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Can Eli Manning snap out of the slowest start of his career?

Giants quarterback Eli Manning warms up before a

Giants quarterback Eli Manning warms up before a game against the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on September 11, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Ronald Martinez

Since taking over as the Giants’ quarterback in 2004 in his rookie season, Eli Manning has always been their single greatest hope.

And now, perhaps, their single greatest vulnerability.

Manning’s play in recent weeks has been alarming enough to raise the possibility that he is in decline at age 35, and that the Giants might have to address the possibility of planning for life after Eli much sooner than expected. With only five touchdown passes in his first five games — the lowest output to start a season through his entire run as the Opening Day starter — Manning has simply not looked like the franchise-caliber quarterback he has been for most of his career.

After a promising Week 1 win over the Cowboys in which he threw three touchdown passes, including the game-winner in the fourth quarter, Manning has only two touchdown passes and three interceptions in his last four games. He looks skittish in the pocket, a word we haven’t used to describe Manning since general manager Jerry Reese used it in assessing Manning after a four-interception performance against the Vikings in 2007.

Manning, of course, rallied from that meltdown and went on to win the first of two Super Bowl championships and move into the NFL’s elite quarterback group. But that was nine years ago, an eternity in the NFL. There’s no telling whether he has it in him to shake off his recent problems and return to the level that gives the Giants a legitimate chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011, his last Super Bowl run.

The Giants are mired in a three-game losing streak heading into Sunday’s game against the Ravens at MetLife Stadium. Manning’s play likely will be the single biggest reason the Giants either end the skid and keep pace in a surprisingly improved NFC East or lose and create more doubt about his play.

Manning’s reputation is built on toughness and calmness. Toughness for never missing a start since replacing Kurt Warner on Nov. 21, 2004. Calmness for two remarkable fourth-quarter comebacks in the Super Bowl.

Not surprisingly, Manning is untroubled by questions about his future.

How does he feel physically?

“I feel good physically,” he said.

Does he worry about age becoming a factor in his play?

“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “I feel good.”

The Giants hope Manning is simply going through a rough patch, that after two productive seasons in Ben McAdoo’s offense, he soon will recapture the play that seemed to reinvigorate him after McAdoo replaced Kevin Gilbride.

Manning and his teammates are confident that his problems can be fixed and that his recent troubles don’t represent a more permanent downward trajectory.

“I don’t think he’s in decline at all,” said offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, who previously served as Manning’s quarterbacks coach. “I think he’s a consummate professional. A player that is a great leader, and his track record speaks for itself . . . The quarterback is obviously under the microscope. There’s a lot of reasons. I wouldn’t put it all on him. He’s going to be at his best when his best is needed and we really are excited about where we’re headed.”

Odell Beckham Jr., who has only one touchdown catch this season, said: “I think when things go wrong, everyone needs something to point at. It’s easy to point the finger here and there. Internally between all of us, we have to play better. We all need to do things to make it easier on [Manning] and on ourselves. Everyone needs to step it up.”

Manning also could benefit from an improved running game, which would take some of the pressure off the passing game. He was terrific in Week 1 in part because Rashad Jennings was a consistent threat on the ground. But with Jennings missing the last three games with a thumb injury, the Giants have become one-dimensional, leaving Manning vulnerable and out of sync. His pass protection also has been shoddy the last two weeks, and he has gotten rid of the ball more quickly than he ordinarily does.

There’s also the possibility that he is not completely healthy. Though he has not been listed on the injury report and has not missed practice, Manning took a punishing hit on a sack against Washington in Week 2 that has led to speculation that he is trying to protect himself by getting rid of the ball sooner. That might help explain the sudden drop-off in recent weeks. Consider: He completed 73 percent of his passes and produced a combined passer rating of 106.9 in his first two games, then completed 58 percent of his passes and compiled a 73.6 passer rating in his last three games combined.

Manning, however, insists that he’s not injured.

Manning knows he has to improve his play to give his team a chance to win. Like it or not, he is and continues to be the biggest single factor in whether the Giants are a playoff team with a legitimate chance to win another Super Bowl. Or perhaps his recent play is a sign that this really is the beginning of the end for the greatest quarterback in franchise history.

ELI’S DOWNHILL SPIRAL

OpponentComp. % QB Rating

9/11 Cowboys67.86110.3

9/18 Saints78.05104.1

9/25 Redskins65.7982.1

10/3 Vikings55.5663.3

10/9 Packers51.4378.2

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