Column: Manning no longer has to prove greatness
SAN FRANCISCO – As if by design, the rain started swirling through Candlestick Park as it became clear that more than 60 minutes would be needed to find a proper opponent for the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Eli Manning had already thrown the ball 52 times, with mixed results in the NFC championship game Sunday. Now he put on his helmet and headed out for overtime against a San Francisco 49ers defense that had no intention of allowing him to do anything that would spoil their own magical ride through the playoffs.
Earlier in the season, he had proclaimed himself among the top quarterbacks in the league. If this were a script, he would have marched the New York Giants down the field for the game winning touchdown to prove himself a man of his word.
Didn't quite happen that way. There was no long drive. No quick touchdown strike.
Just the satisfaction of being in another Super Bowl, which was plenty by itself to put a wide grin on the face of a quarterback who no longer has to live in the shadow of his big brother.
"I think everyone knew we were going to get a break, get a chance to win this game," Manning said. "Something was going to happen."
What happened will be a sore spot for years among 49ers fans. It will hurt even longer than that for Kyle Williams, the backup punt returner who couldn't keep his hands on the football.
Manning's last play was an anticlimatic kneel to get Lawrence Tynes into position for the field goal that won the game 20-17. But it felt nearly as good as any touchdown pass he will ever throw.
"Just a hard fought game," Manning said. "I'm excited about this win, excited to have another chance to go to the Super Bowl."
Hopefully, excited about facing the Patriots again, too. They were the opponents the only other time Manning was in a Super Bowl, where he led the Giants to a late comeback against a heavily favored opponent enjoying a perfect season.
That won him respect. A second Super Bowl win in four years might someday put him in the Hall of Fame.
Not that any of it was on the mind of Manning and his teammates as they celebrated on a soggy field after Tynes's 31-yarder went through the uprights. They were just ready to celebrate, after yet another road win put them on the road to Indianapolis.
Hakeem Nicks gleefully held up a copy of a New York tabloid declaring his team Super Bowl-bound. Tynes hugged his crying wife, while his teammates were busy hugging each other.
Manning watched it all, with a smile that never left his face. When he went back to the locker room he had another reason to smile — his brother had flown in unannounced.
"I got my own tickets. I didn't want him to have to handle tickets," Peyton Manning said. "I'm glad I was here to witness it. I look forward to watching him play in two weeks."
Eli Manning had gotten some tips about the 49ers defense a few days earlier from his brother. Though helpful, this was a game more about perservance than figuring out schemes, more about battling to the end than figuring out how to run a screen play.
It wasn't like Manning didn't have a decent day. He completed 32 of 58 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns, numbers that were more than serviceable under the conditions.
But this was a defensive battle that was more about field position than quick strikes. And this was a 49er defense that clamped down in the second half to make life awfully difficult in the pocket for Manning.
His 17-yard pass midway through the fourth quarter to Mario Manningham off a turnover by Williams gave the Giants new hope when they were struggling. Manning was so excited about the spark that he pumped his fist in celebration and spun around to give high fives when Manningham caught the ball.
And when Williams made yet another miscue in overtime, all Manning really had to do was make sure Tynes got a chance to win it.
"There wasn't much variety in what we were doing," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "Our screens didn't seem to work especially well but Eli just hung in there, hung in there, hung in there and made plays when we needed him to make them and displayed the kind of leadership he's shown all year long."
The kind of leadership that Giants fans once questioned from the former No. 1 pick. The kind of leadership that they won't question anymore.
Not after Manning led the Giants to two final regular-season wins in games they desperately needed. Not after he guided them through three playoff wins to get into the Super Bowl.
"He stood in there loud and proud today, even when times were tough," center David Baas said. "We had some difficulties up front protecting him with some stunts and picking up stuff. We should have done a much better job."
As they did four years ago, the Giants are peaking at the right time. They're playing with the confidence of favorites even when they're underdogs, which they will be again against the Patriots — by 3 1/2 points.
Unlike four years ago, they have an undisputed leader to take them to Indianapolis. Eli Manning will have a chance to do something Peyton Manning hasn't been able to do — win two Super Bowl rings.
He won't have to declare himself among the elite of the game anymore. Other people will do that for him, after a late season run almost as improbable as the one four years ago.
The Super Bowl is all that remains. And anyone betting against Manning and the Giants will be doing it at their own risk.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or follow at http://twitter.com/timdahlberg