PHILADELPHIA -- There were several common threads between the New York Giants' last two Super Bowl runs, but one of the most important ones was this: Eli Manning, in 2007 and 2011, played brilliantly when it mattered the most.
And that is absolutely not happening now.
There are reasons why, and it's not all Manning's fault, but that doesn't really matter as the Giants head (they hope) for their first playoff berth in five seasons. Manning, as the Giants' franchise quarterback, needs to find a way to rise above his team's problems and carry them on his shoulders, and he hasn't figured out how to do that with this team yet.
It was obvious Thursday night, when they had a chance to clinch that playoff berth and instead lost 24-19 to the Eagles. Manning, on his way to a career-high 63 passes, got off to a terrible 3-for-12 start, including a pick six that put the Giants in an early 14-0 hole. He threw three interceptions in all, including one that died on its way to an open receiver in the end zone on his final play of the game.
The offensive line faced pressure. His receivers dropped passes. Some didn't fight hard enough to get to passes. On the penultimate play -- what looked like an overthrow in the end zone -- Odell Beckham Jr. admitted he was too "gassed" to reach the ball. All of that is true. It all contributed to Manning's struggles.
And it still doesn't matter. He has to be better no matter what.
"I got off to a bad start -- a bad interception early on -- and spotted them a 14-0 lead," Manning said. "After that we did some good things, moved the ball, made some plays. We got down into scoring position a bunch, and just (had) too many field goals. That's really what it came down to."
The Giants settled for four Robbie Gould field goals, all after they stalled in the red zone. The offense, under Manning's direction, died at the worst possible times.
And he's right, he started it with a "bad decision" -- a terrible one, really -- to force a ball into double coverage to tight end Will Tye. Manning said he "felt a little pressure" and "just never saw the defender that was chasing him from behind." That's a fair and reasonable explanation. But it's still a throw he absolutely can't make.
The Giants still had plenty of chances to win the game, but Manning's offense just couldn't get over the hump it has been trying to get over all season. Manning seemed to have more support than usual in this game. His rushing attack produced a season-high 114 yards. And not only did Beckham have a huge game (11 catches for 150 yards), but his rarely-dynamic trio of Beckham, Victor Cruz and Sterling Shepard was strong, combining for 26 catches and 295 total yards.
The Giants' defense even got Manning the ball back three times in the final 8:47 -- twice in the final 4:15 -- in a one-score game, giving him a chance to win it. The first drive died at the 18 after two incomplete shots at the end zone, and they settled for a field goal instead. The second drive ended on a Shepard drop, though even he thought he was "definitely" interfered with by Eagles corner Nolan Carroll. And the third ended with an interception when Manning's pass toward the end zone for an open Tye fell woefully short and went intercepted.
Shepard took responsibility for his drop, saying he should've caught the pass whether there was interference or not. Tye took responsibility for his part in the final interception, saying he should've come back and fought harder for the ball. Manning had an Eagles defender in his face, too.
"(I was) just getting hit as I was trying to throw it," Manning said, "and the ball didn't get out how I wanted it to."
"The quarterback couldn't step into the ball and throw it on a rope the way he wanted to throw it on a rope," Giants coach Ben McAdoo said. "(And) when the ball is in the air, we like our players to go attack the ball."
Again, that is true and they are valid explanations. Just like it's true and valid when Manning said the Giants were "a couple plays away from winning that football game."
He's the one that has to make them, though, like he made them back in 2007 and 2011. He may have had better surrounding casts in those seasons, but he also had more of a knack for making his teammates better and making things happen even when things weren't going well. That's what a franchise quarterback is supposed to do.
And if Manning doesn't start doing it soon, the Giants' first trip to the playoffs in five years promises to be very short.