EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Eli Manning knows the terms of a franchise player's engagement. No matter how often Manning elevates the New York Giants, he is not granted any clemency when the Giants fail to elevate him.
The star quarterback just let down his team, a flawed, fragile and, perhaps, fake contender that needed Manning on Sunday like never before. This was not the 2011 Eli in MetLife Stadium, the Eli who had honored his own claim of elite-hood, the Eli who had been doing such a dead-on impression of his big brother in Peyton's vacated place.
This was the 25-interception Eli of 2010. This was the Eli who looked a little lost after Plaxico Burress shot himself in 2008. This was the Eli who threw four picks (including three pick-sixes) against Minnesota in 2007, sending the retired executive who had traded for him, Ernie Accorsi, fleeing from the Meadowlands by halftime because he simply couldn't watch another wayward pass.
For the second time this season, Manning was the second-best quarterback on Rex Grossman's field. That's a hard thing to do, you know, losing two games to Rex Grossman in the same season.
But damn it if Manning didn't pull it off. He threw three interceptions against no touchdowns in a 23-10 loss to the Washington Redskins, a loss that left a devastated fan base with so many Giants to blame.
You can start with the same person Tom Coughlin started with in his postgame news conference ("The responsibility always comes right back to me, and I accept it," the coach said), or with the overmatched rookie (Prince Amukamara) in an overmatched secondary, or with the prime-time receiver, Hakeem Nicks, who lost an early home run ball in the sun that could've changed the complexion of the game.
Manning is the more appropriate place to start. He's the $100 million man, the face of the Giants, the guy expected to deliver excellence, or at least something close to it, when the season is reduced to a fight to the divisional death.
Eli was supposed to be what he was against Dallas last week, the best quarterback in the NFC East. Instead Manning played a shockingly indifferent game for a shockingly indifferent team.
Yeah, the Redskins might've rolled over on command had a wide-open Nicks won his battle with the sun and caught the ball that bounced off his facemask and into a painfully long day. The receiver had successfully run that same route in warmups, and had absorbed warnings from Manning and Coughlin that the glare on that side of the field would be a formidable opponent to beat.
None of it mattered. "Eli threw a perfect pass," Nicks said, "led me straight up the middle to the end zone, and I would love to have it back. But [you] can't control the sun."
If you're a credible playoff team, you can control the 4-9 Redskins, an unworthy antagonist with an unworthy quarterback. And yet Grossman exploited the prospect formerly known as Prince, chasing Amukamara back to Coughlin's bench while building a 17-0 lead.
Manning had his shot to rally the Giants back into the game. After the Redskins made a dreadful fourth-and-1 call, handing the Giants a field goal right before the half, Manning ran the first possession of the third quarter straight into a brick wall.
He had Nicks open on a sideline route to Washington's 40, a developing play that could've roused the home crowd from its sleepy sense of resignation. But Manning wasn't up to the moment.
"I knew when I let it go it was going to be a little underthrown," he said. "I was just hoping [Nicks] could knock it away."
Hicks didn't knock it away. DeAngelo Hall intercepted the ball with one arm, the Redskins matched the field goal they had given away to the Giants, and soon enough Manning was down to his last fourth-quarter gasp.
Needing three touchdowns to take the lead, Eli drove the Giants to Washington's 13 early in the final quarter before lobbing up a ball toward the left corner of the end zone. Mario Manningham had mistakenly aborted the fade route, but even if he hadn't, the Giants' best-case scenario would've been a broken-up pass.
Josh Wilson defended the fade perfectly, and gathered the ball with the ease of an intended target. Manning stared in disbelief at Manningham, and then showed him up by throwing his open hands in the air.
"Disappointed, upset," Manning said of his emotions at the time. "There was a great opportunity."
Giants on both sides of the ball were stunned that the offense had come undone. "He has played awesome all year," defensive end Justin Tuck said of Manning. "It just seems that sometimes [the offense] can just snap their fingers and get the offense going, but it didn't happen today."
Nothing happened on this day, other than the Giants exposing themselves for what they are -- the 7-7 beneficiaries of a lousy division. They've lost five of their past six games, and yet they'll still win the NFC East if they beat their equally inept neighbors (more on the New York Jets to come over the next six days) and complete the sweep of the Cowboys.
But the Giants won't be going 9-7 with this Eli, who denied that the burden of carrying a mediocre team is wearing on him. Asked how difficult it has become for the Giants to win a game when Manning doesn't play to his standards, Coughlin said:
"You need other people. You need to make that play down the middle of the field. You need to do some things when the ball is right there. Others have to rise up and play. Obviously, [Manning] has played extremely well and we've depended on him tremendously. When things weren't exactly as smooth as they have been, somehow, some way, other people have to come to the front."
The only other Giant who came to the front Sunday was -- surprise, surprise -- Jason Pierre-Paul, who finished with 16 tackles and one sack before the cameras caught him laughing in the immediate wake of the defeat, a rookie mistake by a second-year pro.
Eli? He wasn't laughing after throwing what Coughlin called "very untimely interceptions."
The truth hurt. For one of the few times in his breakout season, Manning knew he let down the Giants when they needed him most.
The franchise player has two weeks to make it up to the franchise.