EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The best quarterback in the league, Aaron Rodgers, was the best quarterback on the field and yet Eli Manning was right there in his ballpark, reminding everyone why he was good enough to win a ring before Rodgers was even a passing thought in Brett Favre's mind.
In the final minutes of a frantic game, with the unbeaten Green Bay Packers holding on for dear life, Manning took his New York Giants down the field in a handful of plays. It was too fast, too easy, as Manning found himself with a third-and-goal and no choice but to score before he could bleed the clock dry.
So score he did. Manning had a run called when he stepped to the line, when he realized the defense was daring him to throw to his most dangerous receiver, Hakeem Nicks, guarded by a backup, Sam Shields, on the right side.
Eli had called for the same fade route on an earlier touchdown pass to Nicks, who made a one-handed grab with a career first-stringer, Charles Woodson, strapped to his back. "Eli gives me a look," Nicks said, "and I can pretty much read his face. He trusts in me, and I trust in him. We're at the point now where I know when he's going to come to me."
With Clay Matthews raging his way, Manning threw the required 2-yard pass to Nicks, spinning away from Matthews on delivery, and suddenly with 58 seconds left the Giants were two points short of sharing a 35-35 tie with the 11-0 defending champs. Of course Manning was charged to throw a pass on the conversion attempt; no offensive coordinator would risk his reputation, his job, on an all-or-nothing handoff to the middling likes of D.J. Ware.
But the franchise player spotted something that benefited the franchise. Manning surveyed the Green Bay defense, raised his hands near the line of scrimmage, and started barking things in picture-Peyton form. As it turned out, Eli was making the gutsiest call of the season. "He checked to the perfect play," Ware said, "and we got in there."
Yeah, the rest of it was fairly predictable. Rodgers is a freak of NFL nature, playing the sport's signature position like it's never been played, and so he needed only a few flicks of his wrist to set up the gimme field goal and a victory that would've made an old Giants assistant named Lombardi proud.
But in suffering a fourth straight defeat that left them in a 6-6 heap, the Giants were reminded why they still have a chance, and better than a puncher's chance, to win their division.
They have the best quarterback in it.
"We expect Eli to do what he did today," Giants owner John Mara said as he left MetLife Stadium, "because he's done it for us many times before. That last drive would've been better if we were only down five or six points, but at the end of the game, I'll take Eli with the ball in his hand any time."
The Giants were emboldened by their near-miss to summon the memory of that 2007 near-miss against the unbeaten New England Patriots at the close of the regular season, the morale booster that sent the Giants surging through the playoffs and, ultimately, toward a Super Bowl conquest of those same Patriots.
The comparison was a little much, as the 2007 Giants didn't lose three in a row, never mind four. The 2007 Giants also never flatlined in back-to-back games the way the 2011 Giants flatlined against the Eagles and Saints.
But Manning represents the one common thread connecting yesterday and today, and he's a much better football player than he was four seasons back. Eli had 23 touchdowns against 20 interceptions in 16 games then, and he's got 23 touchdowns against 11 interceptions in 12 games now. The '07 Manning completed 56 percent of his attempts and managed a passer rating of 73.9; the '11 Manning has completed 62 percent and managed a passer rating of 96.
So even as they sit a game back in the NFC East, with two to play against the first-place Dallas Cowboys, the Giants have an advantage at the position that forever determines who wins and who loses. Manning is the pick over Tony Romo, an opponent he vanquished on that championship run. Manning also gets the nod over Michael Vick and Vince Young and Rex Grossman.
Eli's the only Super Bowl MVP of the divisional bunch, and the man he needs to beat over the final four games, Romo, is burdened by the stubborn haunts of his past. It was fitting that on a day Manning fell to 6-6, Romo suffered a more discouraging defeat in Arizona, and one that gives the Giants a clear shot at the NFC East crown.
"In a sense it gives you a little relief," Manning said of the Dallas loss, "knowing that we're still right in the mix."
Eli put the Giants in the mix three plays into Sunday's game, deking a Packers safety on a pump to Nicks and throwing a longball to Travis Beckum, who crazy-legged it into the end zone for a 67-yard score. Manning did hand Green Bay six points on the pick-six he gift-wrapped for Matthews, but Rodgers matched him with a brutal interception of his own.
If this duel of Super Bowl MVPs wasn't a complete standoff, it was close enough. Manning was good for 347 passing yards and three touchdowns, Rodgers for 369 passing yards and four. The winning quarterback flashed his superior speed and athleticism, but Manning showed an ability to buy himself an extra second when it was required, just like he did against the Patriots on the worst night of Bill Belichick's coaching life.
As Manning drove the Giants toward the eight points they needed, veteran teammates felt that familiar Super Bowl vibe. "For us," Justin Tuck said, "it is funny the eerie confidence that we have on the sideline when the situation is like that."
Rodgers' decisive counterpunch left Manning dazed enough in his postgame news conference to start talking up the challenge of facing the Washington Redskins next Sunday (the Giants are actually playing in Dallas). When informed of his mistake, Manning said, "Oh, that's OK. My bad."
A tough ending to a tough day. With all the close calls going the way of the visitors, or so it seemed, the fanbase reacted as if ol' Curly Lambeau himself had assigned the refs.
But Manning wasn't as interested in assessing blame as he was in embracing that last regular-season game of 2007, the last game the Giants would lose that year. "Hopefully we can take that same approach," Manning said of this time around.
The Giants have to win their division first. If nothing else, they've got the best quarterback in it.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.