Eli proves he belongs in 'elite' class

Eli Manning isn’t the type of guy who will ever say, “I told you so.”

In this case, he doesn’t have to.

Manning’s biggest show of hubris during his seven-plus NFL seasons — a surprising preseason proclamation that he ranked among the league’s elite quarterbacks like New England’s Tom Brady — created intense debate that still lingered heading into Sunday’s game between his New York Giants and the Patriots. There were even numerous signs in the Gillette Stadium stands mocking Manning’s statement.

“I don’t make a habit of looking into the stands or reading their signs,” Manning said when asked about them. “If I did, I don’t think I would have thought they were the expert to make that decision.”

The media at Manning’s postgame press conference began to chuckle. Manning, though, is enjoying the last laugh.

He has settled the argument not through words but by backing his original claim through stellar on-field performance.

By orchestrating the game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter Sunday, Manning invoked memories of when he did the same in New York’s Super Bowl XLII upset of the Patriots in February 2008. Like when New York wide receiver David Tyree made what is known as “The Catch” in that championship contest, another improbable hero emerged Sunday when Manning connected with lumbering tight end Josh Ballard for a 28-yard reception on third-and-10 from the Giants’ 39-yard line. Ballard then invoked memories of Plaxico Burress — albeit with far less grace — by making a one-yard touchdown catch with 19 seconds remaining to give the Giants a 24-20 upset victory.

“We could have settled for a field goal,” said Manning, referring to the option of sending the game into overtime. “I’m glad we didn’t.”

Such a finish will add more fans to the Manning bandwagon. But in a season with other big name quarterbacks like Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers commanding the spotlight, it’s easy to forget that Manning was already playing at a top level before the Patriots game.

He entered the game leading the NFL in fourth-quarter passing. He has guided the Giants (6-2) atop the NFC East despite the uncharacteristic struggles that New York has experienced rushing the football. His passing numbers Sunday — 20 of 39 for 250 yards with two touchdowns and a critical third-quarter interception in the Patriots’ end zone — weren’t phenomenal. But he came through despite injuries that had sidelined New York’s top rusher (Ahmad Bradshaw), receiver (Hakeem Nicks) and starting center (David Baas).

In many ways, the victory simply reaffirmed what Manning’s teammates and coaches already knew.

“To me he’s better than [Brady],” Giants running back Brandon Jacobs told the Bergen Record. “[Brady] couldn’t get it done today. [Manning] got it done.”

Brady almost got it done, rebounding from three rough quarters to put New England in position to win. Brady’s 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski gave the Patriots a 20-17 lead with 1:36 remaining.

Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said surrendering the score made him “about to throw up on myself.” But a shaky stomach wasn’t the reason he paid scant attention to Manning’s subsequent heroics from the sideline.

“It’s funny,” Tuck said. “Seeing Eli go up and down the field, we don’t even get nervous any more. It’s like we expect him to get a touchdown. I wasn’t even watching the game. I was talking about some plays we missed on defense.

“It was kind of like, ‘Damn, Eli is going to get them again.’”

Manning did just that — and silenced any remaining critics by outshining Brady again in their first head-to-head matchup since Super Bowl XLII.

“Call it what it is. He just beat probably the best quarterback in the league in his house,” Tuck said. “I wish you had an opportunity to ask those people who had those signs what they think about our quarterback now.”

Those Patriots fans would have to admit what Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said about Manning is true.

“He certainly has earned — and deservedly so — the respect that he’s getting,” Coughlin said.

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