INDIANAPOLIS — There was no way he could lose. New England quarterback Tom Brady was throwing darts, so accurate and deadly that the New York Giants were in retreat and helpless to stop him.
Brady completed 16 consecutive passing attempts, a Super Bowl record, hooking up with everyone except his super model wife Gisele Bundchen, who watched from a luxury suite upstairs at Lucas Oil Stadium. As Brady advanced his Patriots down the field, he moved himself closer to the extraordinary legacy of his idol, Joe Montana.
There was no way he could lose, not after connecting with tight end Aaron Hernandez for a 12-yard touchdown pass that extended New England’s lead to 17-9 with 11 minutes 20 seconds remaining in the third quarter. At that point Brady had completed 20 of 23 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns.
Just when you thought Brady would be hoisting a fourth Vince Lombardi trophy above his shoulders, the 46th Super Bowl changed dramatically, and forever. We made the mistake of forgetting about the Giants’ Eli Manning, who was quietly lurking in his customary role as the overlooked quarterback.
Brady cooled off, lapsing into the kind of inconsistency that’s troubled him over his past several postseasons. And when Brady left an opening, Manning knew what to do. He pulled the Giants out of another crisis, engineering the team’s seventh fourth-quarter comeback of the season, cutting down Brady and the Patriots for a 21-17 victory that altered the legacy of both quarterbacks.
Look, Brady is a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback. He’s still among the greatest QBs in NFL history. He’s won three Super Bowls. His record as a starter, including the postseason, is 140-41. He’s had an exceptional career.
Brady, however, is no longer winning the biggest games. And that’s notable for a quarterback who built his reputation on the epic victories that came to define him.
Since the Patriots captured their third Super Bowl to end the 2004 season, they’ve gone 7-6 in the postseason. Brady and the Patriots have lost four of their last six postseason games, including their last two Super Bowls, both to Manning’s Giants.
Brady and Patriots coach Bill Belichick haven’t won a Super Bowl after the team’s scandalous “Spygate” surveillance system was exposed in 2007.
After going up by eight points early in the third quarter, seemingly in control of Super Bowl 46, the Patriots didn’t score again. They struck out on their last four possessions, with Brady losing his touch. Brady and the Patriots let the Giants get away. This isn’t supposed to happen.
The zipped TD pass to Hernandez was Brady’s last hurrah of Sunday night. The rest of the way Brady completed only 7 of 18 passes for 75 yards, no touchdowns and an interception for an anemic passer rating of 28.7.
That’s shocking. And that’s why Brady lost his chance to join Montana (San Francisco) and Terry Bradshaw (Pittsburgh) as the only quarterbacks to win four Super Bowls.
Brady came up short, putting his team in an early 2-0 hole by getting flagged for intentional grounding from the end zone for an automatic safety. And after his remarkably torrid stretch that had all of New England thinking of the next Super Bowl parade, Brady couldn’t make a crucial play when his team needed it.
“This game always seems to come down to one play,” Brady said. “If you make it you celebrate, and if you don’t make it you don’t sleep for a week.”
Manning made the plays Sunday night. And in Super Bowl 46, the legacy of both starting quarterbacks took a startling turn in opposite directions.
Manning was the money man in this one, upstaging Brady for a second time in their two Super Bowl showdowns. And by winning his second Super Bowl in five years, Eli also moved ahead of his big brother Peyton, who won only one Super Bowl for the Indianapolis Colts despite leading his team to the playoffs in 11 seasons since 1998.
Sunday night, Lucas Oil Stadium was Eli’s house.
Peyton had to stand down.
So did Brady, Peyton’s career arch rival.
“I think it’s special because of the city here,” said Archie Manning, the father of Peyton and Eli. “This city has meant a lot to our family for 14 years.”
This is what Eli did after Brady and the Patriots took their eight-point lead: 17 completions in 23 attempts for 176 yards. With Brady playing smaller, Eli’s reputation grew again. Eli is now 8-3 in his postseason career and has won seven of the last eight.
“I don’t need to say anything about Eli,” Giants running back Brandon Jacobs said. “I shouldn’t have to say anything about Eli. Two-hundred and twenty-eight countries watching the game just saw Eli. I don’t have to say anything.”
The Giants, down 17-15, took over on their 12-yard line with 3:46 remaining in the fourth quarter. On the first play, Manning threw a perfect 38-yard strike down the left sideline to Mario Manningham, who made a terrific catch to get the Giants going. All in all, Manning completed five of six passes for 58 yards on the winning drive, setting up the 6-yard touchdown run by Ahmad Bradshaw with 57 seconds remaining.
It was another display of fourth-quarter excellence by Manning. He’s been at his best late in games this season, often putting up spectacular numbers to fuel a series of comebacks.
“This isn’t about one person,” Manning said. “This is about a team coming together. We never got discouraged, kept the faith, kept our confidence and just fought to the very end.”
It may not be about one person. But one person, Eli, was handed his second Super Bowl MVP award minutes after staging the upset.
In the Giants’ 20 regular-season and postseason games, Manning has completed 67 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and six interceptions. His fourth-quarter passer rating this season was a scorching 111. The Patriots felt that burn in Super Bowl 46.
“Obviously he’s a great quarterback,” said Brady, trying valiantly to smile. “Obviously he’s a great leader.”
Brady is a great quarterback and leader, too.
He just isn’t winning the biggest games anymore.