When New York Giants wide receiver Mario Manningham felt the football hit his fingertips, a single thought crossed his mind: freeze your feet. With just under four minutes left in Super Bowl XLVI and the New York Giants trailing the New England Patriots 17-15 while pinned deep in their own territory, Eli Manning lobbed a long pass deep down the left sideline, right at midfield. Manningham had beaten Patriots defensive back Sterling Moore, but safety Patrick Chung was chugging over to help. Despite Moore taking a swing at his hands, and Chung taking a whack at his body, Manningham not only made the catch, but managed to freeze those feet, plant them on the ground, and barely remain in bounds. “After I caught that ball, I thought we were going to win the game,” Manningham says. The receiver also credited his size 11 shoes. “If I had 11-and-halves,” Manningham says, “I would have been out.”
And the Giants might not be celebrating a second Super Bowl in five years – both thrilling comeback wins over the Patriots – and the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl title; only the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, and San Francisco 49ers now own more Lombardi trophies. The Manning-to-Manningham connection, a 38-yard pass, was the longest of the game, and seven plays later, Giants running back Ahamad Bradshaw scored the weirdest game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl history: the Patriots let him score so they could get the ball back, instead of allowing the Giants to run down the clock and kick a last-second field goal (Patriots coach Bill Belichick decided to challenge the Manningham catch and lost a timeout, hence the situation with the clock). Realizing what the Pats were doing, however, Bradshaw tried to stop on the goal line to take a knee. But it was too late: with his momentum carrying him forward, Bradshaw reluctantly rolled into the end zone. “It was a mistake by me,” says Manning. “I had a feeling they might do that. I should have got to him and told him not to score. As I broke the huddle it kind of crossed my mind. As I got the snap I saw their d-line just ease up and I was yelling to Ahmad, ‘not to score, not to score.’”
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He did, and the Giants survived one final Tom Brady Hail Mary into the end zone to preserve a 21-17 victory and become the first 9-7 team to win the Lombardi Trophy. “I said, Lord, do not let this man to this to us,” said Father Bill Dowd, the Giants team chaplain, in the joyous Giants locker room after the game. “But we got the pressure on him, thanks be to God.”
Manning, who completed 30 of 40 passes, for 296 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions, won his second Super Bowl MVP award; he started the game with nine straight completions, and on the game-winning drive, Manning went 5 for 6, for 74 yards. Forget about the “Peyton’s little brother” label: Eli could be headed for the Hall of Fame. “You used all your gifts tonight,” Dowd told Manning as he walked through the Giants locker room, and shared hugs with wide receiver Victor Cruz, Giants general manager Jerry Reese, and others.
Before this season, Manning caused a controversy when he classified himself as one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks: even diehard Giants fans disagreed with him. Someone asked Eli if that argument was over. “You all can debate that all you want,” Eli says. “I just know we’re world champions tonight.”
“People laughed at him,” says Giants offensive lineman David Diehl. “They mocked him when he said he was an elite quarterback. What he has is his confidence. And he went out there and showed it tonight.”
Despite Eli’s strong all-around game, Manningham’s circus grab will stand out. “Just as David Tyree’s catch [against his helmet] was the signature play of our last Super Bowl, Manningham’s catch will be the signature moment of this Super Bowl,” says Giants co-owner John Mara. “It’s kind of eerie.” After the game, Tyree was hanging out in the Giants locker room, congratulating his former mates. “Hey Manningham,” Tyree called out. “They are going to be asking me about you all day.”
While Manningham’s grab keyed New York’s win, a muffed catch cost the Patriots. Wes Welker caught 122 balls this season, the best in the NFL, but the one he couldn’t grab will gnaw at him all off-season, and beyond. With just over four minutes left and New England up 17-15, Brady found a wide-open Welker at the New York 20-yard-line. Brady delivered the ball a little to Welker’s left, causing him to twist: still, he leapt, and clutched it with two hands. But it fell right through them. “The ball is right here,” says Welker. “It’s play I’ve made a thousand times in practice and everything else. It comes to the biggest moment of my life and [I] don’t come up with it . . . This is one that will take awhile to shake off, that’s for sure.” He just shook his head, silent.
If Welker catches that pass, the Pats are in prime position to score the game-clinching touchdown. Instead, they had to punt, and watch Manningham break their hearts. Brady refused to blame Welker. “He’s a hell of a player,” says Brady. “I’ll keep throwing the ball to him as long as I can. I love that guy.” No love could comfort Welker on the long, tortuous walk to the Pats team bus. Wearing a blue plaid shirt and jeans, and carrying a book bag, the 5’9” Welker looked like a college kid who just failed a final.
The Giants, meanwhile, were getting ready to party. “Call up Obama,” one player yelled out. “We’re coming to visit.” Defensive end Osi Umenyioria spoke on a cell phone. “We’re going to shut New York down,” he said. The ticket tape parade is Tuesday. The Giants should give Manningham’s Size 11s their own float.