Manning does his thing when it counts

Flat on his back after a hit from Washington defensive end Stephen Bowen, Eli Manning didn’t even see where the best pass he threw against the Redskins on Sunday went — and maybe that was for the best.

Because the New York Giants quarterback certainly didn’t make the most of his opportunities when he could see where the football was headed in his team’s 27-23 win over their NFC East division rivals at MetLife Stadium.

Manning threw two costly interceptions and struggled to establish a rhythm with his receivers for the most of the game, misfiring on multiple attempts and leaving points on the field against a below-average Redskins defense. But the two-time Pro Bowler picked the perfect time to snap out of his funk, hitting Victor Cruz in stride on a 77-yard, game-winning touchdown pass with 1:13 left to play.

“I didn’t see the ball get caught,” Manning said afterward of the play. “But I heard the cheer and figured that’s probably a good sign.”

The victory was the Giants’ first win against a divisional opponent in three chances this season as New York improved to 5-2 overall, alone atop the NFC East. The Giants still have one meeting each with the Redskins, Cowboys and Eagles, starting with a trip to Dallas next week, and every divisional win is significant. No one has won the NFC East by more than one game since 2008.

“The NFC East is, I think, one of the most difficult divisions in football,” Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said. “It always seems like it comes down to one or two games, and you want those tiebreakers, and you want to be able to get the wins in the division. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, but it’s rare that it doesn’t.”

Though he saved the game with a perfect throw at the end, Manning — who threw four interceptions and had no touchdowns in two losses to Washington in 2011 — had the Giants digging out of a hole for most of the afternoon because he was so erratic, particularly when it came to hooking up with his favorite target, Cruz.

With just over four minutes left in the second quarter and his team facing third-and-1 from the Washington 9-yard line, Manning threw behind Cruz on a slant route, forcing the Giants to settle for a Lawrence Tynes field goal.

Manning also overthrew an open Cruz on a deep route on the Giants’ first offensive play of the second half, costing New York a first down, and perhaps more, as the Redskins forced a Giants punt a few plays later. Later in the third quarter, Josh Wilson intercepted a Manning pass intended for Cruz at the Redskins’ 9-yard line, ending what would have likely been a Giants scoring drive.

“They brought pretty good pressure at times, so I didn’t have all day to sit back there,” Manning said. “I made some good throws and missed a few that I’ve got to get back, so we’ve got to continue to work with our receivers and get back on the same page.”

In the fourth quarter, Manning threw another interception just one play after a Giants fumble recovery — though at least this one was intended for Hakeem Nicks.

“That one put a lump in my throat,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said of Manning’s second pick. “But then he came right back and made the play at the end with Victor. He just keeps hanging in there and banging away, banging away. When his back is up against the wall is when he does his best work.”

Indeed, Manning made the plays when he had to, but he should thank his defense, which came up with four second-half turnovers, for giving him the opportunity. Despite being challenged by rookie standout Robert Griffin III, New York forced five fumbles, recovering three, and also got one sack each from Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora.

But even still, Griffin made life difficult on the Giants, throwing for 258 yards and two touchdowns — including a 30-yard strike to Santana Moss to give Washington a 23-20 lead with 1:32 left to play — and also carried the ball nine times for 89 yards.

Griffin’s most memorable play of the afternoon came in the fourth quarter, just before the two-minute warning. Facing fourth-and-10, the 22-year-old scrambled away from the Giants pass rush, evading tacklers until he found Logan Paulsen for a 19-yard gain to keep the Redskins rally alive.

“I’m pretty mad at the football gods for putting him in the NFC East,” Tuck said of Griffin. “To face that guy twice a year is going to be a headache. … It’s hard to game plan that guy. He takes away from your enthusiasm for the game a little bit, when you play perfectly and he still had 4.3 speed to outrun guys and make plays. I don’t think there’s anybody in the league just like him.”

In the end, though, experience won out over flash and Manning found a way to shake off 58 minutes of bad football with the game on the line.

“He never wavers, he’s never distraught out there, (and) he’s never panicking,” Cruz said of his quarterback. “He’s always calm, he understands what he has in front of him, and he’s going to go out there and read these defenses differently and make the right reads and make the right throws. I know today he threw a couple interceptions, but we kept plugging away, and we were behind him 100 percent.”

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