NY Giants @ Philadelphia Eagles
Start-time: Tuesday, 01:15
TV: Live on Sky Sports Action
New York's original star can show why his stand-in was second best
Well, look what the cat dragged in: the ghost of two Super Bowls past. Also known as Eli Manning on his fond-farewell tour. Of course, this is something of an unplanned sideshow for the New York Giants after their spirit of franchise future, Dan Jones, was carted off to school sanatorium with a nasty high-ankle sprain. Jones could be out rest of regular season, so Manning is back on the controls to pen one last glorious chapter to the fabled Book of Eli - a page-tuner that has lurched between ill-conceived calamity and elite in-the-clutch moments. Manning the Younger is a certain Hall of Famer, even if better quarterbacks have missed out and he can't hold a statistical candle to his older brother Peyton.
More immediately, though, our aim and focus is on this week's Monday Night Football, where the returning hero must lead a successful attack on the the spiraling Philadelphia Eagles who were among the Super Bowl favourites at the start of the campaign. While lacklustre results have seen Philly live down to expectations at a woeful 5-7 for the year, they still have their playoff fate in their own hands, thanks to their convenient geography in the NFC East, a divisional dogfight of deeply disappointing sorts where Dallas (also blushingly groping for a 50-50 record) currently top a rotting pile at 6-7.
At first glance, it looks like the perfect comeback game for Manning who's been out for the loop ever since becoming an expensive benchwarmer after Week 2. However, I maintained at the time that head coach Pat Shurmur was sitting Manning too soon, especially as he'd only been sacked twice, the Giants' running game had yet to fire, and stand-in Jones was not patently not ready for the burden of Big Blue. Of course, Jones stole a few early scenes and won some plaudits before rival teams watched the tape and quickly found his measure in a series of rock-bottom Passer Ratings and interception-fests. Manning, seldom shy of a pick-six himself, at least does offer a steadier hand on the tiller, not to mention reams of proven primetime performance in the national spotlight.
Tonight, Manning's task is to keep pace with a team that still isn't adding up to the sum of its parts, with Carson Wentz the main faulty cog. The spectre of his own stand-in, Nick Foles, still looms large over Wentz's failures to deliver when it matters most. The continuity and balance of the Eagles' offense just doesn't seem to gel as it did when Foles took the reins for that jaw-dropping play-off run in 2018. Yet the Philadelphia locker room still agree that Wentz is the more talented of two QBs, and are backing him to get them to the postseason. If Wentz takes them there, anything can happen in the lawless wide-open country of the playoffs.
Carson Wentz's woes may continue to pile up
On the plus side for the Eagles, Wentz didn't do much wrong last weekend. Alshon Jeffery, his star wideout, was back and instantly revived Philly's talented receiving crew (with nine receptions for 137 yards and a touchdown), while Wentz himself registered his first 300-yard-plus game since Week 6 (featuring three TDs and a pick).
On the downside, Philly lost - and, more specifically, lost to a woeful outfit in the Miami Dolphins. An underwhelming Passer Rating of 93.6 tells us that, for all the solid stats lines, Wentz should carry the can again. However, his defense should also shoulder some of the blame, allowing the much-maligned Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw for 365 yards and a troika of touchdowns. That said, while Fitzy is no world-beater, he's never been afraid to air it out and can record milestone days as an able deputy who's not afraid to make the QB role his own. So, there's a temptation to put a line though that form and file it under an anomaly.
Trouble is, that performance would rate an acceptable exception for Wentz and his Eagles, were it not for countless identical examples of the same feckless, error-strewn attitude. Which makes me wonder if these aberrations are indicative of an undeclared, underlying state of rottenness. For all their obvious limitations, the Giants are, at a minimum, guaranteed to fight for each other on the road under the command of a more familiar general. Remember, if Wentz struggles early, few homefields are more prone to turning on their own than this Lincoln Financial Field house of horrors.
All of which means I'm going to leave this to a flashback performance from Eli, who will be hugely motivated to buff up his legacy by signing off in style in New York, and the improving Saquon Barkley, who is finally recapturing the form of his league-leading breakout season by averaging over four yards per carry last time out. Reliable grounds gains are the key to moving the chains and recalibrating Manning's laser arm to a capable if limited receiving which also includes Barkley's dual-threat skills.
So, even if it's to be his last winter with the Giants, here's hoping the final chapter in that Book of Eli isn't one of cold comfort.