Receivers carry Manning all night

BY Zack Pierce • February 5, 2012

The Giants were down by two. They hadn’t scored a touchdown in three quarters. They had owned the ball and consistently put pressure on the Patriots defense, to little avail. Time was running out. They needed a spark.

So on first-and-10 at his own 12-yard line, with just 3:46 to go before the New England Patriots reclaimed their place atop the NFL world, Eli Manning threw a deep pass down the left sideline.

It was headed for Mario Manningham. He had space. The ball fell into his arms just before two defenders closed in and his own momentum carried him out of bounds. Somehow, he dragged both feet on the green turf.

It’s no David Tyree, but the Giants will take it.

Manningham’s 38-yard catch sparked the game-winning touchdown drive in New York’s 21-17 victory over New England on Sunday in Super Bowl XLVI. It will also serve as the lasting image of another fourth-quarter playoff comeback for the Giants, which has become something of a routine for a coach (Tom Coughlin) and quarterback (Manning) who now suddenly find themselves around words like “elite” and “legacy.”

“I knew I had to freeze my feet when the ball touched my fingertips,” Manningham said. “I knew I was either going to get hit or hit the ground. I knew something was going to happen, but I knew that I couldn’t let the ball go.”

“It was a big, big, big-time play right there,” Manning added.

So was forcing Patriots quarterback Tom Brady into an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone — and the two points that came with it. So was intercepting Brady on a deep ball earlier in the fourth quarter. So were the many big runs and catches the Giants had posted previously in the game, helping them dominate the time-of-possession battle.

But still, with all those things going for them, the Giants were trailing until Manningham flipped the script.

“For real, that put us over the top,” fellow wide receiver Hakeem Nicks said of the catch. “It was clutch and we made it at the right time.”

Nicks, Manningham and Victor Cruz form the nucleus of a receiving core that unexpectedly became one of the league’s most formidable in 2011, helping Eli turn into one of the game’s top passers. If this unit needed any more resume padding than that, they just provided it.

Manningham’s big catch will be remembered, but don’t forget Cruz’s first-quarter touchdown, which set an early tone of confidence and swagger among the team.

“I had to bottle it a little bit,” Cruz said, “but once I got it, I snagged it, and then it was salsa time after that, baby!”

And don’t forget Nicks’ game-high 109 yards. Included in that total: an eight-yard grab on third down in the third quarter that kept alive a drive that ended in a field goal and a 14-yard catch on the final touchdown drive that put the Giants comfortably into range for a potential winning field goal, though they ended up punching it in the end zone anyway.

All together, those three totaled 19 catches, 207 yards, one touchdown, and one Lombardi Trophy.

Manning is the deserving MVP, but without his pass-catchers, without the emergence of Cruz, the consistency of Nicks and the complimentary play-making of Manningham, this team might never have risen out of the hole it was in after a Week 15 loss to the Redskins left them with a 7-7 record.

They haven’t lost since, going 6-0 on an improbable run to the championship. Either Nicks or Cruz topped 100 yards receiving in each of those games. There were highlight reel plays throughout – Nicks’ 72-yard scoring strike against the Falcons in the wild card round; Nicks’ Hail Mary touchdown at the end of the first half against the Packers in the divisional playoffs; Manningham’s late touchdown catch against the 49ers in the NFC Championship game.

And, of course, Manningham’s moment on Sunday.

When the Giants beat the Patriots four years ago in Super Bowl XLII, Manning’s pass-catching core was entirely different. Amani Toomer. Steve Smith. Plaxico Burress. Kevin Boss. And David Tyree, who starred in the infamous ball-against-the-helmet catch.

That unit ranked 22nd in receiving during the regular season.

None of those players remain on the team. Nicks was drafted in 2008, just after that Super Bowl was won. Manningham came the following year. Cruz in 2010. In 2008, the Giants ranked 19th in receiving. They were 11th in each of the last two seasons. And this year, in this trio’s first full season together, they’re up to No. 5.

The surprising face of that improvement has been Cruz. By now, you know his story. He went undrafted in 2010, missed most of last season with a hamstring injury, then returned to set a Giants single-season franchise record for receiving yards with 1,536.

“I couldn’t ask for anything more, man,” Cruz said. “This is the best feeling of my life.”

These three receivers, on the verge of missing the playoffs six weeks ago, are now suddenly looking – and sounding – like seasoned winners.

“We’ve been in this situation all year,” Manningham said. “It’s just the Super Bowl.”

It’s just the Super Bowl. And you’re just the champions.