So let me get this straight: Eli Manning ousted NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, outlasted a 49ers team for the NFC Championship that dispatched Offensive Player of the Year Drew Brees, and finally outdueled NFL Golden Boy Tom Brady to win Super Bowl XLVI? Does this mean what I think it means?
Indeed. Eli Manning is every bit as good the three aforementioned quarterbacks and undoubtedly the best of the group when push comes to shove in the 4th quarter of a big game. That’s right, if you find yourself in a tight game trailing in the final minutes, then Eli Manning is your best option. I never thought I would type that sentence, but it’s true. Get used to it.
Once again, the New England Patriots couldn’t hold onto a lead late in the 4th quarter against the Giants to bring home the Vince Lombardi trophy. Naturally, the blame has been divided and dished out appropriately. The real culprit, though, and the gift that kept the Giants season alive? Second chances.
In week 14, the Dallas Cowboys held a 12 point lead with 5:41 remaining. A win would have presumably laid the Giants to rest once and for all. Tom Coughlin was on the hot seat and a defense that delivered a title just a few years earlier was rapidly falling out of favor. That was until Eli Manning took it upon himself to rally the Giants, save their season and possibly even Coughlin’s job. The Giants went on to win four of their next five including a Wildcard round victory and a stunning upset over the Super Bowl favorite Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
After knocking off the Packers, the Giants again found themselves in a tight game with their season on the line. This time, though, Eli Manning and the Giant offense struggled to break through a vaunted San Francisco defense. With the score tied at 17, the Giants and 49ers traded possessions for the final minutes of regulation and into overtime. The 49er defense kept Manning at bay while the 49er offense curled into a ball and hid, failing miserably on five opportunities to win the game following Akers’ tying field goal. The San Francisco offense registered only one first down in those possessions and never came close to delivering the knockout blow. As a result, the Giants and Eli Manning hung around and eventually took advantage of another 49er miscue to finally win a game the 49er defense had dominated.
Last night, in Super Bowl XLVI, the Patriots were in a similar position. Up two with four minutes remaining and the chance to stretch the lead to five or nine or run out the remaining clock entirely, New England choked. On 2nd and 11 from the Giants 44 with a reasonable field goal attempt just ten yards away, Tom Brady and a wide open Wes Welker failed to connect for a first down inside the Giants 20. On 3rd and 11, Brady and Deion Branch couldn’t come through for a first down. Eli Manning and the Giants, for the third time in the previous two months, avoided the kill shot and were presented a second chance, and for the third time, they took full advantage.
Eli Manning calmly marched down the field like it was the 2nd quarter of a September game. Only the urgency in Al Michaels’ voice and the petrified faces on the New England sideline indicated the magnitude of those moments. Manning didn’t care. He shrugged off the pressure and stole another Super Bowl from Bill Belichick and the Patriots, all because he and his Giant teammates were given too many second chances. While second chances offer redemption, they also forfeit victories. The Cowboys, 49ers, and Patriots left the door open. Eli Manning and the Giants walked through it. Now, they’re Super Bowl champions for the second time in four years.
(Tangent: Let me first say that I believe Justin Tuck meant no disrespect to Eli Manning. Considering Tuck was the first player Eli Manning hugged, I’m assuming they’re friends. However, I heard Justin Tuck on two separate post game shows mention that although Eli Manning won MVP, it could have gone to any member of the Giants 53 man roster. He even insinuated Eli won it because he was the quarterback.
While Manning would undoubtedly agree with Tuck’s assessment, Manning was clearly the Giants best player. He deserved sole possession of the MVP award. He didn’t win it because he was the quarterback (though I’m sure it didn’t hurt.) He won the prestigious award because without him, without the ice flowing through his veins, without his resiliency, without his uncanny ability to elevate his play in the biggest moments, the Giants don’t win that game. Eli Manning won the MVP because he was the best and most important one of those 53 players.)
Brady Falls Again.
The saddest part of Sunday’s outcome is that Tom Brady will be blamed for another Super Bowl loss even though he played well enough to win. In fact, I thought he outplayed Manning up until those closing minutes.
Instead, we’ll remember the intentional grounding; underthrowing Rob Gronkowski for an interception; the poor throw to Welker; the miscommunication with Branch; and another devastating sack on the final drive – reminiscent to the one he took on the final drive in Super Bowl XLII – as his defining moments. In fact, let’s look at each one.
The intentional grounding was a huge swing. It gave the Giant defense momentum and confidence from the outset. More importantly, those two points ultimately changed the whole dynamic of those final minutes. Without the safety, the Patriots hold a four point lead and the Giants are forced to score a touchdown on that final drive. Even if New York did find the end zone, the Patriots would only need a field goal to tie instead of the always difficult and nearly impossible “80 yard touchdown drive in less than a minute with only one timeout.”
The 4th quarter interception was the game’s lone turnover, and while it didn’t result in points, it stalled the momentum New England had controlled for the entire 2nd half. I don’t blame Brady for the throw. If you have an all-world, 6-7 tight end matched up against a linebacker one-on-one, you take that chance. Although Gronkowski was hobbled by injury, I think Brady, and every other NFL QB, would still take the same chance. Besides, the biggest mistake on that play was made by Gronkowski. Too often NFL receivers hang back and think about scoring over making the catch. DeSean Jackson does this all the time. At the very least, Gronkowski should have pulled Chase Blackburn to the ground and taken a penalty. Your quarterback is trusting you in that situation to make a play or at least prevent a turnover. Gronkowski was boxed out by a shorter, less athletic linebacker and was shoved off the ball with one arm. Obviously, it was not his finest moment.
I’m ok with Brady catching some flack for the Welker throw. Yes, Welker should have made the catch, but a better throw would have made Welker’s job significantly easier. It looked like one of those deals where the receiver expected the ball to be coming over one shoulder and the quarterback threw it over the other. It happened to Aaron Rodgers and Gregg Jennings three weeks ago. It happens to everyone. However, if Welker hangs on, the Patriots at least kick a field goal. If Brady makes a better throw, Welker possibly scores.
The Deion Branch failed 3rd down conversion right after the Welker drop was, in my opinion, entirely Branch’s fault. Instead of settling down in the open area between the safety and linebacker, Branch continued across the field. Brady thought the veteran Branch would make the veteran move and sit between the defenders. He didn’t and that’s why Brady’s throw looked like it was thrown behind the open receiver. Such a devastating mistake on a play that could have ultimately clinched a Super Bowl title.
The sack on the final drive was as disappointing as the drive itself. I would have loved to see Brady win the game there and essentially reverse the script of Super Bowl XLII. Sadly, Brady looked dejected even as he walked onto the field. Missing an open Branch on the first play was huge. A completion there puts the Patriots at midfield and, considering Branch probably gets out of bounds, 45 seconds would still be on the clock with a timeout in hand. Another reception or two and it’s possible the Patriots get at least three shots at the end zone from inside the 25. Instead, the pass goes incomplete, Brady then throws a pass in the middle of the field to Aaron Hernandez that was dropped and then takes the sack on 3rd down. Looking at the replay, there was little Brady could do to avoid the sack aside from another intentional grounding penalty. Still, the sack and the completion in the middle of the field two plays later were un-Brady-like. If you go over the middle with no timeouts, it has to be for a decent chunk of yardage.
As backwards as this sounds, I thought Brady played well enough to win. He just didn’t make enough plays to win. Eli Manning did, just as he has throughout the past two months. And with two Super Bowl titles and two Super Bowl MVP awards, I think it’s safe to say Eli was right along; he is in the same class as Brady and Peyton. He just knew it before anyone else.