EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It’s the drive that says everything about Eli Manning the football player. The poise, the moxie and even-keeled demeanor came to the fore even in the most stressful of situations.
It was this moment that propelled Manning’s legacy into a different stratosphere. He was no longer aw-shucks Eli, brother of Peyton and son of Archie. The youngest of the Manning boys was the conductor of a monumental upset (the Giants were a 12.5-point underdog) highlighted by his clutch performance in the final 2:39 in Glendale, Arizona.
Without that 14 minutes of real time, the retirement of his No. 10 jersey at halftime of the Giants-Atlanta Falcons game at MetLife Stadium Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox) might not be happening.
Manning beat the Patriots again four years later in Super Bowl XLVI, but taking down quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick in his first Super Bowl made him a champion, an MVP and a Giants legend.
The Giants were a 10-6 wild-card team that scrapped its way through the NFC playoffs with road wins against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and top-seeded Dallas Cowboys before beating the second-seeded Green Bay Packers in overtime in sub-zero conditions at Lambeau Field. They entered the Super Bowl against a Patriots team ranked the seventh-best in history by NFL Films in 2019.
“People don’t really understand, and I know I’m incredibly one-sided on this, but this is the greatest Super Bowl upset of all time. It’s the greatest,” said then-coach Tom Coughlin of the 17-14 win. “It might be the greatest upset of all time. Period.”
Manning escaping a sack and throwing to receiver David Tyree, who squeezed the ball to his helmet for an incredible catch, is the signature moment of the winning match. Manning to Plaxico Burress for the game-winning touchdown completed the fairy tale, but there was so much more to that classic drive that earned the Giants another Lombardi Trophy for their display in the Quest Diagnostics Training Center lobby.
“That whole playoff stretch was probably very important in my career … and Coach Coughlin’s,” Manning said. “We were probably both on that line of, ‘Hey, do these guys have what it takes or not?’ … I think that kind of just proved that, ‘Hey, he can play well in the biggest moments.'”
Said Coughlin: “He told the world what kind of player he was under those circumstances. He came through in the clutch against a team that was 18-0. How can you deny what he was able to accomplish?”
83 yards from glory
Brady’s touchdown pass to Randy Moss gives the Patriots a 14-10 lead. The perfect season is in their sights. The Giants take over at their 17-yard line with 2:39 remaining.
Coughlin: “I can’t even think about [that drive] without getting goosebumps, without getting excited and having a huge smile on my face.”
Marcus Spears cannot believe what he is hearing from Ryan Clark and Max Kellerman, who chose Eli Manning over Drew Brees as the better playoff QB.
Michael Strahan, Giants defensive end, to teammates: “Seventeen, fourteen is the final, OK? Seventeen, fourteen fellas. One touchdown and we are world champions. Believe it and it will happen.”
Manning (to Giants.com): “We were very confident. There wasn’t a whole lot said. I just kind of ran in and said, ‘All right, here we go.'”
The first play, Manning hits receiver Amani Toomer on the numbers for an 11-yard gain. The Giants take their time getting to the line of scrimmage. They have three timeouts and the two-minute warning remaining.
Toomer: “They always say in a two-minute drive the first first down is the hardest to get. Once you get the first first down, things start rolling from there.”
Coughlin: “I don’t think you can escape the circumstances and the situation and what was at stake there. And when you look at Eli’s face, you know, you can tell. The competitor is coming outside of him in that situation.”
Manning is upset with himself after throwing an incompletion high over the middle to Burress on the next play. Under pressure, he overthrows Burress near the sideline moments later. Burress has one catch for 17 yards on seven targets at this point.
Coughlin: “There are a million small dramas, one of which was … I had to turn in the inactives as always 90 minutes before kickoff. I didn’t even know if Plaxico was going to play. He wasn’t even able to practice. He had a bad knee. [Athletic trainer] Ronnie Barnes was trying to put him in a circumstance where he would go out and prove to us he could play. And it really took him a lot of time to get him to be ready to go out and do that. … All he did was say, ‘He’s going!’ And that was it. Ronnie went right back in the training room. I had to write another name on the sheet.”
That would prove valuable later. In the meantime, the Giants had to navigate a third-and-10.
Toomer: “I ran an option route. [Manning] threw me to the ground and I was a yard short. I thought I was going to get a first down because I was open and then he threw the ball on the ground, so I had to dive for it. I picked it up and tried to roll [for the first down] but they touched me before I got to roll back.”
That set up fourth-and-1 at New York’s 37.
Coughlin: “We had [running back] Brandon Jacobs at 265 pounds and you were running right behind [right guard] Chris Snee and [right tackle] Kareem [McKenzie]. The strength of that call was it was our power, our play — our strength, against theirs. They loaded it up. The only thing that was left was a little crack there because of the number of bodies they brought in that play.”
Snee: “If you watch me, I kind of chip [Patriots defensive tackle Vince] Wilfork and I have to hit the [line]backer and go up to my responsibility. … It was just enough of each guy to get that little crease that Brandon needed to get through.”
On the next play, Manning escaped pressure and scrambled for five yards to the 44, where the Giants used their first timeout with 1:20 left. An incompletion to Tyree followed, a pass that slipped through the hands of Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel, what would have been a game-clinching interception.
Coughlin: “[Manning] expected something different out of David Tyree. He’s actually disappointed. It’s obvious. You can see it on his face.”
Toomer: “[Patriots defensive lineman] Richard Seymour [after the dropped interception] was like, ‘Don’t worry, guys. You guys are about to go home. Don’t worry about that. This game is almost over.’ That is when I really thought you can’t talk like that and tempt the football gods. I felt he thought they had won.”
The Helmet Catch
That set up the third-and-5 that will never be forgotten — a 32-yard catch with a minute left by Tyree over safety Rodney Harrison at New England’s 24-yard line.
Toomer: “The ball was supposed to go to the corner because [receiver] Steve Smith was running the corner route.”
Coughlin: “I really don’t think anyone, anyone, even the writers or historical people don’t understand — really, really understand — the impact of the play. I’ve heard it expressed this way, that it was lucky or something along those lines. Let me tell you something, the fact that Eli had the presence to pull himself out of the grasp of people, I was afraid — you heard me say this that night — I was afraid [referee] Mike Carey was going to blow the play dead.”
Snee: “[Eli] admits he thought he was going to throw it to me. Watch the film. I took a small step back saying, ‘Don’t do that. That is a bad idea.’ Could you imagine if the ball got pitched to me?”
Toomer: “I saw David open and thought we might catch it. And then I saw Rodney Harrison and I was like, ‘Damn it!’ Then I heard the crowd go crazy and I’m like, ‘What happened?'”
Manning: I remember asking David. ‘David, did you catch it?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, I caught it.’ I’ve been burned so many times by receivers just lying to me, just right to my face. I was like, ‘David, honestly, you’re a Christian man, did you catch this?’ He was like ‘I promise you I caught it.'”
Harrison, to ESPN in 2008: “Not in a million years does he make that catch again. I don’t have any regrets on it. I saw the ball, went up for it and did my best to grab it out. It goes on his head, so what can you say? I think you have to understand that certain things happen that you just can’t explain.”
Coughlin: “For David Tyree to go up in the air against Rodney Harrison, who is probably 15 pounds bigger and a stronger man, an All-Pro, great character, great strength, great football player. … David Tyree held onto the ball against the strongest of guys who [were] knocking away at his arms to try to separate him from the ball. He came down with Harrison across the back of his knees and still held onto the ball, which is to me an incredible accomplishment that he is not given enough credit for.”
Manning (to NFL Films): “David Tyree had the worst practice [Friday] in the history of practices at any level.”
Strahan (to NFL Films): “That right there [Tyree’s catch] let me know we’re going to win this game, because for something that magical to happen in a season so magical, we could not lose.”
Eli secures his legacy
Manning was sacked for a one-yard loss by Seymour on the next play and New York used it’s second timeout with 51 seconds left. Then he was hit and threw a floater to the far sideline that Tyree couldn’t corral. It set up the third third down of the drive.
Coughlin: “The third-and-11. Are you serious? Steve Smith knows exactly what he has to get and keeps his feet inbounds. How heady. He gains  yards. Exactly what he had to have.”
Snee: “Adalius Thomas was coming off the edge hard on that play. Steve converted it and the next play …
It was Manning to Burress for the game-winning, 13-yard touchdown with 35 seconds remaining.
Coughlin: “Eli kind of lofts the ball over the head of everybody so Plaxico is the only guy that can get it. You’re talking about play after play after play [by Manning].”
Toomer: “I thought I was going to get a touchdown. To end our two-minute drive on that Friday before the game, we ran that exact play to the other side against our defense and I caught the touchdown. So [we] called that play again and I thought it was going to score a touchdown again. That whole game in the red zone we knew they were going to do the all-out blitz. The cover-zero blitz. And they didn’t do it when we went down there the first couple times. … [On the final drive] Plaxico was on the back side singled up against [cornerback Ellis Hobbs]. It was a double-move. We knew it from the beginning. That was our adjustment. We knew they were looking for the slant.”
Burress (to Giants.com): “Eli can’t hike the ball fast enough, and he lets it go. I make a move on Ellis Hobbs, he takes the fake and I just run clean by him. [After the catch] The feeling just went out of me. I couldn’t believe that it just happened. I couldn’t believe it!”
Hobbs, after the game: “It was just one-on-one. It’s not hard to read when you have nothing out there. You have to protect the inside and I have to respect the slant and inside route. If our blitz doesn’t get there, all he has to do is shake off of me.”
Snee: “Eli says he knows this is one-on-one coverage from pre-snap. … Still kind of surprised [the Patriots] did that. It seemed like the ball took forever to get down. It also seemed it took forever for his second foot to get down. It just seemed like a play in slow motion.”
Manning: “That ball just seemed to hang up in the air forever. I’m like, ‘Please come down. Let him have two feet inbounds and let this be a touchdown.'”
Toomer: “I remember looking out to the sideline after Plax scored. It was pandemonium. It was like Christmas Day.”
Manning (after the game): They finally blitzed. [Hobbs] squatted. They thought [Plaxico] was running a slant or something. I thought about slinging the slant to him. They brought seven. That is what we hoped for. Just a chance to throw it up.
Toomer: “We hit ’em with the double move. Sluggo. Slant and go. We were a step ahead of them that time.”
Snee: “Eli cemented what everyone in that locker room thought of him. But that drive, winning a Super Bowl, you know what that does to the public perception of him.”
Coughlin: “You always look at that and think about it. I think one of the greatest things you can say, about a person, about a player, is that … when the game was on the line, Eli Manning as the quarterback of the New York Giants had to take a team on his shoulders and move them down the field and put us in a position to score a touchdown — we needed a touchdown, not a field goal, to win the game — he did it. He did it. And he did it in style.”
ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss contributed to this story.