- Ohm Youngmisuk, ESPN Staff Writer
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Nearly three years after he outdueled Brett Favre in brutally cold conditions to win the NFC championship, Eli Manning returned to Lambeau Field last Sunday and, at times, looked like a rookie quarterback trying to force plays.
Manning threw a season-high four interceptions, three coming in the fourth quarter when he was looking to make anything happen with his team heading toward a 45-17 loss to the Packers.
Almost three seasons removed from winning the Super Bowl, Manning is on the verge of missing the postseason for the second straight year in the prime of his career. And if the Giants fail to make the playoffs -- they need to beat the Redskins and have the Bears beat the Packers -- Manning will certainly have a long offseason to dissect what went so wrong this year.
Manning has thrown a league-high 24 interceptions. Some of them have not been his fault as several interceptions glanced off his receivers' hands earlier this season, while others have been a direct result of some of his wideouts not being on the same page. He has seen five of his receivers go on injured reserve this season and that doesn't include Hakeem Nicks missing two games due to surgery to relieve swelling in his leg. During that stretch, Manning was without his top two receivers in Nicks and Steve Smith, who is now on injured reserve.
Manning has dealt with tough circumstances, but ultimately the best quarterbacks rise above the obstacles and find ways to win. And no matter who is at fault, the quarterback ultimately takes the blame for the interceptions and nobody has thrown more this season than Manning.
It actually has been a career year for Manning, who has thrown for a career-best 30 touchdowns with one game remaining.
"The interceptions make it a bad year in a sense," Manning said on The Michael Kay Show on ESPN 1050 radio. "Did some good things and thrown a lot of touchdowns. But the interceptions are way too many. Turnovers are killers. You can have sacks and throwaways but turnovers will lose you games. It is something I got to fix quickly."
Only four times this season has Manning made it through a game without throwing a pick. It's a stunning statistic considering Manning is a top-10 quarterback.
While Drew Brees has thrown 21 interceptions, he has passed for 4,424 yards, completed 68.7 percent of his passes and has led the Saints into the playoffs again. Manning has completed 63.1 percent of his throws for 3,759 yards.
A second consecutive 4,000-yard season is within grasp.
But if he misses the playoffs, those statistics won't mean much to him.
"Unfortunately there were bad throws, there were things you wish you had back that weren't real considerations, for example the football to the [running] back that was intercepted," head coach Tom Coughlin said of a fourth-quarter pick Manning threw under pressure that went off Ahmad Bradshaw's hands. "There were times where Eli has gotten away with that, where he's flipped the ball to the back and it has not been a sack and we haven't lost the yardage, but certainly we paid for that [against Green Bay]."
Few prepare as hard as Manning does each week. And do not mistake his aw-shucks facial expressions for a quarterback who lacks competitiveness. Manning is an intense competitor who wants to win so bad that he may be pressing at times.
"I don't think there's any question that he's trying like heck to make a play and I think he knows our circumstance," Coughlin said. "I think it lets the air out of our team a little bit when we turn the ball over and it's very difficult not to. These things hurt.
"There's a lot of psychological stuff that goes along with this [turnovers], too."
Quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan said in training camp that the goal this season was to get Manning to avoid the peaks and valleys and be consistent.
Unfortunately, he has become consistent at throwing interceptions.
Manning's past two games have been all about highs and lows. He blistered the Eagles for four touchdowns two weeks ago before the Giants collapsed in the final eight minutes. Then he followed that up with four picks against the Packers. In both games, the Giants' defense was to blame as much as anybody for the losses.
But combine Manning's picks with the Giants' 17 fumbles lost and it is easy to wonder just how many more wins the Giants (9-6) would have if they were only able to take care of the ball the way Tom Brady does.
Even a young quarterback like Josh Freeman has thrown for a total of only six interceptions this year. Manning has a Super Bowl ring and Tampa Bay's quarterback has a long way to go before equaling Manning's signature moment.
But if Manning and the Giants don't stop their turnover tendencies on Sunday against the Redskins, Manning may feel a bit like Freeman next season if he has to potentially learn a new offensive system under a new coach. Remember, Manning has had only Coughlin as his head coach during his entire career.
After losing to Philadelphia and now the Packers in the fashion that the Giants have, Coughlin's seat has gotten warmer. He still has control of the team and the players still play hard for him. They were more outclassed by a hot Packers team than anything else last Sunday.
But should the Giants suffer a deflating and lackluster loss at Washington and finish the season on a three-game losing streak and out of the playoffs for the second straight year, Coughlin's job status will be under heavy scrutiny and the calls for Bill Cowher will intensify.
The odds are still in Coughlin's favor that he will return next year given how good a coach he is, how Giants ownership craves stability and discipline, and how the looming collective bargaining labor fight will only complicate matters for any team considering making a coaching change.
Manning can improve Coughlin's odds by finding a way to hold on to the football and beating the Redskins.
"I know I can fix it," Manning said of the interceptions. "I got to be smarter and make better decisions. The receivers, everybody got to be all tied in together. I got to count on them, they got to help me out."
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