EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It’s not Eli Manning’s fault that on a second-and-20 in a one-touchdown game, Buffalo Bills receiver Cole Beasley gave DeAndre Baker, the New York Giants rookie cornerback, the slip and turned what should have been a modest gain into a 51-yard game changer.
It’s not Eli Manning’s fault that on a chip-shot field goal that would have given the Bills a perfectly surmountable 24-14 lead with just about 12 minutes to play, Giants tackle Dexter Lawrence chose to smack Buffalo long snapper Reid Ferguson upside the head, giving the Bills a new set of downs from the New York 2-yard line and, two plays later, scored a touchdown to give them a 28-14 lead.
It’s not Eli Manning’s fault that his Buffalo counterpart, Josh Allen, is 15 years younger than him, faster on his feet, stronger in his arm and infinitely more capable of firing accurate darts from a dead run.
It’s not Eli Manning’s fault that Aldrick Rosas yanked a 48-year field-goal attempt that would have cut the Bills lead to 21-10 right before the end of the first half, or that just prior to that, the Giants defense had allowed Allen to shred it for a 98-year touchdown drive.
And it’s not Eli Manning’s fault that his two best receivers, Sterling Shepard and Golden Tate, were on the sidelines for the game with a concussion and a drug suspension, respectively.
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There were, however, things that were Eli Manning’s fault.
Such as, the uncanny ability of his passes to find the upraised hands of defensive linemen, his sometimes puzzling inability to locate open receivers, and the dispiriting fact that he can no longer throw the ball down the field with any real precision.
There was the bad overthrow of a wide-open T.J. Jones heading for the end zone in the fourth quarter … and another desperation heave on the next series that Bills safety Jordan Poyer pulled in as if he were the intended receiver. There was the swing pass he spiked into Saquon Barkley’s feet, the pass that sailed several yards wide of Jones that drew the jeers of the crowd … and the tipped-pass interception when the Giants were on the move late in the first half that left head coach Pat Shurmur staring in disbelief.
And on three straight third-quarter possessions, the Giants defense stopped the Bills cold and turned it back to the Giants offense, which could not manage to score a single point in response.
That also may not have been totally Eli Manning’s fault.
But when you are the face of a franchise that has begun its season with two humiliating losses, and the leader of an offense that has managed to score just 31 points in those two games, pretty much everything is perceived to be your fault.
And whether it is fair or not, that is where the fingers of many of the 74,569 fans were being pointed on Sunday at Met Life Stadium.
Not only were the fingers pointed, but so were the questions.
After the Giants’ 28-14 loss to the Bills — the only undefeated New York football team — Shurmur was asked point blank if it was time to think about taking a shot with Daniel Jones, who the Giants chose with the No. 6 pick in this year’s draft.
“I don’t think that’s a conversation for right now,” Shurmur said. “Everybody’s got to get better.”
With that deft non-answer, the Giants’ second-year coach at least proved himself move elusive than his 38-year-old quarterback.
Asked to assess Manning’s performance, Shurmur said, “I think his play is indicative of how our team played. There were some really good plays in there and there were some things we need to improve.”
The full-blown New York quarterback controversy, every tabloid headline writer and talk-show host’s dream, may not have begun yet. But it is certainly on the way.
The truth is, while it is hardly only Eli Manning’s fault that the Giants have started the season so poorly, the 15-year veteran and two-time Super Bowl MVP is certainly part of the problem.
“I’ve got to make better throws and better decisions and find a way to convert on third downs,” Manning said. “That’s a quarterback’s job.”
Too often on Sunday, it appeared as if Manning was no longer up to that job. It was obvious from the opening drive of the game, when the Giants used five straight running plays, including a 20-yard end around by Bennie Fowler, a backup wideout pressed into service due to all the injuries to the regulars, and a 27-yard burst by Saquon Barkley that gave the Giants an early 7-0 lead.
In fact, Manning did not even get to attempt a pass until the Giants’ seventh offensive play of the game, and did not complete one until there were nearly two minutes gone in the second quarter. It was almost as if Shurmur was trying to keep the ball out of Manning’s hands for as long as possible.
“We wanted to get Saquon involved as much as we could until the score got to the way it was,” Shurmur said. “Ultimately we didn’t make enough plays to win.”
That also might have been Manning’s fault. He did throw a couple of good passes, especially the perfectly lofted pass to T.J. Jones in the back of the end zone early in the fourth quarter that cut Buffalo’s lead to 21-14.
But he would miss on his next five passes, and after that touchdown, the Giants would manage just three more first downs. Manning finished 26 for 45 for 250 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. Clearly, he is no longer a feared playmaker in the Giants offense.
That is now the sole territory of Barkley, who rushed for over 100 yards – 107 on 18 carries – for the second straight game. But once Buffalo figured out the obvious, that if you stop Barkley you stop the Giants offense, the game was as good as over.
The Bills held Barkley to 38 yards on nine carries in the second half.
“You could see they were a little more focused on the running game,” Barkley said. “That’s life. I think a lot of teams will do that the rest of the season. They’ll try to take away our running game. I think Eli did a great job of answering but we just got to answer better.”
At this stage of his career, Eli Manning may no longer be able to come up with those answers.
Asked to describe his feelings about the beginning of the Giants season, Manning said, “It’s not the way you want to start.”
As he nears the end of an admirable career, Eli Manning might have added this: It’s not the way you want to finish, either.
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