Eli hobbles out of his nightmare

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Under a raw and steady rain, fitting conditions for this not-so-fond farewell, Eli Manning wrapped his right arm around a staffer, hobbled off the field and into the tunnel, and reached out wearily with his left hand to find whatever support he could.

Not since Derek Jeter was carried off the Yankee Stadium dirt and out of the 2012 playoffs with a broken ankle did a scene involving one of the biggest stars in the biggest market inspire a similar sense of shock. This was Eli Manning after all, a quarterback who had made 162 consecutive starts, playoff games included.

Super Bowl victories included, too.

It's all these New York Giants had left -- the notion that their quarterback could stand in there in the worst of times and take everything thrown at him. Hits. Sacks. Interceptions. Missed blocking assignments. Passing routes from hell. You name it.

But just like everything else about the 2013 season, including the Super Bowl countdown calendar in the back of the practice facility locker room, Eli Manning finally came tumbling down. He absorbed yet another hit on yet another incomplete against the Washington Redskins near the end of the first half Sunday, sprained his left ankle on the plunge, and then did a terrible job hiding the pain.

Hurry-up offense or no hurry-up offense, Tom Coughlin should've lifted him right then and there, especially with Eli acting like he was stepping on a bed of nails while waiting for the next play. And in his winning seasons, his championship seasons, Coughlin would have done just that.

But in 2013, a season of bad judgment calls across the board from the potential Hall of Famers-to-be, Coughlin and Eli, and from their fellow Giants, too, the coach left the injured quarterback in the game. On cue, throwing off one foot, Manning fired errantly to his disappointing tight end, Brandon Myers, who deflected the pass with one hand into the arms of Washington's Josh Wilson.

Eli's 27th interception. What else?

"Obviously I would've liked to eliminate one interception on the year," Manning said of his attempt to play through the pain. "So obviously that didn't work out."

Nothing worked out this year, even if the Giants followed their 0-6 start with a 7-3 finish punctuated by this 20-6 victory over Washington, a team that makes all opponents look like the '85 Bears. It was an ungodly mess of a football game shaped by rain and injuries and turnovers and an overriding lack of true purpose.

When it was over, Coughlin was a proud and stubborn voice. "Seven-and-nine," he said, "is a heck of a lot better than six-and-10."

And a heck of a lot better than Mike Shanahan's 3-13.

If Shanahan was a dead coach walking around MetLife Stadium, preparing to be fired, the 67-year-old Coughlin appeared safe and sound. The Giants coach had earned the benefit of the doubt and the right to decide whether he returns for 2014, and barring a stunning change in Coughlin's (or his employer's) thinking, return the two-time champion will.

"I think the fire is still there," said Justin Tuck, who maintained he would be "shocked" if his coach ended his career on this 7-9 note.

Shanahan is the latest NFC East veteran Coughlin has outlasted. But franchise coaches aren't quite as valuable as franchise quarterbacks, making the sight of an injured Manning being helped off the field by far the most alarming visual of the day.

"Yeah," Coughlin said, "I don't want to see it again."

It was sobering enough the first time.

"Very shocking," Rueben Randle said. "Me and Hakeem [Nicks] were sitting on the training room table and we heard on the ear piece Eli was injured. We saw him walking in and hobbling. ... He really used to pull through and fights through his injuries."

But there was no rubbing dirt on this one. Manning was diagnosed with a high ankle sprain, and the doctor said playing in the second half would be a really bad idea.

"It's serious," Manning said later while wearing a protective boot over his left foot, "but it will heal. ... It's not something that really happened before, and you hate to leave your teammates."

The good news? The injury won't jeopardize Manning's consecutive starts streak; the premature arrival of the offseason guaranteed that.

The bad news? Eli turns 33 Friday, and if the Giants don't spend every hour of that offseason trying to find better and stronger teammates to protect him, he might never again go back to being the old Eli. You know, the two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli.

Coughlin said the pursuit of new and improved bodyguards "would be an objective for sure," not that Manning was about to blitz his linemen as a parting shot. Asked if he merely needed better protection by next September, Manning stammered a bit before conceding, "I've got to make better throws and better decisions at times."

The quarterback also promised to "look hard at this season to see if there's a common reason why we didn't have success, whether it's the throws or whether it's just the offense in general."

Manning did throw a pretty touchdown pass to Jerrel Jernigan on Sunday, but his first third-down pass of the afternoon said it all about 2013. It was a wobbly ball to the sideline that had pick-six written all over it, and even if it was completed (it wasn't), Randle's route would've left him short of a first down. Plays like these explain why Eli won't win the championship in his place, MetLife, that he won in Peyton's old place in Indy two years ago.

"I'll watch, obviously, the Broncos," Eli said of the playoffs. "Be rooting hard for my brother and them to play well, and hopefully they can be in this building in a month or so."

Peyton will comp Eli's ticket for sure. Little brother's last pass of the year was intercepted just like his first pass of the year, and when the whole miserable experience was over, the league's most durable quarterback was an ironman no more.

Though Manning walked without aid (but with his boot) to the podium for his postgame news conference, he needed crutches to carry himself out of the stadium and into the players' parking lot.

Months of R&R were around the bend. Finally, mercifully, Eli Manning's long regional nightmare was over.