Beauty hidden in beast of a playoff game

Too many times, people confuse lack of offense or poor quarterback production with bad football, when often it's just the opposite.

In Sunday's NFC Championship Game, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning was brilliant, despite his irrelevant passer rating of 82.3. So were his wide receivers and running back Ahmad Bradshaw, despite being limited to 3.7 yards per carry.

Fact is, the Giants offense was a thing of beauty when you consider it found a way to stay in the game despite a definitive loss in the battle up front, where nearly all games are decided.

Not Sunday's. With Bradshaw conscientiously covering up with two hands when he wasn't using one of them to stiff-arm his way to crucial extra yards; Manning taking six sacks but eluding maybe a dozen others with unbelievable pocket awareness and timing; Victor Cruz making all kinds of athletic and courageous catches; and Mario Manningham making perhaps the most crucial catch of his career, the Giants were able to stay with the 49ers long enough for the special teams to make a play and ultimately prove to be the difference in a 20-17 victory.

Manning's yards-per-attempt average (5.4) fell so far below acceptable standards in today's NFL that it was laughable. His completion percentage (55.1) wasn't so hot either.

Yet it might have been his shining moment as a championship-caliber player, given the relentless defense he was up against from beginning to end of a contest for the ages.

What Sunday's game may have lacked in aesthetic beauty it more than made up for in every other area, with superior athleticism, fundamentals and heart on display every snap.

"That was a tremendous football game for those that really enjoy football in its very basic element," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "It was just a classic football game."

Coughlin also praised his quarterback for showing true grit.

"The leadership he's shown all year, he's battle-tested, getting us through all these elimination games," Coughlin said. "To get back up the number of times he did, it shows you the type of focus, courage, toughness and the type of leader he is."

Manningham's only catch of the game was a 17-yard touchdown delivered perfectly by Manning into a opening not much bigger than the width of the football itself. Neither player had any margin for error on third-and-15.

Victor Cruz didn't either on most of his 10 catches, eight of which went for first downs.

Although Manning was extremely lucky not to have been intercepted a number of times, especially when Niners safety Dashon Goldson put teammate Tarell Brown out of the game on a spectacular collision as they converged on a poor throw, he played mostly within himself and never panicked.

Never was that more evident than on the closing sequence of the first half, when the Giants' field-goal unit prematurely tried to enter the field for a last-second attempt before realizing that Manning was calmly lining up the offense for a spike to stop the clock with no timeouts remaining.

Manning wisely did not call for the snap until the last of that unit had vacated the field. Had he not waited, it would have been a penalty, a 10-second runoff and no attempt for Lawrence Tynes, who drilled it from 31 yards to give the Giants a 10-7 lead heading into the locker room.

"That was the thing I kept telling myself, 'Be patient, don't force anything, don't give them anything, our defense is playing well,'…" Manning told reporters after the game. "We stuck with that and got some turnovers."

The Giants defense was similarly impressive and inspired. It only allowed the Niners one harmless third-down conversion on the final play of regulation.

Maybe the most important stop came in overtime, after the Giants failed on their first possession. Vernon Davis, who had scored the Niners' only two touchdowns, caught a third-and-12 pass 1 yard short of the marker, but Kenny Phillips pounced on him immediately, forcing a punt.

The only other time the Niners would touch the ball after that was when Kyle Williams had it knocked loose on a punt return by Jacquian Williams, setting up the game-winning field goal by Lawrence Tynes, who was able to make good contact mostly because of the clutch hold by veteran punter Steve Weatherford following a poor snap.

You can call the Giants fortunate for two crucial misplays by Kyle Williams. You can say that injuries that kept top Niners punt returner Ted Ginn from suiting up and Brown from finishing were huge factors in the outcome. You can even say the Giants didn't deserve to win the way they were beaten in the trenches by the Niners' front seven.

But don't call them more lucky than good in a game where that couldn't have been further from the truth.

nick.fierro@mcall.com

610-778-2243

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