EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The way the story is often told, these New York Giants can avoid years of major reconstructive surgery. They have Eli Manning after all, a notarized franchise player, a guy who can reduce a rebuilding project to the quickest of quick fixes.
If you've got a star quarterback in the NFL, you've always got a chance. And yes, Eli is the only two-time Super Bowl MVP the Giants have ever dressed. In fact, he's the only two-time Super Bowl MVP the Manning family has ever dressed, too.
But he's not Peyton. Never has been, never will be. Eli isn't Peyton and he isn't Tom Brady, either, despite those conquests of the New England Patriots on the biggest stage. Even if Eli quarterback-sneaks his way into the Hall of Fame someday, he's not going down with his big brother and Brady among the top five of all time.
So the Giants' Manning is likely to age a little faster than Peyton and Brady have aged. Eli turns 33 in a few weeks, and after another horror-show performance Sunday in a horror-show season, Giants fans have to start asking themselves these sobering questions:
What if Eli Manning has entered the early stages of an irreversible decline? What if he's done elevating the lesser teammates around him, done making breathless runs through the postseason tournament?
What if you're going to see plenty more of the five-interception Eli everyone saw against the Seattle Seahawks over the next two or three seasons?
"I just don't believe that," Tom Coughlin said after Seahawks 23, Giants 0.
He can't afford to believe that. At 67, Coughlin is running low on time to win his third title and break a Super Bowl tie with his mentor, Bill Parcells. He won't be coaching the next quarterback of the Giants, whoever that is, and so he needs Eli to be Eli next season and (perhaps) beyond.
But now Manning has 25 interceptions on the year against a lousy 16 touchdowns, and he's lost 14 of his last 22 starts. Even if the Giants' playmakers aren't making any plays, and even if Hakeem Nicks thinks it's touch football out there, the fact remains that Eli is the one with the $100 million contract, the one paid to make people around him better.
He failed so miserably in that context Sunday that Coughlin was moved to spit the following into a live microphone: "It was a pathetic offensive performance."
Pathetic. It's a strong word, and Coughlin wasn't sparing his quarterback from the full force of its intent. Asked if the offense was pathetic because teammates were letting Manning down, or because Manning was letting his teammates down, the coach said, "That's a very good question, and I think it's not one that can be an absolute answer, black and white.
"I think it's a little bit of both to be honest with you."
Manning wasn't fully responsible for all five interceptions, as his receivers were constantly getting beaten to 50-50 balls by Seattle's physical secondary. The Seahawks outjumped and outfought their counterparts all game long, leaving Manning looking like someone who would've had more fun spending the day scraping ice off his porch.
But Eli could've thrown better passes too, much better -- the kind he used to throw to everyone from Plaxico Burress to Mario Manningham to Victor Cruz. One receiver who did fight for everything Sunday, Cruz, ended up with a concussion and a knee sprain after going high for a Manning pass, getting cut in mid-air, and crash-landing on his helmet. The Giants were roughed up in this game, and reminded in the most forceful way of what a championship-level team looks like. With designs on returning to MetLife Stadium for the Super Bowl, the Seahawks played with Feb. 2 urgency despite the fact this dry run started at 10 a.m. on their Pacific Northwest body clocks.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll, the Dick Clark of the NFL (the league's oldest teenager), arrived with a winterized contender that can pound the ball and bang on both sides of the line like most credible Northeastern contenders of the past. Carroll also arrived with a smart and opportunistic quarterback, Russell Wilson who, at 25, has his best years ahead of him.
Manning can't make the same claim with the same degree of confidence, not after throwing more interceptions this season than Geno Smith has thrown.
"It's shocking," Justin Tuck said. "It's a prime example of when it rains it pours, and for him, he hasn't been able to put it together this year, and that's tough. And I know he's a guy who's here before the sun comes up. He doesn't leave until after it goes down, so I know he's put in the work.
"The years he's led us to the Super Bowl, and his Pro Bowl years, he's done it the same way. That Toyota is parked in the same parking spot when I get here at 6 a.m."
Manning still meets with his receivers whenever he can, still does whatever he can Monday through Saturday to give the Giants their best chance to win on Sunday. So that's why Tuck approached Manning at game's end and told him, "Listen bro, just keep your head up."
Yes, Eli will keep his head up. But the franchise player isn't paid to try; he's paid to win.
"I have no doubt in my mind that he's going to bounce out of this," Tuck said, "and become the Eli of old."
But what if the Eli of old doesn't reappear, and instead gets replaced by an old Eli, or an aging Eli, anyway? The Giants don't need that migraine. Their offensive line is a mess, their running game is a mystery, at best, and their most explosive receiver, Nicks, is playing himself off the team and out of a big contract.
These cruel truths inspired Coughlin to face his 5-9 Giants after the shutout loss and divide them into two groups -- those who gave him an honest effort, and those who did not. Coughlin thanked the good guys, and told the bad guys he felt sorry for them.
Manning? He didn't even finish the game; Curtis Painter assumed the role of mop-up man. When it was all over, Eli was seen shaking Wilson's hand and then beating everyone off the field.
"It's not fun when you get dominated like that," he said.
Manning conceded he didn't play worth a damn, but noted that the Giants didn't win any of the one-on-one matchups they liked going in. "We got outplayed at a lot of spots," he said.
They got outplayed at the quarterback spot all season, and what was set up as Eli's crowning achievement -- a shot at a third Super Bowl ring in his own building -- ended up as a cruel practical joke.
Russell Wilson is the one who might very well be back here on Feb 2. Eli Manning? Twenty-five interceptions later, who knows if he'll ever see the inside of a big game again?