Monday, February 6, 2012

Eli Manning Takes His Place Among NFL Immortals

Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Tom Brady: until yesterday, that was the complete list of quarterbacks who had won at least two Super Bowl MVPs--three Pro Football Hall of Famers and one mortal lock to be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after he retires. You can now add Eli Manning to that list and you can rest assured that, like Brady, Manning is a lock to be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Manning played with surgical precision--30-40, 296 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a blistering 103.8 passer rating--and he was again a cold blooded fourth quarter killer as he led the New York Giants to a come from behind 21-17 victory over Brady's New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. Manning has defined himself as one of the great clutch players in NFL history: he set an NFL record this season with 15 fourth quarter TD passes, he has now won a record seven playoff games at road or neutral sites and in both of his Super Bowl victories he has delivered late fourth quarter touchdown drives when his team trailed.

It's not Brady like played poorly, either; a few late incompletions on the last, desperate drive lowered Brady's completion percentage and passer rating but Brady still finished with very good numbers: 27-41, 276 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a 91.1 passer rating. During the process of lifting the Patriots from a 9-0 deficit to a 17-9 lead, Brady broke Joe Montana's record by completing 16 straight passes (Montana's 1990 record was 13 passes). The one area where Brady did not excel in this game was the deep pass: he was 0-5 on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, five whiffs that included a crucial fourth quarter drop by Wes Welker that could have all but clinched a New England victory, his sole interception and his first pass of the game, a long bomb over the middle that was ruled to be an intentional grounding safety (a somewhat questionable call that a few commentators disputed after the game). In contrast, shortly after Welker's drop led to a New England punt, Manning made the play of the game by delivering a perfect strike to Mario Manningham for a 38 yard fourth quarter completion that dramatically shifted field position and set the stage for New York's game-winning drive. As ESPN's Trent Dilfer--a Super Bowl-winning quarterback in his own right--often says, there is no defense for a perfect throw; Manningham made a nice catch and did a good job of getting both feet down inbounds but Manning's pinpoint accuracy made that play possible.

Victories are often won and legacies defined by the ability to execute--or the failure to execute--the most basic fundamentals in the most pressure packed moments. Bill Parcells often talks about the importance of not being "that guy"--the guy who makes the play that potentially costs his team the game. The reality is that games are rarely truly decided by the last, most obvious gaffe--it would be just as accurate to say that the Patriots lost because of that first play safety--but the drop by the sure-handed Welker definitely gave the Giants an opportunity that they otherwise likely would not have gotten; if Welker holds on to the ball then the Patriots probably would have, at the very least, drained most of the time off of the clock before kicking a short field goal to obtain a 20-15 lead. Instead, the Giants got the ball back and Manning had the chance to once again display his steely nerves and cool execution under fourth quarter duress.

New York's win neither ended a Patriots' dynasty nor did it create a Giants' dynasty; New England's dynasty lasted from 2001-04 when the Patriots won three Super Bowls in four seasons, then the uptempo Patriots went 16-0 in 2007 before falling to the Giants in the Super Bowl and now the Patriots used a two tight end offense to once again reach the Super Bowl: Coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have been the constants but the Patriots have essentially experienced three different eras since 2001. Two Super Bowl wins sandwiched around a three year span in which the Giants twice failed to even qualify for the playoffs hardly establishes the Giants as a dynasty at this point, though a third title within the next couple years would perhaps be cause to reevaluate that assessment. New York's win also did not diminish the legacy that Belichick and Brady built in 2001-04 but it did accentuate the point that the Patriots have had some difficulties finishing their playoff runs from 2005-11 and it did distinguish Coach Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning as exceptional clutch performers; Coughlin does an excellent job preparing his team and Manning does an excellent job not only executing Coughlin's game plan but also at times creating something out of nothing when a play breaks down.

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