The NFC Championship Game had been over for about 70 minutes, and the winning coach and quarterback were 30 feet apart in Candlestick Park's postage stamp of a locker room. Tom Coughlin, the rigid, relentlessly demanding Northerner. Eli Manning, the easygoing Southerner. They came to the Giants in 2004, together but worlds apart. Now they're so close they can almost finish each other's sentences.
"Eli's just so ... so ..." said Coughlin, in his boxers and blue Giants undershirt, searching for the right word. "Reliable. Totally reliable. Trustworthy. Smart. Tremendously hardworking. Consistent as the day is long. What I love about him is, I know what he's doing 365 days a year. He's doing something that will help us win football games."
That's not just the perfect quarterback for the 65-year-old Coughlin. It's the perfect reflection of himself.
This partnership of coach and player reached a new peak on Sunday in the dank, misty San Francisco gloaming. Manning dropped back to pass 65 times, more than in any playoff game in the 87-year history of the New York franchise, and was pressured or hit on 23 of those. (He threw 58 passes, completing 32 for 316 yards, was sacked six times and scrambled once.) Interceptions and lost fumbles? Zero. In 90 offensive plays, in fact, the Giants didn't turn the ball over once. Manning's counterpart, Alex Smith, wasn't nearly as good, and his 49ers teammates weren't nearly as reliable. Two mistakes—a muffed punt and a fumble—by backup return man Kyle Williams handed New York 10 points in the last 17 minutes. The 20--17 overtime win sent the Giants to Indianapolis to face the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5, a rematch of the David Tyree Velcro-catch game of four years ago and a chance for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady to avenge the ruination of their perfect season and their only Super Bowl loss.
Not to mention: Peyton Manning's brother versus Peyton's archrival in the House That Peyton Built. With Peyton most likely in a luxury box, watching enviously, we assume, but with immense pride in his little brother.
Of course, with Eli, as with Peyton, so much is in the preparation. That's what they learned in years of watching their father, Archie, bring home game film at night during his 14-year NFL career. Games are won on Wednesdays and Thursdays and Fridays, not just on Sundays.
Two days before the conference title game, back in New Jersey, Manning got his receivers together for their weekly hourlong meeting—just the quarterback and his receiving corps, no coaches. As the meeting wound down Manning delivered his message, what he thought was important for the week. "In this game," Manning said, "we've all got to be patient. With this defense we're facing, nothing will come easy. Their lifeline is turnovers, so you've got to protect the football. Punting's fine. Just don't give them any points, and we'll have a chance to win it at the end."
Coughlin-speak. When the coach was told on Sunday night of Manning's message to his receivers, he smiled as if he'd just won the lottery. "Isn't that something?" he said.
The night before, Coughlin had gathered his team in a ballroom at the Hyatt near the San Francisco airport for his pregame speech. He brought up the three former Giants who were honorary captains for the game—tight end Mark Bavaro, defensive end Michael Strahan and guard Rich Seubert, tone-setters for Super Bowl champion teams past and recent. "All three of those guys would give anything to be playing in this game," Coughlin said with customary passion. "But their time was then. Their time has passed. Your time is now. I can promise you: This is a game you'll be telling your grandchildren about in 50 years."
If you like defense and a quarterback playing up to the Manning family name, yes, this will be a game you'll remember for a long time. Bitterly if you're a Niner, euphorically if you're a Giant. San Francisco proved again that it will be a force in the coming years, with or without soon-to-be free agent Smith under center. The Niners' quarterback threw two beautiful balls to tight end Vernon Davis, for 73- and 28-yard touchdowns that left San Francisco up 14--10 after a mucky three quarters. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman, one of the league's top head coaching candidates, ran unusual packages to try to get something going. The coolest: A 930-pound triangle of blockers on the right side of the line—tackle Joe Staley and defensive linemen Justin Smith and Isaac Sopoaga—to clear a path for 233-pound back Anthony Dixon on the first series of the fourth quarter. Amazingly, the Giants clogged the lane against that formation, allowing only three yards on two carries and forcing San Francisco to punt.