Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 9, 2012

Elite Eli Leads The Way

At the time it seemed like an act of hubris, hardly in keeping with Eli Manning’s unassuming personality; or perhaps the ravings of a nice young man suddenly gone delusional. Last August, during a radio interview on ESPN New York, host Michael Kay asked the Giants quarterback if he considered himself in the same class as three-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady. Without hesitation, Manning answered that he did indeed see himself as an equal to the Patriots star. Reaction was swift; with an array of pundits deriding Manning for daring to think of himself as an elite quarterback. That Manning seriously considered himself to be in the same class as the likes of Brady, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, New Orleans’ Drew Brees, or his older brother Peyton in Indianapolis made him the butt of jokes. Of course at the time he was coming off a year in which he had thrown a career-high 25 interceptions, and the Giants had missed the playoffs for the second season in a row. His 2007 Super Bowl victory over New England was growing ever more distant; and callers on sports radio were quick to remind listeners that New York’s upset of the then-undefeated Patriots had turned on the improbable catch by David Tyree in the closing minutes, when Tyree somehow managed to control the football between his hand and his helmet.

Twelve games into the regular season, when the Giants record stood at 6-6 after four consecutive losses and a playoff berth seemed increasingly unlikely; Manning’s August declaration was still being ridiculed. But if there is one thing an elite player in any sport does it is perform at his best when the stakes are the highest. Helped by the emergence of a pair of second year players, wide receiver Victor Cruz and tight end Jake Ballard, as well as a newly healthy defensive secondary, Manning led the Giants to a must-win victory over the Cowboys in Dallas. In the 37-34 win Manning three for 400 yards. Two weeks later, after an inexplicable loss to the woeful Redskins, Manning and the Giants won the battle for bragging rights at MetLife Stadium by manhandling the Jets, 29-14. Then in the final week of the regular season New York faced what amounted to a playoff game at home against the Cowboys. The winner was the NFC East champion; the loser was done for the year. It was no contest, with Manning and the Giants rolling to a 31-14 victory.

In any sport, regardless of what might have happened during the regular season a team that gets hot at the right time is always dangerous in the playoffs. As the NFL’s tournament began no team was hotter than the Giants, and no quarterback was more confident than Manning. He threw for three touchdowns in the Wild Card round as New York beat Atlanta 24-2 for the team’s first home playoff win in more than a decade. He threw for 330 yards and three more scores a week later as New York stunned the NFC’s top seed Green Bay 37-20. Then he twice rallied his team from deficits in the NFC Championship, with the Giants finally topping the host 49ers in overtime on Lawrence Tynes’ 31-yard field goal.

So it was last Sunday, nearly six months after Manning’s much discussed radio interview, that his Giants and Brady’s Patriots met in Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLVI. Here in New England, fans were ardently hoping for the Pats to avenge the bitter defeat of four years earlier, when Manning’s desperation heave stuck to Tyree’s helmet and dreams of the first ever 19-0 season died. There was a considerable stretch, through the middle of the game, when it looked like Patriots fans would get their wish. Brady led his team down the field in the closing minutes of the first half. His short pass to Danny Woodhead capped a 96-yard drive and gave the Patriots a 10-9 lead at the game’s midpoint. Then Brady did it again to open the second half, driving New England 79 yards in 8 plays. A 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Aaron Hernandez increased the lead to 17-9. Through that stretch of the game Brady completed 16 consecutive passes, shattering Joe Montana’s Super Bowl record of 13 that had stood for almost two decades.

But on this Sunday night, Tom Brady was not the only quarterback setting a record. Manning opened the contest with nine consecutive completions, the most ever to begin a Super Bowl. Twice in the third quarter he moved the Giants down the field so that a pair of field goals would shave the deficit from eight points to two. Then in the fourth quarter a potentially decisive New England drive stalled after a wide open Wes Welker, who had caught 122 passes during the regular season and the first 7 thrown to him in this game, couldn’t corral the 8th, a ball thrown just a shade high and ever so slightly behind him. With 3:46 to play the Giants got the ball back on their own 12-yard line.

Three times in the first seven games of the regular season Manning had rallied the Giants in the fourth quarter. He did so again when New York defeated New England in Foxborough in November, and yet again in the crucial road victory over Dallas in December. In the NFC Championship Manning mounted his 6th fourth quarter comeback of the season. Now, with the stakes at their highest, he did it again.

On the first play of the drive, Manning looked right and saw that both his primary receivers had been jammed at the line of scrimmage. Without hesitation he swiveled back to the left and lofted a perfect spiral into the arms of Mario Manningham, who was streaking down the sideline with two New England defenders in pursuit. Much has been made of Manningham’s catch, which was unquestionably acrobatic. But unlike the desperation heave to Tyree four years earlier, this throw from Manning was a thing of beauty, perfectly placed where only his receiver had a chance to make a play. As Manningham got both feet down before being shoved out of bounds right in front of Bill Belichick, all across New England confidence turned to fear.

After starting the Super Bowl with 9 consecutive completions, Manning ended it by going 5 for 5 on the Giants final drive. When Ahmad Bradshaw tumbled into the end zone with 57 seconds left, the Patriots allowing him to score to give Brady one last shot, Eli Manning had rallied the Giants yet again. Tom Brady couldn’t match him, going just 2 for 7 in the frantic final 57 ticks of the game clock. When Brady’s final Hail Mary fell harmlessly to the turf, Eli Manning and the New York Giants were Super Bowl champions for the second time in five years.

His two rings are one more than belong to Rodgers, or Brees, or his older brother. Twice now he has faced Brady in the NFL’s biggest contest, and twice he’s gotten the better of the future Hall of Famer. His two Super Bowl MVP awards tie him with Brady, Terry Bradshaw, and Bart Starr. Only Joe Montana with three has more. Back in August he answered a question honestly, and heard catcalls for his trouble. Last Sunday Eli Manning backed up his words with action, and silenced all the doubters.

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