ARLINGTON, Texas -- The feeling was familiar, and pleasantly so. Even after three hours of repeatedly coughing up the ball, the New York Giants sat on the sideline here at AT&T Stadium (née Cowboys Stadium) in the fourth quarter feeling very good about the sight of Eli Manning trotting back onto the field. There was 2:41 left on the clock, the Giants trailed the Dallas Cowboys 30-24, and Justin Tuck had one thought.
"I was sitting on the bench and reminiscing on the Super Bowl," Tuck said. "Because he has done it so many times in his career, you feel like he's going to do it every time."
He did not, of course. Manning threw four passes on that series. The fourth wound up in the hands of Dallas cornerback Brandon Carr, who returned the Giants' sixth turnover of the game 49 yards for the backbreaking touchdown.
"You put him in that situation, nine out of 10 times he's going to figure out how to get us some points," Tuck said of Manning. "It was that one out of 10 tonight. Hopefully the next time he's in that position, he'll do what he has always done."
OK, sure. Hopefully. But how about finding, I don't know, some other way to win? How about playing a better game for three quarters and not needing Manning to find the right telephone booth at the start of the fourth? Is that at all in the Giants' plans? Because if not, they have problems.
Because, you see, Manning isn't Superman. He isn't perfect. Of the six turnovers the Giants somehow committed in their 36-31 season-opening loss -- against a team that got only 16 turnovers all of last season -- three were interceptions thrown by Manning. That goes on his record, and he knows that. The crushing final one was a case of him trying to throw a screen pass to a backup running back, Da'Rel Scott, to whom he hasn't spent much time throwing. So you can't put that all on Manning, obviously, but the extent to which he's to blame isn't the point here.
The point is that the situation around Manning seems to have deteriorated since he capped that magical, comeback-pocked 2011 season with his second Super Bowl MVP award 19 months ago. The Giants have not made their defense better since that night. They have not made their offensive line better since that night. The run game? Pff. David Wilson's second fumble of the game earned him a spot on the bench, and because Andre Brown's leg is broken, it was Scott to whom the screen unfortunately had to go on the first play after the two-minute warning.
"Around the 50-yard line, down six, less than two minutes, we feel we're going to win the game," Manning said. "That's going to be a game we can win."
But you can't. Not every time, and not with so little assistance. At some point, the Giants are going to have to have a stretch where the defense wins them some games, where they have some semblance of a running game. They've grown too thin on both lines to be able to control the way games go, and as a result they continually find themselves in this exact situation -- asking Manning to go lead the game-winning drive.
And Manning is not, just to throw out a name, Tom Brady. Do you see what New England does to Brady every year? It's like they're trying to find the puzzle he can't solve. Some years they just play no defense at all. Some years they forget to employ any real running backs. This year, they took away Brady's all-time favorite receiver and replaced him with Danny Amendola, who's got the injury history of the dude on the "Operation" game board. Things are perpetually falling apart around Brady, and he manages to deliver 11, 12, 13 wins a year in spite of it all.
Manning isn't that guy. Yes, he's beaten Brady twice in the Super Bowl, and yes, that matters in terms of legacy. But in order to be what the Giants claim they're trying to be -- a consistent, winning team that can make the playoffs every year and make more runs at more Super Bowls -- they need to give their quarterback more help. Too often, the Giants bumble their way around for 45 minutes and then ask their quarterback to make chicken salad out of well, in this case, a bunch of turnovers.
"That is how we love to operate," said Victor Cruz, who caught three of Manning's four touchdown passes for 118 of his 450 yards. "Especially Eli. He loves creating that two-minute drill and driving the ball down the field."
He may, but if that's really how the Giants feel and that's really how they plan to operate week to week, then they're asking to have that same 9-7 roller coaster every year. They say they don't want that. At some point, they're going to have to find some other way to fix it. Because for all of his gifts, Eli Manning isn't going to be able to do it every time.