INDIANAPOLIS - All year long, the question bugging anyone interested in the fortunes of the New England Patriots was this: In a game-saving situation, could the defense get the other guys off the field?
This wasn’t just a game-saving situation. This was a Super Bowl-saving situation. The lead was 17-15. There was 3:46 remaining in the game. The Giants were 88 yards from a touchdown and perhaps 53 or so yards from a potential winning field goal. You can say the offense coulda/shoulda/woulda done more to hand over a bigger lead, but it is a team game, and now the defense had to do its job.
And it couldn’t. In a scenario eerily reminiscent of both Super Bowl XLII and the regular-season game of Nov. 6, the Patriots could not get Eli Manning and his offense off the field. The final score of Super Bowl XLVI last night was New York 21, New England 17, and the winning score was a rare conceded touchdown brought about because the Patriots did not want the Giants to run the clock down and kick a winning gimme field goal that would have left Tom Brady & Co. with no viable chance to come back.
But the fact remains the Giants won - again - and the Patriots lost - again - because when it had to be done, the Patriots could not get the Giants off the field.
But I guess you’d have to say that’s something of a loser’s lament. In New York, they are saying that Manning won - again. They’ll say that Manning enhanced his growing reputation as football’s reigning Mr. Fourth Quarter. And they will say Manning out-Brady-ed Tom Brady - again.
How could they not?
“Eli made some great throws in the fourth quarter,’’ acknowledged Brady, “and deserved to win. They did a better job than we did.’’
One throw in particular will live forever in Giants lore. Four years ago, Manning connected on a crucial toss with David Tyree, who pressed the ball to his helmet as he fell atop Rodney Harrison to set up the winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress. The throw itself wasn’t anything special. It was all about Manning’s escape from a sure sack and the catch.
This time, the memorable play was a 38-yard completion to Mario Manningham on first and 10 from the Giants’ 12 at the aforementioned 3:46 mark. This time, the credit had to be split between the quarterback and the receiver. It was a spectacular throw against the double coverage of Sterling Moore and Patrick Chung, and it was a spectacular catch and acrobatic maneuver to keep both feet inbounds on the part of Manningham. With that one throw the Giants had placed themselves a first down and a half from a winning field goal attempt, and had taken firm control of the game.
Manning pretty much passed the Giants down to the Patriots’ 6, and with the clock running down, Bill Belichick ordered his team to allow a TD, on which Ahmad Bradshaw backed into the end zone.
A 2-point conversion failed, and Brady did get the Patriots to their 49, the game ending on a failed Hail Mary into the end zone.
Coach Bill is never in the mood to be analytical when his team loses. He kept whatever technical thoughts he had to himself, settling for the following: “That’s a very well-coached team. They made a couple more plays than we did. I’m proud of our team. We had our chances. We just couldn’t make enough plays. The Giants made more than we did. I can’t fault our effort. The Giants played a little bit better.’’
A Patriots victory would have enhanced the historical status of both Belichick and Brady, but now all that stuff is so much jibber-jabber as the sports world will turn its attention to the New York coach-QB duo. Tom Coughlin now has as many Super Bowl triumphs as the vaunted Bill Parcells, and Eli now has twice as many Super Bowl rings as his Hall of Fame-bound big brother, Whatshisname. (Help me out: It’s something with a “P’’).
The season began with Manning creating a gigantic buzz in New York by answering a simple “yes’’ when asked if he thought he was an “elite’’ quarterback, and it now has ended with Manning holding the Lombardi Trophy that eluded league MVP Aaron Rodgers as well as acclaimed QB luminaries Drew Brees and Brady. Manning entered the game with people saying that no one possibly could play the position better, and he left it with everyone agreeing that the assessment was correct.
Coughlin’s situation is so weird as to be laughable. It’s a measure of how far he has come in the personality department that he actually made a joking allusion to the job situation he faced when his team was 7-7 and needed to defeat the Jets and Cowboys in the last two weeks of the season just to get into the playoffs.
The Giants had collapsed in December in both 2009 and 2010, and had they missed the playoffs this season the media and fans would have demanded his head on a very large platter. Now he routinely is being discussed as Hall of Fame material.
These people do lead very tricky lives. The difference between winning and losing, or ecstasy and agony, is frighteningly small. “It always comes down to one or two plays in this game,’’ observed Brady. “If you make it, you’re celebrating. If you don’t, you don’t sleep for a week.’’
Two incompletions on the penultimate Patriots drive, one intended for Deion Branch, and the other for an open Wes Welker, will keep Brady awake for a while. Welker is beating himself up for not making the catch, but he was open at the Giants’ 20, and the ball could have been thrown better. Conversely, Manningham was not open and Manning could not have thrown it better.
Eli wins. Tom loses.
But it still came down to defense. During the season, the defense made a number of game-saving plays. But those were quizzes, this was the final exam, and it’s always pass-fail.
New York 21, New England 17.
I think we know the grade.Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.