This much can be said for Eli Manning’s performance yesterday — he wasn’t the worst one out there in a blue jersey. That’s no excuse, however. When your defense plays as poorly as his did yesterday, the quarterback’s job is to remain calm and either strike back quickly or build long drives that sap an opponent’s offensive momentum. And early in the game, Eli was fortunate to have a functioning ground game and open receivers, but did nothing with them. As it was, much of the Giants’ success on offense was not his doing. Manning’s touchdown pass in the first half to Mario Manningham should have been picked off. He threw it to the coverage side, and, incredibly, the second-year receiver wrestled it away from the one of the best defensive backs in the league. How many times in a hundred is that going to work out in the Giants’ favor?
The critical moment for Manning came on the Giants’ second possession. They were already down 14–0. They had taken a punch. Kick returner Domenik Hixon did his part, blazing out to midfield. Manning and the offense took the field. Time to punch back. On third down, Steve Smith got open over the middle for what would have been a touchdown … if Manning hadn’t sailed the ball over his head. Fail.
Incredibly, at the close of the second quarter, the Giants were still in it, as the defense made their first play of the game, stiffing the Saints on fourth and goal. A penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct gave Manning breathing room, and a nifty pass completion gave them credible hope of going into the locker room down less than a touchdown, a crazy bit of good fortune considering how colossally outplayed they’d been. Then Manning got blindsided, fumbled the ball, and the Saints score to finish the half. Now, the fumble wasn’t entirely Manning’s fault. Saints safety Roman Harper was on his ass pretty fast. But sixth-year quarterbacks are supposed to anticipate these things — to see blitzers coming at the line of scrimmage and make adjustments. But Manning drifted back to pass as if expecting to have plenty of time. Perhaps he might have wondered why there was only one safety out there in pass coverage …
Eli had one other crushing turnover, a second-half blunder that few quarterbacks with his experience ever make. This, too, was not completely his fault. Halfback Ahmad Bradshaw abjectly failed to pick up a blitz, leaving Manning exposed to an unimpeded pass rusher. This time, at least, he could see it. The quarterback’s only choice in that situation is to cover up and eat the ball. Because he’s in the pocket, he can’t throw it away without incurring a penalty, although that would’ve been wildly preferable to what Manning actually did — lofting the ball up into the secondary without a prayer. That can theoretically work if you have Larry Fitzgerald on your team, but even Fitzgerald couldn’t have come up with Manning’s weak heave. The replay appeared to show Manning looking away as he released the ball, as if he didn’t want to see the result with his own eyes. Understandable, really. We didn’t want to see it, either.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees was fabulous, but like Manning in four of the Giants’ first five games, he got to play against cream-puff D. His receivers were astonishingly wide open, and they stayed that way all game long. Nothing Eli could’ve done about that. What he could’ve done, though, is match Brees’s poise with his own and not give off the affect of a victim. Scolding Bradshaw as they walked off the field after the interception, like he did, was a weak attempt to pass the buck. Given what we’ve seen from the defense against the two respectable teams they’ve played (Saints and Cowboys), the only way the Giants are going to go deep into the playoffs this year is if they pile up the points. We’ve seen enough of Eli to know that by this point he has the skill and the arm to lead a potent offense. But now that the team can’t rely on its D to make the biggest plays of the game, those big moments are going to have to come on offense — and Eli can’t continue to let them pass him by.