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PITTBURGH — One good play was all it would have taken to erase a forgettable first quarter, one good play to bury the bizarre sequence of events that led to the Giants trailing by a safety and a field goal, one good play to ignite an offense that has yet to hit full speed this season. But Eli Manning, football in hand at the Steelers 9-yard line, made a bad play instead, a short pass to his right intended for Will Tye that was picked off by Lawrence Timmons.

The great play would come only three snaps (and just over a minute) later, but from the opposing quarterback instead. There was Ben Roethlisberger, rolling outside the Giant defenders trying in vain to contain him, escaping to some open real estate to his right and unloading a second-quarter pass toward the end zone, one that would travel 22 yards in the air before getting plucked out of the sky by the great Antonio Brown.The game was far from over. But it was over.

We spent a week building up to a game featuring these two quarterbacks who’d been taken in the same 2004 draft, opening a sort of football referendum on the two first-round picks and their matching two-time Super Bowl-winning résumés. And then we spent the better part of three hours watching Roethlisberger work his magic while Manning melted down, the Steelers putting an end to the Giants’ six-game winning streak in no-doubt fashion, a 24-14 win not nearly as close as the score indicates.

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VICTOR CRUZ: Receiver upset with lack of targets

And we walked away secure in the knowledge that the Giants cannot win when their $18 million quarterback plays the way he did Sunday, not when this team walks into the toughest part of its schedule, not with the intensity of a playoff hunt enveloping the games, and especially not with the high-flying, division-leading Cowboys and their 11-1 record gearing up for Sunday night’s game at MetLife Stadium. The Giants play with a thin enough margin for error already, what with their embattled offensive line, inconsistent running game and overmatched tight ends. When Manning’s number of bad decisions are matched only by his number of bad throws, when his two red zone trips amount to zero points, when he has two interceptions and no fourth-down conversions (in three tries), when he repeatedly forces the ball to one receiver (16 targets for Odell Beckham Jr.) but never finds another (zero targets for Victor Cruz), they have no chance.

No, this was not Manning’s best day at the office, instead a reminder of how an offense that used to be so productive has yet to reach full speed this year, how a unit that managed to score at least 30 points seven times last season has yet to do it even once this year, how it may have gotten away with that across the 8-3 start to the season, but had it all catch up in falling to 8-4. From the goal line pick intended for Tye to Tye’s fourth-down drop at the Steelers’ 3-yard line early in the third quarter to the fourth-down pick early in the fourth quarter when Manning tried to convert on 4th-and-13 from the Pittsburgh 35, the Giants just couldn’t cash in.

“I thought it really came down to those two red zone trips we got no points off of,” Manning said. “Obviously the interception and then the fourth down. That was the difference. … That was really the game.

“We’re good enough to compete. Like I said, it’s just a matter of a couple plays being the difference, a couple of inches difference, not getting possible touchdowns instead of no points. They always say it’s a game of inches, and that was the case there. We’ve got to improve, get better at things, get better at third down, but we’re good enough to compete. The defense is playing well, the offense is going to make plays, get some big plays, we’ve just got to take advantage when we get down to the red zone and get points.”

So much of that falls on Manning, and he knows it. Even if his offensive line situation is making him get rid of the ball faster he’d like, even if he seems to have to massage a different receiver's ego each week (last week it was rookie Sterling Shepard who earned an apology for getting no targets; this week it’s likely to be a visibly frustrated Cruz), even if he has to talk his favorite target, Beckham, down from a new level of frustration with officials the receiver said told him to “get out of my face” when he asked about an early pass interference call against him but could have just as easily been called on the Pittsburgh defender. The quarterback is the glue who holds it all together, and Manning, with his quiet, lead-by-example philosophy, has to start setting the best example he can, to start channeling the gunslinger who can find an open Beckham downfield just as easily as he can release to a streaking Cruz underneath.

“It’ll all click at some point,” Beckham promised. “It needs to be very soon, especially with the team we have coming in. They’re red-hot. We need to step it up in every way. We need to help our defense out. Unfortunately we lost, but that’s the way the cookie crumbled.”

Manning is eager for his next bite. He may have lost the one-day battle against his onetime draft colleague, but there’s little time to sulk. Up next is the new darling of the NFL quarterback club, Dallas rookie Dak Prescott, and his merry band of stout linemen and bruising backs.

“It’s going to be a good one,” Manning said. “They’re playing good football; they’re obviously on a long winning streak [11 in a row since losing Week 1 to the Giants]. At home, Sunday night, should be a great environment and a big game. A big game for us. We’re still trying to win the division. We made it tougher on ourselves tonight, but that’s still the mindset. We’re also fighting for a playoff spot, got a lead on a few other teams in the NFC, have to hold on to it. We got to keep winning football games. I know that. It’s a big game; we got to win it.”

E-mail: sullivan@northjersey.com

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