EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Giants have taken a lot away from Eli Manning in recent years, from his consecutive games streak to most of his final season. Their mismanagement, it can be argued, even stole the late prime of his career.
At a time when he should've been hearing cheers, he was too often relentlessly booed. When he should've been trying to make one last Super Bowl run, he instead endured almost nothing but losing. He wasn't blameless, of course, but he was often saddled with a terrible surrounding cast and unfortunate circumstances.
It wasn't fair that one of the greatest careers ever by a Giant was headed towards such an unhappy ending.
So the Giants owed him what happened on Sunday afternoon.
Manning, in what might be the final home start of his Giants career and maybe eventhe last appearance of his NFL career, got the send-off the two-time Super Bowl MVP so richly deserved. He completed 20 of 28 passes for 283 yards and two touchdowns -- and yes, let's ignore the three interceptions to not spoil the moment. And for the 117th time in his 16 seasons, he led the Giants to a win. It certainly wasn't his biggest win -- 36-20 over the 3-11 Miami Dolphins -- and it wasn't anywhere close to his best performance.
But it was a wonderful way for the legend to say goodbye -- if this really is the end.
"It was a special day," said Giants receiver Sterling Shepard. "(Running back) Saquon (Barkley) and I were looking at each other when we were going out for that first series and said, 'Man, let's send him out on the right note."
"We've had some tough days, some tough afternoons," said Giants coach Pat Shurmur. "This is a good one. I think he and all of the guys in the locker room will enjoy this."
They sure did seem to enjoy this, even though it's obviously a long way from the sendoff Manning's older Peyton once got -- riding off into the sunset after riding the Denver Broncos to a championship in Super Bowl 50. The deterioration of the Giants made sure that was never going to happen for Eli Manning. For a while, it looked like his finale had already happened, very unceremoniously back in Week 2.
But then came Daniel Jones' high ankle sprain that afforded Manning a second shot at a final act that began last Monday night in Philadelphia. The home start was a bonus, whether Jones could've played in this game or not. It was a special treat for both him and the fans who bothered to show up.
And this is how special it was: As the clock ticked down, the scoreboard cameras focused on Manning, as his teammates mostly gave him space so he could have thespotlight to himself. As the crowd cheered -- roared, really -- he showed the emotion he so rarely showed during his remarkable career. He smiled, waved, nodded, gave a thumbs up.
It took 16 years, but his stoic demeanor in public finally, sort of, broke down.
"I kept saying, 'I'm getting chills over here,'" Barkley said. "He's a special player, a special person. For him to go out with a standing ovation, that's the way he deserves to go out."
It seemed like every player in the Giants locker room used the word "chills" after the game. The whole day was a tailor-made Manning celebration, a feel-good moment in the midst of a terrible, 3-11 season. It began with a pregame speech that many of his teammates said was surprisingly rousing. Then Manning got to run onto the field to a standing ovation that was the thank you he deserved for 16 mostly wonderful years.
The win at the end was the cherry on top -- and a chance for Shurmur to embrace the moment, sending backup quarterback Alex Tanney onto the field to get Manning with 1:50 remaining so Manning could hear those cheers one final time. That gave the quarterback a moment, as he described it, for "the awkward feeling of standing there on the sidelines, kind of a circle around me and everybody looking at me and staring at me and the camera on me and not feeling real comfortable in that circumstance."
Manning, usually with ice in his veins, admitted that "maybe" there were tears in that awkward moment, perhaps as he jogged off the field into the arms of his wife and children. The truth about Manning has always been this: Don't be fooled by his demeanor. He always understands the moment, and under the surface he always cares -- perhaps as much as any player on the field.
And yes, though he said, "I think I did a good job of blocking that out," that this might be his Meadowlands finale, deep down he wanted to go out on the right note.
He wanted one more curtain call, one more win. He wanted that chance to say goodbye in style.
"I don't know what the future is," Manning said. "I don't know what lies ahead next week, let alone down the road. But I think obviously the support from the fans and the ovation and chanting my name from the first snap to the end, I appreciate that.
"It's a special day, a special win, and one I'll remember."
And even though he deserved a better ending to his career overall, and more of a boost to his Hall of Fame chances, at least he gave the Giants fans and organization one more day they'll never forget, too.