Brady was the last player to leave the Patriots locker room after the Giants’ 21-17 victory in Super Bowl XLVI. He sat with a towel on his head, staring at the wall, barely moving for at least 10 minutes. Patriots owner Robert Kraft tried to console him, but Brady was unmoved.
Brady understood the moment; that’s why it was so devastating. He knows how difficult it will be to get back to the Super Bowl.
Just a few hundred feet away, Eli Manning hugged Michael Strahan, his former teammate. Strahan whispered into Eli’s ear: “Enjoy. It’s your time.”
The fourth quarter is Eli’s time. Third down is Eli’s time. Whenever pressure is at its greatest, that’s when Manning plays his best. That used to be Brady’s time.
The Patriots defense did its job. It gave Tom Brady the ball to start the fourth quarter.
When Brady threw an interception early in the final frame, the Patriots defense stopped the Giants once again. Brady maneuvered the Patriots into position to win his fourth title.
New England had the ball on the Giants’ 44-yard line with a two-point lead and just more than four minutes remaining. These were the moments where Brady usually closed the door. New York only had one timeout left, so each first down would crush the Giants’ chances.
Before the second down snap, the Giants’ linebackers were confused.
“It looked like they messed up the coverage a little bit,” Brady said.
New York allowed Wes Welker to streak up the seam wide open. Brady lofted the ball to Welker’s right shoulder, the receiver spun and leaped to attempt the catch, but he couldn’t come up with it while crashing to the 20-yard line.
The blame on this play will be debated in New England for years. Welker got both hands on the ball and took full responsibility for dropping it.
"It was the biggest moment of my life and I don't come up with it,” a teary-eyed Welker said after the game. “It’s one I’ll have to live with.”
Welker said it’s a play he’s made a 1,000 times, but it didn’t need to be so difficult. Brady was too careful on the throw, just like he was on the next toss to Deion Branch.
Brady got great protection on third-and-11. He had a chance to find Branch in the middle of the field, but Brady didn’t want to lead his receiver too much for fear of linebacker Michael Boley intercepting the ball. The ball fell incomplete.
Could Branch have sat down in the New York zone to help Brady out? Perhaps.
But with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, Brady had two makeable throws to his two most trusted wide receivers. He couldn’t connect on either play.
Brady played his early Super Bowls with the supreme confidence of a rising young player that didn’t know any better. Now he’s painfully aware how difficult it is to win a championship. He senses his football mortality.
“Hopefully we’ll be back at some point,” Brady said.
The Patriots took a 17-9 lead with more than 11 minutes left in the third quarter. They didn’t score again. While Brady completed 16 passes in a row on New England’s two touchdown drives, the rest of his game was uneven.
Brady put his team in a hole by taking an intentional grounding penalty for a safety on New England’s first offensive play. He occasionally saw the pass rush when it wasn’t there. He made the game’s only turnover on an attempted toss to tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The pick was typical of this game. Brady made a terrific play to avoid pressure, and it didn’t necessarily look like he made a bad decision. He threw the ball up to his Pro Bowl tight end who was one-on-one with a slow middle linebacker — Chase Blackburn. But Blackburn made the sensational play to pick Brady off.
It was that kind of night for New England. The Giants recovered two of their own fumbles. Another fumble by New York was wiped out by a penalty.
These were the breaks the Patriots used to get. They didn’t get them on Sunday night, and Brady couldn’t make the play that would overcome any luck.
“Yeah, that is what it comes down to in football. That one play,” Brady said. “It always comes down to one or two plays in this game and if you make it, you’re celebrating. If you don’t, then you don’t sleep for a week.”
Eli Manning made that play. And a few more.
Manning converted a third down early in the fourth quarter by tossing a pass right over the top of Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes’ head. Manning completed another pass on that drive while a Patriots defender drilled him. Another third down conversion was squeezed in to Victor Cruz between two defenders.
After Brady’s two misfires, Manning calmly went to work. Manning’s 38-yard sideline throw to Mario Manningham to start New York’s game-winning drive is not something you can teach. It’s not even a throw coaches would recommend trying.
The Patriots were in a Cover-2 look, protecting against the deep pass. Manningham was well covered. When Manning released the ball, it looked like it had no chance. The ball dropped in the one spot Manningham could grab it, and New York’s third receiver made an outrageous catch.
“It was a big, big, big-time play right there,” Manning said.
“It was a perfect throw,” Manningham said. “It’s a good thing I wear 11s, because if I wore 11.5s, I don’t think I’d have been in.”
It’s a throw most quarterbacks don’t try. It’s the type of difficult completion Manning delivered all year. Manning isn’t anyone’s idea of a flashy quarterback. But who completed more jaw dropping passes this season than Eli?
The throw to Manningham was remarkable and typical at the same time. That’s why teammate Brandon Jacobs thinks Manning is the NFL’s best quarterback.
“Now [Eli] has two titles,” Jacobs said, spittle flying from his mouth. “Drew Brees is a pretty good quarterback and he’s at home. Aaron Rodgers is a pretty good quarterback and he’s at home. Tom Brady is a good quarterback. ... And Eli beat him twice. Ask Tom Brady if that means [something].”
Manning played his best, once again, with the game on the line. The Giants scored the game’s final 13 points on three scoring drives. Manning’s calm permeates the team in the fourth quarter.
“Ain’t no pressure,” Manningham said. “It’s football.”
“Eli is just so at ease in that situation,” guard Chris Snee said.
“It's Eli Manning,” added defensive end Dave Tollefson. “What did you expect?”
Expectations have changed. There was a time when we expected Tom Brady to make the decisive plays in the fourth quarter. That time has passed.
It’s Eli’s time now.