An A for Eli...and Indy too

Before Peyton Manning's future become analyzed to tiresome Favrethian degrees over the next month, it's time to give his little brother some very big credit.

If there were any lingering doubts about Eli Manning's worthiness among the NFL's upper echelon of quarterbacks heading into Super Bowl XLVI, they were erased much like the New England Patriots' once-mighty mystique in the aftermath of Sunday's latest vintage performance by the NFL's new king of clutch.

Eli Manning's fearless and flawless effort in the late stages of his New York Giants' 21-17 edging of the Patriots at The House that Peyton Built, Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium, is certainly nothing new -- he's now engineered two Super Bowl-winning touchdown drives and three overall in the final minute against the very same foe within a four-year span.

His present mentioning in the same stratosphere of the all-time greats at the sport's most glorious position? Now that's anything but old hat.

What a difference a year can make.

Twelve months ago, the younger Manning was still considered one of the game's true enigmas -- terrific at times, maddeningly horrid at others -- and was coming off a particularly frustrating 2010 season in which he threw a league- high 25 interceptions and was responsible for a whopping 30 total turnovers in 16 starts. But jump ahead to the Monday after the NFL's most recent showcase extravaganza, and the talk isn't whether he belongs in the elite category -- it's whether he'll be one day sharing a bust alongside his brother in Canton.

And such an argument can no longer be viewed as either preposterous or premature. Manning is now the proud owner of two Super Bowl Most Valuable Player awards following this cold-blooded come-through, placing him in the company of Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Bart Starr and the man he outgunned on Sunday, Tom Brady.

Those first three are already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Brady's going there someday. And Manning has now bested the New England superstar in three consecutive head-to-head meetings, two of which came in the game that most defines a quarterback's legacy.

And Manning's importance to the Giants' fourth Super Bowl title run, a prospect that seemed unfathomable when the team was stuck in playoff purgatory with a 7-7 record entering the regular season's final two weeks, can absolutely not be understated. Twelve times New York trailed in the fourth quarter of a game, and they rallied to win seven of those contests. Five of them came on the road.

And in those seven victories, Manning threw for a total of nine touchdowns.

"We've been in this situation time in and time out," said wide receiver Hakeem Nicks afterward. "We knew what we were capable of doing, and we got the job done."

To be fair, Manning did have some help in pulling off this feat, from both his teammates and the opponent. The comeback wouldn't have been possible without wide receiver Mario Manningham channeling his inner David Tyree and making a stupendous 38-yard catch along the sidelines to begin the deciding drive. The Giants may not have had a chance to take the lead if the ever-reliable Wes Welker doesn't let a Brady deep strike slip through his fingers on the preceding series, or if the Patriots managed to successfully recover any of three New York fumbles over the course of the night.

And even referee John Parry's ruling of intentional grounding by Brady in the end zone in the first quarter had a profound effect on the game's ending. If Parry doesn't make that call -- though justifiable, probably half of the officials rule in Brady's favor -- the Patriots likely are trailing by only a field goal (assuming the Giants kicked the extra point instead of going for two on the last score) when getting the ball back with 57 seconds left instead of needing a touchdown.

Still, none of that takes anything away from Manning's superb play, both on New York's critical last possession or the game itself, or how one man's exploits has permanently changed the fortunes of both of these two franchises.

Just think about if the Giants don't come out on top on Sunday, or if Manning and Tyree fail to connect for that miracle reception that triggered New England's demise in Super Bowl XLII four years ago. The Patriots would have an unprecedented five Lombardi Trophies in an 11-year span (the 49ers won four over 11 seasons from 1984-94) and a deserved reputation of one of the NFL's most dominant dynasties, instead of the tarnished label they now carry courtesy of the team that's become their biggest nemesis (sorry, Rex Ryan).

And Manning doesn't achieve the distinction he now rightfully holds -- that of the best quarterback in the league today with the game on the line.

"A game like this, I didn't expect nothing less," quipped Nicks.

As for Peyton, it's anybody's guess as to whether he'll ever have another opportunity to play in a Super Bowl, and it seems inevitable that the four-time league MVP will have to chase that goal in some other locale than the only one he's ever known as a professional and where's he's held in a reverence reserved for royalty. But that's a topic for another day...and the day after...and so on until his 2012 fate is finally determined.

As for Indianapolis, Super Bowl XLVI should in no way be its last after how the city expertly handled its first shot as a host.

Though the bar may have been set somewhat low, as let's face it, Central Indiana isn't normally on most people's preferred list of desired destinations for the first week of February. Indianapolis knew it needed to swing for the fences to make an impression on the NFL, the national media and all it's visitors -- and by all accounts knocked it out of the park.

There were no embarrassing ticket snafus like the one that gave Dallas a black eye at last year's game, or long and tedious shuttle rides across the prairie to get to and from the stadium. Nothing was overdone, but everything was done right.

And in reality, that shouldn't have come as a surprise. With a centrally- convenient layout and a relatively close proximity to a number of major markets, Indianapolis is a place built to host championships. And the town has plenty of experience in doing so, having put on seven NCAA Men's Basketball Final Fours in its history and four since 1997. Plus you may be familiar with a certain auto race held on the city's outskirts every Memorial Day weekend, which just happens to be the largest-attended single-day sporting event in the United States.

Now, there's no question Indy got a big assist from Mother Nature, with this past week's weather more in line with the middle of May than the middle of winter. But even if the temperature had been hovering in the 20's instead of the 50's, it would have been hard to come away displeased after how professional and hospitable the city and its people were.

If there's one factor that could work against Indianapolis in its quest for more Super Bowls, it's size. Lucas Oil Stadium's maximum capacity of around 70,000 makes it among the NFL's smaller venues, and it was a bit of a chore at times getting through the mammoth crowds that had packed the downtown streets and its establishments to the brim.

But that's nitpicking. Here's hoping the league puts public satisfaction above attendance and revenue maximizing when reviewing Indy's Super Bowl candidacy in the future.