For a younger brother, nothing quite compares to the joy of gaining praise and approval from your older brother.
And when your older brother just happens to be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game, it’s going to be a warm day in San Francisco before he doles out kudos for your own quarterbacking.
But that’s exactly what Eli Manning got from big brother Peyton on Sunday, after Eli led his Giants to a heart-pounding, 20-17 overtime victory against the 49ers.
Peyton attended the game, which propelled the Giants into the Super Bowl, but he didn’t tell Eli. Instead, he waited in the tunnel leading to the visitor’s locker room, and surprised his brother after the game.
“I told him I loved him,” Peyton said to Sam Borden of the New York Times. “I told him I was proud of him.”
For Eli, there can’t be any higher praise. But on this day, there was plenty to praise.
The Giants faced a 49er defense ranked second in scoring and fourth in yards allowed in windy, rainy conditions that ranged from bad to worse. And for most of the second half, the Giants offensive linemen failed to keep their backfield free of 49ers.
Eli threw 58 passes, suffered six sacks, and was hit on at least 20 occasions, but he never turned the ball over.
The lasting impression of the game may have come late in the fourth quarter. Eli completed a long sideline pass to Ahmad Bradshaw, who certainly had to be Eli’s final option on the play.
Eli paid the price for going through all of his progressions. When the camera found him after the play, his shoulder pad had escaped the shroud of his jersey, his chin strap protected his nose, and his skewed helmet was caked with clumps of turf.
Yet he retained the presence of mind to immediately call time out.
“Eli’s just as calm in the fourth quarter as he is in the first quarter of a preseason game,” Peyton told Borden.
And when Eli’s calm, his teammates are calm, and they perform. Eli put up the best fourth quarter numbers of any quarterback in the league this year, and he led the Giants to five come-from-behind victories.
In a crucial win over Dallas on December 11, he led the Giants to two touchdown drives in the final five minutes, overcoming a 12-point deficit. Without that win, the Giants don’t even make the playoffs.
Peyton again: “They expect to score. That’s impressive.”
It’s even more impressive that Eli could instill such expectations into a team seemingly going nowhere fast during a four-game losing streak that left the Giants with a 6-6 record. They looked to be missing the playoffs for the third year in a row, and coach Tom Coughlin’s job was thought to be in jeopardy.
The Dallas win stopped the slide, but a loss to the Redskins a week later in a desultory performance led to the old refrain, “the Giants is dead.”
Instead, they got healthy, simplified their defense, kept their faith in Eli, and treated the season as if the playoffs began on Christmas Eve.
They haven’t lost since.
While Eli has had ample help, the team took its cue from him. He has instilled in this team a feeling that they can get it done, and that they will get it done.
The Falcons could have stayed on the field for three days and not scored against the Giants defense, but Eli and the offense put on an equally dominating performance. More of the same last week in Green Bay, as both sides of the ball dominated their 15-1 opponents.
This one was different, a mighty struggle. Two outstanding defenses refusing to yield. And it was Eli who turned the game around.
The Giants had trailed, 14-10, for much of the second half. A misplayed punt gave the Giants a chance, but they could only parlay that into a third-and-15 from the 49ers 17-yard line.
From there, Eli delivered a perfect pass — through the smallest of openings — to Mario Manningham for the vital touchdown.
The coverage used by the 49ers had been discussed by Peyton and Eli during their Friday night telephone “chalk talk,” a ritual they share during the season.
“It’s an eight man coverage,” Peyton told Borden. “We talked about certain holes and windows in that coverage. It was a great throw. That was really the pivotal play.”
High praise, indeed.