- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Tom Coughlin was done being hugged by his grandkids outside the locker room, done being congratulated by his son-in-law, Chris Snee, when he turned and asked a reporter about the race in the NFC East.
A race he wasn't ready to concede, not by a long shot.
The coach was told that the Eagles had won at Lambeau, but that his opponent next week, the Packers, had lost Seneca Wallace to injury and were now down to a third-string quarterback named Scott Tolzien.
"Wow," Coughlin said, before indicating he was familiar with Mr. Tolzien.
That made one of us. But the subject of the moment was a star quarterback who's never been knocked out of action the way Aaron Rodgers was knocked out in Green Bay, a tough guy who has made 155 consecutive starts, playoffs and Super Bowls included.
Eli Manning, two-time MVP of the biggest game in sports, is struggling like he hasn't in a long time. Coughlin was asked what he was doing during the week to put the franchise back in the franchise player. You know, to get Eli back to being Eli.
"No more than just trying to keep him going, trying to reinforce him and encourage him," Coughlin told ESPNNewYork.com after his grandkids released their stranglehold on his legs and raced off to go play on the Giants' field. "That's really my role and always has been."
The coach of the happiest 3-6 team in creation was asked if he thought Manning would find his old touch before it's too late, and carry this team to a place nobody dared to dream about when the Giants were 0-6.
"Oh, no question we believe that," Coughlin said. "Everybody believes that. Eli's going to have big games. It's going to happen, and that's the way we feel.
"We just encourage him, we coach him, and we talk about the good and the bad. But in the long run, he's our guy."
Only on Sunday, Eli wasn't their guy. Andre Brown was the man of the hour, or three hours, against the Raiders, returning from a second broken leg in less than a year to rush for 115 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries.
It was a great human story of perseverance, that of a man felled by devastating injuries (he also tore up his Achilles as a rookie) and seemingly waived by half the league turning up as Frank Gifford for a team that had been so inept at running the ball.
So when Coughlin mentioned in his news conference that his Giants made "a lot of outstanding plays, and a lot of bad plays, to be honest with you," the unspoken breakdown was clear.
A lot of outstanding plays -- Brown.
A lot of bad plays, to be honest with you -- Manning.
That's no long-term formula for success. Andre Brown, God bless him, won't be the one to carry the Giants past the Packers next Sunday, and past the Cowboys the Sunday after that, and through a difficult December schedule on the way to a most improbable NFC East crown.
If it's going to happen for the Giants, if they are indeed going to piece together a miracle run to win a miserable division, Manning has to throw the ball a lot better than he threw it against Oakland, and a lot better than he's thrown it all year.
Sunday, Eli completed 12 of 22 attempts for 140 yards and a touchdown, and looked efficient only when measured against Terrelle Pryor, a talented kid still learning how to play the position. Manning missed a wide-open Victor Cruz for what would've been a touchdown in the fourth quarter, forcing the Giants to settle for a field goal that kept Oakland in a game Eli nearly gave away before halftime.
From his own 37, Eli telegraphed a pass to Cruz that was intercepted by Tracy Porter, a Manning family ghost who had famously pick-sixed Peyton to clinch a Super Bowl victory for the New Orleans Saints. Porter returned Eli's 16th interception of the year 43 yards for a score, and soon enough, after Coughlin decided to run out the clock, the Giants were being booed off the field.
"I decided to regroup there," the coach said.
He also decided to protect his team, his fan base and his fragile season from another potential Manning pick.
"[Porter] just undercut it," Eli said. "I didn't really get to step into the throw like I wanted to and he read it and made the play."
The wind was a bit of a problem, but hey, the wind here has always been a problem for Giants quarterbacks.
"A few kind of got away from me," Manning said.
The Giants survived, anyway, thanks to a strong defensive effort, Brown's inspirational running, and the fortunate timing of another comeback player of the week, Terrell Thomas, whose third-quarter interception set up the Brown touchdown that gave the Giants the lead.
"We're finding ways to win," Manning said, relieved that his hopes didn't go bye-bye after the bye. Asked later if he's encouraged that the Giants have inched their way back to relevance without him playing his best football, Manning conceded, "We just have to figure out how to execute a little bit better, especially in the passing game."
The one Giants receiver who caught a scoring pass, Rueben Randle, credited his quarterback for "managing us" and for "managing the ball." No, Eli Manning can't be reduced to a mere game manager if the Giants are to be taken seriously.
But if he suddenly starts playing his A-game, the game that's made him a future Hall of Fame candidate, couldn't the franchise player carry the franchise into legitimate playoff contention?
"Yes, I think that's a fair point," Giants owner John Mara told ESPNNewYork.com as he headed for the MetLife Stadium exits. "But at the end of the day, as Phil Simms used to say, just win the game.
"But you're right, you're right. We've seen Eli play as well as anybody in the league, and I know he still has that in him."
Yes, it's in there somewhere under jersey No. 10. Given that the Giants are 3-6 without Eli Manning, it would be fascinating to see what they could be over the last seven weeks with him.
The Giants aren't serious contenders until Eli Manning starts playing better.