Vikings catch Manning at low point

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 21, 2013 - 12:45 PM

Eli Manning, owner of bottom-rung stats for an 0-6 team, faces a nationally televised gut check.

In a 32-team league, Eli Manning and Josh Freeman are the 33rd- and 34th-ranked quarterbacks, respectively.

Manning’s Giants are winless and wallowing among the bottom three in points scored, points allowed, interceptions thrown, sacks, rushing, first downs allowed, third-down defense, net punting and punt return average.

Meanwhile, Freeman’s new team, the one-win Vikings, are in the bottom three in points allowed, total defense, first downs allowed, third-down defense, punt return average and kickoff return average allowed.

Oooh, boy! Are you ready for some football?

Probably not. But the Vikings (1-4) and Giants (0-6) will play anyway in a game ESPN presumably didn’t have in mind in 2011 when it forked over $1.8 billion — or $105 million a game — for the rights to broadcast “Monday Night Football” through 2021.

Yes, the reports are true. With a combined winning percentage of .091, this officially is the worst matchup this late in the season in the 44 seasons of “Monday Night Football.”

It’s also, however, a chance for the Vikings to pull off the unlikely, if not the unthinkable: win a Monday night road game with a starting quarterback who has been on the roster for 14 days, including only four practices with the first-team offense.

How is this possible? Fair or not, it comes down to the No. 1 question facing the Giants: What in the heck is wrong with Eli Manning?

A season of giving — away

Yes, the Giants have only seven takeaways and have given up 30 or more points in an NFL-record five consecutive games. But the offense has been force-feeding points to the other team with a league-high 23 turnovers, eight more than the league’s next-highest total and two more than the Giants had all last season. Manning has 17 turnovers, including an NFL-high 15 interceptions, matching his total for all of last season. Two picks have been returned for touchdowns.

“Oh yeah, [Manning’s 15 interceptions] is very exciting,” Vikings cornerback Chris Cook said. “Hopefully he’ll come in and throw us a few.”

Cook has played 27 NFL games. His next interception will be his first interception. But this is a matchup that allows both sides to dream big, no matter where they stand.

It’s a game that features the 30th-ranked scoring team — Giants, 17.2 points per game — vs. the 30th-ranked scoring defense — Vikings, 31.6 points allowed per game.

It’s a game that features Manning’s 64.0 passer rating and 53.7 completion percentage against a Vikings pass defense that’s allowing quarterbacks to complete 66.7 percent for a 95.7 passer rating.

It’s also a game that features a struggling Vikings offensive line that could be without left tackle Matt Kalil because of a back injury against a Giants pass rush that ranks last in the league in sacks with five. That has to bring a smile to Freeman, who was completing 45.7 percent of his passes with a 59.3 rating before his messy divorce in Tampa Bay was finalized with his benching and Oct. 3 release.

While Freeman is making his Vikings debut, Manning will be making his NFL-leading 142nd regular-season start with the Giants. He has a 78-63 record, two Super Bowl rings from the 2007 and 2011 seasons, and two Super Bowl MVPs, one more than older brother Peyton who, going into Sunday night’s game against the Colts, was 6-0 and leading the league in rating (128.8), touchdowns (22), yards (2,179), completion percentage (74.2), average per attempt (9.08) and, well, every other meaningful category.

Group-stink

So, again, what the heck is wrong with Eli Manning?

“Eli is being blamed far and away too much for the interceptions,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Wednesday in a conference call with Twin Cities media. “It’s a team concept, and you do need to be properly protected. We’ve also had some communication breakdowns.

“There’s some growing pains here with some different people involved and some people that really didn’t get the offseason that we would have hoped.”

Coughlin was referring to the Giants’ top two receivers, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Both skipped the Giants’ voluntary offseason practices. Cruz also skipped the team’s mandatory minicamp in a contract squabble before signing his tender and a five-year, $43 million deal.

“[Missing practices] is always going to be a factor” in the turnovers, Coughlin said. “You’d like to say that training camp is a long period of opportunity, but in fact, in this day and age, it isn’t. You do have to think of your OTAs and that type of thing as precious opportunities for people to get on the same page, communicate, do things well. When it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t help you.

“Right now, we’re careless with the football, and that strikes right at my gut, because that’s, quite frankly, one of the things that we preach about the most.”

Manning, meanwhile, downplayed the missed practices, saying it hasn’t “been a huge issue.” Cruz leads the team with 35 catches for 541 yards (15.5) and four touchdowns, while Nicks is second with 25 catches for 442 yards (17.7) and no touchdowns.

Eli’s still the guy

Coughlin was asked on the conference call whether he’s considered benching Manning. He reacted as if someone had asked if he’s considered sticking a fork in his eye.

“If I hear you right,” said Coughlin, “that hasn’t crossed my mind at all.” Later, Coughlin said, “It’s always the head coach and the quarterback. I say I’m responsible, put it on my shoulders, I’m the head coach.”

Manning, who has started every Giants game since Week 9 of his rookie season in 2004, said he hasn’t worried about being benched. And he said it’s not because he feels entitled having won two Super Bowl MVPs.

“You never earn anything to be above anything in this league,” Manning said. “It’s always a case of what have you done for me lately. I have high expectations for myself and expect to bring a contender every year and try to win championships and make playoffs and play at a high level. So this is a tough situation.

“But we’re going to fight through it. Our thought is we’re three games back in the [NFC East] with 10 to go. There’s a lot of football to be played. We have to get that first win, and you hate to be saying that in Week 7.”

The Vikings don’t feel much better about themselves. They are 2½ games back in the NFC North with 11 games to go. And a lot of defensive players without Super Bowl rings weren’t willing to rile a two-time champion quarterback when asked, bluntly, “What the heck is wrong with Eli?”

“I got enough of my own problems to worry about,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “I think he’s a guy with two Super Bowl rings, two Super Bowl MVPs. As far as I’m concerned, there can’t be too much wrong.

“He’s going to figure it out. He’s an elite quarterback. He’s going through a couple things, and his team is in a similar situation that we’re in. A must-win situation.”

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