EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Eli Manning initially built this season around one simple premise: improvement.
He challenged the reigning Super Bowl champions to look in the mirror and get better individually, which in turn would increase their collective success.
With two games left in the regular season, this much is true for Manning and the Giants: They have failed in that quest, although fortunately for them it’s not over just yet.
Sure, at this point Big Blue is a game better than last season record-wise. But from a performance perspective, factoring in inconsistency and a pair of no-shows in Cincinnati last month and three days ago in Atlanta, it’s a flat-footed tie.
And now that Robert Griffin III and Tony Romo have grabbed the virtual lead in the NFC East, it’s time for Manning to seize the moment and take back a season that was supposed to belong to him and his team — and once did.
“Excitement” is what Manning insists he felt when the win-out scenario for the Giants to clinch a playoff spot was revealed to him Monday, not an expression of relief or concern.
If the Giants win their next two games, beginning Sunday in Baltimore and then the following week at home against the Eagles, they’ll get the chance to defend the Vince Lombardi Trophy in the postseason regardless of what the opposition does.
That playoff invitation would come along with an NFC East championship, or one of two wild cards, depending on how the rest of the division plays out.
If the Giants lose to the Ravens, the flip side of their predicament is elimination, which could happen under that premise with victories by Washington, Dallas and Seattle.
“You don’t have to rely on anyone else. You know what is ahead of us. You know what the stakes are,” Manning said. “I think everybody should be excited about the opportunity ahead of us.”
Manning has not necessarily had a poor season, and to say he has regressed from where he ended last year would be a bit foolish.
There’s also no debating he has not taken the step forward just about everyone expected him to take, most of all Manning himself. He threw two first-half interceptions in Sunday’s 34-0 loss to the Falcons, and was shut out for the first time in the regular season.
None of that will matter if Manning comes to play and finishes what he set out to start.
“You’ve got to win important games and this is a chance,” Manning said. “This is as important a game as you can have, this upcoming game, and our mind-set is the playoffs have started. This is it. This game right here is huge.
“It’s the most important game and it’s a must-win game for us.”
A lot has changed for Manning since the last time he saw the Ravens as a rookie.
That December 12, 2004, game represents one of the worst statistical performances of his career, including the lowest completion percentage he has had in the NFL as he finished 4-of-18 for 27 yards and two interceptions.
Manning isn’t responsible for stopping the run, which could end up being the one area that prevents the Giants from reaching their potential. He can’t make sure the secondary neutralizes the big play through the air.
In many ways, though, Manning’s effectiveness and his ability to put points on the board goes hand in hand with that of the Giants’ once-vaunted pass rush, taken out of the equation more times than not this season because of protection, game situations, their performance and the scoreboard.
“I’ve got to do my job. I’ve got to play at a high level,” Manning said. “I’ve got to make the plays that are there, but I think everybody has to take that same mentality. Everybody has got to do your job. You don’t have to try to do someone else’s.”
Everyone will be looking to Manning to lead the way back from the depths of Sunday’s debacle in Atlanta. That needs to happen in Baltimore, at least it better, or the Giants will find themselves on the outside looking in when the second season begins.