EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- On a raw night in Mobile, Ala., nine years back, Ben Roethlisberger had briefly hurdled Eli Manning on the New York Giants' draft board. Roethlisberger was quarterbacking Miami (Ohio) to its 13th consecutive victory, a blowout of Louisville, when Giants' GM Ernie Accorsi checked his BlackBerry in the stands.
Roethlisberger had already thrown four touchdown passes in the first half when Accorsi received this short and sweet email from his boss, John Mara:
"We're taking him."
Giants officials would continue the debate in the coming months, and attend pre-draft workouts involving Roethlisberger and Manning. Both prospects delivered in their drills, but something about Eli stood out, a natural ability and athletic grace that nobody saw in big brother Peyton's game.
"I honestly give this guy a chance to be better than his brother," Accorsi had written about Eli while he was playing for Ole Miss.
At Manning's workout, described as "sensational" by Accorsi, the GM walked up to Tom Coughlin and said, "If we can get him, we've got to take him." The head coach did not disagree.
So the Giants made the draft-day deal with San Diego, leaving Roethlisberger for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the rest is NFL history, four parades' worth. And all these years later, when the Giants and Steelers met in a game framed by the emotions of the gathered players and fans and first responders dramatically impacted by Hurricane Sandy, this much was clear:
The Giants would never trade their guy, and the Steelers would never trade theirs.
Only when it was over, when Pittsburgh was done winning the rubber match of the Eli-Big Ben regular-season rivalry, done rewarding all the Steelers fans who turned MetLife Stadium into something of a Heinz Field East, Coughlin sounded as bummed about a defeat as he has ever been.
He wanted this one so badly for the devastated region, for the Giants fans who had attended the game as a temporary escape from a staggering human tragedy. He watched his team blow a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter, watched the display of poor tackling and foolish penalties and what he called "terrible, awful" kick and punt coverage, and decided this 24-20 defeat was "as disappointing a loss as we've had around here in a long time."
But Coughlin wasn't doing something he has done on some of these regrettable occasions of the past. He wasn't exonerating his franchise player, Manning, the two-time Super Bowl MVP and the one Giant most responsible for building Coughlin's candidacy for the Hall of Fame.
"We've got to get him back on track," Coughlin said. "He is our guy and we have to get him back playing the way he was a couple of weeks ago."
Manning is the Giants' guy who was busy making his own regular-season MVP case last month. The guy who has two touchdown passes and four interceptions in his last four games, and who has no touchdown passes and two interceptions in his past two.
The guy whose quarterback rating has plummeted from 87.4 against San Francisco, to 78.9 against Washington, to 58.4 against Dallas, to 41.1 against Pittsburgh. Manning completed 10 of 24 passes for 125 yards Sunday, when Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was so sure his defense would pin the reeling quarterback that he tried a bizarre fake field goal near the goal line in the fourth quarter, down three, refusing to sweat the consequences.
The fake flopped, and Eli responded with another three-and-out that gave Pittsburgh good field position and, ultimately, the deciding touchdown.
"That is not the kind of game we planned to play," Coughlin said.
Not on this first game after Sandy, a game attended by 100 first responders and by soldiers back from Afghanistan who had helped in the relief and recovery effort. Coughlin wore an NJ cap in the first half, an NY cap in the second, and before the game he stood with his players on one side of the field holding the giant American flag being held by the Steelers on the other.
Coughlin said he wanted this one "for all our neighbors who are struggling and who need some type of inspiration" and for the people who are "fighting to survive, fighting to get their homes back, to get their families reunited in the aftermath of a tragic, tragic storm."
And of that inspiration Coughlin would say, "We didn't provide it for them." That hurt the coach and his players to their core. Perhaps the Giants rode that emotion to their 10-point lead and, with Pittsburgh suddenly dominating them at the line of scrimmage in the fourth, perhaps they simply couldn't maintain that adrenaline rush for three-plus hours.
But there was no tangible excuse for losing this game, and for threatening to stumble into the kind of second-half fade that has plagued -- if not defined -- Coughlin's teams.
Justin Tuck spoke of ending "this November curse," and of trying to avoid rewriting history "unless it's going to end up like it did last year." Of course, there will be no shot of the Giants' repeating as Super Bowl champs for the first time if their quarterback continues to throw Gatorade buckets of ice water on that early MVP noise around him.
Asked if he feels he's in a slump, Manning said, "No, I don't think that's the case. I feel like I'm throwing the ball accurately when I have opportunities to. We just have to do better overall in the passing game."
Told that Coughlin had conceded the Giants needed to get him "back on track," Manning surprisingly declined to notarize his coach's take.
"I don't feel off-rhythm," he said before adding, "I don't feel like I'm throwing the ball inaccurately. I don't feel like I'm missing guys, so I think it's just a matter of getting back offensively to where we're playing fast, making good decisions "
Manning is usually far more willing to accept the required blame.
He did have his own tough week, leaving his Hoboken apartment building (breached by flood waters) and moving his family to a hotel, and after years of everyday accountability he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Not that the Steelers cared. Understanding that local hotels were filled with desperate storm survivors, they flew into New Jersey on game day and bused right over to the ballpark. Roethlisberger shook off four sacks and a fumble that Michael Boley returned for a 70-yard score, and threw the big touchdown pass to Mike Wallace.
Big Ben, the 11th overall pick in 2004, admitted that he wanted to outplay Eli in their early NFL years, a feeling that has softened over time. But as much as Roethlisberger and Manning speak of the shared pride they have in their draft class, they burn to beat each other to Championship No. 3.
Sunday night, Eli was the one left to deal with his third-down failures and his miscommunications with his top receiver, Victor Cruz. Yes, the Giants have to get Manning back. "And we have to do it in a hurry," Coughlin said.
He's the Giants' guy, after all, just like he was in Ben Roethlisberger's draft.