GREEN BAY, Wisc. -- Four years ago the Giants changed the course of the Packers season and, really, Packers history. They upset Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, Brett Favre never wore a Packers uniform again, and the Giants completed an unlikely sojourn to a Super Bowl title.
On Sunday night at Lambeau, the stakes were different -- the dawning of a Packers dynasty was potentially weeks away -- but the result was the same. The constant in both games? Eli Manning.
In a tussle that ultimately became a blowout, Manning outdueled Aaron Rodgers and led the Giants to a 37-20 over the Packers and a date in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday in San Francisco.
Can another Giants' Super Bowl trip be far behind?
After proclaiming himself an elite quarterback earlier this season, Manning has left no doubt that he is. His calm in the pocket, accuracy on the move and feel for the big moment have coalesced into a magical season that marches on for at least one more week.
The Giants also have a chance to avenge their 27-20 loss in San Francisco in Week 10.
"We've been in playoff mode for the last month, starting with the Jets game," Giants defensive tackle Chris Canty said.
Against the Packers, Manning was the best quarterback on the field. He spread the football around to his receivers, backs and tight ends, sliding around the pocket with his eyes downfield.
In the first quarter he hit Hakeem Nicks for a 66-yard score (when Packers safety Charlie Peprah went for the big hit instead of the sure tackle) and he found Nicks again for a touchdown on the final play of the first half, a 37-yard Hail Mary that stuck to Nicks' facemask in an echo of the Manning-David Tyree connection from Super Bowl XLII. Nicks finished with seven catches for 165 yards and the two scores.
"Just a great catch by him," Manning said. "One of the few [Hail Marys] I've thrown up and the first one that's been caught."
Manning finished the game 21 for 33 for 330 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Rodgers, the likely league MVP, was 26 of 46 for 264 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and one fumble.
Rodgers, like many of his teammates, appeared rusty following the Packers' bye week. Once on the verge of a perfect season before a Week 15 loss in Kansas City, the Packers never looked in sync against the swarming Giants defense. They went for a risky onside kick in the first half (it failed), dropped a half-dozen passes and committed four turnovers.
"We did not play very well today -- I think that's stating the obvious," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "We've been excessive, frankly, in handling the football in the winter weather, preparing for the opportunity in playoff games. We did not do a good job handling the football. We did not play to our identity."
Said Rodgers: "We play to win championships. [When] you win a championship [and] have the top of the mountain you forget how bad this feeling is. This team, this fan base, expects championships. We had a championship-caliber regular season and didn't play well tonight."
The Giants, meanwhile, amassed 420 yards of offense and sacked Rodgers four times. Manning stood tall in the pocket, delivering throw after throw to his young receiving corps. He finished with a robust 114.5 quarterback rating (to Rodgers' 78.5) adding to his growing reputation as a clutch playoff performer. In the Super Bowl run in 2007, Manning won three road games before decking the Patriots.
"This isn't his first rodeo," Giants tight end Travis Beckum said of Manning. "He's been in big games before and people expect him to play big in big games like this. He's very respected here."
Manning's entire life has been about deftly navigating his station as the son of Archie and younger brother of Peyton. When former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi traded for Manning in the 2004 draft, Manning was deemed by some to be too quiet and unemotional to lead a team of men. If Peyton was fire in the huddle, Eli was the epitome of ice.
While Manning's emergence from Peyton's shadow was celebrated in Super Bowl XLII, the 2011 season has been one more reminder of his unique ability to silence the noise around him and just throw.
If Manning once had trouble asserting himself on a team of big personalities (Michael Strahan and Tiki Barber both ended up behind microphones in the media) he no longer does at 31, a man, a leader and a quarterback in full.