INDIANAPOLIS – He received the shotgun snap at his own 7-yard line, the length of a football field and Bill Belichick's defense standing between him and immortality. With his top two receivers lined up on the right side of the line, in the final stages of a scintillating Super Sunday serving up a hearty helping of high drama, Eli Manning knew exactly where he wanted to go with the most important pass of the 2011 season.
Think counterintuitive. Think cocksure. Think champion. With a deceptive glance to his right and a glorious, perfectly placed throw down the left sideline, Manning sent the New York Giants on their way to a second Super Bowl victory in four years and took a major, irrevocable step on the Road to Canton.
When Manning's career-defining, 38-yard pass looped into the tiny window between a pair of New England Patriots, cornerback Sterling Moore and safety Patrick Chung, and landed in the hands of wideout Mario Manningham, there were 68,658 fans at Lucas Oil Stadium – and hundreds of millions of television viewers worldwide – who marveled at the audacity of it all.
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A little more than three-and-a-half minutes of thrilling action later, including the uncontested six-yard touchdown run by Ahmad Bradshaw that put New York ahead with 57 seconds remaining, the Giants had captured Super Bowl XLVI by a 21-17 margin, and game MVP Manning – not the Patriots' Tom Brady, and not Eli's big brother Peyton – was the future Hall of Famer atop the football world.
Manning didn't just win this game, he did it his way, by taking a massive risk at the most important time. When Manningham came through with a catch that rivaled David Tyree's on-the-helmet masterpiece from Super Bowl XLII, somehow keeping both feet inbounds while getting blasted across the sideline by Chung, the Giants knew they were on the verge of seizing control.
"It changes the whole thought process right there," Manning said late Sunday night, having just emerged from the shower in a jubilant Giants locker room. "It was big-time; there's nothing else you can say. I didn't have many options and I saw the safety cheat inside a little, and I decided to take a shot and try to fit it in there. And oh, what a catch."
And oh, what a throw.
"Man," Manningham said, "Eli threw a perfect ball."
Most quarterbacks don't pull off a pass like that. Even fewer attempt it in the first place.
"Um," wideout Victor Cruz said afterward, "our quarterback does."
The play, "Otter W Go," isn't designed to result in a backside throw against the Cover-2 zone the Patriots were playing. Instead, the receivers on the right of the line, Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, were the primary options; Manningham was basically the last read.
"In practice, you do not throw it to that guy," said David Carr, Manning's backup. "I was like, What's going on? But Eli had been feeling that safety [Chung] was cheating over to the other side, and we'd talked about it through the course of the game. It was just an incredible throw."
We've known Manning has a penchant for taking bold gambles throughout his eight-year career, and the results haven't always been stellar. As brilliant as he was during the Giants' unlikely championship run four years ago, culminating in his Super Bowl MVP performance in a classic comeback against the Pats that was hauntingly similar to Sunday's, Manning's subsequent three seasons had their share of choppy play.
Coming off a 2010 campaign in which he threw a league-high 25 interceptions, Manning was asked if he considered himself to be in Brady's class. When he answered in the affirmative, the response was subsequently ridiculed by many fans and analysts.
"People mocked him earlier this year when he said he was an elite quarterback," Giants tackle David Diehl said. "And people challenged him. Well, go ahead and say that stuff now, and see how that goes.
"Talk about a guy who deserves it and, most important, earned it. There's no other quarterback I'd want behind me."
During a Super Bowl week inundated with intrigue about the impending divorce between Manning's ailing older brother and the Indianapolis Colts, Eli displayed a level of on-point preparation that surely made Peyton proud.
On Saturday morning, in the "mock game" quiz session for Giants quarterbacks, Manning blew away even his coaches with his mastery of the game plan. Then the game began, and he translated his mental clarity to physical precision, connecting on his first nine passes, including an exquisitely placed, two-yard touchdown throw to Cruz that he whipped past linebacker Jerod Mayo and inside safety James Ihedigbo.
That gave the Giants a 9-0 lead late in the first quarter, the first two points having come courtesy of a safety on New England's first play from scrimmage, as Brady seemed to be transported back to Glendale, Ariz., for a Super Bowl XLII beat-down.
Based on that game and a 24-20 victory in Foxborough, Mass., last November, the Giants' defensive linemen had made some mildly inflammatory comments in the days leading up to Sunday's game, suggesting that Brady was rattled by their presence. Apparent confirmation came six minutes into the game, the first time Brady touched the ball.
Pinned at his own 6 after a Steve Weatherford punt, Brady dropped back into the end zone and, with Giants defensive end Justin Tuck charging at him from the inside, heaved a deep pass over the middle that didn't land anywhere near the vicinity of a receiver. Often, officials are reluctant to call intentional grounding in those types of situations. This time, they made the call, resulting in an automatic safety.
Things changed dramatically in the second and third quarters, as Brady settled into a rhythm – he completed 16 consecutive passes at one point – and Manning (30 for 40, 296 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) was continually kept from reaching the end zone. New England took a 17-9 lead after Brady threw touchdown passes in the final seconds of the first half and on the opening drive of the post-Madonna era, and a pair of Lawrence Tynes field goals cut the deficit to two late in the third quarter.
The Giants needed some luck to remain in position for the late comeback, as they put the ball on the ground three times without surrendering any blood. The first fumble (by Cruz) was negated by a 12-men-on-the-field penalty, while second-half cough-ups by Hakeem Nicks and Ahmad Bradshaw were recovered by teammates Henry Hynoski and Chris Snee, respectively.
There was plenty of skill involved, too, particularly when it came to the man delivering the football. His throws were bold and beautiful, and they proved to be the difference.
Four minutes into the game, Manning threaded a 19-yard sideline pass to Nicks over the reach of Patriots cornerback Antwaun Molden. He converted a key fourth-quarter first down by zipping a ball over the top of linebacker Brandon Spikes and into Nicks' hands for a 12-yard gain. Three plays later, on another third-down play, Manning fit another completion into a tight window, finding Cruz for an eight-yard gain between Spikes and cornerback Kyle Arrington.
Still, even as Manning was dealing, the Giants were trailing. When they got the ball back at their own 12 with 3:46 remaining, it was 17-15 Pats.
On the Giants' sidelines, there was universal faith that the eighth-year quarterback would remedy that state of affairs.
"Guys were saying, 'Don't worry, Easy E's got this,' " Carr said, referencing Manning's nickname.
Added Diehl: "Everybody was just looking at each other saying, 'Finish, finish, finish. Let's finish this thing. This is what our offense is all about. This is what we prepare for, work for. This is what this season, this ride, has been all about.' "
Manning's decision to throw to Manningham on the first play spoke loudest of all. Standing on the sidelines, the now-retired Tyree was a stress case. "No flashbacks, man," he said afterward. "Just heart attacks."
After Manningham's 38-yard gain – the longest of the day by either team – Manning was in complete command, marching the final 50 yards without reaching third down.
With the Patriots out of timeouts and the Giants facing a second-and-goal at the 6 with 1:04 remaining, Belichick did the math and had his Pats defenders allow Bradshaw to run unimpeded to the end zone. Manning screamed for the halfback to pull up short, which would have allowed New York to bleed the clock and set up Tynes for a short game-winner, but the halfback couldn't put on the brakes in time. Following a failed two-point conversion, Brady got the ball back at his own 20 with 57 seconds remaining.
Brady has three Super Bowl rings and two regular-season MVPs on his résumé, but a comeback here would have ranked among his greatest feats. He certainly made it interesting, extending the drive with a fourth-and-16 completion and giving one final scare to the Giants with a gorgeously lofted Hail Mary as time expired. The ball floated into a group that included Giants safeties Kenny Phillips and Deon Grant and was deflected past the reach of diving tight end Rob Gronkowski, and the Pats' string of seasons without a championship officially reached seven.
The Giants, meanwhile, raced onto the field to celebrate as red, white and blue confetti rained down upon them. As the players and coach Tom Coughlin took turns hoisting the Lombardi Trophy up on center stage, Manning had one more pass to throw – to big brother Cooper, the eldest of Archie and Olivia's three sons.
Standing on the podium, Eli took the game ball and threw a 15-yard fade to his surprised brother. Cooper, a former all-state receiver as a Louisiana prep and Ole Miss recruit whose career was abruptly ended by a congenital spinal condition, made a clean catch on the field below.
About half an hour later, Eli, wearing only a white towel, headed for the shower, stopping briefly to dislodge a lone piece of blue confetti that was stuck to his chest. Outside the locker room, his parents pondered their youngest child's emergence as a bona-fide superstar whose legend may now rival that of his injured brother.
"He's my baby," Olivia said of Eli, her eyes still moist from an emotional reaction to the victory. "But he's a man now."
He's The Man now – in New York, in Indy and in the annals of Super Bowl lore. And, simply put, he's big-time. There's nothing else you can say.
Last Wednesday, as we sat on a leather couch outside a meeting room at the Giants' downtown Indy hotel, I asked Tuck if he felt his Super Bowl XLII performance four years earlier was the best game of his seven-year career. "Stats-wise, no," he said. "But considering the magnitude of the game, yes. On that stage, to have that type of game, it's the best I've ever played." Well, guess what? Tuck just topped it. From his first snap on Sunday, when he stunted up the middle and pressured Brady into the intentional-grounding penalty that gave the Giants a 2-0 lead, Tuck was a major force. He had each of the Giants' two sacks, another two tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries, and he was one of the two best players on the field. Alas, as with four years ago, he lost out to his quarterback when it came to the MVP voting. "Man, I don't know what it is about these voters," Tuck said playfully as he dressed at his locker long after the game. "Didn't they see how awesome my game was?" On a more serious note, Tuck added: "Hey, Eli can 'steal' my MVP anytime, as long as we win. I hope he steals three or four more from me."
Who's down with JPP? Yeah, you know me: Tuck's second-year teammate, Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, was a force in his own right, knocking down two of Brady's passes, making a phenomenal tackle for loss on a red-zone carry by Danny Woodhead and pressuring Brady into his lone interception early in the fourth quarter. … Giants tight end Travis Beckum's serious knee injury in the second quarter was a major bummer, though a ring ceremony and trip to the White House will surely ease his pain. However, the press-box announcement shortly thereafter confirming that Beckum had suffered a torn ACL was much appreciated and downright astounding. In an era in which teams habitually conceal injury information as if the future of the free world depended upon it, the Giants commendably told the truth. And when Belichick hears about this, he might pull a neck muscle shaking his head in disgust.
As someone who has been chronicling Madonna's star power since the heyday of her former flame Dennis Rodman, I have an appreciation for the entertainer that transcends my relative lack of enthusiasm for her actual music – and I was open to the possibility that she'd succeed wildly as Sunday's highly scrutinized halftime act. She moved damn well for a 53-year-old, and the finale of her 12-minute set, "Like a Prayer" (with help from special guest Cee Lo Green), was a resoundingly lush musical treat. Though I certainly would have preferred that she use the altered lyrics I provided in last Friday's column, I had no complaints. However, there were others, and since I've got you here I'll voice them: The bass was too loud during "Vogue," her opener; one of Madonna's special guests, rapper M.I.A., became a poor-woman's Janet Jackson by flipping off the camera during "Give Me All Your Luvin'," perhaps as a tribute to Cee Lo, more likely as an attempt to upstage the star of the show (I predict she'll, in fact, be Missing In Action in a professional sense by Super Bowl L); and the song selection other than "Like a Prayer" could have been better, with "Borderline," "Lucky Star," "Material Girl," and "Papa Don't Preach" (in that order) all better choices for the opener. … Finally: Indianapolis, congratulations. You came up big as a first-time Super Bowl host city, partly because of the unseasonably good weather, but also because of effort and convenience (because so much was centered in the densely packed downtown area, it was easy to walk to many of the media functions and social events). In short, you were the anti-Dallas. You can surely look forward to another one of these games before the decade is out.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The increasingly insane hysteria surrounding Media Day, and the inane entry process at Lucas Oil Stadium last Tuesday that defied rational thought. I've written before about the amusement with which I view the sense of wonderment many outsiders assign to the annual team-interview sessions five days before the Super Bowl, especially given that my colleagues and I basically do the exact same thing, with little fanfare, at the respective team hotels on Wednesday and Thursday. But hey, it's good for business – a reality driven home by the fact that, for the first time, tickets were sold for fans to watch Media Day from the stands this year, and thousands snapped them up at $25 a pop. I heard stories of tickets being scalped for $200 on the streets. Throw in the fact that many of these fans probably took the day off of work to attend, and it's an amazing testament to both the misplaced priorities of the American workforce (insert playful eye-roll here) and the power of pro football. In summation: People paid good money to watch, from a distant vantage point, me and thousands of others interview players at podiums (with audio headsets provided by the NFL which allowed them to listen in on the interview feeds). That's incredible. Anyway, here's what I really can't comprehend: How asinine the media-entry process was last Tuesday. After making the short walk from the media center to the stadium, my Y! Sports homies and I were sent on a path several blocks past the stadium, eventually circling back to a security tent. In the tent, we were patted down and sent through metal detectors, and those with bags had them checked. And then, after finally reaching the brink of the stadium, we were redirected once more … to the precise area where we'd first been sent on the circuitous path. This area was not secured, meaning we had a) gone several blocks out of our way for nothing; and b) gone through security for nothing; c) been sent toward a stadium that was pretty damn far from secure. Being the subtle, restrained reporter that I am, I led my party back to the street across from the stadium and insisted to the security officer that we be allowed to cross and enter. He resisted. I insisted. This process went on and on, and at one juncture I made the point that, with so many journalists sure to write about the travesty, "it would make Indianapolis look dumb." Eventually, the security guard relented (though only for our group) and sent us across the street to the stadium. As we were crossing, another security worker looked at me and blurted, "Hey – Indianapolis is not dumb! OK?" He's absolutely right. Indy isn't dumb. But the Media Day entry procedure was, and now I am telling you about it – not because it was a big deal, but because it's something I can't comprehend. I'm not joking; this is my job. (And yeah, I am grateful to have it, and I sincerely try very hard not to take it for granted.) Now, let's go back to the money the NFL made by charging for tickets, a practice that certainly will continue in New Orleans next year, and likely will be expanded as long as the cash keeps coming. Three words: Where's my cut? I expect the Pro Football Writers of America to get on this, pronto. Uh, yeah … that's the ticket.
2. Why Coughlin, with the Giants trailing 17-15 and staring at first-and-goal at the New England 7 and 1:09 to go, didn't simply instruct Manning to take a knee three times before sending Lawrence Tynes onto the field for a potential game-winning field goal. Under that scenario, Belichick would have burned his final timeout and then been powerless to keep the Giants from bleeding the clock to within a few ticks of expiration, and Tynes' field-goal attempt would have been from chip-shot range (28 yards or so). Yeah, I know the strategy wasn't foolproof – something could have gone wrong with the kick – and, of course, things all worked out in the end for the Giants. That said, I believe the high-percentage play was to set up the field goal, rather than to leave the ball in Brady's hands with a four-point deficit and 57 seconds to go. Belichick obviously shared that assessment, as he instructed his defensive players to let Bradshaw score on his first-and-goal run from the 7 (evoking memories of a similar move by then-Packers coach Mike Holmgren in his team's Super Bowl XXXII defeat to the Broncos). That was the right call. And while Bradshaw, in a perfect world, would have countered by heeding Manning's impromptu instruction and falling down before the goal line, I'm not mad at the halfback for failing to stop in time. This wasn't like the strategic, pre-end-zone-slides in recent years by Brian Westbrook and Maurice Jones-Drew that came on breakaways with plenty of field in front of them. Bradshaw hit the hole hard – which football players are trained to do – and simply couldn't stop his momentum before breaking the plane. More at fault was wideout Hakeem Nicks for allowing himself to be driven out of bounds after the four-yard catch that gave the Giants their first-and-goal at the 7, keeping Belichick from using his final timeout a play earlier. Bottom line: It doesn't matter to the Giants or their fans what I fail to comprehend at this point – they'll soon be reflecting sunlight into my eyes off their blinged-out ring fingers and yelling, "Comprehend this …"
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
On my walk down the stadium tunnel, past the locker rooms and onto the field for the Giants' postgame celebration, a dude in a Patriots shirt approached me and began loudly explaining how Brady had blown the game. I looked at him like he had just blamed Meryl Streep for the failure of "The River Wild" to captivate movie audiences. Didn't he realize that Brady had carried this defensively challenged team all season? Didn't he see Brady break Joe Montana's Super Bowl record by completing 16 consecutive passes to bridge the second and third quarters? Didn't he watch Brady brilliantly stay alive in the pocket and fire a perfect 19-yard strike to Deion Branch to keep the game alive with 32 seconds remaining? And am I crazy, or could Brady have floated a more perfectly placed Hail Mary on the final play – and had Rob Gronkowski come down with the ball, would we not be telling the Immaculate Reception and The Catch to move over and make room for the most amazing pass play in NFL history?
Look, I realize the nature of the Super Bowl provokes overreaction, and I can understand how Pats fans or cynics would mistakenly view Brady's performance in a less-than-glorious light. He did make some big mistakes, such as the early intentional-grounding penalty (which, in fairness, isn't often called in that situation) and late misfires to Wes Welker and Branch, though blame for the former incompletion may have been somewhat on the receiver. However, calling his effort "hideous" and "embarrassing," as one Boston.com blogger did Sunday night, is preposterous. Against a consistently disruptive pass rush, Brady completed 27 of 41 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns. His lone interception came after he was hit by Pierre-Paul and essentially was a punt, as the Giants took possession at their own 8 (and ended up punting the ball back to New England). Without a big-time halfback or breakaway receiver, and with his most important pass-catcher (Gronkowski) hobbled by a high-ankle sprain, he still came very close to winning his fourth Super Bowl, and it took an epic effort by another fantastic quarterback to beat him. And this whole notion that Brady's legacy is somehow tainted by a second Super Bowl defeat is equally absurd.
Just as I argued two years ago that Peyton Manning's anointment as the best quarterback of all time in advance of Super Bowl XLIV was premature – and I similarly insisted that the Colts' subsequent defeat to the Saints shouldn't provoke an equal and opposite overreaction – I never felt that Brady had as much riding on Sunday's game as some suggested. Instead, I agreed with measured and reasoned takes like the one espoused Saturday by NFL.com's Jeff Darlington: A fourth Super Bowl victory wouldn't have made Brady the best of all time, nor would a second defeat have knocked him down the list. Rather, Super Sunday was an opportunity to add to an already tremendous body of work that has placed him in a conversation with a small group of transcendent quarterbacks – for a best-of-all-time argument that can never be conclusively settled. That list, in my opinion, currently includes Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas, Montana (my personal choice), John Elway, Dan Marino, Peyton Manning and Brady. Perhaps Eli Manning – and/or Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers or someone else – will fight their way into the conversation before they're done. In the meantime, don't cluelessly bash Brady for not quite being good enough to join Montana and Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks to capture a fourth Super Bowl ring. He's a competitive dude, and he just may do it before his career is over. If not, he's still a phenomenal player who nearly elevated a very flawed team to world-championship status. Any argument to the contrary is hideous and embarrassing.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
– Text Thursday from Digital Playground Contract Star BiBi Jones, on whether she'd be wearing her Gronkowski jersey while watching the Super Bowl from a Boston bar.
"It is inexplicable that you don't have a MVP or HOF vote!"
– Text Saturday evening from Trent Dilfer, former Super Bowl-winning quarterback, ESPN analyst and my unofficial publicist.
– Text Thursday afternoon from my 15-year-old daughter after I sent her a photo of me and former Stanford star Andrew Luck.
"We just had our 2,000th text since I got my new phone."
– Text last Sunday from my daughter, who got her Droid Incredible 2 last July. And that is a glorious way to end a long, tiring and personally fulfilling season of Morning Rush.
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