INDIANAPOLIS -- Eli Manning stirred controversy when he declared himself an elite quarterback at the start of the 2011 season.
He then spent the rest of the year proving it with one clutch comeback after another -- none bigger or more impressive than the final game-winning drive he orchestrated Sunday night in the New York Giants' 21-17 win over the New England Patriots at Lucas Oil Field in Super Bowl XLVI.
"It just feels great. It was a great game with two great teams," said the easy-going Manning, who appeared as cool after his Super Bowl victory as he might at a summer cookout. "We just played to the very end."
It was the second historic Super Bowl victory over the Patriots for Manning, coach Tom Coughlin and the Giants in the past five seasons.
The Giants beat the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. This year they became the first nine-win team in the 16-game era to go on to win a Super Bowl. The Patriots had gone 13-3 on their way to the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
New York's victory in this game had many of the same hallmarks of its win four years ago, including a great effort by the Giants defense, holding the Patriots to a season-low 17 points, a pair of sacks by defensive end Justin Tuck, a Most Valuable Player performance from Manning (30 of 40, 296 yards 1 TD, 0 INT) and a near-miraculous pitch and catch between the quarterback and one of his receivers during the game-winning drive.
Back in Super Bowl XLII, that memorable catch was made by David Tyree. This year, the role of receiving hero was played by Mario Manningham.
The Giants took over at their own 12, trailing 17-15 with just 3:46 to play in the fourth quarter. On the first play of the drive, Manning dropped a perfect ball into Manningham's hands up the left sideline for a 38-yard gain with defenders Patrick Chung and Sterling Moore draped around him.
"Eli put a great ball out there," said Manningham. "After I caught it I think the whole team figured we were going to win this."
The Patriots challenged the ruling of a catch on the field, but replay confirmed that Manningham had kept both feet in bounds and kept possession of the ball.
The winning points, a 6-yard touchdown run by Ahmad Bradshaw with 57 seconds left, will stir plenty of discussion about football ethics, especially considering New England coach Bill Belichick's lightning rod status.
The Patriots, down to one timeout, essentially laid down, allowing Bradshaw to run untouched up the middle in order to get the ball back with time left. The conversion attempt failed.
Belichick, in his famous style, did not address the issue in his postgame press conference. When asked if he allowed the Giants to score, he responded, "Right."
Brady and the Patriots took possession at their own 20 with 57 seconds to play and managed to move the ball to their own 49. But Brady's final desperate heave into the end zone fell incomplete.
"I wish we could have made a few more plays," said Brady (27 of 41, 276 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 91.1 rating), who tied John Elway as the only quarterbacks to lead their teams to five Super Bowl appearances, but failed to join Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw on the short list of those who have won four.
Manning was flawless early, connecting on each of his first nine passes for 77 yards and a touchdown. He helped power the Giants to an early 9-0 lead, with a huge assist from a pair of critical Patriots mistakes.
The first, an intentional grounding call against Tom Brady as he attempted to pass from his own end zone, handed the Giants an early 2-0 lead.
The Patriots appeared to stop the Giants on the next possession, when Brandon Spikes recovered a Victor Cruz fumble deep in New England territory. But the confused Patriots defense was whistled for too many men on the field, as players tried to rush on and off before the snap. The Giants quickly converted with a 2-yard Eli Manning-to-Cruz touchdown pass.
New England closed the gap to 9-3 with a 29-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal early in the second quarter. Then New York appeared to lose its grip on the game after the Patriots turned out a monster 14-play, 96-yard scoring drive at the end of the first half. Brady was a perfect 10 for 10 on the drive, capping the possession with a 4-yard TD pass to diminutive running back Danny Woodhead. The three-minute drive consumed all but the final eight seconds of the half and tied a record for the longest touchdown drive in Super Bowl history.
After Madonna's halftime extravaganza, Brady and the Patriots went right back to work, with Brady again perfect, while capping the drive with a 12-yard strike to Hernandez up the left seam.
The Patriots led 17-9 and had clearly wrested control of the game. In fact, Brady had gone 16 of 16 for 154 yards and 2 touchdown passes since Manning and the Giants offense had last touched the ball.
But the Giants slowly inched their way back into the game, as the defense shut out Brady and the prolific New England offense the rest of the way and Manning and the offense started chipping away with field goals.
New York responded to the Hernandez touchdown with a 38-yard Lawrence Tynes field goal that made the score 17-12. The Giants defense then produced perhaps its best defensive stand of the night, forcing the Patriots into a three-and-out, capped by a Justin Tuck sack of Brady for a 4-yard loss. (He added his second on New England's final desperate drive, giving him an even pair of QB takedowns in each of New York's Super Bowl victories over the Patriots.)
Manning and the Giants took over at the New England 48 with 5:36 to play in the third quarter after a weak 43-yard Zoltan Mesko punt and 10-yard return by Will Blackmon. Nine plays later, Tynes booted another field goal, this one from 33 yards.
The score was now 17-15 late in the third quarter, with another thrilling finish 15 minutes away.
Brady and the Patriots had plenty of opportunity to put away the Giants. But Brady heaved a ball up at covered tight end Rob Gronkowski on the second play of the fourth quarter. Linebacker Chase Blackburn hauled in the INT, the only one by either quarterback in the game. Gronkowski, whose injured ankle was one of the big stories over the past two weeks, looked well short of peak form after his record-setting season. He caught just two passes for 26 yards.
The New England defense held after the Blackburn pick, but a Steve Weatherford punt pinned the Patriots at their own 8 (the punter pinned the Patriots inside the 10 three times Sunday night).
Brady drove the Patriots into New York territory, but the drive fizzled out with a serious of awkward plays. The future Hall of Fame quarterback, now 3-2 in Super Bowl play (with both losses to Manning and the Giants), failed to hit an open Wes Welker in stride for what appeared like it could have been a game-sealing 44-yard TD pass. Welker was unable to handle the pass. Brady then missed Deion Branch on the next play, and the Patriots were forced to punt.
The Mesko punt was downed at the 12. Manning then struck Manningham for the big 38-yard gain. Four more passes, two each to Manningham and Hakeem Nicks, put the ball on the New England 6 and forced the Patriots to lay down on defense simply to have a shot to make up for more Manning magic at their expense.
Manning and Coughlin will enjoy greatly enhanced reputations in wake of the victory. Manning has out-gunned Brady twice in two Super Bowl opportunities, each time with late-game heroics and MVP efforts. There have been just four Super Bowls with a game-winning touchdown in the final minute. Manning has orchestrated two of those four.
Coughlin, meanwhile, is now 5-1 all time, including 2-0 in Super Bowls, against a coach in Belichick who is almost universally recognized as the best of his generation. His two Super Bowl victories have come against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Each year his Giants looked dead late in the season. Each year they rallied to beat the NFC's top two seeds on the road before beating the AFC's No. 1 seed from New England.