Playoff Eli Manning. The Superman version who led the New York Giants to a pair of improbable Super Bowl titles, winning MVP honors both times. Pedestrian Eli Manning. The inconsistent regular-season version who flashes greatness, but also maddening, often incomprehensible, inconsistency.
Which version will the Giants see Sunday when they face the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. As tremendous as their defense is, with Football Outsiders ranking it the best of any of the 12 playoff teams, the Giants will need to do two things offensively against the Packers, and throughout the playoffs if they advance. They will need to limit mistakes, and they will need to make big plays at key moments. For Manning, that means not turning the ball over and then delivering the big throw when the Giants have to have it.
Can he still do that?
Manning turns 36 today. Happy birthday, Eli! Now, go find your Superman cape and shoot down Aaron Rodgers, the hottest quarterback on the planet, on his home field guiding a team that has won six straight games. Gun down a team that has scored 30 or more points six times this season, including in each of its last four games, something the Giants have yet to do this year. That’s all the Giants are asking.
Manning and the Giants did that in 2007, stopping Brett Favre and the Packers in overtime in the NFC Championship Game. Manning and the Giants did it to Rodgers and Co. in 2011 en route to a second Super Bowl upset of the New England Patriots.
Thing is, just because Manning has done it before doesn’t mean he will do it again. Here is how I put it in Tuesday morning’s “Five things I think I think” post:
Manning has had two glorious postseason runs and is 2-0 in playoff games at Lambeau Field. That doesn’t mean he will have that kind of postseason again, or that he should be expected to, but it means he has been there, done that and it is possible he could do it again.
Manning isn’t Rodgers. Far from it. On a game-in and game-out basis, he isn’t nearly as accurate, as consistent, as careful with the ball, or as able to create plays with his feet. What he is, though, is fearless. Experienced. Smart. Capable of rising to the big games and the big moments.
Manning, though, has also experienced postseason failure. As a young quarterback in 2005 and 2006, he and the Giants were one-and-done. Same story in 2008, the year Plaxico Burress shot down the Giants’ hopes of back-to-back titles by accidentally putting a bullet into his own leg.
So, which Eli will we see? That leads to another question, one that impacts not only the current playoff run but the future plans of the franchise.
Has Manning begun to decline?
Let me succinctly state my view on that question — I believe the answer is no. He is 36, completing his 13th season in the NFL. No doubt his skills will begin to erode, probably sooner rather than later. It’s not use your first-round pick on the potential quarterback of the future time for the Giants, but it is time to start planning for the day when Manning will no longer be the Giants’ quarterback.
Still, we’re dealing right now with the question of whether or not Manning still has the ability to summon more great postseason performances. As I’ve said, I believe he can. Of course, I have no idea if he will.
There are occasional flutter-balls when Manning throws, especially when he is hurried, on the move or throwing off his back foot. There are, however, still a lot of laser-like throws with lots of zip on them.
My belief has always been that Manning, partially because he doesn’t have the feet of a guy like Rodgers, Russell Wilson, or Tony Romo in his younger years, or the amazing, pinpoint accuracy of Rodgers, is susceptible to being victimized by dysfunction around him.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan hinted at that recently:
“I think it is about all 11 guys. It's hard for Eli, even if he's playing lights-out football, if there aren't other members of the offense that are doing their job, whether it's the protection or the route execution or the running backs and in the same sense, you don't want to sit there and say, it's not about the quarterback. The guy touches the ball every play, there's a reason why those guys tend to get a lot of the criticism as well as a lot of the praise when things go well,” Sullivan said. “I think it's just a matter of the unit collectively just having the precision, having the detail, eliminating the mental mistakes, the turnovers certainly, and I think that will make everybody better and will raise his [Manning's] game and he can help raise everybody else's game.”
When the offensive tackles break down in pass protection, as they have far too often this season, and force Manning to either move or throw the ball before he wants to, his play will be impacted. When the running game doesn’t work, or when the Giants abandon it and rely solely on Manning’s arm, he will make mistakes. When receivers don’t get open or make plays on 50-50 balls, Manning’s numbers will decline. When the Giants trail and they need points quickly, Manning will force throws hoping to make good things happen. Sometimes bad things will.
I do believe Manning is still capable of magic moments. To produce them, and for the offense to give the Giants a chance against high-scoring playoff teams like the Packers, he isn’t the only one on the offense who will need to raise his level of play. He will need some help.
Even Superman can’t do everything alone.