SAN FRANCISCO -- The game is hard enough without the constant barrage of doubt and criticism. But has anyone, anywhere faced down the skeptics and so consistently won over the non-believers as Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin during their years together in New York?
The Giants are Super Bowl-bound once again -- for the second time in five seasons -- because Manning and Coughlin never believe what they hear. They have confidence in their abilities, resiliency in their nature, and an iron-clad belief in how they go about their business of playing quarterback and coaching a football team.
There's nothing particularly tricky about their success. No secret formula behind their approach. They just don't give up, and don't give in, even in the face of failure or pessimism. They're both basically grinders, and if they're not getting the results they want, they keep grinding until they do. They don't know any other way, and it's a very good thing for Giants fans that they never learned.
"How?'' said Coughlin in the Giants' winning postgame locker room, when a reporter asked how New York had gotten this far? "By just staying the course. Never saying never. Trying to encourage at every point throughout the season, whether it was good or bad, not denying the facts, but nevertheless seeing that we had a talented team and believing in that team.
"Thinking that if we could only get all of these pieces together, maybe we would have a chance to make ourselves recognized. I felt like we were always in contention to win the division, even when things weren't going as well as we'd have liked them.''
Maybe Coughlin and his Giants felt that, but not many others did. How many times was New York written off this season, in the throes of that four-game losing streak that once again put his job in supposed jeopardy? And how many snickers did Manning elicit with his "elite quarterback'' self-estimation last offseason? These guys have been written off more than a grocery list, but here they are again, on the game's grandest stage, playing for the shiny silver trophy and the big confetti shower.
New York's dramatic 20-17 overtime defeat of San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game was no work of art. The Giants punted 12 times, gained just 3.9 yards per play average, and had nine penalties for 60 yards. But like the Giants' season itself, Sunday's victory was all about perseverance, and waiting for the tide to turn. And when it did, New York pounced, turning two botched punt returns by backup San Francisco return man Kyle Williams into 10 points and the difference-making plays of the game.
"It's just our perseverance on this team and that no matter what happens throughout the game -- three-and-outs, turnovers -- we're going to pull this one through and we're going to do whatever we have to do to win this game,'' said Giants receiver Victor Cruz, the undrafted breakthrough star of this team this season, who finished with an eye-opening 10 receptions for 142 yards, only 139 more than the entire 49ers wide receivers corps produced.
Here's my favorite summation of this plucky Giants team, all wrapped up in one mind-boggling statistic: There have now been 92 Super Bowl teams in NFL history, and New York is the first one to have been outscored in the regular season (400 to 394). But somehow, I don't think the Giants care. Their story was never about how they started, it was about how they finished. And New York knows how to finish. Just ask the Jets, Cowboys, Falcons, Packers and 49ers, their past five opponents/victims.
"They have grit, now,'' Coughlin said of his players. "They're battle-tested. We've had five straight single-elimination games. Somehow, some way we've found a way to scratch our way to a win. We prepare well. The guys really do know what's at stake.''
Nobody more so than Manning, the little brother who now gets a shot to double his big brother's total of Super Bowl rings, in the very downtown Indianapolis stadium that Peyton Manning helped make possible. Manning again rose to the occasion against the 49ers, completing 32 of 58 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns, winning his team-record fifth road playoff game.
Manning's toughness and determination was on full display all night. San Francisco's tenacious defense sacked him six times, hit him some 20 times according to the FOX telecast, and limited him to just 5.4 yards per pass attempt. But they didn't beat him, and now he gets a rematch with New England's Tom Brady, meaning the Super Bowl will have a Manning in it for the fourth time in six years.
"He always plays above his character, [no matter] what people may think of him,'' Cruz said. "He's getting hit, he's getting up, brushing himself off and just plugging away onto the next play and making all the necessary plays that we have to have to keep the chains moving. He's just a great quarterback and I wouldn't want any other guy under the helm.''
Even as the Giants' playoff hopes rose and fell this season, Manning was the team's constant. He put together his best season ever, and finally shed the inconsistency that has plagued his game at times during his eight-year NFL career. And Sunday came the big payback for all that excellence. Manning took center stage and refused to let his team lose.
"It feels great,'' Manning said. "That was a tough game. We had to fight for every yard we got. They're a good team, their defense is stout and they play smart. We couldn't afford to make many mistakes and turn the ball over.''
There were mistakes, but Manning kept going and out-lasted his team's errors. The doubts simply don't get to Manning any more, and neither do the momentary setbacks. His will has come a long way.
"I just try to be smart and not turn the ball over and eventually we hit the big plays,'' Manning said. "We just tried to be patient. The thing I kept telling myself was: 'Be patient. Don't force anything. Don't give them anything, their defense is playing well.' We stuck with that, got some turnovers and we used that to hurt them.''
The Giants are going back to the NFL's biggest game because Manning and Coughlin have stuck with it, even when others thought they had lost their way. Coughlin was coaching for his job about a month ago, and Manning looked like a good player stuck on a mediocre team. But score another victory for consistency of approach. These Giants reflect their head coach and their quarterback, and they're never completely out of it with Coughlin and Manning setting the tone.
"You can't count that guy out,'' said Giants defensive end Justin Tuck of Coughlin, in words that could describe Manning as well. "Resiliency comes to mind when you talk about Tom. It doesn't matter what people say about him on the outside, this team rallies behind him. We understand he's a great coach and a great football mind, and he's always going to put his team in the right position to win games.''
They are football survivors of a like mind, Coughlin and Manning. And because they are, so too are their Giants. They don't give in, they don't give up, and as another Super Bowl trip looms, they refuse to go away.