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Durable Eli Manning excited about opener

Eli Manning of the New York Giants calls

Eli Manning of the New York Giants calls out the play in the first quarter against the New York Jets during a preseason game. Aug. 26, 2017. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Elsa

ARLINGTON, Texas - There are no superstitions, no pregame rituals, no entreaties from a higher power.

He doesn’t keep track of the streak and thus never obsesses about whether it will continue. Ask him if he considers it a big deal and the answer usually is little more than a shrug.

So no, Eli Manning sees no additional significance about the fact that he will start his 200th consecutive game for the Giants, other than the underlying reason he plays.

“I think as a quarterback, as a player, you want to be out there each and every week for your team with the other guys,” Manning said as he approached yet another career milestone for longevity. “There are tons of guys that play hurt and play injured, and you know they are doing what they can to practice and be there for me. I want to make sure they know I am going to do everything I can to be out there for them as well.”

Only two other quarterbacks in NFL history have started 200 games in a row, and Manning grew up in the same house as one of them. Older brother Peyton had 208 straight starts for the Colts from 1998-2010 before undergoing a series of surgeries to repair a neck injury. The all-time NFL iron man is former Packers, Jets and Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, who started 287 straight games from 1992-2010. Manning would have to start every game for nearly six more seasons to break that mark.

It has been a remarkable run for the 36-year-old quarterback, whose starting streak began on Nov. 21, 2004. Think about that a moment. That’s nearly 13 years ago, an eternity in a sport that regularly claims injury victims for at least some period of time.

The streak started just after the Red Sox had won their first World Series title since 1918, and after George W. Bush had been re-elected to a second term as president. There have been three more presidential elections since. The Great Recession came and went. So did the Tom Coughlin era.

Manning is the Lou Gehrig of the Giants.

Like the Yankees’ great, who started 2,130 consecutive games from 1925-39, Manning will never take a day for granted. Nor will he ever fail to appreciate how special it is to be an NFL quarterback — a quarterback with two Super Bowl championships on his resume and a realistic chance to make another run.

“I think there is always a special, certain feeling for that first game of a season,” he said. “There’s excitement, whether it’s butterflies and you just want to get that first play, get it snapped and get it run, so you can get back into your rhythm and feel of playing football like you’ve been doing your whole life.”

Whether his team is a Super Bowl contender or not, Manning always approaches the first game of the season with the kind of relentless optimism that belies his outwardly calm demeanor. Sunday night’s nationally televised game is no exception, as the Giants face the defending NFC East champs at AT&T Stadium.

“I think there’s obviously going to be some guys excited and a little nervous,” he said. “That’s normal going into the first game. So as you get closer to the game, those tend to come up a little bit. But I think it’s more excited to get things going, excited about the upcoming season and get out there and play a game that counts and going in on an away game — the opening game, Sunday night — should be a great environment for us.”

There is no better place to begin.

Manning has won his last three games against the Cowboys, including a 20-19 win on the road to open last season. It proved to be a statement game of sorts, because the Giants went on to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth for the first time since the 2011 season, the year Manning last won the Super Bowl.

He dare not look that far ahead this season — Manning is strictly a week-to-week guy — but he has to feel good about the team surrounding him. For starters, he has three important new additions to the offense: veteran wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who played the previous two seasons with the Jets, and tight ends Rhett Ellison, a Vikings free agent, and first-round rookie Evan Engram, a star at Manning’s alma mater, Ole Miss.

“I think you’re always looking to improve from week to week,” Manning said. “That’s part of football — never being satisfied. I think we have a great understanding of what we’re trying to do, what our assignments are and the style of football that we need to play.”

The hope for Manning is that he can benefit from the additional help on offense, as well as a defense that is coming off a much-improved performance in 2016 and features star players at several key positions, including strong safety Landon Collins, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and defensive ends Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul.

But Manning himself must prove he is capable of elevating his game after struggling at several points last season. Blame a weak offensive line, an ineffective running game and too much play-calling predictability, but Manning can’t be completely absolved. After throwing a combined 65 touchdown passes and 28 interceptions in his previous two seasons, Manning had 26 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions in 2016.

General manager Jerry Reese suggested after the season that Manning was on “the back nine” of his career, and the GM drafted Cal quarterback Davis Webb in the third round. Coach Ben McAdoo challenged Manning to be more confident and decisive in the pocket, a rare public critique of his quarterback.

But Manning himself seems undeterred by any of the criticism. Those who know him best sense the same equilibrium he has shown throughout his career.

“I think what has been the same is his work ethic, his professionalism, his consistency, his ability to remain calm, cool and collected, regardless,” offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said. “Whether he throws a touchdown pass or an interception, his reaction is the same. I think what I have seen in him recently within this system, this new system — it’s a different system than when I was his quarterback coach back in 2010-2011 — is really embrace and become more comfortable, have an ownership with it. There is just a great deal of confidence in him now. He still has all of those things, positive characteristics that I remember seeing in him when I was his quarterbacks coach, but I just see an overall level of confidence and comfort, I guess I should say, with this system.”

Put it all together, and Manning feels ready for a big year. With a team around him as good as any in recent memory, it’s as good a chance as any to continue a remarkable career with another championship run.

New York Sports