GLENDALE, Ariz. - It was better, Eli Manning said, that his team was down by 4 points and not 3. It was better without the option of a field goal, without the possibility of overtime. It was victory or nothing.
"That's the position you want to be in," the Giants quarterback said last night, after he'd rallied his mates to the biggest Super Bowl victory since another New York team shocked the world in 1969. "You want to have the ball in your hands, three minutes left, go down, you've got to score a touchdown. That's where you want to be."
If the Patriots had stopped Brandon Jacobs on fourth down, if they'd sacked Manning when they had him surrounded, if Rodney Harrison had knocked the ball out of David Tyree's hands, the game might well have been over. But they couldn't.
Manning kept making play after play after play until there were none left to make. "We knew we could make it happen," said Manning, after he'd joined big brother Peyton as Super Bowl champion and MVP. "We just had to do it."
The Patriots were 70-2 since 2001 when they'd led after three quarters. But Manning kept his offense going, kept the chains moving, kept getting balls to unlikely people.
He hit tight end Kevin Boss for 45 yards on the opening drive of the fourth quarter, Steve Smith for 17 more on third down, then Tyree for 5 yards down the middle to put New York ahead, 10-7. Eighty yards, six plays, in less than four minutes. "We finally got something going with the big drive," Manning said.
The Giants also made a point. If they had to, they could move quickly down the field against an "unbeatable" team. "We didn't treat them like some Greek myth," said Tyree, who hadn't caught a touchdown pass all season. "There was no Godzilla factor."
And even after Tom Brady had brought the Patriots back, throwing the go-ahead touchdown pass to Randy Moss with 2:42 left, the Giants figured they had enough time to win and the right man at the controls. "What can you say?" said receiver Amani Toomer. "You saw the plays he made."
The first one, an 11-yard pass to Toomer, was crucial. "In a two-minute drive, that's the biggest thing," said Toomer. "Getting that first first down."
Yet there was a bigger one, the bull-rush by Jacobs on fourth-and-1 at the New York 37 that kept the offense on the field. "It was an amazing drive in that we'd made a first down, and then we'd stall for a few plays and then we'd make another one," said coach Tom Coughlin.
The most astounding moment was Manning's Great Escape from a scrum of star-spangled defenders who had him everything but hogtied on third-and-5 on the Giants' 44. "Guys were jumping on him, pulling him down by the back of his neck, horse-collaring," said receiver Plaxico Burress. "Somehow, he made a hell of a play."
Manning made it simply by continuing to play, to keep his legs pumping and his arms free and his hands on the ball. "I knew people were grabbing at me but I never felt I was being pulled down," Manning said. "You try to get small sometimes."
And then, after he'd slipped free, he saw Tyree in the middle of the field more than 30 yards away and let one fly. "I tried to get the ball to him and it just floated," said Manning. "He just made an unbelievable catch. Jumping up, holding onto that ball, guys hanging all over him."
There were just 59 seconds left now, with the ball on the New England 24 and the Giants down to their final timeout, which had to be burned when Manning was sacked on the next play. Still, there was plenty of time left for winning, even on third-and-11. Manning coolly hit Smith for 12 yards to the 13, then went for the throat.
The Patriots, who'd been in zone coverage, came with a blitz and Burress ran a fade. "The corner [Ellis Hobbs] sat because he thought we might run something short," said Manning. "[Burress] ran right by him and made a great catch to win the game."
By then, Manning had done all he could do. Brady, who had won two Super Bowls with last-minute drives, still had 35 seconds to play with. So Manning kept his helmet with him and even after Patriots coach Bill Belichick left the field with time on the clock, Manning went back out for the final snap. The way you beat an unbeatable team is to play the game out.
"A lot of people got down on him early in the year, a lot of criticism, but he stayed true to himself," Burress said. "He stayed Eli, kept his focus, didn't let anybody get in his head and just kept playing."