By Ernie Palladino
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The baby-faced, “aw-shucks” demeanor melted into a haggard look at the MetLife Stadium podium. Yet another game within reach, yet another bunch of late-game mistakes, left Eli Manning looking like a man who’d just been put through the ringer.
Oh, he had, by his own doing. Let there be no mistake about this one. The Giants are 0-5 for the first time since the strike season of 1987 because Manning made a bunch of mistakes when winning this 36-21 loss to Philadelphia looked not only possible, but probable.
The Giants had fallen back behind 22-21 on Alex Henery’s third-quarter field goal, that after Rueben Randle and Manning had put them ahead 21-19 with a 6-yard touchdown pass. The Giants were moving the ball. Manning, so shaky for much of the game, looked in command.
And then it all went away. Two more picks, his 11th and 12th of the season, undid Manning and his offense in the fourth quarter, and set up two quick scores for Nick Foles, an adequate quarterback who should never be mistaken for Michael Vick. Even a Vick who had left the game with a yanked hamstring.
In the blink of an eye — two minutes and two seconds to be exact — the Giants were down 15. All that was left was the wonderment of how something so feasible, so achievable — a win — could go so horribly wrong.
Actually, it’s no mystery. There is clearly something going on with Manning. Somewhere along the line, buried in his superlative work ethic and tireless film study, he has lost something.
He continues to exhibit confidence, but he looks anything but as the pressure flows in on him. This is all more involved than simply a crumpling offensive line that can’t keep pass-rushers away from him consistently. The Eagles didn’t exactly batter him Sunday, but they exerted just enough pressure at the end to turn a vulnerable middle defense into a puzzlement for him.
He was hit in the head on his throw to Brandon Jacobs, a toss the Giants maintain went off an offensive lineman’s helmet first and should have been blown dead. Either way, it was a throw that never should have left Manning’s hand. Instead, it flew straight up. Mychal Kendricks settled under it like a second baseman gathering in a popup.
Nine seconds later, the Giants trailed 29-21 on Foles’ touchdown throw to Brent Celek.
A couple of minutes later, Manning tried to fit one into a way-too-tight spot for Victor Cruz. Brandon Boykin wrestled the ball out of his hands for Manning’s third pick. “A little fluttery,” was how Cruz described the flight of the ball.
Four plays later, DeSean Jackson put a stutter step on Prince Amukamara in the end zone, caught Foles’ pass, and put the Giants away for good.
Two passes which coach Tom Coughlin called “terrible.”
“He’s way, way too good a player to have this stuff happen,” Coughlin said, putting the three total interceptions and Manning’s three intentional grounding calls under the same “terrible” umbrella.
New flash for the coach: Manning isn’t a very good quarterback right now. He’s making far too many mistakes for a guy who has been around for 10 seasons now. He’s forcing way too much in an effort to will this team to victory, and it is all backfiring.
Captain Comeback, the fourth-quarter scourge of 2011, has turned into the most generous, accommodating opponent anyone could wish for.
“I honestly believe he’s trying so hard to get us a win that he’s putting too much on himself,” Coughlin said.
No one person is ever totally to blame for these things. The defense gave up more than 30 points for a fifth time, hardly a calling-card stat. But Sunday, it was all on Manning. If he makes the right decision on two throws in the fourth quarter, the Giants would have had every chance in the world to save their season.
Instead, they can look forward to a load of empty seats the rest of the way. Even if Manning straightens himself out by Thursday’s game in Chicago — another likely loss for 0-6 — it will be far too little, way too late.
Like the cops at a crime scene say, “Go home, folks, nothing to see here.”
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