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GREEN BAY -- The New York Giants had left Aaron Rodgers in the same Lambeau Field heap with Brett Favre, and the good people of Green Bay were cursing under their chilled breath as they staggered into the night and confronted this cruel fact:
Eli Manning would have found a way to beat Bart Starr here, too.
Manning outlasted Favre in overtime then, and he blew the doors off Rodgers' house now. Eli won with Plaxico Burress then, and he won with Hakeem Nicks now. Eli survived in subhuman conditions then, and he thrived in near-tropical Green Bay weather now.
Sure, Tom Landry could've used this Manning in the Ice Bowl. A lot of great coaches in a lot of great games could've used this Manning, Peyton's kid brother, a quarterback looking like a smart bet to beat the San Francisco 49ers, advance to Indy, and win the Super Bowl in Peyton's place.
"You know Eli," said his father, Archie, after watching Giants 37, Packers 20. "He just plays. Eli prepares and plays, that's what he does. He loves to play, and he loves the Giants ... and that's the way I describe Eli.
"The road? Pressure? Fourth quarter? He just plays."
Manning plays better than better quarterbacks. Four years ago, after Tom Brady threw a record 50 touchdown passes, Eli buried Brady's 18-0 New England Patriots with a heave that landed on David Tyree's head.
Sunday night, Manning ended Rodgers' own dream season -- maybe the greatest regular season of them all -- with a different kind of heave, a Hail Mary touchdown pass he'd never before completed in a Pop Warner, high school, college, or NFL game. Eli did throw a few of them in his backyard as a boy, but back then, he said, "It's usually winning the game on it. It's not usually, 'Hey, we scored a touchdown before halftime.'"
Only the absurd 37-yard jump ball to Nicks on the final play of the first half was as good as a walk-off homer. This wasn't Tyree all over again, but the ball did graze Nicks' helmet as he stole it from Charles Woodson and Charlie Peprah and gathered it with his red gloves.
"One of those crazy, fluky plays," Rodgers called it.
Eli isn't a stat machine, but he does lead the league in crazy, fluky plays, if only because there's often a method to the madness.
|Eli Manning has a knack for playing better than better quarterbacks in big games.|
This time around, Manning used a Mike McCarthy timeout against the Packers coach. With 15 seconds left in the first half, Manning was about to hand the ball to Ahmad Bradshaw for an inside run on third down that, by Eli's own account, was more or less designed to kill the clock and send the Giants into the locker room with a 13-10 lead.
But McCarthy's dreadful decision gave Manning and the Giants a chance to regroup. They audibled to a Bradshaw play to the outside, and Eli used the timeout to remind the running back to get the first down and get out of bounds to allow for one more snap.
"So the timeout did change the play," Manning said.
It changed the play, the game, the season.
"Nobody sees what Eli does behind the scenes," Tom Coughlin said. "He is a studier now, he's a pounder. He's looking for every little advantage that he can get."
McCarthy gave Manning a small window of opportunity, and the NFC side of the tournament was flipped upside down. Bradshaw took off for 23 yards, and followed Eli's orders by stepping out of bounds with six seconds left. If the Giants go ahead and win it all, the rest will go down in history.
Manning is two victories away from becoming the first Giants quarterback to claim two Super Bowl titles. He's one Sunday in Candlestick Park away from becoming the first NFL quarterback ever to win five playoff games on the road.
"He just is such a smart player, such an accurate passer and so cool under pressure," said Giants owner John Mara. "That's what you need in a quarterback, and he's given that to us time and time again.
"Like Phil Simms used to say, just win the game. That's what Eli strives to do. He makes big play after big play, and it's unbelievable. I never cease to be amazed."
No, the Giants didn't advance to the NFC title game on Manning's precision and poise alone. The defense recovered three fumbles and turned Rodgers inside out, sacking him four times, forcing him to run far more than he cared to, and making him look like a guy who hadn't played since Christmas night.
Nicks was again the artist formerly known as Victor Cruz, and the offensive line made a believer of B.J. Raji, giving Eli enough time on his dropbacks to film a Discount Double Check commercial of his own.
But the Giants knew Manning had to outplay Rodgers to win this game, and outplay Rodgers the visiting quarterback most certainly did. Manning was good for 330 passing yards and three touchdowns, Rodgers for 264 and two.
"I don't play that quarterback matchup thing," father Archie maintained. "It's not tennis or golf. ... Eli didn't beat anybody, the Giants did."
Eli beat Rodgers, which was plenty good enough. After the wing and a prayer to Nicks, a play Coughlin called Flood Tip, Brandon Jacobs said he saw in the Packers' body language a broken and beaten team.
Suddenly the Giants were reliving the early weeks of 2008 all over again. Up in the press box, just as Nicks made the impossible possible, making Flood Tip work without the tip, Mara shot out of his seat and threw his arms in the air in touchdown form.
"He's a pretty special player," the owner said of Manning.
Mara was told that pretty special player is rarely mentioned with the true superstars of the league, Rodgers and Brady, Peyton and Brees.
"I'm not so sure that will be the case anymore," Mara replied.
When Manning threw a fourth-quarter strike to Mario Manningham to make it 30-13, it was game, set, and overmatched for Green Bay.
"He made a statement a long time ago which I thought was great," Coughlin said of his quarterback. "He's just trying to be the best he can be and help his team win. If we could all just remember that and use that."
Forever a room temperature personality, Eli was a conspicuously happy man Sunday night, introducing his young nephew to Nicks in the back of Lambeau's postgame interview room, laughing at a couple of Jacobs' bold statements, and playing along with the kidding he got for throwing an athletically-challenged block.
Manning isn't the biggest, strongest or fastest Giant, just the best Giant. Above all, he's good enough to advance to Peyton's field, and to double Peyton's total of Super Bowl rings once he gets there.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.