With the New York Giants at 6-2 and holding a big lead in the NFC East, two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning was a legitimate candidate for league Most Valuable Player.
Not anymore. After two straight losses and some pathetic offensive play, Manning is now hearing the other side of the equation from fans and critics.
His golden arm appears tired and his play is reminiscent of his rookie season when teams like the Ravens made him look like a deer caught in a car's high beams.
It's the price of playing in New York and Manning actually smiled when reminded of his so-called downfall as the Giants (6-4) headed into their bye week Monday, coming off a dreadful performance in a 31-13 loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati.
"You trust your skills, you trust your past experience and know that football is a crazy game," Manning said after the team held its final meeting before dispersing for the week. "And it's tough and it's hard; sometimes as a player you forget that because sometimes as a player you go out and you are catching every break, and even plays where guys shouldn't be getting open, they're getting open because the defense is making a mistake and you are hitting them, and everything is going you're way."
That has not been the case for really the past three weeks.
Manning has hit 54 of 99 passes for no touchdowns and four interceptions in a win over Dallas and losses to Pittsburgh and the Bengals.
It's a sudden flip-flop that is hard to explain for an offense that was one of the most explosive in the league for half a season.
"All the sudden defenses are playing things really well and you're not catching breaks, and it seems like, 'How are we going to get a first down? Are we going to be able to score points this week,' " Manning added. "So it is just a matter of fighting through it and keep working hard, keep staying committed to your reads and making good decisions and not forcing things when things are tough. Sometimes you need to be reminded of that. We've had a good reminder of that and now it's a matter of relearning that and taking those experiences and getting better."
The big mistakes Manning made Sunday came by forcing two third-quarter passes under pressure that were intercepted. It led to touchdown drives of 12 and 16 yards and put the game out of reach.
Manning plans to get away from the area this week and not throw a ball until next Monday. However, he insisted his arm is fine and that he threw with ball well Sunday.
Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and coach Tom Coughlin said Manning made a couple of bad plays on the interceptions, and he knows that.
Gilbride said Manning probably tried to do too much after running back Ahmad Bradshaw lost a fumble in the red zone that could have gotten the Giants within 17-13 early in the third quarter.
"He's always going to get a lot of the credit, maybe more than he deserves when things are going well, and he's always going to get more of the blame when things are not going well," Gilbride said. "He had some decisions yesterday that he would like to have back, and I think that's probably indicative of us pressing to get back to where we were. Certainly, if we give him the time and the protection, I have no doubt in my mind that he'll put the ball where it needs to go, accurately, correctly and give guys a chance. It comes down to protection. It comes down to the guys doing a better job getting open, getting separation. Believe me, it's a collective process out there. We're all in need of doing better."
Coughlin refused to point a finger at Manning for the offensive woes.
"He's not alone. He's not alone," Coughlin said. "We have a lot of people that aren't playing as well as they're capable of playing. That's got to change,"
There will be no quarterback controversy with this team. Veteran David Carr is the backup and there is no thought of making a switch.
The Giants have become notorious for their November swoons and this is just the latest.
"It's been a couple of weeks, but I don't think anyone in this locker room will point any fingers," guard Kevin Boothe said. "Maybe others outside this locker room might, but we're a confident and proud group. We'll turn it around. We just haven't played well the last few weeks and lost the last couple. We still have everything in front of us and we'll continue to play."
Tight end Martellus Bennett said the offense just has to execute better and someone has to be the spark for that.
Manning is the likely candidate. Despite the two bad weeks, he has thrown for 2,641 yards, 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and that's without much of a running game.
Bennett said blaming the quarterback is like blaming the point guard in basketball when things go south.
"He has always played well whenever we have needed him to," Bennett said. "We have to make plays for him. It's just not on him. It's everybody in this offense. If he makes a throw and he's having a tough game, we can't drop them. We have to make a play for him, and get him going sometimes, too."
Manning wanted to see the bright side.
"We're still in a good position," Manning said. "If you said after 10 games, we'd be winning our division, you take that every time."
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