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. Trustworthy. Smart. Tremendously hardworking. 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 games."
This partnership of coach and player reached a new peak in the dank, misty San Francisco gloaming. Manning dropped back 65 times, a playoff-game record for a Giants QB, and was pressured or hit 23 occasions. He threw 58 passes, completing 32 for 316 yards, was sacked six times and scrambled once. Interceptions and lost fumbles? Zero. Manning's counterpart, Alex Smith, wasn't nearly as good, and Smith's 49ers teammates weren't as unerring. 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 face the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, a rematch of the title game of four years ago.
Two days before this year's NFC title game Manning got his receivers together for their weekly hourlong meeting—no coaches. As the gathering wound down, Manning delivered his message, what he thought was important for the week. "We've all got to be patient," Manning said. "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."
Coughlin-speak. When the coach was told of Manning's message to his receivers, he smiled as if he had just won the lottery. "Isn't that something?" he said.
Over the first two quarters against San Francisco, Manning found his favorite receivers, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, 11 times. But with the Giants trailing 14--10 in the second half, Manning began looking elsewhere. "Did you see that throw to Manningham?" Coughlin asked after the game. He meant the TD pass to Mario Manningham with 8:34 to play that gave the Giants a 17--14 lead. On third-and-15 from the Niners' 17, Manningham ran a deep post and zing!—the perfect strike, over one safety and under another, hit the receiver in the end zone.
Manning took two brutal shots late in the fourth quarter, one on a three-man sandwich just after he released the ball, but he didn't need to persevere for long in overtime. Giants linebacker Jacquian Williams stripped Kyle Williams 5½ minutes in, and five plays later Lawrence Tynes kicked the winning field goal, just as he had in overtime of the NFC title game in 2008. Everyone remembers how that season wound up.