Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.


Eli Manning emerged from the visiting locker room Sunday night at ancient Candlestick Park to find a scrum of people packing the hallway, and briefly seemed confused about which way to turn.

Then he saw a familiar, friendly face beaming up at him. He bent down to get a quick kiss on the cheek from Judy Coughlin, his coach's wife.

It was another good day to be Eli Manning, now one victory away from a second Super Bowl ring and an excellent chance at future induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But this time there was a twist. The hero of so many Giants victories past played more like what usually is expected of his much-maligned fellow former No. 1 overall draft pick, Alex Smith, than what fans have been accustomed to from him.

Let's just say a classic quarterback duel it was not.

But in the end, that didn't matter, because in a game thoroughly dominated by defense, it was a special-teams play that did the job for the Giants.

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In overtime, Jacquian Williams forced a fumble by punt returner Kyle Williams that set up the Giants at the 49ers' 24, leading to Lawrence Tynes' 31-yard field goal.

Manning now has the most road playoff victories (five) in NFL history, one more than Len Dawson, Roger Staubach, Jake Delhomme, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez.

But he got there with an un-Eli-like game: 32-for-58 for 316 yards and two touchdowns. He was sacked six times by the fierce 49ers defense and was hammered repeatedly, especially by Justin Smith and Aldon Smith.

Alex Smith wasn't any better, going 12-for-26 for 196 yards and two touchdowns. The 49ers were 1-for-13 on third downs and went three-and-out on their final four possessions.

How did Smith feel about all this?

"Not a good feeling,'' he said.

Manning did have his moments, notably in the last two minutes of the first half. With the score tied at 7 and 1:36 left, the Giants took possession at their 36 and he efficiently marched them downfield for the go-ahead field goal.

In the final seconds, he needed to spike the ball to stop the clock but noticed three members of the field-goal team had raced onto the field. If the ball had been snapped before they got back to the sideline, the Giants would have been penalized.

Instead he waited, spiked the ball with six seconds left and preserved an opportunity for Tynes to kick a 31-yarder for a 10-7 halftime lead.

He also showed his stuff midway through the fourth, with the Giants trailing 14-10 and facing a third-and-15 at the 49ers' 17. Manning calmly gathered the ball, quickly surveyed the field and found Mario Manningham in the end zone. Suddenly, after a mostly awful second half for the Giants, they led 17-14.

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But most of the time, Manning and the offense struggled badly against one of the league's top defenses. The Giants could not put the game away in the fourth quarter, then squandered their first two chances in OT, leading to the Steve Weatherford punt that Williams lost to set up the brief, winning drive.

And Manning basically had nothing to do with it. After the Giants took possession at the 24, Ahmad Bradshaw rushed three times, then Manning kneeled to set up Tynes in the middle of the field.

Later, after sealing the win with a kiss, Manning said, "Guys never quit, never had any doubts.''

That is the kind of calm confidence Manning always lends to the proceedings. Sunday night, he did the job only sporadically. But after all he had done before, his teammates owed him one.