Commentary

Unflappable Manning lets instincts take over

On the biggest stage possible, Eli Manning demonstrated poise under pressure and a flair for the unpredictable, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: February 3, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Had the Patriots tried to spy on the Giants -- specifically QB Eli Manning -- before Super Bowl XLII, it would have been pointless.

In the fourth quarter of the Giants' 17-14 upset victory over the Patriots, Manning made plays no photographer could have captured before the game. That's because they weren't in the playbook.

• Manning, not known as a scrambler, broke free of the Patriots' pass rush, scrambled to his right and made an incredible 32-yard completion to David Tyree with 59 seconds left in regulation. A Manning scrambling like Fran Tarkenton? Try finding video of that.

• His 45-yard completion to tight end Kevin Boss at the beginning of the fourth quarter wasn't in the game plan. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride made a sideline suggestion on that one. Manning executed it like a champ.

"Let me say this,'' Gilbride said of several of Manning's plays down the stretch. "They weren't all in the game plan. A bunch of them weren't in the plan.''

Manning might not be the master of improvisation, but his ability to be loose, cool and patient in the fourth quarter allowed him to follow his brother Peyton on the podium as a Super Bowl champion and Super Bowl MVP. The first pick in the 2004 draft, Eli fulfilled his potential by winning a championship for the Giants.

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonIn addition to being poised and accurate, Eli Manning was creative in the Giants' upset victory.

He out Brady-ed Tom Brady on Sunday, engineering touchdown drives of 80 and 83 yards. His winning drive that ended with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left put him in rare company. He's only the second quarterback in Super Bowl history to throw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes in a winning effort. Joe Montana was the only other (Super Bowl XXIII).

Manning showed an incredibly calm demeanor in producing two of the most dramatic touchdown drives in Super Bowl history. At times in his career, he looked scared or aloof in critical situations. Against the Patriots, he was sharp as a knife down the stretch, and his mentality was amazing.

He loved the fact he was trailing, 14-10, with 2:39 left.

"This is where you want to be, honestly,'' Manning said. "The situation you want to be in is down four where you have to score a touchdown. If you're down three, you might settle for a field goal. You'd rather be down four where you need to get a touchdown to win the game or win the Super Bowl. You couldn't write a better script.''

Brother Peyton Manning sat in a suite, vicariously living every moment and every play his brother made down the stretch.

"You sort of play the game as you are up there watching, but you are pulling so hard for Eli,'' Peyton said. "I guarantee you I am more involved in the game he is playing than any other NFL game. I was pumped, and I got a lot of messages telling me to calm down because I was excited and pumped after the big plays he was making.''

Eli isn't Peyton. Peyton is into control and execution. Eli is cool, which led to earlier criticisms that he wasn't a leader. To his credit, Eli didn't get pumped or excited after big plays. He also didn't get flustered after bad ones. When he missed a wide-open Burress after scrambling free of Richard Seymour with 8:32 left in the fourth quarter, Manning remained composed.

"The guy is incredible,'' Gilbride said of Manning. "I don't think everybody realizes the movement he has. On the play he scrambled and missed Plaxico Burress when he was wide open, most quarterbacks would be devastated. He came back and figured he'd make some plays in the next drive.''

Taking The Fourth

Eli Manning upstaged Tom Terrific in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, carving out his own legendary status. Comparing his first three quarters to his last shows how he joined his brother Peyton as MVP.

First 3 qtrs.
4th quarter
Comp.-Att. 10-20 9-14
Pass. Yards 103 152
TD-Int. 0-1 2-0
Passer Rating 44.4 140.5

In the fourth quarter, Manning completed nine of 14 passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns. Bill Belichick tried every defensive trick in the book to stop him. He couldn't.

Little might be made of the 45-yard catch to Boss in the fourth quarter, but it turned the game in the Giants' favor. They were trailing, 7-3, and the Patriots' defense was gaining confidence. Gilbride spotted a slight hole in the Pats' D, and Manning exploited it like a champion. The adjustment was never practiced.

"They were running a quarter, quarter, half coverage, but [safety] Rodney Harrison would come up on the play fake,'' Gilbride said. "I did make a change. I called for Boss to run a seam route on this one. We've never done that.''

Manning made the perfect read, the perfect throw and the perfect start to the quarter. Five plays later, he hit Tyree with a 5-yard touchdown pass to give the Giants a 10-7 lead. Brady eventually came back -- as he usually does -- with a fourth-quarter drive that culminated in a 6-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss to put the Patriots ahead.

Now it was time for Manning to step into Super Bowl immortality. The winning drive started at New York's 17. With 1:15 left, Manning faced a third-and-5 at the Giants' 44. After taking the snap and rolling to his right, Manning was set to be sacked.

Somehow, he escaped the rush and made what looked like a Hail Mary throw to Tyree for 32 yards.

"It felt like I was being grabbed a little bit,'' Manning said. "I got out of it. I saw Tyree in the middle of the field. I tried to get the ball to him, and it just floated. He made an unbelievable catch, jumping up and holding the ball. Guys were hanging all over him.

The game-winner to Burress was a recognition play. Manning noticed that the Patriots were running a Cover Zero blitz. Everybody was coming. It was first-and-10 at the Patriots' 13 with 39 seconds left. The Patriots went for the throat. Manning ended up being the winner.

"It was just a fade route, and they came with an all-out blitz,'' Manning said. "They had been playing zone coverage. They came with an all-out blitz, and the corner sat because he thought we might run something short. Plaxico ran right by him and made a great catch to win the game.''

Manning brought back visions of Brady, Joe Montana, Steve Young and so many more of the great Super Bowl quarterbacks Sunday, but it was his unpredictability that was the key.

Manning went against convention Sunday. He improvised. He scrambled. He made great throws. Not even the greatest spy could have stopped him.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer