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FOUR YEARS AGO THE GIANTS CHANGED THE COURSE OF THE Packers' season and their team history. New York knocked off Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, Brett Favre never wore a Packers uniform again, and the Giants went on to win an unlikely Super Bowl title. This year at Lambeau the stakes were different—the defending champion Packers were 15--1, and a Green Bay dynasty appeared to be budding—but the result was the same. The constant in the games? Eli Manning.
In a tussle that became a blowout, Manning out-dueled Aaron Rodgers and led the Giants to a 37--20 victory over the Packers and a date in the NFC Championship Game in San Francisco. Manning was the best quarterback on the field. He spread the football around to his receivers, backs and tight ends, moving about the pocket with his eyes downfield.
In the first quarter Manning hit Hakeem Nicks for a 66-yard score, and he found Nicks again for a touchdown on the final play of the first half, a 37-yard Hail Mary that stuck to Nicks's face mask in an echo of the Manning--David Tyree connection from Super Bowl XLII. That gave the Giants a 20--10 lead.
"Just a great catch," Manning said. "One of the few [Hail Marys] I've thrown up and the first one that's been caught."
Overall Manning completed 21 of 33 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception. Rodgers, the likely league MVP, was 26 of 46 for 264 yards and two touchdowns, one interception (by Deon Grant in the fourth quarter) and one fumble.
Rodgers and many of his teammates appeared rusty following their bye week. On the verge of a perfect season before a Week 15 loss in Kansas City, they never looked in sync against the swarming Giants defense that sacked Rodgers four times. They went for a risky onside kick in the first half (it failed), dropped a half-dozen passes and committed four turnovers. "This team, this fan base expects championships," Rodgers said afterward. "We had a championship-caliber regular season and didn't play well tonight."
New York, meanwhile, gained 420 yards. Manning stood tall in the pocket, finishing with a robust 114.5 quarterback rating (to Rodgers's 78.5) and adding to his growing reputation as a clutch playoff performer. En route to the Giants' Super Bowl win in 2008, Manning won three road playoff games.
"This isn't his first rodeo," Giants tight end Travis Beckum said of Manning. "He's been in big games before, and people expect him to play big in big games."
Manning's sporting life has been about managing his role as the son of Archie and younger brother of Peyton. When former Giants G.M. Ernie Accorsi traded for Eli during the 2004 draft, Manning was deemed by some to be too quiet and unemotional to lead a team of men in the NFL. If Peyton was fire in the huddle, Eli was the epitome of ice.
While Eli's emergence from Peyton's shadow was celebrated in Super Bowl XLII, the 2011 season continued to be another reminder of his ability to silence the noise around him and just play football.