Giants quarterback Eli Manning reacts after watching the incomplete pass...

Giants quarterback Eli Manning reacts after watching the incomplete pass to end the game against the New England Patriots during Super Bowl XLVI. (Feb. 5, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- The word of the season was finish, and boy, what a finish it was.

Super Bowl XLVI ended with a 51-yard pass from Tom Brady fluttering toward the end zone, where Aaron Hernandez was hunting a game-winning touchdown reception. Instead, about 57 seconds after Eli Manning had driven the Giants for their own go-ahead touchdown on Ahmad Bradshaw's 6-yard run, Kenny Phillips was able to bat the ball away and give the Giants a 21-17 victory and a championship.

"I remember hitting it, and after that, everyone just fell all over the place," Phillips said. "I looked to my right and saw the ball on the ground and I knew the game was over."

The Giants' defense, which had been bailed out so often during the season by Manning's late-game heroics, finally was able to return the favor. But that occurred only after Manning, who won his second Super Bowl MVP award, gave them the lead.

The Giants trailed by two points when they got the ball at their 12 with 3:46 remaining. Manning started the drive with a 38-yard pass down the left sideline to Mario Manningham, who managed to get two feet in. The play was challenged by the Patriots but upheld as a completion, costing Bill Belichick a critical timeout.

Manning then drove the Giants to the 6, where the Patriots gave Ahmad Bradshaw a free run into the end zone with 57 seconds left so they could get the ball back. It probably was the only touchdown Bradshaw ever scored that he wished he hadn't. He put on the brakes at the goal line but couldn't keep his balance and fell backward into the end zone, which was exactly what the Patriots wanted.

It gave the Giants a 21-17 lead -- they failed on the two-point conversion run -- but the Patriots and Brady got the ball back with 57 seconds remaining.

Justin Tuck said he reminded his defensive teammates of the feeling three months ago when the Patriots scored what looked like a game-winning touchdown with 1:36 remaining. "I was sick to my stomach," he said of that experience. "[I told them] if they score here, you're going to be 25 times sicker. I think a lot of guys' eyes lit up and they remembered how that felt. I just told them to go out there and finish . . . We have 57 seconds to be world champions."

The Patriots began at their 20, and after two incompletions -- including a drop by Aaron Hernandez -- Tuck sacked Brady for the second time to set up fourth-and-16 from the 14 with 39 seconds left. Brady sidestepped pressure and completed a 19-yard sideline pass to Deion Branch. An 11-yard pass to Hernandez put the ball at the Patriots' 44 with 19 seconds left, and Brady spiked the ball to stop the clock. Then he threw incomplete to Hernandez and incomplete to Branch.

The final play of the game was a third-and-5 from the Patriots' 49, and Brady threw into the end zone. Hernandez was the first Patriot with a shot at the ball, but Rob Gronkowski had the best chance to catch it after Phillips batted it away.

"I was trying to figure out if I could catch it or not," Phillips said. "I was trying to figure out what to do. Once it got closer, I thought to myself, 'Just knock it down.' "

Hernandez said no Patriots ever touched the ball in the end zone.

"It was like you just kept watching it and watching it and watching it," Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "It seemed like it was for an eternity. When we saw the official [signal incomplete], that was the best feeling in the world."

"You look at our game four years ago, it was a miracle play that they made,'' Brady said, referring to David Tyree's helmet catch. "Today, we had the chance to make one of those and we couldn't come up with it. It always comes down to one or two plays in this game, and if you make them, you're celebrating. If you don't, then you don't sleep for a week.''

It gave the Giants their fourth Super Bowl title and their second one over the Patriots in the last five seasons.

The Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years beginning 10 years ago. The Giants wounded that dynasty four years ago. And on Sunday night, they officially put it to rest.

"We decapitated them,'' Brandon Jacobs told ESPN. "They can't wear that crown no more.''

"You never get used to this," team president and CEO John Mara said as he accepted the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

In a way, this one was even more improbable than that remarkable win four years ago.

The Giants went from seven-and-seven to Super Bowl heaven. They are the first seven-loss team ever to earn a ring. They also fulfilled the season's mantra of "finish" that Tom Coughlin stressed after they failed to do it in so many games late last season.

Left by many on the scrap heap when they lost to the Redskins in Week 15 and fell to .500, the Giants won six straight games, including Sunday night's.

The victory puts Coughlin and Manning on very exclusive lists as coaches and quarterbacks with multiple championships. A season that began with questions about Manning's elite status and proceeded through questions about Coughlin's job security ended with them passing the Lombardi Trophy to each other at midfield at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Manning completed 30 of 40 passes for 296 yards and a TD. It was the eighth time this season that he engineered a winning drive in the fourth quarter or later. The Giants became the fifth team in Super Bowl history to overcome a deficit of at least eight points, and the first to overcome that deficit in the second half.

"We've had a bunch of them this year," Manning said. "There at the end when we had an opportunity in the fourth quarter, we'd been in those situations . . . Guys stepped up and made great plays.''

The Giants dominated most of the first half, but a 96-yard drive late in the second quarter gave the Patriots a 10-9 halftime lead. Brady completed 10 of 10 passes, including a 4-yard touchdown strike to former Jet Danny Woodhead with eight seconds remaining. The drive was officially 96 yards, but the team actually went 98 because the drive started with a false-start penalty.

The Patriots' first drive of the game also started deep in their own territory. On that one, though, Tuck came crashing through the line, zig-zagging and bouncing off blockers, and hit Brady just as he launched a deep pass. Because there was no receiver in the area of the pass and Brady threw from his own end zone, he was flagged for intentional grounding and the Giants were awarded a safety.

The Giants drove 78 yards and went ahead 9-0 on a 2-yard pass from Manning to Victor Cruz, who was able to salsa dance for the first time this postseason. Two plays earlier, Cruz caught a pass and fumbled, but the Patriots had 12 men on the field and the turnover was negated.

The Patriots responded with a drive for a field goal and the teams exchanged punts. The Giants had third-and-1 from the Patriots' 46 and Jacobs broke through the line for 10 yards, but Kevin Boothe was flagged for holding and sent them back 10 yards. They eventually had to punt, and even though Steve Weatherford put the ball out of bounds at the 4, the Patriots drove all the way to take the lead.

"We understood that we kind of gave them one right there," Tuck said. "We had played a pretty good first half, keeping them to three points at that point [before the drive]. We didn't finish the first half. I'm glad we finished the second."

They didn't start it very well. The Patriots, who won the coin toss and deferred to the second half, started the third quarter the same way they ended the second a half-hour earlier. They drove 79 yards, and Hernandez caught a 12-yard TD pass for a 17-9 lead.

The Giants chipped away, settling for two field goals by Lawrence Tynes in the red zone to close within 17-15 late in the third.

On the second play of the fourth quarter, Chase Blackburn intercepted Brady on a play that was reminiscent of the Tyree catch in Super Bowl XLII. Brady escaped a sack, rolled to open space and chucked the ball down the middle of the field just as Manning had four years ago. This time, though, Blackburn had inside position on Gronkowski and picked off the pass.

The Giants did not score off the turnover, wasting more than five minutes and burning two timeouts before punting.

The Patriots didn't answer with a score, but they gobbled up about 51/2 minutes to give the Giants the ball at their own 12 with 3:46 remaining. And that was more than enough time for Manning.

"This isn't about one person," Manning said. "This is about a team coming together, getting a win. We never got discouraged, kept the faith and kept the confidence and just fought to the very end."

The very, very end, appropriately enough.

"I don't think I could have wrote a better script than this one," Tuck said. "We talked about it all year and it's just fitting that it comes down to a final drive by Eli and us closing it out on defense."

Fewell, too, understood the symmetry.

"Our theme at the beginning of camp was to finish," he said. "It made me very proud that we were able to finish the game . . . and with one of the best finishes ever."