SAN FRANCISCO -- The question caught some New York Giants players off-guard, even though it was a natural path to take for the questioner.
What's the biggest difference between this Giants team, which earned its way to the Super Bowl XLVI Sunday with a 20-17 overtime victory over the San Francisco 49ers, and the one that won a Super Bowl in 2007?
The answer isn't heart, toughness, grit, determination or anything like it that.
It's Eli Manning.
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The 2007 Eli Manning was still a mystery, Peyton's little brother with a lot of talent but still finding his way, a kind of goofy quarterback still figuring things out.
This team's version of Eli is indeed elite, a confident leader who isn't a question but rather an answer.
The Giants are still a team that still fights and claws with the best of them, including that 2007 team that won three road games in the playoffs and then upset the unbeaten New England Patriots. This version was dead and buried six weeks ago, but has turned into this postseason's hot team.
"Very proud of this group," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "They have grit now. They're battle-tested."
And it all starts with Manning. He's no longer another star's little brother hoping to become special. He's arrived, which is what's so different from 2007.
"You're right there," Coughlin said in the locker room late Sunday night. "It is Eli. He is special now. He's the biggest difference between the two teams."
Manning took a beating from the 49ers, but still threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns -- without an interception. The game was won in large part because the Giants didn't turn it over and the 49ers did. When you throw it 58 times, get sacked six times, take many more hits than that, and don't throw a pick or lose a fumble, it's a heck of a game.
"Eli just hung in there and hung in there and made plays when we needed to make them," Coughlin said.
Two fumbled punts by San Francisco's Kyle Williams that led to 10 Giants points, one in overtime that set up the 31-yard, game-winning field goal by Lawrence Tynes. But Manning made one of the biggest plays of the game in the fourth quarter.
Trailing 14-10, facing a third-and-15 from the San Francisco 17, Manning fired a rifle shot to Mario Manningham for a 17-yard touchdown and a 17-14 lead. That pass will get lost in the drama of overtime, but there probably isn't overtime without it.
In three playoff games, Manning is on an impressive run. He has completed 76 of 123 passes for 923 yards, eight touchdowns and just one interception. His passer rating in the postseason is a sparkling 103.1.
When Manning said he considered himself elite before the season, people scoffed. Not anymore.
He was asked about what it meant to him to go back to another Super Bowl, his second, the same number as Peyton.
"I'm not really thinking about that," Manning said. "I'm thinking about this team, this opportunity."
It's eerie to consider the similarities between the run this Giants team is on and the one that won it all in 2007. That team won three consecutive road games and won in overtime against Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game before beating the Patriots. Coughlin was said to be on his way out if they didn't win that season.
|New York Giants|
|Outside of a couple of blown coverages against 49ers TE Vernon Davis, the pass defense had a dominant day and stopped the 49ers from maintaining drives, shutting them down on 13-of-14 third downs. Offensively they didnít block well for Eli Manning, but didnít turn it over either. Special teams made the difference, as it often does with two evenly-matched teams.|
|San Francisco 49ers|
|The defense played a tremendous game, sacking Giants QB Eli Manning and putting a ton of heat on him in the second half and overtime. The offense didnít turn it over at all, but really struggled in the passing game and on third downs. Special teams, an area where theyíd been so strong all season, cost them the game, with two fumbled punts.|
|By Michael Erler|
The same was true this season. When the Giants were 7-7, they were talking coaching search. Now they're readying to play the Patriots again in Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, one victory away from a second ring in five years.
"I don't want anything to change from 2007," Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora said. "I'm OK if it's exactly the same."
That can't be because of Manning. To see the way he handled the onslaught of pressure and the rainy conditions against the 49ers is a testament to his growth. One interception in the playoffs is truly impressive, especially for a player who threw 25 interceptions in 2010.
There will be a rush to put him in the same class as Peyton Manning. That's being foolish. But Eli Manning isn't far off. Even if he gets another ring, one more than his brother, he's still not as consistent as Peyton has been in his career.
But one thing he might have over Peyton is that he cranks it up in the postseason.
"To see how far he's come is impressive," Giants safety Deon Grant said. "We never worry about him."
It used to be the question about Eli was whether the Giants would get good Eli or bad Eli. That was the maddening part. He could look so good at times, almost elite, then look like a guy just trying to hold onto a job.
His body language used to be horrible. He'd throw an interception and then look like a sad puppy, shaking his head in disbelief as he walked to the sideline. Now he commands the huddle. You could see that Sunday night when Hakeem Nicks ran the wrong route, almost scolding him for it.
In Manning and Coughlin, the Giants have the most under-appreciated coach-quarterback duo in the NFL.
In New York, their careers have been roller coasters, complete with nasty drops and exhilarating highs.
Along the way, the media has made them a pair of punching bags, back-page fodder. Now they're one victory away from being a two-ring, coach-QB combo.
What the critics of those two don't know is how dedicated they are to the task. Coughlin is fanatical, at the age of 65 working like a man decades younger. He is a detail freak. But his quarterback is the same way.
Peyton Manning's work ethic is legendary, but Eli Manning is the same way. The film room is his laboratory.
There are a lot of quarterbacks with one Super Bowl ring. The multiple winners are the ones who separate from the rest.
Make a checklist. Run it down.
Compare the 2007 Giants to the 20011 Giants, with 17 players on both teams.
Toughness. Both teams.
Defensive pressure? Both.
Manning? Both -- with one big difference: This Manning isn't still finding his way, but instead has arrived.
"That's it," Coughln said looking up from the stool in the coach's locker room. "It's Eli. He's a much different player, a much more confident player."
You can't spell elite without E-L-I.