Eli, Giants Still Kings of the City

The Patriots never lose to the Steelers. The Patriots never lose at Heinz Field.

They did and they did.

The Patriots never lose to back-to-back games. The Patriots never lose to NFC teams at home. The Patriots never lose at home, period.

They did and they did and they did.

The Giants took care of their own business on Sunday in Foxboro and picked up the slack for the Jets too, doing Rex Ryan’s dirty work and keeping the Patriots from taking over first place in the AFC East. The Giants did something that no team had done between Weeks 1 and 17 since 2002 when the Packers became the last team to beat the Patriots in Gillette Stadium. (However, I don’t think this is that much of an accomplishment since the Patriots have lost their last two playoff games at home.)

I said the Giants would beat the Patriots on Friday and NESN.com’s Mike Hurley agreed with me, and so did the Boston Globe’s Chad Finn. But as the week progressed and Ahmad Bradshaw and Hakeem Nicks and David Baas were declared “out” for the game, I began to have my doubts. Those doubts were erased yesterday and now I can’t help, but think about what the Giants would have done to the Patriots if they had their No. 1 running back, best wide receiver and starting center.

The Giants’ 24-20 win felt like a game that the Giants are supposed to lose and a game that Patriots are supposed to win.

The Patriots were supposed to be the team to go down the field with 1:36 left and score the game-winning touchdown.

The Giants were supposed to be the team that went up with 17-13, making their fans prematurely celebrate a win, only to allow the opposition to go down the field and then commit a stupid pass interference penalty and lose the game.

That’s how it would have ended for the old Patriots and for the old Giants. (I say old Giants in hopes that their sloppy play over the last decade-plus will finally come to an end). But that’s not how it ends in 2011 with these two teams.

If Eli Manning doesn’t orchestrate a game-winning drive with 1:36 left in the fourth quarter and two timeouts, and if Rob Gronkowski’s touchdown holds up as the winning touchdown, this column takes a whole different approach, as does the sports world. Here are some storylines we’re looking at today if the Giants lose 20-17 instead of winning 24-20…

a. The Giants have completed Phase 1 of another second-half collapse.

b. The Giants let the Patriots off the hook with missed opportunities and undisciplined penalties.

c. The Patriots still don’t lose back-to-back home games or regular season home games.

d. The Patriots are the best team in the AFC. Actually that isn’t a storyline, that’s just what Peter King would be saying.

e. Tom Brady is still the man of the fourth-quarter comeback.

f. Aaron Ross and Devin Thomas should find other employment. They should still do this. I have already created a Monster.com account for Thomas (no responses yet) and have forwarded Ross’ resume to a few job placement companies. (This is just something that needed to be addressed and this is the spot that made the most sense.)

For most of the game on Sunday it looked like these things might happen. The Giants kept getting solid starting field position and not doing anything with it. They fumbled a punt return and threw an interception in the end zone and took an unsportsmanlike penalty after scoring the go-ahead touchdown. Aaron Ross had shot the Giants in their left foot and Eli Manning had shot the team in the right foot. I assumed the Manningham penalty was the “Finish Him” move that I was waiting for to end the Giants’ chances, but for as bad as the Giants were, the Patriots were equally as bad. Actually they were worse.

I have this weird relationship with Tom Brady (I talked about this last year here and here). I like him, but I hate him. He’s the Derek Jeter of football. He’s a winner. He says the right things (minus that Plaxico Burress defense comment). He wears a Yankees hat away from the football field and is married to a smokeshow. But he is a legend and an icon in Boston and has brought immense happiness three times to the sports city I hate more than any other.

On Sunday, I planned on using every ounce of my body toward hating Brady. It wasn’t going to be hard with him playing against the Giants and trying to begin the process of making me go another football postseason without my team in it. Aside from his drive that led to the Gronkowski touchdown, I didn’t even really need to pull against Brady because he pulled against himself. Outside of that drive, Brady looked human the entire game. Actually he looked less than human. He looked like Carson Palmer. Two interceptions? One in the end zone? What happened to the guy that stands in the pocket like a statute and goes down the field with relative ease? Where is the best losing streak stopper that football has ever known? Was that even real life yesterday?

Instead of the Giants losing a game they had many chances to put away and win, well … they won. And instead of sitting here and giving my step-by-step guide on How To Build A New York Football Giants Late Season Collapse Shelter And Survival Kit, I can sit here and talk about what was an important (and necessary) win for the G-Men.

Thanks to Eli Manning and Jake Ballard, I don’t have to go to Wal-Mart today and start stocking up on bottled water and canned foods and batteries like it’s Y2K in preparation of another Giants collapse. I don’t have to avoid the Internet or TV for fear of seeing Gronkowski catch the go-ahead touchdown on a continuous loop. I don’t have to shut my phone off or stay off Twitter because of harassment from Patriots fans. I don’t have to do any of these things because the best fourth-quarter quarterback in the NFL plays for the Giants.

I would take Eli Manning over any other quarterback in the NFL in the two-minute drill at the end of the first half or at the end of the game. That might sound like saying I would rather eat a No. 6 at Wendy’s over a filet mignon, but that’s for people that still view Eli as Mr. Aw Shucks and the goofy No. 1 pick who would throw four picks at home against the Vikings and shrug his shoulders walking off the field as if to say, “It’s not that big of a deal.” There is still part of that Eli that exists. We saw it when he was intercepted in the end zone from the five-yard line on third down when the only open receiver he had was the back wall of the end zone. Eli gave away the chance for three points and gave away the momentum. It was a brain fart that we have tried to eliminate from his career, but he does relapse from time to time.

These untimely relapses cause me to tweet things like “Omaha! Omaha!” and make me understand why my friend Heff lit his Manning jersey on fire in the Giants Stadium parking lot after his four-pick game against the Vikings game I just mentioned on Nov. 25, 2007 (Heff still claims this sacrifice led to the Giants winning the Super Bowl.) But I support Eli like he is my younger brother instead of Peyton’s even though Eli is actually almost six years older than me. I have had his back in countless arguments as if I were the third of the four Manning sons, and gone to bat for him against his critics for really no reason whatsoever other than to not have the name of the franchise quarterback of my football team dragged through the mud. It’s games like Super Bowl XLII and Sunday’s win that let me know I wasn’t wrong in those arguments and have the same “I told you so” thoughts that I know run through Ernie Accorsi’s mind after the same games.

Right now everyone is all over Eli for his gaudy stats and for his third-best QB rating and his fourth quarter QB rating. He’s getting the attention he has deserved for a while and the credit he hasn’t been given before by leading a very banged-up Giants team to a 6-2 record despite losing what seemed like the whole team in preseason. (The man won the game on Sunday without his center, best receiver top running back!) This isn’t anything new though. Giants fans have known what Eli is capable of for some time now, and we have known what he can do in clutch situations. The rest of the world is just catching on now.

I feel like I discovered a band seven years ago and have been listening to them nonstop as a die-hard only to find out that they are now being played on the radio, have a video on MTV and are opening for Dave Matthews next summer. I get my irritated that Joe Buck and Troy Aikman kept talking about Eli’s season and that FOX kept showing graphics of his placement behind Aaron Rodgers and Brady in terms of quarterback rating, as if to finally say that he is part of that class. Everyone is ready to buy tickets for the Eli bandwagon, but it’s these newcomers that will be asking for a refund is he another multi-interception game in a loss over the finals eight weeks of the season.

Last year in my Just-Past-Midseason Awards for the Giants, I gave The Rudy Award for “No One Believes In Him Because They Can’t See It Every Week” to Eli. He was getting unfairly blamed for the team’s turnover problems because his receivers were tipping and dropping passes on nearly every play. I said that Eli reminds me of the quote in Rudy where Rudy says, “My father loves Notre Dame football more than anything else in the world. He doesn’t believe I’m on the team … because he can’t see me during the games.” Eli is better than the numbers suggest. He always has been.

Sunday’s win was eerily similar to the win from that glorious first Sunday in February in 2008. From the final score to the final drive to the Manningham touchdown in the corner of the end zone to the most important catch of the game being made once again by No. 85, yesterday felt a lot like Feb. 3, 2008.

Today I get to read about another hit to the Patriots “dynasty” (I use quotes because it’s a dynasty that Champ Bailey ended on Jan. 14, 2006) and the incapable Patriots defense. There are columns calling for the end of Chad Ochocinco’s tenure with the Patriots and Julian Edelman’s too. There are those questioning Bill Belichick’s coaching and general managerial tactics and whether or not the Patriots, at 5-3, are good enough for the postseason. I have read them all with a smile.

I know that it’s only Week 9 and the Giants only survived the first week of the nine-week gauntlet that will determine whether we are talking about their first January football game in three years or talking about Tom Coughlin’s job status in January for the third straight year. I also know that the Cowboys are now back to .500 and the Eagles have a chance to get there on Monday night, and despite a two-game lead in the division, the Giants aren’t going to run away and hide with a playoff berth like it’s 2008.

Since their devastating loss to the Seahawks that made it seem like they were still destined for 8-8 at best despite a 3-1 start, the Giants have won three straight games by a combined 10 points. They have had their “Ladies and gentlemen, the New York Football Giants!” negative moments this season and had several of them against the Patriots. But for a season that looked over before it started, thanks to some questionable decisions from the front office and then a never-ending slew of injuries, this is a team that Giants fans can be proud of through eight games. (I say through eight games to give myself an opt-out clause if this season starts to take on water at a 2009 or 2010 pace starting San Francisco this Sunday.) I came into this season with absolutely no expectations because of the way the team was banged up during preseason. All I wanted was for the Giants to be competitive and give me a chance that they would stay in it and would be playing meaningful football in November and December. I have gotten that chance.

A week ago the Patriots were coming off a loss to the Steelers and the city of Boston had started to panic. Yes, it was insane for a fan base to be that distraught over one loss to the defending AFC champions on the road, but those are the kinds of unrealistic expectations that the Patriots created at the beginning of the last decade. If Patriots fans were quick to question their team at 5-2 after one eight–point loss in Pittsburgh, what would they do if they suffered a second straight loss, at home, to the team that destroyed their chance at perfection?

Thanks to Eli and the Giants we get to find out.