Giants/Falcons results meaningless, Manning's all

So the Giants lost their third straight, fourth out of five and fell further from postseason contention. So what?<br><br>The Eli Manning Era has officially begun and the rest of this season is all about Manning - how he progresses, how he improves, what he learns.

We saw a lot out of Manning against the Falcons, some good, some bad, some otherwise. He made some rookie mistakes, but he also made some brilliant throws and proved able to do something his predecessor Kurt Warner absolutely, positively could not - get rid of the ball. Actually, Manning admitted that he probably fired away too soon on a lot of occasions.

"Sometimes I got too rushed, sometimes I was trying to get the ball out of my hand as quick as possible," he said. "I probably should have held the ball an extra half-second."

But he's learning, which is what this is really all about. Michael Vick was superb against the Giants, beating them with both his arm and feet. But Vick wasn't superb in his first start; it took him - and almost all the good ones - some time. Forget Ben Roethlisberger. He's most definitely the exception to the rule. And let's see where Big Ben and Manning stand after a few years. Their rookie campaigns might be all but forgotten by that point.

The Giants were very impressed with how Manning handled himself - before, during and after the game. There were really no pregame jitters and he had excellent command of the huddle from the get-go.

"I'm excited for him," Tiki Barber said. "I'm excited for where this team can be. Eli is a competitor. He doesn't show it all the time, but he knows what's going on and he knows the pressure that is on him. He handled it well."

"I thought Eli did a great job today," Jim Finn added. "He settled in fine as the game went on. He performed well with clock management. He was very aware and put us in the proper formations. I thought he did a great job and there are going to be good things to come."

But everyone is just going to have to wait. There were obviously growing pains taking place. Twice during New York's opening drive in the second half, Manning had to call timeouts. That left the club with only one during its late-game push. That clearly hurt, but it's the type of stuff everybody's just going to have to live with.

Manning turned that drive into a touchdown, drilling a beautiful pass right to Jeremy Shockey in the middle of the end zone.

Three passes later, Manning again fired a spiral right into the receiver's gut, only this time it was Falcons DE Brady Smith that collected Manning's offering.

"It was a zone blitz," Manning explained of his ill-advised throw. "The DE dropped right into the lane. I threw it right to him. Guess you can call that a rookie mistake."

Some good. Some bad. And lots of rookie mistakes.

For all intents and purposes, the Giants, at 5-5, are still smack dab in the playoff push. The division with the practically unstoppable Eagles is already out of reach, but a wildcard spot is still there for the taking. That would all be gravy at this point. These final six games are all about giving Manning an opportunity for on-the-job training.

As Herman Edwards likes to say, you play to win the game. However, for the 2004 version of the New York Football Giants, the goals and agendas go much further beyond the final scores every Sunday. The ultimate goal is to have Manning as ready as he possibly can be for opening day next season. Roethlisberger is having quite a run in Pittsburgh, but he's surrounded by an awful lot of speed and talent at wide receiver and protected by one of the game's better offensive lines. He's likely to make his mark in the postseason. Manning? It'd be great if he could get the club in the playoffs. But ultimately, it's really not all that important.

He showed plenty against Atlanta to make you feel comfortable that he's going to be a success. He made some throws and some decisions that you never saw from Warner. He did a lot of good things. Now the hard part is having to exhibit some patience as he hits some bumps and bruises along the way. Do your best. The kid really looks like he's going to be worth the wait.

The call
It would be unfair to blame New York's loss entirely on the ridiculous penalty call on Carlos Emmons late in the game. But it wouldn't be all that farfetched either. The Giants defense, which clamped down on Atlanta pretty nicely during the second half, had made another stop and was going to give its offense the ball near midfield with close to five minutes to play.

Instead, the phantom flag fluttered on Emmons, who actually hit his own teammate Will Allen harder than Michael Vick, and the game was basically lost. Sure the Giants got the ball back one more time, but with less than two minutes to play and starting from their own 26, it was a whole different ballgame.

One Giants assistant coach was irate following the contest, calling it the worst call he had ever seen and stating that the offending official should be fired immediately. Emmons called it "BS" and added that "they're going to protect who they want to protect."

Officials are trained to make decisions on each individual play and not look at the big picture. But knowing the outcome of a game hangs in the balance, there needs to be some common sense involved. There certainly was not in this instance.

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