— If you needed any more evidence that “Eli” is the root word for “elite,” there was the juxtaposition of Manning and Manningham, which sounds like a cheesy law firm but is today, in fact, a football combination for the ages.
When Eli Manning completed a 38-yard pass to Mario Manningham on the Giants’ final drive and New York down by two, it cemented a notion in the public’s consciousness that was originally introduced earlier this season, when the quarterback with the royal pedigree had the temerity to include himself among the NFL’s elite.
People generally think of Eli as Peyton’s kid brother, Archie’s goofball son, and the kind of guy that, no matter how old he might be, you’ll always be tempted to give him a wedgie. But after the Giants’ 21-17 victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, he’s about as money as anybody who has ever played this game.
The pass to Manningham along the sidelines, which turned out to be this year’s improbable David Tyree moment, wasn’t the only pass Eli completed. He finished 30 for 40 for 296 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. But it was highly symbolic. It was the key play in a pressure drive against Tom Brady’s team that enabled Eli to join the “Two Ring Club.” And it should force the New York media to put the knives away, at least for a time.
Brady was solid. He connected on 27 of 41 throws for 276 yards, two touchdowns and one pick. But Brady was betrayed by butter-fingered receivers in the final minutes, and by the clock: He simply ran out of time.
Eli Manning now has two Super Bowl MVP trophies, the same number as Brady. He still trails the ring contest, 3-2, to the Patriots’ QB. But Brady will be 35 next season, and opportunities are hard to come by. Eli is 31, and is just coming into his own as a leader and a legend.
One of the enduring images of Eli Manning that will stick out during this title run is the one in which he is close to being torn to pieces by a herd of carnivorous 49ers in the NFC Championship, which happened often. Instead of becoming weak-kneed and gun-shy, Eli stood up in the pocket during that onslaught and made play after play, scoffing at the possibility of bodily harm.
That performance as a brawler might have enhanced his reputation even more than this Super Bowl victory. When he came into this game with the Patriots, the solemn respect that is always paid to Brady was drowned out by an unexpected downpour of Eli praise.
And the kudos continued to amass Sunday, although the circumstances were a bit different. Manning didn’t face the same degree of harassment he experienced in San Francisco. And for all the hype over the Giants’ front four, Brady wasn’t assaulted much, either, at least until the very end. Both Eli and Tom got rid of the ball quickly, and when they couldn’t, their offensive lines did a commendable job of protection for most of the contest.
Eli got the ball on the New York 12 with 3:45 left in the game and the Giants trailing, 17-15. He led his team down the field with poise and confidence, the drive capped by Ahmad Bradshaw’s reluctant backward plunge – “To score, or not to score? That is the question” — into the end zone with 57 seconds remaining.
Eli worked a miracle in the final minutes of a Super Bowl. Brady failed to — although again, he did about as much as he could.
It was strangely fitting, too, that Eli’s heroics took place in Lucas Oil Stadium, the house that his brother Peyton built. Peyton has always been depicted as the master, and Eli as the apprentice. Peyton was always the shoo-in Hall of Famer, while Eli was the good quarterback who threw too many head-scratching interceptions and was often bailed out by his defense and running game.
Now? Well, remember that ESPN promo in which the Manning family is getting a tour of the network’s facilities and Peyton is the tormentor in the older brother-younger brother duel? They may have to reshoot it with the roles reversed.
Eli Manning now has led his team to two Super Bowl championships, both against Brady and the Patriots. Again, two titles are one short of Brady’s total. But that’s the same number as Ben Roethlisberger. And it’s one more than Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning.
All of those men are extraordinary practitioners of the position. But none of them have to withstand the pressure of the New York press on a day-to-day basis. None of them had to live up to an unparalleled family legacy. None of them had to cope with constant upheaval among the ranks of his receivers. None of them really had to hear incessant speculation about the fate of his coaching staff. None of them had to overcome the impression that he was really a 12-year-old kid who had wandered onto the field and somehow fooled the adults.
Instead, Eli Manning absorbed the slings and arrows, and kept on battling.
These New York Giants won’t go down in history as one of the great assemblages in NFL history. It wasn’t too long ago that they were 7-7 and in danger of missing the postseason altogether. For most of the season, they were ordinary, but with an undercurrent of excellence. There were riches there to be tapped, if only someone could determine a way.
Eli Manning stepped forward to accomplish that task. Every championship team in football needs a quarterback who knows how to step up and lead. You can nitpick all you want, but in the end there are just players who have the savvy and the moxie to get it done, and there are others who don’t.
Brady most certainly is one of the great ones. This Super Bowl disappointment won’t tarnish his credentials, no matter what any talk-show nattering nabob opines.
But Eli Manning is one, too. And if that’s too much for you to wrap your head around, then go soak it for a while. Eventually you’ll come to the inevitable conclusion that the rest of the world seems to have finally arrived at after Sunday’s Super Bowl.