Manning replied simply that he belonged "in that class." He was questioned and criticized for that, and — shocking, right? — it all became quite a big deal in New York.
Hard to imagine anyone arguing about his status now.
Perfect at the beginning, cool and calm on a closing drive to the go-ahead touchdown, Manning won his second NFL championship in a four-year span — and second Super Bowl MVP award, too — for steering the New York Giants to a 21-17 victory over the New England Patriots on Sunday night.
Right now, no one, not even his older sibling Peyton, is as good in the clutch right now.
Right now, no one, not even New England's Tom Brady, is as adept at erasing deficits.
"We've had a bunch of them this year. We've had some fourth-quarter comebacks," said Manning, 30 for 40 for 296 yards, with one touchdown pass and zero interceptions. "We'd been in those situations, and we knew that we had no more time left. We had to go down and score, and guys stepped up and made great plays."
Led, as usual, by Manning himself.
He opened the game by becoming the first quarterback to complete his first nine attempts in a Super Bowl. And he finished the job by directing the nine-play, 88-yard TD drive that put New York ahead with 57 seconds left.
"That was quite a drive that he was able to put together," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "He deserves all the credit in the world, because he really has put his team on his shoulders all year."
This late drive, so reminiscent of the way New York beat New England in the 2008 Super Bowl with Manning as MVP, started on the Giants' 12, with a little more than 3½ minutes left and the Patriots ahead 17-15. It closed with running back Ahmad Bradshaw easing into the end zone from 6 yards out. The Patriots decided not to contest the run, trying to save some time on the clock for a final drive — a risky and desperate decision by Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
But New England couldn't get the ball back in the end zone, with Brady's final heave from his 49 falling barely beyond the grasp of tight end Rob Gronkowski.
"We had this goal to finish, finish, finish," Coughlin said, "and win the fourth quarter."
That's precisely when Manning takes over.
In the regular season, he threw an NFL-record 15 TD passes in the final period.
He also led six game-winning drives to bring New York back from fourth-quarter deficits.
"He's become confident over time; kind of grew into it," Manning's father, former New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie, told The Associated Press after Sunday's game. "I always felt like you have to experience those situations before you become confident. He's certainly had his share."
That's true. Manning's even done it before in the Super Bowl.
Four years ago, he took home his first MVP award after a scoring pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left allowed New York to upset Brady and New England, ruining the Patriots' bid for a perfect season. Back then, Manning got a boost from David Tyree's Velcro-helmet grab on the go-ahead drive. This time, the key play was Mario Manningham's 38-yard, over-the-shoulder catch between two defenders along the sideline, which held up after the Patriots challenged it.
The Giants had trouble putting up points Sunday despite getting into New England's territory on every drive except a kneeldown at the end of the first half.
But Manning kept at it, using eight receivers, led by Hakeem Nicks' 10 catches for 109 yards.
"We just tried to be patient," said Manningham, who finished with five receptions for 73 yards. "Got to be patient with this game. We knew big plays (were) going to come. We just had to take advantage of them."
Manning now is one of only five players in NFL history with multiple Super Bowl MVP awards. He joined the guy he got the better of in the big game yet again, Brady, along with Terry Bradshaw, Bart Starr and Joe Montana (the only player with three). And Manning did it in the House that Peyton Built, the stadium where his Big Bro — a four-time regular-season MVP but owner of only one Super Bowl title — has starred for the Indianapolis Colts.
"It just feels good to win a Super Bowl. Doesn't matter where you are," said Manning, 10 for 14 for 118 yards in Sunday's fourth quarter.
As he spoke, he clutched the silver Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Once again, he'd outdone Brady, who was 27 of 41 for 276 yards, with two TDs and one interception. In one stretch, Brady completed 16 consecutive passes, breaking Joe Montana's Super Bowl record of 13.
All Brady could do after the game was praise Manning.
"He made some great throws there in the fourth quarter," Brady said.
The biggest turnaround of all this season for Manning was the way he brought the Giants back from a 1-5 slump that left them 7-7 and in serious danger of missing the playoffs. But from there, he took them on a season-closing, six-game winning streak.
He finished the postseason with nine TDs and only one interception, solid as could be the whole way.
"I never doubt Eli," Giants safety Kenny Phillips said. "I don't think anyone on this team doubts Eli."
No one — anywhere — possibly could doubt him now.