- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Greg Schiano stuff is so silly -- much ado about a rookie coach trying to make everybody think he's tough by telling his defense to play hard in the final five seconds after letting receivers run by them without consequence for the prior 14:55. It's all over the place this morning and not likely going away anytime soon. But one of the things that's been somewhat obscured by the focus on the final play is an otherworldly fourth-quarter performance by New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning.
Has this become so routine now? Are we to the point where we just expect Manning to do something like complete 8-of-13 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter? Manning had one of the 10 highest yardage passing games in the history of the league Sunday, finishing the game with 510 yards of which his team needed every single one to complete its comeback victory over Tampa Bay. But it was his fourth-quarter brilliance that once again brings into focus what Manning means to the Giants. Which is absolutely everything.
The Giants' defense is not yet where it needs to be. Corey Webster and the crew of backup cornerbacks with which he's playing are having a terrible time through two weeks. The fact that the pass rush has been somewhat absent so far isn't helping. You give the champs the benefit of the doubt and believe that these things will turn around, but through two weeks the Giants' defense has been downright porous, allowing an average of 29 points and 370 yards per game.
They also aren't going to win by running the ball. Sure, Andre Brown looked OK in relief of an injured Ahmad Bradshaw, and good for him for doing something with his opportunity. But 71 yards on 13 carries against a defense like Tampa Bay's isn't game plan-changing stuff. It's just good compared to what the Giants have done in the run game over the past year.
No, I really don't think it's a stretch to say that, if the Giants lost Manning for an extended period of time, they wouldn't win any games at all. He is so important to them, and they have come to rely so intensely on his ability to win games for them in the fourth quarter, that right now they appear completely lost without him. When Manning was struggling and throwing three interceptions in the first half, the Giants looked like one of the worst teams in the league. When he got it together in the fourth quarter, found his rhythm and started hitting Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks in stride, they looked like a Tecmo Bowl offense. These feel as though they could be exaggerations, but they're not. Until they get their defense on track, their running game figured out and their offensive line together, the Giants are 100 percent reliant on Manning to win them games with his receivers.
This makes Manning the most valuable player in the NFL right now, and he plays like it. Yes, he's the same guy who threw those three interceptions in the second quarter. Yes, he can be reckless and take chances because he's not scared to try the most difficult of throws due to his belief that he can make them. But the reason he's the heart and soul of the Giants is that his teammates and his coaches know that the second-quarter interceptions have no effect whatsoever on Manning come the fourth quarter. He is never bothered or flustered or affected by any mistake he makes or any failure that takes place around him. He does not believe there's a lead too big or an opponent too tough to overcome. He is always the same, at the line of scrimmage, on the sideline, in the huddle and in the meeting room, regardless of circumstances. He is a rock, and he is now delivering such consistent fourth-quarter excellence that we hardly even notice it anymore when it happens.
Can you imagine if Robert Griffin III had led his team to 25 fourth-quarter points and a comeback win with 243 fourth-quarter passing yards? All of sports would have been canceled this week while we debated whether to change the league's name to the "RG3FL." In Philadelphia, Michael Vick has done it twice in two weeks -- overcome his own shoddy early play to engineer game-winning fourth-quarter drives, and a fan base doesn't even know how to handle it. Do they fret about the turnovers? Are they able to just be happy with the wins? Can you do both?
In New York, the Giants and their fans are used to the feeling. They expect it. Manning has delivered it nine times over the past calendar year, including once in an NFC Championship Game and once in a Super Bowl. It's part of who the Giants are. Right now, as they work to get their 2012 legs under them, it's kind of all the Giants are. Manning has become the easy answer to the question, "Which quarterback would you want playing for you if you needed a game-winning drive?" It's now Eli Manning. Not his big brother, who looks good starting over with the Broncos. Not Tom Brady, whom he's beaten twice in the Super Bowl. It's Eli. And what he did Sunday proved it all over again.