EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Statistics don't tell the real story of Eli Manning and Tony Romo's years of quarterbacking battles against each other. It's the different feeling that each of them throws off that gives Manning the edge.
Manning has been the best clutch quarterback in the NFL this season, cementing the renown he already enjoyed for leading the New York Giants to the most memorable Super Bowl comeback in NFL history. Romo is having another one of his Decembers with nice stats but a disappointing won-loss record for the Dallas Cowboys, yet is still talking optimistically -- as usual -- about how he believes his big-game reputation will change.
Any day now. Honest. No, really.
It's the same song, different year.
"It's a big game, it's important, it's fun -- these are why you play the game, right here," Romo said Wednesday.
Romo torched the Giants' secondary three weeks ago for 321 yards on 21-for-31 passing. And yet, if you had to pick between Manning or Romo to win an important game -- and Sunday night's winner-take-all showdown for the NFC East title and a playoff spot qualifies -- Manning remains the quarterback you trust. Romo continues to be the quarterback you expect to self-destruct somehow, some way, even if he wasn't coming into this game with a badly bruised throwing hand.
That's a funny thing to say, given Manning leads their head-to-head series only 6-4, and Romo is probably having his best season. Romo has 29 touchdown passes against only nine interceptions this season. The Giants and Cowboys have identical 8-7 records.
And yet, it was Manning and not Romo who made the NFC Pro Bowl team along with Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees the other day. And it's Manning who has led the Giants on fourth-quarter comebacks in seven of their eight wins while Romo still finds himself having to explain why he's never had a winning record in December (Dallas was 1-3 this time around). Or why the Cowboys couldn't take better advantage of the Giants' slump to a 2-5 second-half record and put the NFC East title away long before now.
"I've always been a Tony Romo fan," Giants safety Antrel Rolle said Wednesday, "but I wouldn't rather have anyone else [than Manning]. I'll take No. 10 and ride and die with him."
Thinking back now to how Manning brought the Giants roaring back from a 12-point deficit to win in the last five minutes in Dallas earlier this month, Rolle added, "You're watching it and you almost forget you're a teammate. You're almost starstruck."
Logic suggests the pattern has to change for Romo one of these days. Except it never does -- at least not in a big enough way.
Romo wasn't the reason the Cowboys lost to the Giants three weeks ago to drop to 0-3 against Manning at the Cowboys' new stadium, which is another of those stats that drive Romo's critics crazy. Romo seemed to have the game won twice: first by hitting Dez Bryant for a 50-yard touchdown pass that pushed the Cowboys ahead 34-22 with less than six minutes to play, and then again by taking the ball with just 46 seconds left and driving them into position for a game-tying 47-yard field goal -- only to see Jason Pierre-Paul block the kick on the last play of regulation, after Giants coach Tom Coughlin iced Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey with a timeout.
It was a nice job by Romo. He finished with four TDs. And yet all anyone talked about afterward was one pass that Romo missed: After the Giants scored to pull within 34-29, the Cowboys went three-and-out when Romo failed to convert a sure-looking touchdown pass to Miles Austin. Austin was so wide open, all Romo had to do was float the ball downfield to him. But Romo chucked the ball over his head instead -- leaving the impression he had spit the bit. Again. Manning got the ball back and took the Giants downfield for the game-winning TD.
Romo isn't the only quarterback that sort of swing or misplay happens to. It just seems to happen to him more than anyone else. And usually in a big spot. The Cowboys' image this season is the same one they've lugged around for a while: They're derided as a team that's more talented than many others, but just not as mentally tough. If you get them in the clutch, their reputation is they'll blink first. Even teams who can't outman them know there's always the chance of outlasting them, or watching them beat themselves.
The Giants have had their share of confounding performances this season against nonwinning teams. But they've been terrific against the NFL's best -- the dud in New Orleans notwithstanding -- or in big spots. And Giants coach Tom Coughlin knows it.
Coughlin is always more animated and palpably excited when a big game looms just ahead, and he was at it again Wednesday, recounting the last time these two teams played: "You had it all. You had special-teams big plays, the safety. You had nine big plays on either side. You had some pull-your-hair-out mistakes that caused some big plays. You had running on both sides and big plays throwing. Both teams were over 400 yards of offense. So it was just an exciting football game with an incredible finish."
And in the end, Manning had won it and Romo had lost. Again. The Cowboys had a chance to put a sleeper hold on the Giants' season. And didn't.
Manning was willing to concede Wednesday that teams can forge their personalities by pulling out games like that, and that teams often get their personalities from their head coach. And yet, though Dallas wasn't mentioned by name, he wasn't willing to go one step farther and agree that a team's history of failing to pull out big games can become a team's identity, too.
All Manning said was, "You don't want to rely on that."
Romo's and Manning's parallel careers are a reminder that quarterbacking isn't just about amassing stats -- it's about the moments when quarterbacks rise up and accomplish things, too. It's not all that different from .260 cleanup hitters who suddenly come up big in the World Series, or thoroughbred jockeys who rise up and win the Kentucky Derby two or three times but are only average the rest of the year once they're back at Santa Anita.
Big stages mint legends and create scapegoats in more lasting ways faster than anything else in sports.
The Cowboys haven't forgotten how Manning stung them to win their last game. Romo would seem to be too good to have his big-game outcomes go badly forever. But the Giants don't care about that. All they need is Romo to remain the Romo they've known for one more week.
"These are the positions you want to be in," Manning said Wednesday.
"It's going to come down to a few plays here and there," Romo predicted.
Romo better hope not.