GLENDALE, Ariz. – This was more than some great comeback, some moment borrowed from the books written by Joe Montana, John Elway or Johnny Unitas.
No, this was something far more extraordinary that Eli Manning and the rest of the New York Giants pulled off Sunday in posting one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history. They were, after all, playing the 18-0 New England Patriots, featuring the brilliant duo of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
You see, you're not supposed to beat Brady in the fourth quarter. You're not supposed to beat Belichick when he has his defensive linemen surrounding you.
In short, what Manning pulled off wasn't some type of ordinary bit of football as he earned the game's Most Valuable Player award. It was something from a Criss Angel "Mindfreak" video. Only magicians with expertise in illusion and tempered with the dark side of Houdini pull off stunts like this, a 17-14 victory over New England in Super Bowl XLII.
Down 14-10 with 1:15 remaining and facing a third-and-5 situation from the Giants 44-yard line, Manning pulled off a play that will go down in the annals of NFL playoff lore. He first escaped from the clutches of three Patriots defenders (including defensive tackle Jarvis Green, who had his hands on Manning) and scrambled away. He then launched a 32-yard pass to backup wide receiver David Tyree down the middle of the field.
"I didn't have anybody to block on the play, so I turned around and I saw three guys mugging him and somehow he got that scrawny body out of there," Giants left guard Chris Snee said.
The play doesn't stop there. Tyree reached over Patriots strong safety Rodney Harrison to fight for the ball. As the two came crashing down, Tyree controlled the ball with one hand while pressing the ball against his helmet, all as the rugged Harrison wrestled with him.
"The ball just seemed to hang up there forever," Manning said. "It was just a heck of a play by David to come down with it."
That's a gross understatement. The better way to put it is this: Move over Lynn Swann, Dwight Clark and Franco Harris; Tyree deserves a place alongside you. Throw in the escape, and you might have one of the top plays in NFL playoff history.
At least that's what the previous Super Bowl MVP said as he celebrated the moment.
"That will go down in history as probably the biggest combination of scramble and catch in Super Bowl history," said Peyton Manning, Eli's older brother, who cheered from a luxury suite.
"The way Eli got out of the sack, then scrambled, threw it to Tyree and Tyree makes that amazing catch, that has to be one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history."
The elder Manning brother then started to consider some other dramatic plays.
"Maybe that juggling one by (Pittsburgh Hall of Fame receiver Lynn) Swann …" Peyton said before being distracted by another question.
Suffice to say, this one was instant history. Well, maybe not instant. Before it could get to that point, Eli Manning had to finish off what turned out to be a 12-play, 83-yard drive in 2:07. Manning hit wide receiver Plaxico Burress for the game-winning 13-yard touchdown pass with 35 seconds remaining, too little time for even Brady to work his heroics.
This drive was unlike anything the Giants and Manning had faced during the playoffs. Part of what had made the Giants' three-game run to the Super Bowl so impressive is that they really didn't face too many difficult situations. There were only 15 times that New York faced third down when needing eight yards or more in the three road playoff victories. Of those, four came when the Giants already were in field goal range.
Prior to the last drive Sunday, the Giants faced three such situations against the Patriots, failing on each of them. But on the scoring drive, not only did Manning escape the third-and-5 with the pass to Tyree, he got the Giants out of a third-and-10 (the Giants needed a fourth-and-1 conversion to complete it) and then converted a third-and-11 with 45 seconds left to set up the touchdown to Burress.
"You want to have the ball in your hands, four minutes left," Manning said. "Go down, you've got to score a touchdown. That's where you want to be, a chance to win the game. … Everybody stepped up and made huge plays."
Throughout the drive, Manning was harassed by the Patriots defense. He scrambled for yardage on one play and was sacked another time after scrambling. On at least three other plays, he faced significant pressure that forced him into incomplete passes.
Through all of it, Manning maintained his composure. This was the trait former New York general manager Ernie Accorsi saw when he scouted Manning in college and traded for him in 2004.
"He's as calm in a two-minute drive in the Super Bowl as he is in the first quarter of a preseason game," Peyton Manning said. "The best quarterbacks are the ones who can live in the moment, and that's Eli."
Living in the moment allowed Manning to handle the essence of what the Patriots do, which is put pressure on people to perform in the clutch.
"That's one of the things I admire so much about watching New England," Manning's celebrated father Archie said. "They really brought the heat. In clutch situations, one of the things you know they're going to do is bring pressure. … Handling that pressure can define you. You can't do it every time, but you have to experience it to see what you're going to be."
What Eli Manning was going to be was widely debated throughout the offseason and even into the season. Former Giants running back Tiki Barber indicted Eli Manning's leadership capabilities early on, prompting a terse reply by Manning.
Then again, words pale in comparison to deed. During the season, Manning continued to be his inconsistent self. He led the league with 20 interceptions. But starting with the second-to-last game of the season against Buffalo, Manning got on a roll.
Coming into the Super Bowl, he was immaculate in the playoffs, throwing five touchdowns and zero interceptions. He had one interception in the first half Sunday, but that came on a pass that should have been caught by Steve Smith and deflected into the hands of New England cornerback Ellis Hobbs.
But this game wasn't about playing clean or being efficient, all things that Manning had done leading up to Sunday. This was about a defining moment in a young career.
Manning took that moment and defined it as history.