The NFC Championship Game had been over for about 70 minutes, and the winning coach and quarterback were 30 feet apart in Candlestick Park's postage stamp of a locker room. Tom Coughlin, the rigid, relentlessly demanding Northerner. Eli Manning, the easygoing Southerner. They came to the Giants in 2004, together but worlds apart. Now they're so close they can almost finish each other's sentences.
"Eli's just so ... so ..." said Coughlin, in his boxers and blue Giants undershirt, searching for the right word. "Reliable. Totally reliable. Trustworthy. Smart. Tremendously hardworking. Consistent as the day is long. What I love about him is, I know what he's doing 365 days a year. He's doing something that will help us win football games."
That's not just the perfect quarterback for the 65-year-old Coughlin. It's the perfect reflection of himself.
This partnership of coach and player reached a new peak on Sunday in the dank, misty San Francisco gloaming. Manning dropped back to pass 65 times, more than in any playoff game in the 87-year history of the New York franchise, and was pressured or hit on 23 of those. (He threw 58 passes, completing 32 for 316 yards, was sacked six times and scrambled once.) Interceptions and lost fumbles? Zero. In 90 offensive plays, in fact, the Giants didn't turn the ball over once. Manning's counterpart, Alex Smith, wasn't nearly as good, and his 49ers teammates weren't nearly as reliable. Two mistakes—a muffed punt and a fumble—by backup return man Kyle Williams handed New York 10 points in the last 17 minutes. The 20--17 overtime win sent the Giants to Indianapolis to face the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5, a rematch of the David Tyree Velcro-catch game of four years ago and a chance for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady to avenge the ruination of their perfect season and their only Super Bowl loss.
Not to mention: Peyton Manning's brother versus Peyton's archrival in the House That Peyton Built. With Peyton most likely in a luxury box, watching enviously, we assume, but with immense pride in his little brother.
Of course, with Eli, as with Peyton, so much is in the preparation. That's what they learned in years of watching their father, Archie, bring home game film at night during his 14-year NFL career. Games are won on Wednesdays and Thursdays and Fridays, not just on Sundays.
Two days before the conference title game, back in New Jersey, Manning got his receivers together for their weekly hourlong meeting—just the quarterback and his receiving corps, no coaches. As the meeting wound down Manning delivered his message, what he thought was important for the week. "In this game," Manning said, "we've all got to be patient. With this defense we're facing, nothing will come easy. Their lifeline is turnovers, so you've got to protect the football. Punting's fine. Just don't give them any points, and we'll have a chance to win it at the end."
Coughlin-speak. When the coach was told on Sunday night of Manning's message to his receivers, he smiled as if he'd just won the lottery. "Isn't that something?" he said.
The night before, Coughlin had gathered his team in a ballroom at the Hyatt near the San Francisco airport for his pregame speech. He brought up the three former Giants who were honorary captains for the game—tight end Mark Bavaro, defensive end Michael Strahan and guard Rich Seubert, tone-setters for Super Bowl champion teams past and recent. "All three of those guys would give anything to be playing in this game," Coughlin said with customary passion. "But their time was then. Their time has passed. Your time is now. I can promise you: This is a game you'll be telling your grandchildren about in 50 years."
If you like defense and a quarterback playing up to the Manning family name, yes, this will be a game you'll remember for a long time. Bitterly if you're a Niner, euphorically if you're a Giant. San Francisco proved again that it will be a force in the coming years, with or without soon-to-be free agent Smith under center. The Niners' quarterback threw two beautiful balls to tight end Vernon Davis, for 73- and 28-yard touchdowns that left San Francisco up 14--10 after a mucky three quarters. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman, one of the league's top head coaching candidates, ran unusual packages to try to get something going. The coolest: A 930-pound triangle of blockers on the right side of the line—tackle Joe Staley and defensive linemen Justin Smith and Isaac Sopoaga—to clear a path for 233-pound back Anthony Dixon on the first series of the fourth quarter. Amazingly, the Giants clogged the lane against that formation, allowing only three yards on two carries and forcing San Francisco to punt.
But the Niners' big story was their fourth-ranked defense. Again, 3--4 ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, along with situation pass rusher Aldon Smith, were brilliant, combining for 4½ sacks. Justin Smith, for the second straight week, plowed the left tackle back into the quarterback, pulling Manning down with one brute-strength yank. Linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis (21 tackles, 1½ sacks, one pass batted down) made a similar impact. After the game Manning had a huge red welt on the front side of his left shoulder but, despite the pounding, walked with no apparent pain. "That's just one of the best defenses in the league, from the first play to the last," he said. "They stop the run and get pressure."
Manning found his two faves, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, 11 times in the first half, so he began to look elsewhere in the second. "Did you see that throw to Manningham?" Coughlin asked. He meant the touchdown pass to Mario Manningham with 8:34 to play that gave the Giants a 17--14 lead. The story behind it is telling. Manningham hadn't caught a pass yet, and Niners starting cornerback Tarell Brown was out of the game with a head and neck injury, leaving Carlos Rogers and Chris Culliver, the top two remaining corners, on Cruz and Nicks. San Francisco's last corner, Tramaine Brock, a second-year player from NAIA Belhaven University in Jackson, Miss., was on Manningham, and Manning saw Brock give the receiver too much cushion on third-and-15 from the San Francisco 17. Manningham ran a deep post and zing!—the perfect strike, over safety Dashon Goldson and under safety Reggie Smith, hit Manningham just as Brock wrapped him up four yards deep in the end zone. Classic, smart play by offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, and by a quarterback who sees what's going on in the game and targets accordingly.
Manning took two brutal shots late in the fourth quarter, one on a three-man sandwich just after he released, but didn't need much in overtime after linebacker Jacquian Williams stripped Kyle Williams—son of White Sox general manager Ken Williams—5½ minutes in. Five plays and 11 yards later Lawrence Tynes kicked the winning field goal, just as he had four years ago after Corey Webster's overtime interception of the Packers' Brett Favre led to the Giants' NFC title.
New York has 16 players on the 53-man roster who were on the '07 team. Most of the coaching staff is the same. But ask the veterans, and they'll tell you the boss man has mellowed—and that enabled this team to achieve. The Coughlin of old bordered on the militaristic. When he took the Jaguars' job in the franchise's first season, 1995, he instituted what he called a concentration line: When you stepped over the line onto the practice field, you had to transform from whatever you were into a football-thinking automaton. He set the clocks ahead so people would get used to Coughlin Time—always early. He hated it when players mouthed off to the media.
Last Friday, though, Coughlin joked with the press corps like he was in a golf foursome in July. And now when his players yak to reporters, he just rolls his eyes. Case in point: Before the division-round game against the Packers, second-year defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said with confidence that the Giants would go to Green Bay and win because they were the better team. Coughlin didn't like it, but with the help of long-time Giants senior vice president of communications Pat Hanlon—who advises Coughlin on when he should worry about what players say (rarely)—the coach has come to ignore such quotes. Or tweets.
"I pick my spots now," Coughlin said. "There's no question I've changed in that regard. In this day and age, with media and public access to players, they're available to talk so much more. And I think players feel like they have to respond to everything. So Jason's euphoric in our locker room after we beat Atlanta, and he's asked if he thinks we're going to beat Green Bay, and he says yes. He's not flaring on the Packers; he's just excited about his own team. I try to make a point when a player does that, you know, like, 'Words can have an impact you don't intend.' But I don't get mad. After we beat the Packers he came up to me and said, 'Coach, they tried to get me to do it again about the 49ers, but I wouldn't do it!' I loved it.
"I think I understand the world today, society today, a little bit better. You grow and you change every year."
He and Manning are growing and changing, moving into heady territory, and one more win this season will put both into the discussion for Canton. Coughlin is one regular-season victory behind Hall of Famer Marv Levy on the alltime list, with 142; Coughlin already has as many playoff wins (11), plus a Super Bowl title, which eluded the longtime Bills coach. As for Manning, a second Super Bowl victory will put him in a category from which every quarterback (except Jim Plunkett) has made the Hall. Three more seasons of his career statistical averages would put him in the top 15 of all the major passing lists at age 33. Eli in Canton? Before, you'd think, Sure, that could happen—maybe as Peyton's presenter. A win in Indianapolis on Feb. 5 will change that.
Coughlin has always been seen as a lesser branch on the Bill Parcells coaching tree, compared with Belichick. But 30 more regular-season wins would tie him with Parcells, and there's nothing he'd rather do for the foreseeable future than coach.
The immediate future, though, revolves around Belichick and Brady again. Coughlin and Manning are 2--1 against the Pats in the last five seasons and have outscored New England 76--72 in those three games. Brady and Eli are friendly but they've never had a conversation about that showdown in Glendale, Ariz., four years ago, a game Brady avoids watching. The Giants harassed him all night and beat the 18--0 Patriots 17--14 in Super Bowl XLII. If revenge is on Brady's mind, Eli wouldn't know it.
"We talk," Eli said, "but not about that. I wouldn't bring that up."
That's O.K. Between now and Feb. 5, enough people will.
"PROTECT THE FOOTBALL," MANNING TOLD HIS RECEIVERS, "AND WE'LL HAVE A CHANCE TO WIN IT IN THE END." SAID COUGHLIN TO HIS MEN, "YOUR TIME IS NOW."
NEW YORK HAS 16 PLAYERS FROM THE '07 TEAM. MOST OF THE COACHING STAFF IS THE SAME TOO. BUT ASK THE VETS AND THEY'LL TELL YOU THE BOSS MAN HAS MELLOWED.
Photograph by ROBERT
THREE FOR THE SHOW After the Niners' critical overtime fumble, Tynes booted the 31-yard field goal that sent Big Blue on to Indianapolis.
SPREAD THE WEALTH Manning (10) learned game preparation from his famous father and brother, and it paid off when he read the coverage and pinpointed Manningham (right) for the fourth-quarter score that put New York up 17--14.
JOHN BIEVER (CRUZ)
GAME CHANGERS As in their previous Super Bowl run, the Giants have gotten big production from breakout players: Cruz (above) had 10 catches for 142 yards, and Pierre-Paul (90) made Alex Smith pay in the pocket.
W. MCDONOUGH (PIERRE-PAUL)
[See caption above]