Football gods finally blitzed Manning

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The football gods finally called an all-out blitz on Eli Manning, the same Eli Manning they had blessed for years with all sorts of good fortune. Enough was enough, the gods decreed.

They'd already let Eli win a Super Bowl in his big brother's building, so they were never going to let him win one in his own.

The dream officially died Sunday in conditions cold and windy enough for that MetLife Stadium Super Bowl in February, and as Manning headed for the exits wearing a ski cap pulled down to his eyes, a fan among a handful being detained by security called out to him from a nearby bench.

"Eee-lieeee, I love you baby," the man shouted as he pumped an arm in the air, his left eye looking as bruised and swollen as the New York Giants' season.

Manning allowed himself a small laugh, then made a hard turn left toward a door to the parking lot and the bitter chill of what will be the longest winter of his NFL life.

"We've got five games left; we've got to win every one," the quarterback had said minutes earlier, after the Dallas Cowboys had beaten his Giants 24-21 on a field goal on the game's last play.

"That's the only way that will possibly give us a chance. We don't know if that's going to be good enough, but we know that's the only way."

At 4-7, Eli knows it's over. He knows the Giants aren't making any miracle run to the NFC East title, which means he knows the Giants aren't making any miracle run through the postseason tournament and the biggest game ever played in his Meadowlands backyard.

It wasn't supposed to go down like this, not for Eli Manning, the two-time Super Bowl MVP who had one-upped his more talented and accomplished brother, Peyton (a mere one-time champ), and who had two-upped his more talented and accomplished opponent, Tom Brady, who would have a record five Super Bowl rings if not for that damn Eli and his magical, mystery throws to David Tyree and Mario Manningham.

Eli was always the charmed one, always the goofy kid brother who found ways to score his revenge of the nerd. He didn't just twice beat Brady, Peyton's tormentor and the GQ QB with the Vanity Fair wife; Eli inspired Gisele Bundchen to lash out at a heckler (and Wes Welker, of all people) and did it all in the house that Peyton had built in Indy, Lucas Oil Stadium.

So everyone watching Sunday figured Eli would survive and thrive once again, especially with the anti-Eli, Tony Romo, on the other side of the field. With one playoff victory to his name, Romo is something of a Mr. Loser. He's the guy who went to Cabo with Jessica Simpson six years ago and returned from his fun in the sun to blow a playoff game to the underdog Giants in the game that first established young Manning as a hot hand in the clutch.

No way Manning was surrendering the Giants' winning streak, and their fragile playoff hopes, to Romo, not after the plays Eli made in the second half. That beautiful fourth-and-3 lob to Brandon Myers in the third quarter, the one that resulted in a 27-yard touchdown and cut the Dallas lead to 21-13?

The huge third-and-8 pass in the fourth quarter to Victor Cruz, who jumped high to complete a 22-yard gain to the Cowboys' 5-yard line? The perfect strike on the run Eli fired to Louis Murphy for the touchdown that set up the tying two-point conversion with 4:45 left?

Those were this-is-your-life throws from Manning that had every witness, Eli included, thinking that the Giants were about to pull another one out of Tom Coughlin's hat.

"It's almost déjà vu a little bit," Justin Tuck said.

Or déjà blue.

"Yeah, I had that feeling," Manning said. "Hey, we tied it up. We had some momentum going. Our defense played outstanding all day. You're hoping they're going to get a stop or a turnover and make a big play."

And then, Manning would make a big play, of course, and all but delete the memory of that gruesome 0-6 start. This is why Terrell Thomas had guaranteed victory, why Jason Pierre-Paul had practically done the same.

They had Eli on their side, the best New York, New York closer this side of Mo Rivera.

Only this time around, the Giants' defense wouldn't get the stop Manning needed it to get. For all his flaws, Romo was about to remind everyone that he isn't Josh Freeman, or a one-legged Michael Vick, or Matt Barkley, or Terrelle Pryor, or Scott Tolzien.

The Dallas quarterback, who had already thrown his 200th career touchdown pass -- 47 more than Roger Staubach, 35 more than Troy Aikman -- was about to deliver a series of critical third-down passes he's been known to botch.

"People look at him and say, 'Hey, Tony, you know, he's going to screw something up in the fourth quarter,'" said Antrel Rolle, Romo's primary victim on that final drive. "But, man, Tony's a great quarterback, and you've got to take your hat off to him. He made the plays when he needed to make them."

Manning never got the ball back and later expressed regret over the early scoring opportunities that resulted in field goals. His coach wasn't shy about identifying the nature of the offense's problems.

"We rushed the ball very well tonight," Coughlin said. "We didn't particularly throw the ball or have as much yardage as we would've thought with the passing game."

Manning finished with 174 yards against the league's worst passing defense; he was good for 450 in the opening night loss at Dallas. On a third-and-goal from the 10 in the second quarter, Coughlin asked his franchise player, his two-time Super Bowl MVP, to hand off to Andre Brown and settle for a field goal.

It's been that kind of season for Manning, who has thrown 14 touchdown passes against 17 interceptions. He didn't have Hakeem Nicks against the Cowboys, but Eli has forever had a knack of elevating the Louis Murphys and Jerrel Jernigans (and David Tyrees) when it mattered most.

Make no mistake: Manning did create an endgame stir Sunday, filling his ballpark with that old sense of anticipation, that familiar vibe of faith. But on a late November evening borrowed from early February, and in a game dragged down by penalty after penalty, Manning couldn't rise above the chaos like he's done so often in the past.

In the end, the football gods decided it was time for the charmed young Eli to feel a little pain. The dream of winning the big one in his own building is officially gone with the wind.