Eli Manning. Photograph courtest of Flickr user angiesix.
How did we not see it coming? How did we not anticipate that Eli Manning would do it again? How could we ignore the reams of evidence at our disposal illustrating Manning’s reliability in big moments? Apparently our national infatuation with Tom Brady and his dreamy hair and his supermodel wife has clouded the fact that nowadays, when the bright lights are on, Manning—not Brady—is the guy you want center stage.
Sure, I know many of you predicted the Giants would win the Super Bowl (at least, many of you are saying that now), but according to the website Gambling911, as late as Saturday night, the Giants were still three-point underdogs at more than 80 percent of the legal sports books in America. In retrospect, that seems so naive.
Let’s start with the most obvious evidence—like the game the two teams played against each other three months ago. The Giants won that meeting by four points, even though it took place in Foxboro and despite the fact that Manning had to orchestrate his air attack without the benefit of starting receiver Hakeem Nicks, who missed the game due to a hamstring injury. (Nicks wound up with ten catches for 109 yards in the Super Bowl.) Even with that shorthanded roster back in November, with a team on the verge of what would turn out to be a mind-numbing four-game losing streak, Manning and the Giants had enough firepower to beat the Patriots.
Fast-forward to the Super Bowl, where it was Brady without his most dangerous receiving weapon. Yes, tight end Rob Gronkowski played in the game, but he was clearly limited. He had just two receptions for 26 yards and got out-jumped on that fourth-quarter interception by a guy wearing number 93. When Belichick went out of his way during the week to be vague about Gronkowski’s status, it was clear the injury was serious. With due respect to Wes Welker, who may be one of the greatest possession receivers the game has ever seen, Gronkowski was the closest thing the Patriots had to a game breaker. His injury was devastating.
Now factor in the defenses. New England, to be blunt, doesn’t have much of one. During the regular season they were ranked 31st in total defense and 31st against the pass (yes, there are only 32 teams in the league). The Patriots are to the NFL what the Capitals were to the NHL two years ago when Ovie was at his best. They didn’t play much defense—they didn’t need to. If you scored on them, they’d turn around and score two on you. (Reminds one of Sean Connery’s famous threat from The Untouchables: “He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”)
Like the Caps did with Ovechkin, the Patriots got away with having a dubious defense because Brady was able to chuck the ball around the yard sufficiently to mask it. But in the playoffs, and in particular in the Super Bowl, these kind of deficiencies get exposed. With two weeks to prepare for their opponent, Tom Coughlin and Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride knew exactly where the soft spots in the Patriots’ defense were, and they attacked. The 38-yard “miracle” completion to Mario Manningham on the final drive wasn’t a miracle at all. It was a product of Gilbride exposing a soft cover-two and a safety in Patrick Chung who fell hard for Manning’s eye fake to the middle of the field. That’s not a miracle. That’s film study. That’s preparation. That’s predictable.
That said, it didn’t hurt that Manning dropped the ball into the only six-cubic-inch area where the pass could have been completed.
So how many Super Bowls does he have to win before we finally accept him into the legion of “elite NFL quarterbacks”? Apparently the answer is: more than one, but less than three. Not sure why Manning had such a hard time gaining entry. Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers got their membership cards with just one title. Philip Rivers got his with none. Perhaps Manning will always be judged unfairly within the paradigm established by his brother. That’s a pretty rough paradigm. But if we take the time to extract the substance of the younger Manning’s record, there’s little to debate.
Between the regular season and the postseason, he’s orchestrated 25 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. Number 25 was Sunday night. How much more clutch can the guy be?
If you watched NBC’s pregame show, there was an eerie foreshadowing in Bob Costas’s interview with Brady. He asked the Pats QB which he would prefer in the final few minutes of the game: being down by three points and having the ball in his hands, or being up by three points and having to watch as Manning had the ball in his hands. Without hesitation, Brady said he’d rather have the ball because he’s seen firsthand what Manning can do in those situations. Brady saw it coming. Why didn’t the rest of us?