Manning, McNabb face crucial time in careers

They are quarterbacks at a crossroads.

Through erratic play, Eli Manning has raised all sorts of questions about where he and the New York Giants are headed.

Through inconsistency and an inability to stay healthy, Donovan McNabb has done the same for himself and the direction of the Philadelphia Eagles.

On Sunday, they square off in an NFC East showdown at Lincoln Financial Field with postseason implications for both teams. The game also could very well serve as a measuring stick for the quarterbacks' respective futures.

Although the Giants (8-4) are in a far more comfortable position than the Eagles (5-7), there has been nothing comforting about Manning's recent play.

Manning's Week 12 meltdown, when the Minnesota Vikings returned three of his four interceptions for touchdowns in their rout at Giants Stadium, won't soon be forgotten. Nor will the fact that Giants general manager Jerry Reese called him "skittish" after that game. Nor will his shaky play through most of the Giants' Week 13 victory over the Chicago Bears. Manning did lead two fourth-quarter touchdown drives against Chicago, but doubts linger about whether he can provide a steady enough performance to allow the Giants to advance in the playoffs, which they can reach this weekend.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin chose to assess Manning's down-and-up play against Chicago this way: "It is not that a man gets knocked down, it is what he does after he gets back up."

Fair enough. Manning did respond well after throwing two interceptions and losing a fumble. Part of that was because he managed to find his groove when the Giants shifted to a fast-paced, no-huddle offense that the Bears' defense was unable to handle.

Whether that can continue against the Eagles is anyone's guess, especially after the loss of leading rusher Derrick Ward to a broken leg. It has reached the point where there is no telling what Manning will do from one game, or even one pass, to the next. He has heard criticism before from both inside and outside of the Giants organization, but nothing to the extent of what has been directed toward him recently.

Manning admits he is aware of what is being said and written about him, but that he "doesn't pay attention to it." If that's true, it's a good thing. His focus needs to be on making himself, at the very least, more efficient. It's difficult to say if he can be more effective from start to finish. Manning's best could very well be solid to good. Trouble is, when he's bad, he can be downright awful, prompting calls for the Giants to bench or trade him.

McNabb went through a good portion of the first 10 games of the season performing poorly enough to raise doubts about his future in Philadelphia. A surgically repaired knee, which he injured last season, didn't help his cause but also didn't take him off the hook. When McNabb began to show improvement, he suffered another setback with ankle and thumb injuries that kept him out of the last two games.

A.J. Feeley took his place, and gave a respectable showing in the Eagles' near-colossal-upset of the New England Patriots in Week 12. But before even a mild quarterback controversy could begin, Feeley threw four interceptions in Philadelphia's Week 13 loss to Seattle.

McNabb is expected to start against the Giants. Predicting how he will play is every bit as much of a challenge as forecasting how Manning will perform.

Eagles coach Andy Reid acknowledges that McNabb could be rusty.

"I've seen him come off of injuries before and he played pretty well, so I would expect him to do that, but I can't say absolutely," Reid said. "I would say that last week he worked as hard as you can work (in practice) and still have an injury, making sure he kept his timing up."

When the teams last met, on Sept. 30, Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora took advantage of a matchup against struggling reserve left offensive tackle Winston Justice -- playing for injured Pro Bowler William Thomas -- to sack McNabb six times. That went a long way toward allowing the Giants to score a 16-3 victory. This time, Thomas is back and Umenyiora, who against frequent double- and triple-teaming has had only five sacks in the eight games since facing Justice, can't count on another record-setting outing.

With such uneven play by Manning and McNabb, neither team should count on anything to come easy.

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