Jan 25, 2012, 1:14 PM EDT
The New York Giants are playing in Super Bowl XLVI, while the Philadelphia Eagles weren’t even invited to the party, spawning the predictable debate about the distance between the two franchises right now. If you believe what you read in column inches and listen to over the air waves, it’s the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon.
But less than a month ago, the Giants were worming their way into the playoffs in the final game of the season. They finished 9-7, one win ahead of the Eagles and Cowboys, who each played their part in handing over a Division Championship. In reality, there wasn’t much of a divide then, and there isn’t one now.
Something set them apart from the competition though. What propelled New York to the big game, as Philadelphia looks on in disgust?
Hate to admit it, but a big reason for their success — and perhaps the biggest difference between the two teams — is Eli Manning.
It really shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise. You would be hard-pressed to find somebody who would argue quarterback isn’t the most important position on the field. As Donovan McNabb famously told reporters this season, it’s a team game, but the quarterback often gets the most credit for winning and losing, whether it’s deserved or not.
He would say that.
It’s also hard to argue with his logic, but in this case, Manning earned it. Some of us have been slow to come around on Eli, but he had an amazing season. The Giants’ QB started all 16 games for the seventh year in a row, throwing for 4,933 yards and 29 touchdowns, while limiting his turnovers to 20.
By comparison, Michael Vick missed three games entirely and failed to finish two others, while Eagles signal callers combined for 4,110 yards and 22 touchdowns through the air, to go along with a whopping 29 turnovers.
One year ago, it was the exact opposite story. Eli Manning gave the ball away 30 times all by his lonesome in 2010, while Vick and Kevin Kolb only coughed up the pill 19 times. The Giants led the NFL in turnovers and missed out on the playoffs, while Vick was an MVP candidate and the Eagles were NFC East Champions.
Bringing the discussion back to present day, when you look at the rest of their rosters, the two clubs are actually quite similar in terms of their talent levels.
Offensively, the Eagles probably have a slight edge. Their running game is vastly more efficient, thanks in large part to a superior offensive line that was particularly dominant in the latter half of the season. And while New York’s receiving corps might have leaped ahead of the Birds this year, Brent Celek gives them the more dynamic tight end.
On the other side of the ball, both have dominant lines. It’s close on the edges, but Philly has the superior interior. However, they have an obvious linebacker problem — advantage G-men. And though the Eagles’ secondary vastly underperformed in 2011, you still have to take Asante Samuel, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie over Corey Webster and Aaron Ross, though better safety performance gives the Giants a split in the backfield.
On balance, they look fairly even, but what of the blown fourth-quarter leads? Nobody is going to let us get away with making this comparison without pointing out the Eagles’ defense left an NFL-record five games get away in the final frame.
The truth is, the only thing that kept the Giants from doing something similar was, you guessed it, Eli Manning.
New York did blow a pair of fourth-quarter leads versus Seattle and San Francisco. What doesn’t get as much attention, for obvious reasons, are the instances where they surrendered a lead, only for Eli to bring them back. New England and Dallas came storming from behind to pull ahead in the last 15 minutes of games (additionally, Buffalo knotted one up), but each time, Manning responded.
In all, Eli Manning led five comeback victories this season. The Eagles had zero. That said, the most impressive comeback of all was transforming the Giants from an also-ran into a conference champion in a matter of weeks.
If the Birds intend to fill what little void exists in this rivalry by next season, all they really need is a heroic effort or two from their quarterback — then maybe 2012 could be a proverbial comeback year.
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