Eli Manning's stature among his coaches and teammates is unquestioned, his singular value to the team unequivocal. But as much as Manning has contributed during his eight-year run as the Giants' quarterback, including one Super Bowl championship and now a chance for another, the 31-year-old further enhanced his reputation in Sunday night's NFC title game.
On a night when Manning was hit harder and more often than in any other game since he joined the team in 2004, his gutsy performance in a 20-17 overtime win over the 49ers must be placed near the top of his lengthy list of achievements. I would argue that this was his greatest moment because of the adverse situation he was forced to overcome.
Some will take his final drive of Super Bowl XLII against the Patriots four years ago, highlighted by his circus pass to David Tyree. Others might choose his epic tale of surviving the elements in a minus-24 windchill at Lambeau Field in the NFC title game in January 2008.
But to watch Manning survive the punishing onslaught delivered by the 49ers, who sacked him six times and hit him on 12 other occasions after he delivered passes, was to watch a display more commonly ascribed to tough-guy quarterbacks such as Brett Favre or Jim Kelly.
On one fourth-quarter sack, Manning was hit in the back so hard by linebacker Aldon Smith that you wondered if he would get up. He did, only to be battered some more.
Near the end of regulation, he found Ahmad Bradshaw at midfield and delivered a 30-yard completion just a split-second before being leveled. On another hit, he went to the ground so hard that his chin strap ended up covering his mouth and his left shoulder pad was dislodged from beneath his jersey.
Manning admitted Monday he was sore, but he said it was "just your typical bumps and bruises. Nothing major. If we had to go practice today, I'd be out there ready to go . . . But they did a good job of making it tough on the quarterback."
The performance only solidified his already lofty standing. "Eli always plays above his character," Victor Cruz said. "He's getting hit, he's getting up, brushing himself off and just plugging away on to the next play and making all the necessary plays that we have to have to keep the chains moving. He's just a great quarterback and I wouldn't want any other guy at the helm."
It's hard to imagine many other quarterbacks surviving the kind of adversity Manning slogged through at soggy Candlestick Park against a defense that might have been the most intimidating in this year's postseason.
Manning dropped back 64 times, more than twice the number of runs (26) the Giants attempted. The coaches prefer that the split be much closer to 50-50. But it was clear from the Giants' struggles on the ground that Manning would be relied upon even more than usual.
He did not disappoint, going 32-for-58 for 316 yards and two touchdowns. But here's the one stat that stands above all the others: zero turnovers.
"Eli is just as calm in the fourth quarter as he is in the first quarter of a preseason game," big brother Peyton said outside the locker room. "They expect to score. That's impressive."
Peyton was particularly impressed by Eli's fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Mario Manningham on third-and-15 from the 49ers' 17. The touchdown put the Giants ahead 17-14.
"It's an eight-man coverage," Peyton said. "We talked about the certain holes and windows in that coverage. It was a great throw. That was really the pivotal play."
But the job isn't done. It's on to Indianapolis to try for another Super Bowl victory in his big brother's NFL hometown. "It doesn't matter to me where you're playing it or the fact that it's in Indianapolis," Eli said. "I'm just excited about being in one."
As is anyone with an allegiance to the Giants, who have legitimate hope of earning another Lombardi Trophy thanks to their resilient quarterback.