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Two days after that, someone asked Manning if he got tired of being asked about his legacy.
"Yes," he said.
INDEED, AS SUPER BOWL XLVI APPROACHED, MANNING HAD less reason than ever to address his standing in the game. In 2011, Manning had done more or less everything that an elite quarterback can do.
In the regular season he threw for 4,933 yards, more than any quarterback save Brees, Brady and the Lions' Matthew Stafford, and the sixth-most passing yards that anyone has ever accumulated in a single season. He significantly cut down on the mistakes that had plagued him as recently as 2010, when he threw a league- and career-high 25 interceptions.
"I'm not a 25-interception quarterback, I know that," he told Kay in that fateful interview, and in 2011 he wasn't. He threw 16, few of them crucial.
Manning also tossed 29 touchdown passes, and even more impressive was when he threw them. He set an NFL record with 15 fourth-quarter scores, and his ability to raise his game when the Giants needed him most—an ability he'd already demonstrated throughout his career—showed itself nearly every week, particularly late in the season. The Giants were 7--7 as Christmas neared, their playoff hopes teetering and ready to disappear with just one more loss. But then, in a pair of NFC East--clinching blowouts against the similarly postseason-hungry Jets and Cowboys, Manning threw for a solid 571 yards and four touchdowns and was only intercepted once. Most important the Giants followed him to victory and to the postseason.
Manning was even more brilliant in the playoffs' first three rounds, posting a sterling quarterback rating of 103.1 and averaging 308 passing yards, while throwing eight touchdowns and but a single pick. His toughest test came in the NFC Championship Game against the 49ers and their resurgent defense, which ranked fourth in the NFL. With the Giants' running game stifled, Manning was required to attempt 58 passes—five more than he had ever thrown in a game—and despite the helmet-twisting battering that San Francisco gave him, he completed 32 of them, including a 17-yard fourth-quarter touchdown to Mario Manningham that helped send the game into overtime. Afterward, even as bluegrass was still lodged in his molars, Manning observed, "That was a tough game."
That Manning possessed not only the physical and mental abilities but also the hard nose of an elite quarterback was not something he had to prove to his teammates and coaches. He has, after all, started every game the Giants have played since Nov. 21, 2004. But the NFC Championship Game served to confirm for them what they already knew. "It says a lot about his character and how much he loves to play the game, to just get up and keep plugging away no matter how hard it may be, no matter how much they're getting to him," said second-year wide receiver Victor Cruz, whom Manning has helped turn from undrafted rookie to the NFL's third-leading receiver. "He just kept it up and got up every single time and just kept his head in the game. That was huge for us. He's our leader."
"We have such great trust in him," seconded coach Tom Coughlin. "He doesn't get real upset and point the finger or want to know what the deal is. He's never going to show that. He's got a real sense of toughness about him, and it's demonstrated by the way in which he plays."