The New England Patriots had just marched down the field to take a 14-10 lead and were less than three minutes away from winning Super Bowl XLII, capping an undefeated season and staking their claim as the greatest team in NFL history.
The only thing standing between the Patriots and perfection was Manning, the mild-mannered Giants quarterback who had spent his life stuck in the shadows of famous family members.
As he took the field with 2:39 to play, Manning was taking on more than just the New England defence, a veteran unit boasting several championship-tested stars. He was staring down a chance at football immortality.
But after all the obstacles Manning already had overcome in his brief but burdensome career, this was just an 83-yard stroll in the park.
“That’s the position you want to be in,” Manning said. “You want to have the ball in your hands, four minutes left go down, you’ve got to score a touchdown. That’s where you want to be, a chance to win the game.”
Manning capitalised on that chance in a manner that few people thought he was capable of, orchestrating a magical game-winning drive to propel the Giants to a shock 17-14 victory.
After converting a pair of third downs, Manning completed his masterpiece by lobbing a 13-yard touchdown to Plaxico Burress in the corner of the end zone, igniting a celebration on the Giants’ sideline and sparking pandemonium in the Big Apple.
“You’re better off being down by four where you have to score (a touchdown) to win the game in the Super Bowl,” Manning said. “To go and do it is an unbelievable feeling.”
It was an amazing vindication for Manning, who encountered nothing but criticism since coming into the NFL as the No 1 draft in 2004.
Although he offered brief glimpses of brilliance over his first three seasons, Manning always fell short of the lofty standards established by father Archie, a former All-Pro quarterback, and big brother Peyton, two-time NFL MVP.
Eli’s pedigree was unquestioned, but his physical and mental makeup left questions. Critics cited his propensity for interceptions — he led the league with 20 this season — and argued he wasn’t as tough as Archie or as obsessive as Peyton.
Impatient Giants fans and New York’s media bashed Eli for his “aww shucks” demeanour — his laid-back personality that rubbed people the wrong way, especially after losses.
But when the Giants needed him most, Eli remained calm in the most pressurised of circumstances.
“You know you’ve got to make a play and you’ve got to make a play to the end zone,” Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said. “(Eli) played very, very well and very cool — very calm.”
“As a quarterback, I have had appreciation for Eli’s ability to remain calm in the eyes of pressure situations,” added Peyton Manning, who cheered on his baby brother at University of Phoenix Stadium. “The best quarterbacks live in those moments, as opposed to being overwhelmed.”
Long considered one of the game’s best quarterbacks, Peyton reached his pinnacle 10 years into his NFL career last February, when he led the Indianapolis Colts to a championship and was named Super Bowl MVP.
With just four pro seasons on his resume, Eli matched big brother on Sunday, completing 19-of-34 passes for 255 yards and two TDs to earn this year’s MVP honours.
“I couldn’t be prouder,” Archie Manning said. “I never thought about them even playing college ball, much less pro football, much less winning Super Bowls or MVPs.”
In fact Eli entered the realm of Joe Montana, the only other quarterback in Super Bowl history to throw two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a win.
Montana will always be revered for his game-winning TD pass to Dwight Clark in the 1982 NFC championship game, a play now known simply as “the Catch”.
Likewise, Manning authored an all-time play with one minute remaining and the Giants facing a 3rd-and-5 from their own 44. He dropped back, miraculously escaped the clutches of Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green, rolled to his right and slung a ball to David Tyree, who made an unbelievable leaping catch at the Patriots 24.
“I found a way to get loose, and just really threw it up,” Manning said. “He made an unbelievable catch and saved the game.”
Coughlin offered a more superlative assessment of the amazing play. “That might be one of the great plays of all time in the Super Bowl,” he said.
* The Giants became the first NFC wild card team to win a Super Bowl; four AFC teams have done it. They also are the second wild-card champions in three years, following the Pittsburgh Steelers after the 2005 season.