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 their fourth Vince Lombardi Trophy, 21-17, last night.
A spectacular 38-yard, Eli Manning-to-Mario Manningham sideline pass with 3:46 remaining sent New York on its way to the winning score. The Patriots’ defense intentionally allowed running back Ahmad Bradshaw to score with 1:04 left, with their eyes on giving Tom Brady as much time as possible to lead the team to a miracle finish.
It never came. A last-gasp, end-zone heave for Aaron Hernandez bounced around and then fell to the turf, sending the Giants sprinting toward one another in celebration and a hail of confetti swirling at Lucas Oil Stadium.
In the dusty interview area in the bowels of the stadium, there were Patriots players everywhere taking the blame for some part of the loss. Sterling Moore, the hero against the Ravens in the AFC Championship game, pointed the finger at himself for Manningham’s catch, saying he tried to roll up on the receiver and put a hit on him, to give safety Patrick Chung enough time to help in coverage.
“Eli threw just a perfect pass,’’ Moore said. “I put that one squarely on me.’’
Wes Welker, his eyes red and holding back tears, took the blame for almost the entire game: a Brady fourth-quarter pass to an open Welker went off the receiver’s hand. The pass wasn’t perfect, but that didn’t stop Welker from taking the blame for not making the play.
“It’s one of those plays I’ve made a thousand times. Just didn’t make it,’’ Welker said. “The ball is right there. I’ve just got to make the play. It’s a play I’ve made a thousand times in practice. It comes to the biggest moment of my life and I don’t come up with it.’’
Teammate Deion Branch agreed that Welker would make the catch 99 percent of the time.
Bill Belichick, who had the chance to become just the second man to win four Super Bowls as a head coach, said there were “100 plays’’ he might want to see play out differently.
Manning was able to claim his second title and second Super Bowl MVP in the house his older brother, Peyton, built. But last night belonged to Eli, coach Tom Coughlin, and a Giants team who began training camp with one motto: finish.
New York pulled off six must-win games - its final two of the regular season, which got them into the playoffs as the NFC East champion and the No. 4 seed in the conference - plus four postseason games 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 - 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 second down, and then came the Hail Mary.
“We got to the 50 and just ran out of time,’’ Brady said. “I’m not sure how close we were to getting [the Hail Mary]. Obviously, I wish we could have done a little bit more.’’
“I thought we had a chance,’’ guard Logan Mankins said.
“I saw the ball bounce around and I didn’t know if they caught it, we caught it, anyone caught it,’’ Mankins said of the last-gasp throw. “I just looked to the official for a signal.’’
Things got off to a less-than-auspicious start for New England, at least offensively: After three straight tackles for loss, including two sacks of Manning, to force the Giants to punt, Brady found his offense pinned just 6 yards from the goal line.
On their first snap, with Nate Solder in as an extra blocker, Brady was pressured through the middle and launched the ball down the center of the field. No one - any Patriot or any Giant - was close to being on the receiving end.
Flag. Intentional grounding. Safety. Giants, 2-0.
After getting the ball back, the Giants went 78 yards for a score, capped by Manning’s 2-yard toss to Cruz, to make it 9-0.
But from there, Brady, who promised team owner Robert Kraft that he would play better in the Super Bowl than he had in the AFC Championship game, found his groove: He completed 16 straight passes spanning the second and third quarters, breaking the Super Bowl record held by Joe Montana and tying his own postseason best set against the Jaguars in 2007.
New England was able to score touchdowns to close out the second quarter and open the third, giving them a 17-9 lead.
The Giants posted field goals on their next two drives while New England was unable to score, pulling to within 17-15.
Manning, who this season broke his brother’s NFL record for fourth-quarter touchdown passes with 15, made his eighth fourth-quarter comeback of the year when it mattered most, completing 5 of 6 passes on the final drive.
For the night, he was 30 of 40 for 296 yards and one touchdown. The Patriots sacked him three times, but though the defense forced two fumbles, it wasn’t able to get either loose ball. One first-quarter fumble by Victor Cruz was pounced on by Brandon Spikes, but the would-be turnover was negated by a penalty for 12 men on the field.
Though players were heartbroken, several noted that this Patriots team is young, and Branch promised that they would be back.
That’s in the future, though. Last night, as the reality of coming so close to lifting the Lombardi Trophy and letting it slip away again set in, the talk was more of the pain.
“It hurts pretty bad,’’ Mankins said. “I’ve lost a lot of games in my career, but nothing hurts like losing the Super Bowl.’’