For Manning, nothing matters but the win

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- This was Thursday afternoon, in the quiet of the New York Giants' locker room after practice and before meetings as an 0-6 team was grinding its way through the weekly drudgery it hoped would finally yield a different result. Cornerback Terrell Thomas gave voice to the desperation.

"We just need to win a game," Thomas said. "I don't care how. Even if it's lucky. Even if the other team hands it to us. Even if the refs blow the game. I don't care. We just need to get a win."

Flash-forward 3½ days, to the wee hours of Tuesday morning, with the MetLife Stadium scoreboard reading Giants 23, Vikings 7. Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who'd spent six weeks exhausting nearly every hangdog look in his substantial catalog, stood at a podium smiling. He had made it through a game, for the first time this season, without throwing an interception. His completion percentage of 59.0 had been his highest since the season opener. He'd picked up a key first down with his legs, which is rare but always fun. But more important than any of that, Manning and the Giants had won the game.

"It's good to be smiling and to have a little excitement in the locker room," Manning said. "When you play and you don't win, after a while you kind of forget that winning feeling. So it's good to get one right here. We needed it."

Oh, did Manning need this. After a week in which the topic of benching him had actually come up (on the Vikings reporters' conference call with Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who dismissed it immediately) and his frustration with the losing and the criticism had begun to show, Manning desperately needed a game in which he didn't turn the ball over. He needed a game in which the opposition couldn't get out of its own way and he never felt as though it was up to him to do something heroic in the fourth quarter. He needed a game after which everyone would be talking about the defense and about Peyton Hillis and about what in the world the Vikings were thinking throwing the ball 53 times with a quarterback they'd just met instead of handing the ball off to the league's MVP.

Manning and the Giants needed this, because some of their simple, foundational principles were starting to feel unsteady.

"You put so much work in, and you don't always get the results you want," Manning said. "We're doing all the right things. Our preparation has been good every week. We just have to keep doing it, and if we do the right things, it will come around."

They believe that, the Giants do. They base their entire week of work on that idea, every single week -- that no matter what has come before, if they do things the way they know how to do them, they will get the results they seek. The extent to which Coughlin preaches this concept -- and Manning demonstrates it -- is what has kept this whole thing afloat for a decade now and resulted in two Super Bowl titles along the way.

This year, though, the team has been wobbling on its axis. The Giants are more deeply flawed than they ever considered they might be, inept and undermanned on both lines to an extent that has crippled their ability to establish the kind of consistency and rhythm they need to feel like themselves.

Manning has been a mess, in large part because he hasn't been able to trust his protection or his run game. He's not making excuses and shouldn't, because his own poor play was one of many significant factors in the 0-6 start, but the mess of this season has its roots in a capsized comfort level. Even Monday, he was shaky at times, throwing at least three balls that could easily have been picked off if the Vikings' defensive backs could catch. But like Thomas said Thursday, the Giants needed a couple of breaks. Manning maybe most of all.

So Monday night was a tonic. Not a cure, mind you, just a tonic. The Giants still aren't going anywhere this year. There are many more losses on the schedule -- many games left against teams that will do crazy things like start their best quarterback and try to use their best players. The Giants aren't good enough to beat the better teams in this league this year, and truth be told they're not good enough to be sure they can beat the worst. They're going to have to wear this and come back next year to try to fix it.

But when they do, Coughlin will still be the coach and Manning will still be the quarterback. And slogging through week after week of interception-pocked losses is no way to convince yourself it'll all be OK at some future time. Monday night, for the first time all season, Manning got to feel that way.

"He had good vision tonight, I thought," Coughlin said. "Eli saw things tonight very well, and obviously he was concerned about taking care of the ball. He did a nice job of that."

Nothing major or heroic was done, required or expected. All the Giants wanted out of this game was to win it and to be able to move on to Sunday's game in Philadelphia with a different feeling than the one they've been carrying with them for the past month and a half. Mission accomplished, and maybe the next time Manning finds himself needing one of those big fourth-quarter, game-winning drives, he'll be in a better frame of mind to throw the ball to his teammates instead of his opponents.