Eli plays second fiddle to Romo

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- This season opener was a long way from Super Bowl XLVI, a million miles removed from those scenes of unimagined bliss in big brother Peyton's place, where the quarterback of the New York Giants bounced his baby girl in his arms as she chewed on the keys to his new Corvette.

Eli Manning was the man that night, the MVP in the big one for the second time, and suddenly about as big a star as there was in the NFL. He'd taken two titles from Tom Brady and passed Peyton in the family's intramural race for most championship rings, showing up two of the greatest players of all time.

He didn't need to host "Saturday Night Live" to prove he was as much the face of the Giants as any quarterback was the face of any team in any league. And for all of the blessings that go along with being an undisputed franchise player, this curse comes packaged with it:

When the Giants lose, it's almost always going to be Eli Manning's fault.

Wednesday night, when the Giants opened defense of their title with a dispiriting 24-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys inside MetLife Stadium, there were plenty of people available to accept blame. The offensive line was manhandled by the Dallas defensive front. Victor Cruz played like an undrafted receiver. Corey Webster got smoked on a hitch-and-go sandlot route run by Kevin Ogletree, and the defense allowed Tony Romo 307 passing yards and three touchdown drives that went for a combined 235 yards.

The replacement refs missed some calls here and there, including a defensive hold on Cruz in the end zone, even if a relieved Roger Goodell met them at their dressing room door after the game and offered a hearty round of handshakes and atta-boy pats on the back.

Only Manning was the most culpable figure out there, the Giant who was sorely outplayed at the sport's most important position. Tom Coughlin almost never publicly criticizes the player most responsible for making him a potential Hall of Famer down the road, and when asked to assess Manning's performance, the coach started out by fingering the offensive line.

"He had tremendous pressure," Coughlin said. "We didn't do much in terms of really solidifying and allowing him to step up and throw."

But then Coughlin said this: "Certainly he would be the first one to tell you that we certainly want more, expect more, hope to certainly have more." It wasn't much, and it didn't need to be. Before he went back to criticizing the line that allowed three sacks of Manning, Coughlin told the world his quarterback had to do better.

"We made a lot of mistakes," Eli said, "physical mistakes that we need to improve on."

He didn't have a lousy night in the box score. Manning finished 21-of-32 for 213 yards and a touchdown, but he threw that touchdown pass and padded those numbers in the final minutes against a Dallas defense merely trying to nurse a 14-point lead. In fact, Manning blew it earlier on that drive by missing a wide-open Domenik Hixon streaking for the end zone, an error that inspired Eli to plant both hands on his helmet in what-did-I-just-do form.

"I wish I could've had it back," Manning said.

That's how his teammates felt about the whole miserable event. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had implored his fans in the summer to "watch us beat the Giants' ass," and beat the Giants' ass the Cowboys did.

Though many of them denied they suffered from extended post-parade lethargy, the Giants did come across as a team still lost inside an offseason blur of ring ceremonies, banquets and salsa dancing. Cruz, the feel-good story of them all, had three feel-bad drops, and as he stood at his locker and confessed that he lacked a little concentration and started to run with the ball before he caught it, his grim-faced employer, John Mara, watched him from the middle of the room with his arms folded tight against his chest.

"It's 'take a bite out of humble pie' is basically what it is," Coughlin said of his postgame message to his team. "It brings you right back down to earth. There won't be any more blowing smoke up their rear ends as far as that. Last year's last year, this year's this year."

So much for building that bridge.

"Very disappointing," Coughlin said.

Manning had his moments, including a beautiful 39-yard strike to Hixon between two defenders in the third quarter that set up Ahmad Bradshaw's 10-yard touchdown run. But all in all, Eli did next to nothing to elevate his team.

His counterpart, Romo, was the difference-maker, making like Roger Staubach on the move and throwing damaging passes downfield. He made one colossal blunder, the second-quarter interception that Michael Boley returned 51 yards to the 1-yard line, the kind of turnover that has dogged Romo across his ring-free past.

Only Manning's Giants lost three yards in three plays, settling for a field goal that set an alarming tone.

Surviving and thriving despite the presence of a severely limited Jason Witten, his favorite target, Romo delivered the dagger with 5:57 to go, a 34-yarder to a leaping Miles Austin, one-upping the quarterback who's made a charmed living in the fourth quarter.

This time around, Romo consoled Manning at midfield and gave him an encouraging pat as they went their separate ways.

"Tony played well," Manning conceded. "He's a tremendous competitor and a good quarterback. He made some great throws, buying time running around. He played well enough to win the game."

Eli most certainly did not. This opening-night crime wasn't a felony, just a fact.

Manning was the second-best quarterback on his home field, and the Giants had every right to expect more from their two-time Super Bowl MVP.