Eli Manning’s Sunday at MetLife Stadium began with him flanked by his three daughters, Ava, Lucy and Caroline, during the national anthem.
It ended with whatever Giants fans who were left in the building chanting his name and yelling, “One more year,’’ to him as he disappeared into the tunnel for the final time this season.
In between those two poignant moments for Manning was a 36-35 loss to the NFC East rival Cowboys, who are headed to the playoffs while the Giants head home for the offseason with a dreadful and distasteful 5-11 record that followed last year’s 3-13 finish.
Afterward, Manning insisted that he never entertained a thought that might be the last time he trotted off the MetLife Stadium field wearing a Giants uniform after his 15 years of service, two Super Bowl titles, 242 starts, 124 wins, 5,036 completions for 58,796 yards and 378 touchdown passes.
“You try not to worry about those things,’’ Manning said. “Just enjoy the moment and enjoy playing football. Enjoy the opportunity to go try and win a game.’’
Manning did that on Sunday. He put the Giants in position to win after turning the ball over on each of the first two offensive possessions with an interception and a lost fumble, after trailing 14-0 in the second quarter, 21-10 in the third quarter and 28-25 in the fourth.
Manning completed 24-of-41 for 301 yards with two touchdowns and two turnovers. It didn’t look very pretty at times, but when has Manning ever looked Joe Montana pretty?
But Manning helped give the Giants a 32-28 lead and then 35-28 with fourth-quarter drives before the Cowboys would crush the Giants’ will one final time this season with a touchdown and game-winning two-point conversion with 1:12 remaining.
For the Giants fans who feel compelled to blame Manning for the team’s game- and season-ending drive — four plays before turning the ball over on downs — after starting what could and should have been a game-winning drive at their own 48-yard line after Dallas went ahead, direct your blame at Pat Shurmur for poor play calling.
The Giants head coach delivered perhaps his worst series of plays all season when he had Manning throwing low-percentage 15-yard outs toward the sideline with two timeouts, plenty of time remaining and the Giants needing fewer than 15 yards for a game-winning field-goal attempt.
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The Giants’ best offensive player, rookie running back Saquon Barkley, didn’t touch the ball once on the series, and that’s inexcusable.
Manning was not the reason the Giants lost this game, just like he wasn’t the reason the Giants lost a number of their games this season, a season in which the Giants lost eight games by a touchdown or less.
Shurmur, after the game, sounded quite bullish on Manning, leading you to believe he’ll be back for a 16th season in blue in 2019.
“I thought he did a heck of a job,’’ Shurmur said. “He battled. He got us in position to win.’’
Then Shurmur said, “I’m not focusing on all this uncertainty that everybody else is focusing on.’’
He was asked, does Manning have “good football left in him?’’
“Absolutely,’’ Shumur said.
Then: “Do you expect him to be your quarterback next year?’’
“I do,’’ Shurmur said. “Everybody thinks I’m nuts, but I’ve seen the good in Eli. I certainly hear things [detrimental about Manning], but I believe in him. I feel strongly about Eli.’’
Shurmur is not alone.
“I know Eli has a lot of ball left in him and I know we believe in him,’’ Barkley said.
Even though uncertainty about Manning’s future with the Giants hung in the cool December air Sunday, there was no feeling of finality with him — particularly after listening to Shurmur after the game.
That may not come as great news to the Giants fans who are as anxious to get rid of him as Jets fans were a few years ago about getting rid of Mark Sanchez, but deal with it.
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“This is all I know,’’ Manning said, in the one moment he came remotely close to allowing a glimpse into his soul. “I love coming to practice, I love game-planning, getting plays that will work and competing, winning games, celebrating touchdowns, all of that.
“The losses hurt and they are tough to deal with. They are tougher now than in the past because you know your opportunities are running low to make playoffs and [make] championship runs. It is tough to handle.
“I think you have to always look at the positives and embrace it because you just don’t know.’’
The last question asked of Manning before he walked out of the stadium and into his career uncertainty was if he had a “gut’’ feeling about whether he’d be back next season.
“No, not right now,’’ he said. “We will figure it all out.’’