EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It might be natural to assume Eli Manning has seen his better days, if not his better paydays. To the untrained eye, his shiny new $84 million contract cannot hide the unforgiving facts about where he is and where he might be heading.
Manning will turn 35 in January, and he hasn't led his New York Giants to the playoffs since 2011. His age and mini-postseason drought could represent circumstantial evidence that he's in the early hours of what will be an ugly and costly decline.
But even with a sad-looking supporting cast around Manning, don't prematurely count him out. He won his first Super Bowl MVP award in a season in which he started 0-2 before erasing a two-touchdown halftime deficit to beat Washington in Week 3.
No, Thursday night's Week 3 victory over that same team does not qualify as a development the late, great Yogi Berra would classify as, you know, déjà vu all over again, even though Manning completed 23 of 32 passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns, including the 30-yarder to Odell Beckham Jr. that sealed the deal.
The game was too hard on the eye -- on both sides -- to stamp it as some sign of grander things to come. But the result does offer a reminder that Manning might remain the same resilient and opportunistic threat he was during his second Super Bowl MVP run four years ago, after the 7-7 Giants hobbled into a Christmas eve matchup with Rex Ryan's tough-talking Jets looking to be put out of their considerable misery.
Of the two ticker-tape parades that came out of left field, Manning said, "Yeah, I think it gives us confidence that hey, it's a long season, there's a lot of football to be played. Our division, it's too early. Nobody can run away with it right now. But you've got to get one win and keep going. Let's try to get another and put some things together. I feel like we've been playing pretty good football. It's not like we're getting blown out. It's not like last year the first two games."
Manning knows how to salvage lost causes, and it's his second-best trait, right behind his staggering durability (170 consecutive regular-season starts and counting). The 2015 Giants might finish out of the money, again, because they have no Victor Cruz (so far), no pass rush and no good reason to believe the badly injured Jason Pierre-Paul will return with the power to restore that pass rush.
But Manning's history gives fans at least some reason to hope. And outside of winning, nothing is easier to sell in sports than hope.
The state of the quarterback position in the NFC East only emboldens that feeling. Washington has decided Kirk Cousins is a viable NFL starter, and that Robert Griffin III -- the second overall pick in Andrew Luck's draft -- is a third-stringer unworthy of making Thursday night's active roster. One year after embarrassing himself here in a four-interception performance against the Giants, Cousins responded by playing like the journeyman backup he was always meant to be.
Elsewhere in the NFC East, Dallas star Tony Romo is out for who knows how long and Philly's Sam Bradford, off to an 0-2 start, has medical records suggesting he won't make it through 16 games. Meanwhile, Manning has stayed on the field longer than any quarterback in the league. His relentless ability to show up for work, week after week after week, could carry the day in a division that appears to be falling apart.
In the end, this is why the Giants gave him the big bucks. Manning never, ever misses a start in a sport where the drop-off from first-string quarterback to the second-string quarterback is all but guaranteed to kill a season.
"Even when he's been injured he's lined up and played," Tom Coughlin said. "Even when the media called him out he's lined up and played. The stability of that, the ability to game plan knowing that he's in that position, that's a huge plus for our team and always has been."
For the most part, Manning has made good on the extreme faith the Giants have always placed in him. Back in the day, when former general manager Ernie Accorsi was scouting Manning at Mississippi, the executive was struck by how much the quarterback carried his team against superior SEC competition. Accorsi thought Manning had far less talent to work with at Ole Miss than his big brother Peyton had to work with at Tennessee.
In his scouting report, Accorsi wrote the following: "Has courage and poise. In my opinion, most of all, he has that quality you can't define. Call it magic. I honestly give this guy a chance to be better than his brother."
If Eli didn't turn out to be better than Peyton, he did honor another prediction Accorsi made after the Giants beat Tom Brady's 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Accorsi was eating dinner with Tony La Russa when the St. Louis Cardinals manager wondered aloud if Eli would largely be forgotten in the event he never won a second title. Accorsi grabbed a napkin and a pen and wrote down a promise that Eli would finish his career with more rings than Peyton. La Russa agreed to keep the napkin for future reference.
Manning beat Brady's Patriots again in Indianapolis, and four years later Peyton is running dangerously low on time to erase his 2-1 deficit. Not that Eli is sweating Peyton's pursuit. He's got much bigger things to worry about, such as the fourth-quarter failures against Dallas and Atlanta and the sobering absence of the one thing above all he has needed to win those two titles -- a Giants pass rush that rattled the opposing quarterback.
Manning himself hadn't lit it up over the first two weeks, completing 62 percent of his passes for a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions. Two days before the season opener against the Cowboys, Giants GM Jerry Reese met with Manning to deliver his annual pep talk to his franchise player. Reese told his quarterback he was tired of missing the playoffs. "And I expect you to carry us there," the GM said.
Manning didn't do any carrying across the first two weeks, yet he maintained that his belief in himself never wavered. "I think my confidence just comes from, 'Hey, I've made plays. I've made comebacks. I know I can do it,'" Manning said the other day. "I go out in practice, I make throws. I feel good about where I am in the offense and how I'm feeling, how I'm throwing."
Thursday night, Manning kept throwing painfully short passes in a system designed by offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo to protect an aging quarterback from exposure on the long ball. It was fairly effective against a bad Washington team, but not pretty. The 30-yard scoring pass to Beckham down the middle of the field early in the fourth quarter?
That was pretty. So was one 12-yard pass to Beckham zipped in there between three defenders. So was the 41-yard lob to Rueben Randle, who juggled it into the end zone in the closing minutes. Hey, when Manning gets Cruz back, expect to see more of the same.
"I thought Eli was very much in control the entire game tonight," Coughlin said. He mentioned that the two opening losses had done a number on his stoic quarterback.
"It does bother him," the coach said. "It bothers him deep down inside, but he doesn't show it much. But it's a testimony to him, his pride, how hard he words at the game, and also his confidence in himself."
Meanwhile, the 1-2 Giants are alive and not-so-well in their mess of a division. Their president and CEO, John Mara, agreed after last year's 6-10 that this season would amount to a win-or-else proposition for many high-profile employees, Coughlin and Reese included.
Manning is going to stay either way. He's got the contract and the track record that says he knows how to get his team and his franchise out of a jam.
His New York Giants are impossibly flawed, at least for now. But they love to surprise people in four-year intervals. If the 2007 and 2011 Giants proved anything, it's that this team shouldn't be counted out as long as Eli Manning has the ball in his resourceful hands.