Eli Manning led a fourth-quarter touchdown drive and won his second Super Bowl MVP on Sunday night, leading the New York Giants to a 21-17 victory over the New England Patriots in an exciting finish to an NFL season that started with turmoil and a lockout.
"It's been a wild game," said Manning, who now has one more Super Bowl title than his older brother. "It's been a wild season."
The wild finish was certainly fitting to the Giant's season.
The Giants (13-7) almost didn't make the playoffs, needing a lot of help at 7-7 with two games left. Their defense finally came together, and Manning gave them a chance in every game with his penchant for comebacks — a league-record 15 touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Manning went 30 for 40 for 296 yards, with one touchdown pass and zero interceptions. Besides Manning's cool and calm closing drive for the go ahead touchdown - the Giants wide receivers, including Puerto Rican standout Victor Cruz, were the difference in this game.
Cruz, who set a single-season team record with 1,536 yards receiving, had four catches for 25 yards, including a short touchdown. Hakeem Nicks, who led the Giants' receivers in the postseason, had a team-high 10 catches for 109 yards.
"I feel good, man," Nicks said. "Blessed to be part of this team, blessed to be in this situation."
But it was the most unlikely of receivers - Mario Manningham that had the catch of the season.
Manningham made a magnificent over-the-shoulder catch and managed to stay inbounds on the opening play of a game-winning, 88-yard touchdown drive that carried New York to another come-from-behind win over the Patriots.
Manningham's 38-yard reception — with two defenders bearing down on him — propelled the Giants to a 21-17 win and their fourth Super Bowl title.
"We just tried to be patient," said Manningham, who finished with five catches for 73 yards. "Got to be patient with this game. We knew big plays was going to come, we just had to take advantage of them."
Manningham, relegated to No. 3 on the Giants' depth chart because of knee injuries and the emergence of Cruz, had three catches on the nine-play drive capped by Ahmad Bradshaw's uncontested 6-yard touchdown run.
Cruz said the Giants never considered Manningham the third receiver.
"These playoffs he's been making these great catches in great moments," Cruz said. "It's a credit to the way he has carried himself. I am just happy for the guy, he has made some clutch catches. It was great for him to come up big when we needed him the most. To come up big in this game and on this stage is great."
Said Giants coach Tom Coughlin. "The way he kept his feet inbounds and held on to the ball going out of bounds was a remarkable thing."
Manningham's big moment came after offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride saw New England's defense playing its two safeties deep and shading them to the right side to cover Cruz and Nicks.
Running a go pattern up the left sideline on a first-and-10 from their own 12 and down 17-15, Manningham made the catch between safeties Patrick Chung and Sterling Moore and right in front of Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
Patriots, Hernández Missed Opportunities
Unlike the Giants, the New England Patriots' three star receivers couldn't make the big plays when they needed them. Neither could their superstar quarterback.
There was plenty of blame to go around in the Patriots' second Super Bowl loss in four years, both to the New York Giants.
"We had opportunities to put this team away and we didn't," wide receiver Deion Branch said after Sunday night's 21-17 loss. "All the plays were big."
From the Patriots' first offensive play — Brady's deep pass from the end zone to nobody that resulted in a safety for intentional grounding — to their last — a desperation heave into the same end zone — they made mistakes and wasted opportunities.
None, however, loomed as large as Brady's pass up the left side to a wide-open Welker at the Giants 20-yard line with the Patriots ahead 17-15 and just over four minutes left.
The throw wasn't perfect. Welker had to twist his body to reach it. But he did get two hands on it as he was falling backward and blamed himself for failing in a critical situation.
"It's one of those plays I've made 1,000 times," he said. "It comes to the biggest moment of my life, and (I) don't come up with it."
On the next play, Brady threw behind Branch over the middle.
"Every play is important," Branch said. "Had I made the catch that was behind me, that could have been a key third down (conversion) but we didn't connect on it."
So the Patriots punted and Eli Manning led the Giants on an 88-yard drive with Ahmad Bradshaw going in from 6 yards for a 21-17 lead with 57 seconds left. The defense let him score so Brady could get the ball back with enough time for a long shot comeback. He did get the ball to his 44-yard line with 5 seconds left.
Time enough for one pass into the end zone.
Hernández and Gronkowski were there with three Giants. The ball was tipped and fell to the ground away from a lunging Gronkowski. The Giants celebrated as purple confetti fell. Brady removed his helmet and walked off the field.
"I felt like I was close," Gronkowski said. "But close isn't there."
It was quite an ending for a team that had the second-ranked passing game in the NFL.
Welker led the league with 122 receptions, Gronkowski set a single-season record with 17 touchdown catches by a tight end and Hernández had 79 catches while operating out of the tight end, wide receiver and running backs spots. And Brady threw for 5,235 yards, second most in NFL history.
But Gronkowski was hampered by a high left ankle sprain and had two catches for 26 yards, his second lowest totals of the season.
"He came out to our practice on Thursday and it's hard to believe he could play the game with the way he was feeling," Brady said. "He really toughed it out."
Had the All-Pro been healthy, the Patriots certainly would have had a better chance.
But they still believed that Brady could lead them to a winning touchdown in the final minute.
"Any time that we get a chance to get our offense on the field, we think we have a chance to score," said Danny Woodhead, whose 4-yard touchdown catch gave the Patriots a 10-9 lead just before halftime.
Hernandez caught a 12-yard scoring pass that made it 17-9. He also led the Patriots with eight receptions, including an 11-yarder that put the ball at their 44-yard line with 17 seconds left. But Brady's next three passes on the game's last three plays all fell incomplete.
"It always comes down to one or two plays in this game and if you make it, you're celebrating," Brady said. "If you don't, then you don't sleep for a week."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.