EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In his heart of hearts, Eli Manning knows this was a winning season in record only. He knows he had a chance to do something no New York Giants quarterback had ever done, a squandered chance that might haunt him for the balance of his career and beyond.
Out of the playoffs and out of luck, stripped of his shot at being the first Giant to lead his team to back-to-back championships, Manning knows why his 9-7 feels more like 7-9. He's playing against NFL history now, trying to join the ultra-exclusive club of Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, and Tom Brady as the only men to win at least three Super Bowl rings.
And if he never gets there, if he ends up stuck on two forever, 2012 will be one that keeps him awake at night. No, the career-high five touchdown passes he just threw in a 42-7 rout of the Philadelphia Eagles won't comfort him in the dead of night.
"It hurts," Manning said.
As it should.
"There's no enjoyment," he said, "in not going to the playoffs. ... Each year you want to make the playoffs to give yourself the opportunity to win a championship. 9-7 last year was good enough. It wasn't good enough this year, and we knew it wasn't going to be."
The Giants had no good excuse to miss the postseason tournament, an unforgiving truth they will take to their graves. They had the requisite leadership and talent at the positions of head coach, quarterback, and pass-rusher, and though they suffered their share of injuries, so did everyone else and then some.
Hakeem Nicks wasn't Hakeem Nicks, but the Giants still had enough playmakers to win the NFC East, or to at least secure a wild card. That's the shame of this playoff-free season, Manning's third in four years. It didn't have to go down like this. The Giants should've never ended up hoping and praying for the 4-11 Lions to beat the Bears, a desperate bailout plan if there ever was one.
The Motor City was the place where this New York season officially went to die, no matter how much Eli and friends tried to wish away the inevitable. The Giants did a ton of scoreboard watching Sunday, and when Detroit cut Chicago's lead to 20-17 in the third quarter, and cut it again to 26-24 in the fourth, the MetLife crowd let go of its most hopeful roars of the day.
The Giants were just trying to make it alive until the later games, but counting on the Lions was counting on a lost cause. Manning and teammates didn't get the word until they were in their locker room, word, Eli said, "that it wasn't going to work out the way we wanted to."
Of course, the season was thrown away in Atlanta and Baltimore, where the Giants were beaten by a combined score of 67-14 and where two ring-free upstarts, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco, badly outplayed the two-time Super Bowl MVP. Manning didn't even throw for 165 yards in either blowout, punctuating a late-season fade -- interrupted by the big games against Green Bay and New Orleans -- that mocked the early-season campaign for Eli as league MVP.
Nobody's saying it was all Manning's fault. The offensive line buckled more than it had in the past. The stars on the defensive front, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul, were a shell of what they were across last year's charmed championship run, and when the Giants don't get to the other guy's quarterback, they don't win.
But Tuck, Umenyiora and JPP aren't face-of-the-franchise players, and they aren't working under $100 million contracts, either. (Just ask Osi.) Manning rightfully got most of the credit when the Giants won their two titles, so he deserves most of the blame for fumbling away a division his team should've locked away a month ago.
It's something for the quarterback to think about when he blows out the candles Thursday on the occasion of his 32nd birthday.
"Each year," Manning said, "especially as I get older and guys, teammates, get older in their careers, you don't know how many opportunities you're going to have to be on a team that has the talent to possibly win a championship, the talent to make the playoffs and give yourself a chance to make it a special season.
"I feel like we have that talent here on this team. Obviously there's not a whole lot of changeover from last year. We had the ability to make the playoffs, and we're disappointed that we didn't play up to our ability each week."
The last time the Giants failed to repeat as champs, they had a fairly unique reason. Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in the leg in a Manhattan nightclub over the extended Thanksgiving weekend, and Tom Coughlin would eventually admit to ESPNNewYork.com that his team couldn't overcome "losing a player of that magnitude."
With no such drama or trauma this time around, the Giants were left with no acceptable answers for what happened in Atlanta and Baltimore, and for failing to match the 2008 team's trip to the postseason. Sunday, when he was done handing Andy Reid and (most likely) Michael Vick their final defeats as Eagles, Coughlin said he planned to ask his players, "What in the world was the last two weeks all about?"
He probably wasn't going to be satisfied with the responses. "I usually figure it out myself," the coach said, "but this one's a little tougher."
Actually, this tale of two 9-7s -- good enough for a championship one year, bad enough for a flameout the next -- isn't as difficult to figure out as Coughlin might suspect. Manning elevated the 2011 team when he absolutely needed to, and he failed to do the same for the 2012 team.
"I don't think it's a lack of hunger or focus," the franchise quarterback said of the losses to the Falcons and Ravens. "We just got outperformed."
Eli got outperformed above all others. He's still very much an elite quarterback, still a future Hall of Famer, still the kind of long-baller you want at the plate in the bottom of the ninth.
But the Giants had enough talent to reach the playoffs, and Manning didn't maximize that talent. In the end his 9-7 season was, in fact, a losing season, a wasted opportunity to enhance his legacy in the race against his own biological clock.