- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Tom Brady has found a Manning he can't beat.
For the third time in five seasons -- twice in Super Bowls -- Brady and the New England Patriots lost to Eli Manning and the New York Giants. But Sunday night's 21-17 Super Bowl XLVI loss might be the most frustrating of all. A long-time nemesis of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, Brady has to live with the fact that Peyton's younger brother, Eli, made the plays down the stretch to power the Giants on Sunday night -- plays that Brady couldn't make.
Sure, Brady was magnificent at times in this Super Bowl, completing 27 of 41 passes for 276 yards, including a torrid stretch in which he connected on 16 consecutive passes, a Super Bowl record. But Manning was better. As he did with David Tyree in Super Bowl XLII, Manning made a big-time fourth-quarter throw to Mario Manningham that set up a Giants comeback win over the Patriots.
My Super Bowl prediction was Patriots 24-20. Even as this game wound down, I thought Brady would get the ball at the end and stop his two-game losing streak to Eli. In fact, the Patriots assured that Brady would get one last chance by allowing the Giants to score the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute, giving their quarterback 57 seconds to win the game.
Though he did complete a clutch fourth-and-16 pass to Deion Branch, Brady failed on five of his last seven throws as time ran out, rare for a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. For years, Brady held an edge on Peyton, and won three Super Bowl rings to Peyton's one. Now, thanks to Eli -- and his two rings -- Brady has gone seven seasons without a Super Bowl victory.
What else did we learn from Super Bowl XLVI?
1. It's not how you start, it's how you finish: The Giants have proved you don't have to be dominant during the regular season to win a Super Bowl. They got hot at the right time in 2007 to advance to the Super Bowl. After a 7-7 start this season, the Giants came together as a team, barely clinched the NFC East and excelled on both offense and defense during the playoffs. Thanks to their success four years ago, the Giants believed they could do the unbelievable and win four straight playoff games to win a Super Bowl. Defensive end Justin Tuck said his team doesn't doubt itself if it falls behind in big games.
"Never," he said. "We have been in that situation all year and we just kept telling ourselves one game at a time, one play at a time, and we finished it."
The Giants are great finishers. On the Patriots' final drive Sunday night, Tuck, a great leader, reminded his teammates about how they went to New England early in the season and needed to stop the Patriots in the final 15 seconds to win.
"I told them, 'We've got 57 seconds to give us the championship,'" he said, and the result was the Giants' second Super Bowl championship in four years.
2. Tom Coughlin can outcoach Bill Belichick: In my opinion, New England's Bill Belichick is the best coach of this era. He has been to the Super Bowl five times in 11 seasons. He takes players off the street, figures out how to make them role players and beats opponents with great schemes. But the Giants' Tom Coughlin outcoached him Sunday night.
Belichick opened the game with a mistake. On their first offensive play from their own 6-yard line, the Patriots came out in "jumbo" formation, in which they use a sixth offensive lineman (in this case tackle Nate Solder). Giants defenders said they had seen plenty of tape of the Patriots going jumbo and they sensed Brady would try a deep play-action pass. The recognition of the play allowed the defenders to cover the receivers and gave Tuck enough time to pressure Brady into throwing an incomplete pass from his end zone that was ruled intentional grounding, giving the Giants a safety and an early 2-0 lead.
Belichick also out-thought himself in the fourth quarter. The Pats led 17-15 with 4:06 remaining, and called for a long pass to Wes Welker that was dropped. Brady threw another deep pass that Branch couldn't catch. The Giants actually thought Brady would throw short, safe passes or call a running play or two to eat up the clock. The Giants were short on timeouts, so the Pats could have run the clock down close to the two-minute warning, plus be in position to get a field goal that would open a 20-15 lead. Instead, they had to punt to the Giants, giving them the ball with 3:53 left in regulation.
3. Belichick did the right thing in allowing Ahmad Bradshaw to score: In Super Bowl XXXII, Green Bay Packers coach Mike Holmgren allowed the Denver Broncos to score a touchdown in hopes of getting the football in Brett Favre's hands for one final drive. Belichick did the same, instructing linebacker Jerod Mayo to "let them score." Belichick said he did it because the Giants were inside the 10 and they controlled the clock.
Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said the plan was to run the clock down to 18 seconds and then kick the game-winning field goal. The scenario took place on second down from the 6-yard line. Manning made the inside handoff to Bradshaw, and when he saw the defenders open space, he yelled to Bradshaw not to score. Bradshaw heard the instruction too late. He stopped just outside the goal line, but his momentum took him into the end zone for the score. Mayo said he remembers allowing a team to score once in a game when he was a rookie, so he wasn't surprised when he heard Belichick's call. OK, so it didn't pan out. But giving Brady 57 seconds to get a game-winning touchdown was better than giving Brady 18 seconds to drive down and get the game-winning field goal. Smart coaching.
4. A lack of secondary talent haunted the Patriots: New England gave up 4,703 passing yards this season, the second-most allowed in the history of football. Belichick's best two coverage cornerbacks (Kyle Arrington and Sterling Moore) were undrafted. Cornerback Devin McCourty, a Pro Bowler a year ago, surrendered more than 1,100 yards passing this year and moves to safety when teams use three and four receivers. Not wanting to give up big plays, the Patriots aligned their safeties 15 yards deep. Playing a two-deep zone with that much room, the Giants felt they could control the football -- and they did.
Manning opened the game with nine consecutive completions. The depth of the safeties opened the running game -- the Giants finished with 114 rushing yards on 28 carries. As it turned out, adjustments in the Patriots' two-deep opened the door for the biggest play of the game, the 38-yard completion to Manningham in the fourth quarter. Gilbride recognized that the Patriots were slanting their zone coverage to the side of the field on which Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks were located. Manning sent Manningham down the left sideline. The Patriots were slow to react, and Manningham made an incredible catch that put the Giants at midfield with 3:39 left. By getting to midfield with that much time left, Gilbride knew he could mix enough running plays with passes to control the clock in advance of the game-winning score.
5. Rob Gronkowski's high ankle sprain was a big factor: Everyone knew Gronkowski was going to play, despite suffering an injury that can sideline some players for up to six weeks. Struggling to run at full speed, Gronkowski caught only two passes for 26 yards Sunday night. Belichick tried some three-receiver, one-tight-end sets that had Gronkowski on the bench when the Patriots wanted to deploy a shorter, quicker passing game.
The Giants did have problems, however, covering tight end Aaron Hernandez, who finished with eight catches for 67 yards. They tried linebackers Michael Boley and Chase Blackburn in protection before going to their fastest coverage linebacker, Jacquian Williams, in parts of the second half. But it was Brady's attempt to target Gronkowski that resulted in the game's only turnover. The Patriots' QB avoided pressure and bought time to throw a deep ball, but Gronkowski was unable to track it down and the pass was intercepted by Blackburn on the second play of the fourth quarter.
6. The Giants had tight end problems, too: In the first half, New York's second-string tight end, Travis Beckum, tore an ACL. In the fourth quarter, starter Jake Ballard suffered a knee injury and couldn't return. That left the Giants with only one tight end, hybrid fullback/TE Bear Pascoe. Gilbride had to go to a two-back, no-tight-end formation, but the team hadn't practiced from that formation in weeks. Manning was able to get three consecutive short completions out of his first set of two-back, three-receiver sets, but it was a struggle to figure out some of the running options.
Regardless, the injury-related alterations showed how well-coached and smart the Giants are. Said Manning: "We are flexible. Some of those formations we haven't practiced all week, but we get right to it and guys know what they are doing. That's the advantage of having a veteran group of guys who have been here, and they understand this offense and they can play well."
7. The Pats had the Giants' defense confused: Well, at least in the second quarter. Brady's 96-yard scoring drive toward the end of the first half tied a Super Bowl record for length, and its execution was flawless. The Giants opened with regular defensive personnel and got burned. Brady went no-huddle and got his players to the line of scrimmage quickly to prevent defensive substitutions. Brady worked a mixture of quick, short passes and quick handoffs. When the Giants were able to get more pass defenders on the field, Brady caught them in soft zones and picked them apart. He completed 10 straight pass attempts on the drive, including a 4-yard touchdown strike to Danny Woodhead with eight seconds left in the half.
8. The Giants' most important free agent is a coach: New York figures to give Coughlin, whose contract is up after the 2012 season, an extension in the next couple of months. But it turns out that Gilbride, the team's offensive coordinator, is unsigned. He has done an amazing job of developing an offense around Manning. Gilbride is schooled in the run-and-shoot offense and is one of the best at developing slot receivers such as Steve Smith, Cruz and others. But he's also a coach who can build a strong, run-oriented game plan. The Giants might have to dig into the checkbooks to keep a playcaller who works so well with Manning and has two Super Bowl rings. Said Manning: "Kevin Gilbride called a great game."
9. Brady's Hall of Fame legacy is established: When asked how his second Super Bowl loss in four years affected his legacy, Brady did a verbal detour, saying: "I hope we do get back here again. I've been lucky enough to play in this game five times in 10 years. I'd love to keep coming back to this game and taking a shot. It's better than sitting home and not playing in this game."
Let's be clear on this point: Brady is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The disappointing part of Sunday's loss is that he had 57 seconds to win, and thanks to some pressure, some drops and some off-target passes, couldn't rally his team for what he hoped would be his fourth Super Bowl victory.
10. The Giants' four-man pass rush is exceptional: Give New York credit for having an organizational philosophy that says, "You can never have enough great pass-rushers." From Tuck to Jason Pierre-Paul to Osi Umenyiora to Mathias Kiwanuka, the Giants just keep coming. Pierre-Paul is not only a great pass-rusher, but he's one of the best in the league at deflecting passes at the line of scrimmage. He batted down two of Brady's passes Sunday night. As a group, the Giants sacked Brady twice (both by Tuck), hit him eight times and forced him into throwing several errant, rushed passes.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter @ClaytonESPN.
The Giants demonstrated in Super Bowl XLVI that their pass rush is truly exceptional, John Clayton writes.