HOUSTON – Eli Manning sat at his locker in East Rutherford Friday afternoon, putting on his socks and shoes, when a columnist who had declared Manning’s career over on Monday asked the Giants quarterback for a few minutes.
Manning was not obligated to talk. He already had done interviews Monday. And he knew who was asking.
“Sure,” Manning said warmly, tying his shoes and standing up.
Manning proceeded to field three questions about his penchant for playing his best when his back is against the wall.
Super Bowl XLII and Super Bowl XLVI come to mind. So does Manning’s play in the 2016 Wild Card game in Green Bay, let down by his wide receiver’s drops. Or even his 24-point fourth quarter comeback in Week 3 of last season that nearly saved the Giants’ season in Philadelphia.
“I guess you kind of want to be in those situations,” Manning, 37, said with a smile. “I think you kind of think about — not about being down — but being in those clutch moments of a game. And being excited about those opportunities. Or excited to kind of prove everybody wrong. Or excited to be in those kind of come-from-behind wins and victories and enjoy that process.”
To prove everybody wrong. To prove people like me wrong.
Wouldn’t it be very Manning-like for him to do that Sunday afternoon at Houston’s NRG Stadium, where the Giants (0-2) will be on the ropes against the Texans (0-2) — to save his best for when he is most doubted, most counted out?
And trust me, it is difficult to be more counted out than these Giants are with a shaky offensive line going up against a fierce Texans defensive front and Manning playing subpar. They have scored just two touchdowns in two games, both in the fourth quarter, and their already-slim playoff chances would fall almost to zero if they slipped to 0-3.
Since 1990, under the current playoff format, 71 of 294 teams that started 1-2 have made the playoffs (24%), per Elias Sports Bureau. However, only three of 137 teams that started 0-3 have made the playoffs. That’s two percent.
Does Manning still have it in him to do the impossible? He best knows how to do it.
“You don’t feel different (in those situations),” Manning said. “But there’s definitely something about whether it’s a two-minute drive to win a game or it’s a situation where, ‘Hey, you need something. You need something to happen.’ And it’s the ability not to press, and not to force, but just kind of feel some urgency to get things going.
“You’d like to have (that urgency) all the time, and it’s there,” Manning continued. “But I guess there is something to getting extra dialed in, extra focused, and hopefully that can translate to everybody else on the team or the offense to have that same mentality.”
Manning’s most famous heroics are well-documented — and were a long time ago — but remain no less impressive.
In Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3, 2008. The Giants trail the New England Patriots, 14-10, with 2:39 to play and the ball on their own 17-yard line. Manning takes the offense 83 yards in 12 plays and 2:07 of game clock. The David Tyree helmet catch. A 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress. The Giants, 10-6 that season, are world champions.
In Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5, 2012. The Giants trail the Patriots, 17-15, with 3:46 to play and the ball on their own 12-yard line. Manning takes the offense 88 yards in nine plays and 2:49 of game clock. The deep shot to Mario Manningham. A six-yard Ahmad Bradshaw touchdown run. The Giants, 9-7 that season, are world champions.
Is it overly dramatic to reference Manning’s Super Bowl comebacks and excellence in big moments entering a simple Week 3 regular season game? Perhaps, except with Manning at 37 years old, at a $23.2 million cap hit next season in the final year of his contract and, most importantly, not playing well, the writing is on the wall.
The Giants’ season isn’t just on the line. Manning’s career is, as well. And the franchise quarterback unquestionably understands how big Sunday is.
So he emphasized how critical it was to play poised under this type of intense pressure, even early in the year.
“I think the focus has been good,” Manning said. “You’re always preparing. You don’t treat (a week like this) differently. And I think it’s kind of when it does seem like it is that week, it’s having that ability to prepare like it’s the most important game in the world but also (to) have that sense of don’t stress yourself out, don’t get over-psyched out, don’t get stressed from it.
“Still be relaxed and still enjoy it,” Manning continued. “It’s a game. It’s supposed to be fun. And enjoy the process instead of psyching yourself out.”
Let’s be honest, though: the only way Manning and the Giants will enjoy Sunday’s process is if they win. Considering how Manning has played lately, that seems unlikely.