Once again, Super 4th quarter is Eli time

As it ended, Ava Manning had the key to her daddy’s new Corvette.

The automobile is a trophy, an expensive token to go with her father’s Super Bowl MVP award, his second in four years. But that mattered little to Ava, now 10 months old with a bright red bow in her hair. All Ava knew is the key was great for teething.

“Eli gave it to her,” shrugged Abby Manning, who is tall, blonde, Southern and just about everything else you’d expect of a Super Bowl MVP’s wife.

Now the interviews were over, and Eli — still in pads and cleats — joined his wife and daughter. They embraced and posed for a photograph. As victory tableaus go, this one would be just about perfect: rosy-cheeked toddler, hot wife, football hero.

Moments before, I had been studying Manning on the interview podium. His demeanor was, well, kind of strange. He had just altered the course of football history, winning a game that would affect the legacies of the Giants and the Patriots, their coaches, their quarterbacks, and yes, his own family.

He had engineered another fourth-quarter comeback — his seventh of the season — in a stadium built to honor his older brother. But his demeanor hadn’t changed much since Media Day.

Even now, with his teammates obviously euphoric, Manning remained conspicuously low-key. He didn’t have to proclaim his greatness, of which he alone seemed convinced just last summer. He refuses to engage in the usual game of I-told-you-so.

And as he posed for the photograph, it occurred that he had no need for any of that. He must have known all along.

Still just 31, Manning has twice outplayed Tom Brady in Super Bowls. The Giants were 7-7 in mid-December. Now it’s being mentioned as fact that Archie Manning sired two Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

“He might have said earlier in the year that he belonged with the elite quarterbacks. He will not be saying that he belongs in the Hall of Fame," said the patriarch himself. "I know Eli that well. He is in his eighth year, and I hope he can stay healthy for a long time.”

But it’s that element of time that’s so enticing here. If quarterbacks are ultimately to be judged by championships, then Eli already has done what Peyton could not. Eli’s career, buoyed by a corps of young receivers, still is in its ascent.

Only now is he coming into his own, as a quarterback and a leader. Just the same, as his rise plays out against his brother’s inevitable decline, it’s impossible to consider the Mannings without addressing questions of their legacies, as a family, as individuals, and rivals of Tom Brady.

Two Super Bowl MVPs? That qualifies as elite, no?

“That’s not a question that’s real good for quarterbacks to answer,” Eli said. “That’s a question for reporters and media. Ya’ll can debate that all you want.”

Have you spoken to your brother, I asked.

“I’ve not spoken to Peyton yet.”

And what about Brady?

“I don’t think that’s the story,” he said. “I think the story is the New York Giants are world champions.”

Manning doesn’t need to be right. Winning is quite enough. And toward that end, he completed his first nine passes, a Super Bowl record.

“We spread the ball around, threw a lot of things in the flat,” he said.

In all, he found nine receivers, some of them less than household names: Henry Hynoski, Bear Pascoe and Jake Ballard. Manning took his hits, plenty, without giving up the ball: 296 yards, no interceptions.

By comparison, Brady made two great mistakes. The first came on New England’s first play from scrimmage: a safety on an intentional grounding call in the end zone. The second was an interception thrown in the direction of his hobbled tight end, Rob Gronkowski.

That’s not meant to demean Brady, or even Pats coach Bill Belichick. The Patriots got here without a single first-round pick at the offensive skill positions. They don’t have a running game or a very good wideout. Still, for a time, it looked as though they’d win the Super Bowl.

The Patriots scored a touchdown just before halftime, then another on their first possession of the third quarter.

“That could’ve sucked the momentum right out of us,” Manning said. “But we responded.”

If he didn’t doubt his team’s chances at 7-7, he wasn’t going to start now. However, as responses go, this one would be patient and methodical, like the quarterback himself. The Giants drove for a couple of field goals, but still found themselves down late in the fourth quarter, with the ball on their own 12 and a single timeout left.

Then with 3:46 left, Manning dropped back and looked right at his favorite targets, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. As the defenders shifted, he went back to his left and let fly.

“They were in a cover-2,” Manning said. “I saw the safety cheated in a little bit and I threw it down the sideline.”

“Eli threw a perfect ball,” said Mario Manningham, who, in turn, made the perfect 38-yard catch, his feet tapping the turf just before he went out of bounds.

It led to the game-winning score, of course — another fourth-quarter comeback for Manning’s Giants.

One day he’ll consider this evening as part of his legacy. But by then, his teenage daughter will be asking for the keys to that vintage Corvette.