With the countdown to the start of training camp reduced to mere hours, and another Super Bowl title defense at hand in New York, it's still a bit mind-boggling to contemplate how Eli Manning and his Giants teammates earned that coveted second ring last season.
Consider the unimpressive 9-7 NFC East-winning regular season record. The galling 32nd-ranked running game (3.5 yards per carry). The challenging year-long issues at offensive tackle. The high-wire existence of needing all those fourth-quarter comebacks (Manning tied an NFL record with seven). It was a championship season that just didn't look or feel like a championship season, until the very end, when the Giants capped off another improbable playoff run with their second Super Bowl upset of the vaunted Patriots in five years.
Looking back and ahead at the same time, Manning knows 2011's particular Big Blue-print isn't likely to work again in 2012. How could it? Specializing in being a fourth-quarter team that waits until late December or the postseason to really start clicking is a dangerous formula in the NFL.
"No, that's not what you want,'' Manning said by phone Monday morning, as part of his promotional work with Gatorade's annual "Beat the Heat'' hydration education campaign. "You don't want to be down in the fourth quarter all the time and have to fight back. It's a great thing that you know you can do it if you're in that situation. But you don't want to have to deal with it week in and week out, because sometimes you get a weird bounce or one bad play, and the game's over and you lose.
"Those fourth-quarter comebacks, and winning games in the last two minutes, it's fun and entertaining, but what it really means is you didn't play well in the first three quarters. We've got to work on playing better in that part of the game, and being a more dominant team during the rest of the season. When things are on the line, our guys step up, and you want to have that. But we've got to somehow pick up the intensity in those first three quarters of games.''
It's instructive to note the last time the Giants were in this situation, coming off their unlikely 2007 title run as a late-peaking 10-6 wild-card team, they actually did pick it up a notch or two and become a dominant team as the defending Super Bowl champions. At least for the first three-fourths of the 2008 season, starting that year 11-1 before the fallout that accompanied receiver Plaxico Burress accidentally shooting himself in the leg in a nightclub seemed to wreck the Giants' winning mojo. New York dropped three of its last four games that season, finishing 12-4 before being swept out of the playoffs with a one-and-done appearance at home against the Eagles in the NFC divisional round.
The reality of head coach Tom Coughlin's first eight seasons on the job in New York is his teams have made the playoffs an impressive five times, making them a good bet to get back into the Super Bowl chase once again this year. But the flip side is the 2007 and 2011 champions were the only Giants teams under Coughlin to win a playoff game, with their twin 4-0 runs standing starkly apart from three first-game postseason exits and three non-playoff seasons. Based on that record, predicting a Super Bowl repeat for Eli and Co. looks to be a historically iffy proposition.
Manning remembers 2008's rollercoaster ride and probably dreams of some day enjoying a season that both starts and ends well, having yet to add that experience to a gaudy track record that now includes a pair of Super Bowl MVP awards.
"In '08 we had the right mindset going into the season, that, 'Hey, we've still got something to prove' type of thinking,'' Manning said. "And that's the same with this year's team. You want to be playing your best football at the end of the year, that's the ultimate goal and the most important thing. But we could probably make life a little bit easier on ourselves if we played more consistently throughout the whole season and not have that lull we always seem to have.''
There were, of course, no real lulls from Manning in 2011. He carried the Giants' offense on his back all season, throwing for 4,933 yards and 29 touchdowns without the benefit of any semblance of a running game, and backed up his self-proclaimed elite status with a ridiculous display of clutch quarterbacking. Manning set an NFL record for most fourth-quarter touchdown passes last season (15), and his seven fourth-quarter comebacks and eight fourth-quarter game-winning drives tied single-season league records in both categories. Manning forced everyone to see him differently last year, and the perception of his career has been forever altered by his breakthrough performance of 2011. We don't think of him as the talented but inconsistent Manning brother any more.
And yet, this offseason, after the parade was over, Manning receded into the background once more, overshadowed first by the frenzy of Peyton Manning's free agency tour and eventual arrival in Denver, and then by the Jets' acquisition of a certain backup quarterback with a bit of a cult following. His comment was made partially in jest, but when Eli Manning cracked that he was only the third most talked about quarterback in New York these days, behind both Tim Tebow and Mark Sanchez, there was more than a little bit of truth revealed.
Not that Manning cares. Nothing seems to faze the guy. Not Tebow-mania moving into the neighborhood. Not former teammate Amani Toomer taking to the radio to (laughably) declare Tony Romo a better quarterback than Manning. Not the Eagles' Michael Vick talking dynasty in Philly when the Giants -- Eli's Giants -- are the only NFC East team to win a Super Bowl in the past 16 seasons. It's all talk and hype, and Manning doesn't really choose to play that game. With spectacular results.
"That's just New York, and the way the media has changed a little bit,'' Manning said of all the swirling storylines that he ignores. "The champions, the team that does things the right way, you make the papers for the day. But the team that does something different, or is having trouble or some controversy, that story goes on for weeks and months and continues to get talked about.''
But enough about the Jets. I only had 15 minutes of Manning's time doled out to me, and I wanted to hear what he had to say about his one big star turn of the offseason, when he hosted
For the record, I almost felt sorry for Eli on SNL, because once again, his more famous older brother Peyton set a pretty high bar to hit with his own memorable SNL host appearance in the spring of 2008. But Eli has never been hesitant to follow in Peyton's wake, and he didn't back away from this challenge either.
"I was pleased, because the goal going in was to have fun with it,'' Manning said. "I wanted to have a blast and work hard during the week to know what I'm doing on the show. I told the cast and the writers from the get-go, 'Hey, if I'm doing something wrong, please tell me. I'm very coachable, and I'm not an actor. This is not my day job, so let me know what to do, because I want to have a good show. I want the show to be funny and be successful.' And I had a great time on the show, had a lot of laughs and enjoyed my experience, so that's a success for me.''
Fair enough, but even a second Super Bowl ring -- one more than Peyton has won -- won't be enough to make Eli the most talked about Manning in the NFL this summer. While he preps with the defending champs in Albany, N.Y., starting on Thursday, Peyton's every move as a Bronco in Denver will be scrutinized and dissected for meaning. I asked Eli what he thought of the Peyton-palooza that dominated the NFL news cycle in February and March, if it ever took him aback in its intensity and comprehensiveness?
"I think it was just such a rare event, where you have a quarterback who's been a four-time MVP and a Super Bowl winner, and now they're on the open market,'' he said. "You just don't see that very often. Obviously with his injury it made it even more unique and made you wonder what was going to happen?''
OK, so what's going to happen? Can anyone know if Peyton is truly 100 percent and all the way back? Even his younger brother, or Peyton himself?
"From a physical standpoint and healthwise, he's 100 percent back,'' Eli said. "I see him throwing. He feels good. I saw him last weekend throwing routes with receivers and the ball's coming out well and he's making all the throws. I think he's healthy and ready to go. He's ready to go in there and be a part of a good team and play.''
Unlike last year, both Mannings are back and ready for more football. Peyton has a new chapter to write in Denver. But for Eli in New York, at the dawn of his ninth season with the Giants, the story seems to get better all the time. Even when things start out shaky, Manning has a knack of making sure the ending is the very best part.