PHILADELPHIA -- We may have been lulled to sleep a little bit by the New York Giants' easy Week 3 victory over the Panthers. Not that they're not a good team, because I still think they are, but that game didn't really test the important stuff. It was too easy for them to run the ball, to complete short passes against soft coverage in the middle of the field. The Giants aren't about winning when it's easy. That's not what reveals who they are. The Giants are about the close games, about passing the toughest tests, and Sunday night they fell just the tiniest bit short of passing an important early-season test against the Eagles.
In the end, it was not a missed field goal that cost them. Lawrence Tynes isn't there to make 54-yard field goals. That's not his game. The mistake that cost the Giants, as Ian O'Connor writes for ESPNNewYork.com, was the bad throw and bad decision one play earlier by quarterback Eli Manning that led to Ramses Barden's offensive pass interference call and pushed the game-winning field goal attempt out of Tynes' range. This is a rare thing these days -- a costly fourth-quarter mistake by Manning -- and so it stands out.
But what really comes through when you break it down this way is how reliant the Giants are on Manning, especially in the fourth quarter. Much like the Eagles, who are 3-1 in spite of a whole host of well-chronicled ball-security and drive-finishing problems, the Giants are a team still finding its 2012 footing. Andre Brown's breakout against Carolina aside, they still struggle to run the ball. Their defense, beset by early-season injuries in the secondary and the linebacking corps, ranks in the bottom half of the league. For goodness' sake, they have only eight sacks in four games. These are the Giants we're talking about here. There are 16 teams in the league that have more sacks so far this year than do the Justin Tuck/Osi Umenyiora/Jason Pierre-Paul Giants.
Not that these things can't or won't get better. The offensive line looks as though it's improving. Pierre-Paul is still terrorizing backfields and disrupting things even as the sack totals stay low. There's little reason not to think a big pass-rush game is somewhere on the Giants' horizon. But in the meantime, this is still a team that leans hard on Manning's ability to win them a close game against a divisional rival in the fourth quarter. And on Sunday night, he did not make the play.
"Looking back on it, I had the corner up top and I should have tried to throw to Barden's back shoulder to keep it away from the corner," Manning said. "I would have rather not thrown it so far down the field to cause the pass interference."
It was one of two costly throws by the usually reliable Manning, along with the end-zone interception to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie that killed an earlier drive. If he'd made just one of those two throws -- or thrown the ball away instead on either of them -- then we're likely sitting here today and writing about how the Giants are rolling and the Eagles can't finish off drives. Instead, it's the Eagles who are 3-1 in spite of a host of early-season issues their deep, talented roster has been able to overcome. And the Giants are 0-2 in the division.
That's how razor-thin the margins are in the NFL, and it's for that reason that Manning usually gives the Giants the advantage. He's shown a fearless willingness and ability to make all of the tough fourth-quarter throws and to cash in close games that help determine the outcome of a season. When he does not, it's a bit of a shock, and right now it's something the rest of the roster cannot overcome. He made them all in Week 2 against Tampa Bay. On Sunday night, he didn't.
There is no fresh reason to doubt or worry about Manning. He's still the same clutch quarterback who's won the Giants two Super Bowls, and they'll continue to believe, every time they get into a close fourth-quarter scrap, that there's no one they'd rather have trying to bail them out of it. But his inability to do so in this game served as a reminder of how far these 2012 Giants have to go before they're as good as they can be. And it showed once again that, when it comes down to it, Manning has to win them the big game, because the rest of the team right now doesn't have enough to win it for him.