INDIANAPOLIS – The Giants did it again.
There was no perfect season on the line this time, but the Giants still ended the Patriots’ season in heartbreak for the second time in as many Super Bowl meetings, winning Super Bowl XLVI, 21-17, for the fourth NFL championship in franchise history.
A spectacular 38-yard Eli Manning-to-Mario Manningham sideline pass with three and a half minutes to play set New York on its way to the game-winning score. A short time later, the Patriots’ defense let running back Ahmad Bradshaw score the game-winning touchdown with their eyes on giving Tom Brady as much time as possible to lead the team to a miracle finish.
That finish never came. A last-gasp end zone heave for Aaron Hernandez bounced around and then fell to the Navy-painted turf, setting the Giants sprinting toward one another in celebration and a hail of confetti swirling into the air at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“We just came up a little bit short there,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “That’s all there is to say.”
Said Giants coach Tom Coughlin, “All of the people really did a tremendous job. We had a couple penalties that I thought took points off the board. We got into halftime and I said, ‘We can play better than this.’ They agreed.”
Manning was able to claim his second title and second Super Bowl MVP award in the house that his older brother, Peyton, built as the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts.
Brady fell to 3-2 in Super Bowls.
“I said after the game that I’ll keep coming to this game and keep trying,” Brady said. “Hopefully we’ll be back.”
But the night belonged to Eli and a Giants team that began training camp with one motto: finish.
New York pulled off six must-win games – its final two games of the regular season, which got them into the playoffs as the NFC East champion and the number-four seed in the conference – plus four postseason victories to do just what they set out to do when camp kicked off in late July.
After allowing Bradshaw to score, Brady got the ball at his own 20-yard line with 57 seconds to play, and the Patriots had one timeout. His intended receivers – Deion Branch and Hernandez – had their hands on his first two passes but couldn’t pull them in, and Brady was sacked on third down.
He linked up with Branch for a 19-yard gain on fourth down, keeping hope alive. An 11-yard completion to Hernandez followed, then a spike to kill the clock. Brady and Branch missed on a pass on third down, and then came the failed Hail Mary.
Things got off to a less than auspicious start for New England, at least offensively: after three straight tackles for loss, including two Eli Manning sacks, to force the Giants to punt, Tom Brady found his unit pinned just six yards from the goal line.
On their first snap, with Nate Solder on the field as an extra blocker, Brady was pressured through the middle and launched the ball down the center of the field. No one – not any Patriots and not any Giants – was close to being on the receiving end of the throw.
Flag. Intentional grounding. Safety. 2-0 Giants lead.
It was the sixth safety in Super Bowl history, and the first time since Super Bowl IX that the game’s opening points came on a safety.
The Giants got the ball back and upped their lead, with one error by the New England defense inside the red zone helping their cause: Victor Cruz was stripped on a 4-yard reception by Sterling Moore and Brandon Spikes pounced on the loose ball.
But a 12 men on the field flag negated the turnover and gave New York a fresh set of downs 11 yards from the end zone.
On second down, Manning zipped the ball in to Cruz for the touchdown and a 9-0 advantage for the Giants 12 minutes into the game.
At that point, the Giants had run 20 offensive plays to just one for the Patriots.
Unlike some weeks toward the end of the regular season, when New England dug itself sizable holes before successfully climbing out, the nine-point hole was as deep as it would get.
On the team’s second possession, Brady found the reliable Branch for a 15-yard gain on third-and-4, which was followed by a 19-yard catch-and-run by Wes Welker. The Patriots got inside the red zone, but on third down, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul got the first of his two batted balls in the first half, and they had to settle for a 29-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski to cut it to 9-3.
The Giants punted on their third and fourth drives, though New England went three-and-out on their possession in between. Steve Weatherford’s second punt of the night was a gem, bouncing at the 4-yard line and then flying out of bounds.
No matter for Brady, who engineered a scoring drive even though he was forced back even further when left guard Logan Mankins was called for a false start on the first play. But then gains of five and three yards by Welker and BenJarvus Green-Ellis got them out of danger, and then Brady hit Rob Gronkowski for a 20-yard gain. The tight end was backpedaling as he made his catch and was taken down by two Giants.
But he got up and showed no ill effects of his ankle sprain suffered against the Ravens two weeks earlier.
Another penalty on the offensive line, a hold by Brian Waters, took a nice pickup on a screen to Danny Woodhead off the board. Brady relied on Woodhead and Hernandez during the drive, and Woodhead finished it with a four-yard touchdown reception.
Brady had good protection on the scoring pass, moved to his right and then back to his left before he found a pretty open Woodhead to give New England a 10-9 lead heading into halftime.
By virtue of deferring after winning the coin toss to start the game, the Patriots increased their lead from one point to eight quickly in the opening minutes of the third quarter.
Receiver Chad Ochocinco, who was one of four Patriots with 10 or more years in the NFL who were playing in the Super Bowl for the first time, got his moment on the first pass of the half, when he and Branch were the only receivers on the field and Brady found him on the left sideline for a 21-yard gain.
A long run from Green-Ellis put them well into Giants’ territory, and Green-Ellis picked up four yards on third-and-1 a few plays later, giving the Patriots first down from the 20. On second-and-short, Brady found Hernandez, who took the ball in for the end zone.
The Giants posted field goals on their next two drives while New England was unable to score, pulling to within two points.