EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - If this really was the end for Eli Manning, at least it was a fitting finale.
And if this wasn't the end ... well, maybe it should be.
The Giants' icon got to go out a winner, and once again heard the cheers from the crowd, in what might easily was the best performance of his final season in New York. The 38-year-old quarterback completed 20 of his 28 passes for 283 yards and threw two touchdowns. Sure, he also threw three interceptions. But his performance was enough to snap the Giants' franchise-record-tying nine-game losing streak and to beat the Miami Dolphins 36-20.
And this time, Manning did it with a strong second half - unlike his disastrous second half in Philadelphia on Monday night - and with the help of a defense that actually stepped up its game. Manning led a touchdown drive on the opening possession of the second half, led another one right after the Giants got the ball back thanks to a safety.
In the second half alone, Manning completed 12 of 14 passes for 167 yards.
The win evened Manning's career record at 117-117, which is where it may stand for all eternity. There is still a chance he will start next Sunday in Washington or in the season finale on Dec. 30 at home against the Philadelphia Eagles. But quarterback Daniel Jones has been progressing nicely from his high ankle sprain.
And Giants coach Pat Shurmur dropped a strong hint about his future plans when he sent backup quarterback Alex Tanney into the game to get Manning with 1:50 remaining - so he could hear the cheers one more time as he left the field.
If he plays again, though, it might be hard for Manning to top this finale, considering how bad the Giants have been this season. After he entered the field to a loud, sustained standing ovation from fans who have booed him far too often in recent years, Manning and the Giants had everything working in this game -- including Saquon Barkley who topped 100 yards for the first time since Week 2. It was also the first time the Giants crossed the 30-point barrier since Week 3 - Jones' first start.
It wasn't perfect, though. Two of Manning's three interceptions were both awful and familiar. On the first he was staring down receiver Sterling Shepard and threw it right to Dolphins linebacker Vince Biegel. The coverage wasn't disguised at all, so it's hard to fathom how Manning didn't see him.
The other awful one came in the third quarter, after the Giants recovered a fumble in Miami territory. On third and 1, he faked the handoff to Saquon Barkley and tried to hit Cody Latimer cutting across the field. But again, he didn't see the linebacker - this time Jerome Baker - who moved in for the easy pick.
But he had several terrific throws too, including a thread-the-needle pass that went for a 51-yard touchdown to Golden Tate, and another tremendous, 24-yard throw to Sterling Shepard in the third quarter who came within an inch of reaching the end zone.
Yes, it was an otherwise meaningless win in a lost season, and sure it could hurt the Giants in their quest for a top pick in the NFL Draft. But it was a rare, feel-good moment in a season where there hasn't been much of anything to feel good about.
And again, if this was it, it was a wonderful way for Manning to say good bye.Here are a few more takeaways from the Giants' third win of the season ...
-- Those closest to Manning still insist they don't know the quarterback's future plans, or if he even has any yet. But there are signs everywhere that continue to point towards retirement. On Monday night it was the presence of his wife, Abby, in Philadelphia after once vowing to never watch a game there again. On Sunday it was Manning's parents, Archie and Olivia, coming to watch what could be his final Meadowlands start. And then there was this: After his 51-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate - the 365th touchdown pass of Manning's career - Tate gave him the ball, which Manning took with him as a souvenir. It was unclear if he got the ball from No. 366, to Darius Slayton, in the third quarter.
-- Barkley has looked more and more like his old self in recent weeks. He still is missing that big, explosive play, but he had his best game since before he sprained his ankle in Week 3. Barkley rushed 24 times for 112 yards and two touchdowns, and caught four passes for 31 yards.
-- The Giants' secondary is so remarkably young. With Janoris Jenkins gone, they started rookie DeAndre Baker and pseudo-rookie Sam Beal at cornerback, with rookie Corey Ballentine in the slot and rookie Julian Love at safety, along with 35-year-old veteran safety Antoine Bethea. But it wasn't terrible. Baker (who left in the third quarter with a knee injury) has been quietly getting better the last few weeks and broke up several passes, including a touchdown pass to DaVante Parker in the first quarter. Beal made a tackle for a safety in the third quarter. There are growing pains, though. A bad missed tackle by Love on a third down play came one play before the Dolphins' first touchdown.
-- DT Dalvin Tomlinson has always been an underrated player on the Giants' front, but he had some big plays in this game. Not only did he have a second-quarter sack, but he made a great stop when the Dolphins went for it on 4th and 1 from the Giants 10 in the first quarter. He busted right through the line to stop running back Patrick Laird in the backfield for a three-yard loss. Tomlinson and rookie Dexter Lawrence are going to look good in the middle of the Giants' D-line for a long time.
-- On that safety by Beal, he made a nice tackle on Laird in the end zone. But that play was made by Tomlinson and DT B.J. Hill bursting through the middle where Laird was trying to run from the Dolphins' 2. He had to cut outside, where Beal was waiting.
-- Every game is a fresh reminder that the Giants' No. 1 offseason priority has to be a pass rusher, and if they end up with a Top 2 or 3 pick they need to pray that Ohio State's Chase Young declares for the draft and lands in their lap. Their rush is just nonexistent. And even when they do get pressure, they can't contain a mobile quarterback - even one as old as Ryan Fitzpatrick.
-- Interesting start to the day for receiver Sterling Shepard. On the second play of the game (the first pass) he dropped a pass right in his hands. On the third play, he fell, forcing Manning to pull down the ball (he drew the penalty, though). Then on the fifth play he was called for a questionable offensive pass interference penalty that negated a 24-yard pass. Shepard had just two catches for four yards in the first half. But in the second half, he kicked into another gear. Shepard finished nine catches for 111 yards.
-- Strange decisions: The Giants line up for one last play before halftime at their own 45 with six seconds left. The smart play is to hurl it deep and hope for a Hail Mary or pass interference, or if that's not there dump it underneath to Saquon Barkley and see if he can make some moves. So what does Manning do? He goes for a 20-yard pass to the side.
-- Tate made a terrific catch on his 51-yard touchdown, despite being interfered with and bobbling the ball (which may have been tipped). But what was he doing at the end of his sprint towards the end zone, when he started to cut to the side and then backpedaled with a defender right there? He was very nearly caught inside the 5. Maybe he lost track of where he was, but that showboating is dumb and could have been costly.