The last time that Eli Manning beat the Eagles was a November afternoon in 2016, a day that the most respected man in MetLife Stadium’s visiting locker room offered a plea for patience on behalf of a rookie quarterback. Jason Peters wasn’t a false-start infraction waiting to happen then. He was still a Pro Bowl-quality left tackle, and after Carson Wentz threw two early interceptions in a loss to the Giants, Peters reminded everyone not to expect too much too soon from the kid.
“He’s a young quarterback,” Peters said then. “He’s going to learn from his mistakes. I believe he’s going to get the job done.”
From Wentz’s strong ending to that 2016 season to his marvelous play through the first 13 games of the 2017 season, there was every reason to believe that he would fulfill the promise that Peters and the Eagles’ decision-makers had seen in him. He had made that Super Bowl run possible, even if he had to hand the baton to Nick Foles before the finish line, and as the Giants stuck with Manning through his inevitable aging and decline, it was natural to think Wentz could give the Eagles an advantage over one of their fiercest rivals, at football’s most important position, for a decade or more. Manning had carved up the Eagles for 257 yards and four touchdowns that day in East Rutherford, sure. But everything between him and Wentz was going to even out soon enough, then tilt in the Eagles’ direction forever.
How strange, then, to watch so much of the Eagles’ 23-17 overtime victory Monday night, with Manning starting in place of his heir apparent, Daniel Jones, for a Giants team going nowhere, with Wentz throwing to second- and third-string wide receivers and ducking pass-rushers just to move the Eagles to 6-7 and keep them a realistic contender in an awful NFC East. Manning was the quarterback he has been throughout much of his 16-year career. He made a few terrific throws, including a 42-yarder to rookie Darius Slayton to set up a field goal and a 35-yarder for a touchdown to Slayton late in the first half. He made several erratic throws. He went down easily, almost willingly, on a couple of sacks. He finished with two touchdowns and a 94.2 passer rating. “Didn’t make some plays that I needed to," he said.
It was a performance that was representative of the Eli Experience, especially in these recent years, and that was the troubling part for the Eagles: For most of the night, it looked like it would be enough to beat them. For most of the night, Wentz delivered pretty much the same kind of performance. He was as erratic as Manning, as harried, struggling for the third time in four weeks, and while his youth and strength and mobility are of course superior to Manning’s, his results weren’t any better. “It was a sloppy game for a while,” Wentz said.
But he improved as the game progressed, his passes growing more accurate as his desperation rose — that lovely 22-yard rainbow along the right sideline to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, the sidearm 2-yard touchdown to Zach Ertz with 1 minute, 53 seconds left to tie the game, another 2-yarder to Ertz to win it. Nine passes on that 14-play, 85-yard drive, and he completed seven of them for 96 yards. Four passes in overtime, and he completed all of them. No Nelson Agholor, no Alshon Jeffery after the second quarter, down 14 at halftime, boos mingling with the raindrops, and he took Whiteside and Greg Ward and Josh Perkins and won with them.
“One of the things that I like watching out of a quarterback is overcoming adversity,” Eagles backup quarterback Josh McCown said. “He did that tonight — a guy who presnap and postsnap can win with his mind, can analyze what he’s doing and get you into good plays and play fast. Really, I thought Carson did that at a high level as much tonight as I’ve seen him do it since I’ve been here. Is he big in big moments? Does he continue to play the position the right way? I think you saw that.”
It was quite a commentary on where the Eagles are, and where Wentz has been for too much this season, that they needed him to be that good so late in a game just to force overtime against a team that had lost 10 of its 12 games ahead of Monday’s. That promise of greatness that Peters predicted and that Wentz appeared certain to fulfill doesn’t feel like a fait accompli anymore and hasn’t for a while. That’s not all Wentz’s fault. The Eagles’ front office still has to show that it can use the draft effectively to replenish the roster, particularly at the positions that matter most to Wentz’s future: wide receiver and offensive line.
But Wentz, since 2017, also hasn’t taken the great leap forward that it was assumed he would, into that quarterback who can carry a team through his sheer will and talent. Monday night was a step in that direction — those three late touchdown drives against a terrible team saving the Eagles’ hopes of deriving something meaningful from this slog of a season. Maybe Monday night was the start. But there’s still so much that’s inconclusive yet about the quarterback he might yet be, and the presence of his counterpart Monday night raises an interesting question: What if Wentz turns out to have the career that Manning has had? What if the injuries that hampered him in 2017 and 2018 become just biographical details, facts of his past, and he remains a fixture for the Eagles the way Manning was for the Giants? What if he’s the same kind of quarterback — spectacular at times, perhaps winning a championship or two, but at times driving you crazy?
Would you accept that? Would the Eagles? Yes, all of you probably would. That’s what Eli Manning gave the Giants all these years. He gave them two Super Bowls, many special moments, many maddening ones, too. That’s the bar for Carson Wentz now. It’s on him to clear it.