- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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PHILADELPHIA -- Back in a different life, his pre-prison life, Michael Vick was among the very first to predict greatness for Eli Manning. They shared the Giants Stadium field on Nov. 21, 2004, Vick the quarterback of the 7-2 Atlanta Falcons, Manning the quarterback of the 5-4 New York Giants.
It was 49 degrees at kickoff, and a 14-10 victory by one team going places (Atlanta) over another free-falling toward a 6-10 season was uneventful but for this significant truth:
As the No. 1 pick of the 2004 draft, Manning was making the first start of his NFL career. He threw his first touchdown pass to Jeremy Shockey that day, a 6-yarder, and when the No. 1 pick of the 2001 draft was done taking a knee in victory formation, he met Eli at midfield and paid him the ultimate compliment.
"You're going to be just like your brother in due time," Vick told him.
On a certain level, Eli has already surpassed Peyton. Kid brother is a two-time Super Bowl MVP, and big brother has earned the honor only once. If you're adding up majors, Eli-Peyton isn't exactly a Serena-Venus thing, but let's check back on that in five or six years.
For now, Eli can find comfort in the knowledge that he's the most feared fourth-quarter player in the game. He proved why Sunday night when he led an absurdly easy drive in the middle of the fourth that looked like it would beat the Philadelphia Eagles, a five-play, 83-yard drive that featured two short Ahmad Bradshaw runs and Manning passes to Ramses Barden (31 yards), Domenik Hixon (41 yards), and Bear Pascoe (6 yards and a touchdown).
The Giants were up 17-16 with 6:45 to play, and there was an uneasy vibe in the Lincoln Financial Field crowd. Over the first three weeks, Vick had been a turnover machine and a human piñata at the same time, playing recklessly with the ball while taking the kind of direct hits no franchise quarterback can weather for long.
Andy Reid had publicly threatened his job, even if Reid tried to backpedal away from those words faster than any opposing corner trying to cover DeSean Jackson. Vick had looked like a lot of things in the first quarter of the 2012 season, but a guy ready to beat Eli Manning in this situation wasn't one of them.
Only Vick decided to fight for his job, and for his standing around the league. He drove the Eagles down the field, all the way to the Giants' 2 before he took a sack and settled for the chip-shot field goal that made Manning do it all over again.
The Giants didn't see it as much of a problem, not after rookie David Wilson delivered yet another strong return of the kick. Starting at his own 35, Manning had just under two minutes to play with. The fact that he didn't have any timeouts didn't seem nearly as important as the fact that he needed only a field goal to make the 2-1 Giants the 3-1 Giants.
But this is where Manning shocked everyone wearing a Vick jersey in the stands, not to mention the guy wearing a Vick jersey near the bench. Eli made an error, a game-busting, season-changing error. Score it E-10.
"Not a good throw by me," Manning conceded.
In fact, it was a bad throw, a very dumb throw by a very smart guy. The Giants were already in field goal range at the Eagles' 26, second down and 25 seconds to go, when Manning decided to lob up a ball down the right sideline where Barden and Nnamdi Asomugha were jockeying for position as they barreled toward the end zone.
Manning had hit Barden on the same kind of pass on the earlier touchdown drive, but he'd already drawn two defensive pass interference penalties by throwing to Barden on this final drive. The Philly fans were doing what Philly fans do best -- turning hostile -- and Manning should've known there was a better chance of Tom Coughlin punctuating this would-be victory with an end zone dance than there was of the officials giving Barden a third call on the same possession on the road, especially at the expense of a star such as Asomugha.
Eli put it up for grabs anyway, and the end result was an overmatched Barden grabbing the cornerback's helmet and trying all sorts of mixed-martial-arts moves on him in an attempt to break up the potential interception. If even the replacement refs wouldn't have penalized Asomugha, the real refs certainly weren't about to pardon Barden's crime.
The official who dropped the flag couldn't wait to give an exaggerated signal that he was penalizing the Giants, if only to keep the fans from storming the field.
"I was worried when I saw the flag come out," Coughlin said, "on how that was going to be called."
Coughlin was worried because he knew his quarterback had made a mistake before his receiver compounded it.
"We had options on either side of the field," the coach explained, "and Eli decided to take the X receiver, and it didn't work out. That wasn't the only option."
No, it was just the worst option on the board.
"I put Ramses in a bad position where the DB could intercept it," Manning confessed. "He's trying to make sure [Asomugha] does not intercept it, and probably a smart move by him. I probably could've thrown a better ball or a different ball and not put Ramses in that situation with the defense over the top of him. I probably shouldn't have thrown it where I did."
Manning is almost always money in these situations, but the 10-yard penalty belonged to him more than it belonged to Barden. Soon enough Coughlin was deciding he couldn't risk running a third-down play with so little time on the clock. He sent out Lawrence Tynes to attempt a 54-yard field goal, and after the Eagles tried to ice him with one of those maddening, bound-to-never-work timeouts, Tynes followed his wayward miss that didn't count with a short one that did.
"It's always a woulda, coulda, shoulda," the losing coach said.
Coughlin would lament that a man in his position often feels -- incorrectly -- that he can control and choreograph every aspect of every game. He didn't say it, but Coughlin likely feels that way because his quarterback makes him feel that way.
Manning made his 134th consecutive start Sunday night, playoffs and Super Bowls included. He's always there, especially in the fourth quarter, and that's what made this defeat so stunning and so cruel.
This E-10 for Eli came out of left field, and it might ultimately leave the Giants scrambling to get into the playoffs long after the Yankees are done with theirs.