumstances or injury, and each year you realize you don't know when it's going to be your last opportunity to play this game or be in this locker room or try to win a championship. So each one is precious. Each one is important."

Manning was speaking for himself, but he might as well have been referring to the franchise. Championship-caliber quarterbacks do not come along every decade, and wasting seasons in their late prime is not recommended.

So it's a good thing Manning feels a sense of urgency as his term in blue enters its homestretch, but the Giants had better feel that way, too.

Let's get one thing straight here:

With all due respect to Tom Coughlin, Jerry Reese and John Mara -- who will share their brain trust thoughts Tuesday -- and yes, even you, Odell Beckham Jr., old No. 10 is the person most important to the Giants' near-term success.

That is why keeping him healthy and happy is Job One. So far, so good on that.

Bringing back Coughlin is a fine start because of Manning's comfort level with the only head coach he has known in the pros. Even more importantly, he is all-in with coordinator Ben McAdoo's offense.

"I think we're just kind of scratching the surface of where we can get to," he said. "I feel I had a good feel for the offense at the end of the year . . . I felt confident, but I think there is another level."

Manning finished 2013 with 18 touchdown passes, 27 interceptions, a passer rating of 69.4, an ankle sprain that eventually led to arthroscopic surgery and widespread concerns that his best years were behind him.

He finished 2014 with 30 touchdown passes, 14 interceptions, a passer rating of 92.1 and a body that felt pretty darn fresh, thanks. "It's nice to end the season healthy," he said.

McAdoo's scheme had him moving around more, taking fewer deep shots and, as a result, absorbing fewer hits. All of which Manning agreed should extend his career.

"The older you get, the less hits you take, that's a good thing," he said.

Manning is under contract through next season, but with a 2015 salary-cap cost of $19.5 million, the Giants presumably will seek to extend him this offseason to soften the cap blow.

"If the Giants want to discuss it, we'll discuss it, but it's not a focus of mine," he said. "I've never been real worried about contract stuff. I let all that kind of handle itself. My concern is getting better for next year."

Is this where he wants to be? "Of course, of course,'' he said. "This is where I started and we have had great success, so I definitely have no intentions of playing anywhere else."

Such are football's actuarial realities that Coughlin, 68, might well have a wider window to win a third Lombardi Trophy than does Manning.

So the positive news in Manning's remarks Monday was this indisputable fact: "I played better than last year."

The even more encouraging news was that he also acknowledged this: "I've got to play better."

Happy birthday, by the way.


Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months