EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., Nov. 21 -- Eli Manning showed some grit and perseverance Sunday at Giants Stadium in his first NFL start. The prized rookie quarterback kept his cool after a difficult beginning and gave a few glimpses of the greatness that might be to come. But ultimately, there was more bad than good in his mixed-bag day, as he threw two interceptions and failed to change the downward-spiraling course of the New York Giants' season in a 14-10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
"Obviously, I've got to get better," said Manning, the top overall choice in the NFL draft in April who became the Giants' starter when Coach Tom Coughlin benched veteran Kurt Warner on Monday. "And quickly."
Manning faced plenty of pressure as he took the field Sunday to face the NFC's second-best team. He had his father, Archie, in the stands, as he begins trying to live up to the expectations of being the newest member of the NFL's first family of quarterbacks. His older brother, Peyton, was in Chicago, continuing his assault on Dan Marino's single-season NFL record for touchdown passes. Eli is a top overall pick who forced the draft-day trade that sent him from San Diego to New York, and now he is chasing the rookie quarterback drafted 10 spots after him in April -- Ben Roethlisberger, who has made a half-season of starts for the 9-1 Pittsburgh Steelers without losing.
Eli Manning's teammates didn't help during a first half in which they dropped a half-dozen passes as the Giants fell behind 14-0. But Manning steadied himself and threw his first NFL touchdown pass on a six-yard toss to tight end Jeremy Shockey in the third quarter, and the Giants had some late chances to pull out a win. But Manning threw a costly third-quarter interception. The Giants only could get a field goal out of a first-and-goal opportunity from the Atlanta 8-yard line with 7 1/2 minutes to play, and Manning threw a fourth-down incompletion toward Shockey from the Falcons 42 with 45 seconds left to end their last chance.
"We had the ball and a chance to try to drive down there and get a touchdown to win the game, and we didn't do it," said Manning, who completed 17 of 37 passes for 162 yards and was sacked only once. "I've got to be able to drive down there and get a touchdown. . . . I've got to step it up. When the defense plays that well and holds Atlanta to 14 points, we should win that game."
The Giants, who lost for the fourth time in five games to drop to 5-5, were left fuming about a roughing-the-passer penalty on linebacker Carlos Emmons that extended a Falcons drive late in the fourth quarter. By the time Manning got the ball back, the Giants had only 1 minute 52 seconds left and had to go 74 yards for a touchdown. They had squandered two timeouts earlier in the second half.
But they should have been even more upset about their play in the first half, in which they allowed Falcons quarterback Michael Vick to run for 91 yards and throw a pair of touchdown passes to tight end Alge Crumpler. Vick finished with 104 rushing yards as the Falcons improved to 8-2.
"I'm encouraged how we all played in the second half, especially Eli," said Giants tailback Tiki Barber, who had 107 rushing yards on the day. "In the first half, we put ourselves behind the eight ball."
Vick had scrambles of 20 and 24 yards on consecutive plays as the Falcons moved down the field easily on their first drive. Crumpler outmaneuvered cornerback Will Allen on a third-down play from the Giants 6 and caught Vick's on-target throw for a 7-0 lead. The Falcons were back at it on their third possession. On a third-and-goal play from the 2, Vick fooled the Giants defense with a play-action fake and made a soft toss to the wide-open Crumpler for a 14-0 advantage.
The Giants were sputtering along. Barber ran for 23 yards on their first offensive play, but that was one of their few bright spots in the first half. Manning threw too low toward tight end Marcellus Rivers on his initial throw of the day, and was sacked to end the Giants' first offensive series.
Manning and the Giants finally got going with a 16-play, 72-yard drive in the third quarter. Manning had third-down completions to Barber, Shockey (twice) and wideout Amani Toomer, and put a throw into Shockey's stomach for the touchdown after the tight end found a seam in the middle of the Atlanta defense.
"He came along in the second half and played better," Coughlin said of Manning. "He just needs to play."
The Giants were driving for more on their next possession when Manning, trying to connect with Toomer on a second-down play from the Atlanta 28, threw the ball into the chest of defensive end Brady Smith, who was dropping into pass coverage on a zone blitz. The quarterback showed he isn't afraid to mix it up, though, being called for a personal foul for taking out the legs of a Falcons defender as he chased Smith on the interception return.