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A Date To Remember: An epic battle in the San Francisco rain

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Eli Manning takes a pummeling in the 2011 NFC title game, but leads the Giants to yet another road playoff victory

NFC Championship - New York Giants v San Francisco 49ers
Eli Manning took a beating in the 2011 NFC Championship game, but delivered yet another road playoff victory.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

A Date To Remember is an occasional series Big Blue View will be running through the Super Bowl, highlighting the glory of the Giants’ past and celebrating the biggest playoff wins in franchise history.

You can’t spell elite without E-L-I

Jan. 22, 2012

NFC Championship Game

Giants 20, 49ers 17

A tuft of grass was wedged in Eli Manning’s face mask.

His helmet sat askew on his head.

And the quarterback’s shoulder pads stuck out of his mud-stained jersey as he slowly got to his feet.

Manning had suffered yet another beating on the fourth-quarter play, just one of many in a vicious pummeling he took in the 2011 NFC Championship game.

But he once again got back up.

Manning kept getting back up, no matter how hard and how often the San Francisco 49ers drilled him into the soggy Candlestick Park turf in a game of attrition.

“It wasn’t pretty,” Osi Umenyiora told Big Blue View from his home in London, where he serves as an NFL ambassador to the United Kingdom. “Just sitting there watching it, I felt so bad for him. San Fran, that team was so physical on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

“I never like to compare football to war, but that was as close to it as you can get. That was a real battle. And for him to sit there and just keep getting pounded and getting up, and then getting pounded and getting up, and just continuously making plays showed his toughness, his grit and determination.”

It wasn’t just that Manning led the Giants to another Super Bowl with the 20-17 overtime victory over the Niners. It wasn’t just that he led another fourth-quarter comeback in a season full of them. And it wasn’t just that he became the first quarterback in NFL history to record five playoff road victories.

It was that Manning took at least 20 hits — many of them bone-rattling — was knocked down 12 times and sacked six times. But despite that beating and the downpours that fell throughout the game, he still made history.

Manning set team postseason records with 32 completions and 58 passes and threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns.

“We give him a lot of grief about his dorky appearance, and he doesn’t look like he has been in a weight room ever,” defensive end Justin Tuck told me and other reporters in 2012. “But that guy is tough.”

However, it still took two game-changing fumbles by 49ers punt returner Kyle Williams — one in the fourth quarter and one in overtime. It took a successful Tom Coughlin challenge on one of them.

And it took Lawrence Tynes supplying yet another clutch, game-winning field goal in overtime to send them to the Super Bowl. This time, it was a 31-yarder 7:54 into the extra period.

“That was a back-and-forth, just slobberknocker of a game,” Tynes told Big Blue View.

Umenyiora concurred.

“That was a brutal game. A brutal game,” he said. “It was just an epic, epic battle. It was one of the best games I’ve ever been a part of.”

No surrender

The game seemed like it would never end.

Neither side would relent.

The Giants — or at least Umenyiora — had been happy the 49ers beat the Saints in the NFC Divisional round.

They — or at least he — wanted no part of traveling to New Orleans and facing Drew Brees in the Superdome. He especially wanted no part of the Saints after they blasted the Giants, 49-24, in late November.

He wanted the Niners. Well, he and the Giants certainly got them.

“It was tough, but we thought we were the better team,” Umenyiora said.

A battle between two elite defenses forced a combined 22 punts that covered more than 1,000 yards, a mere 24 percent conversion rate on third down and a back-and-forth, pitched battle for field position.

But this defensive struggle did not feel monotonous. It was high drama, as the wait for the big play — or the big mistake — that would decide the game added to the theater of it all.

The Giants and 49ers would supply both.

San Francisco led 14-10 with 11:17 remaining when Williams made his first critical mistake.

Tight end Vernon Davis had supplied the 49ers the lead with two big plays: a 73-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter when he sprinted away from two Giants and then a 28-yard scoring reception in the third quarter.

And San Francisco was getting the ball back.

Williams — returning punts in place of an injured Ted Ginn Jr. — allowed a Steve Weatherford boot to fall and watched it bounce toward him, but never got out of the way. It brushed his knee, and the Giants’ Devin Thomas recovered it at the 49ers’ 29 with 11:08 remaining.

But the officials initially ruled there was no muff and awarded possession to San Francisco. However, Coughlin challenged and won the replay review.

Six plays later, Manning hit Mario Manningham for a 17-yard touchdown pass on a third-and-15, giving the Giants a 17-14 lead with 8:34 to go.

But the 49ers weren’t done. Alex Smith drove them inside the Giants’ 10-yard line, setting up David Akers’ 25-yard field goal. Tie game, 20-20, with 5:39 remaining.

Then came overtime.

After the 49ers and Giants traded punts, Weatherford punted again to Williams.

He caught this one on the fly, and as he burst forward, Giants rookie linebacker Jacquian Williams stripped the ball from the crook of his right arm. Thomas was there to again recover the fumble at the Niners’ 24.

Four plays later, Tynes lined up for another career-defining kick.

Chaos & toughness

The 2011 season began in utter chaos.

The NFL lockout kept organizations from hosting their off-season workouts. And it kept scores of free agents from signing with teams.

Amid all the upheaval, the Giants entered training camp under their own unique cloud of doubt.

An epic meltdown in Week 15 of the previous season — when the Giants blew a 31-10 lead at home over the archrival Philadelphia Eagles with about 8:00 remaining, punctuated by DeSean Jackson’s game-winning 65-yard punt return for a touchdown as time expired — would eventually cost the 10-6 Giants a playoff spot and nearly cost Coughlin his job.

And once again, the critics were circling Manning, despite his Super Bowl XLII MVP. He led the NFL with 25 interceptions in 2010, and many saw the Giants’ failure to reach the playoffs for the second straight season as his fault.

Forgotten were his playoff wins and his toughness — such as his ironman consecutive games streak that would reach 210 in the regular season and 222 overall.

But Manning himself set the tone for 2011. In the preseason, he uncharacteristically declared himself “elite.”

He would spend the rest of the season proving he was just that.

The quarterback produced an NFL-high seven fourth-quarter comebacks and eight game-winning drives, including in the NFC title game and the Super Bowl. He completed 61 percent of his passes for 4,933 yards and threw 29 touchdowns to 16 interceptions.

He led the Giants to an 9-7 record and the playoffs despite a series of injuries to Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Hakeem Nicks and others.

Manning admitted he used his 2010 interception total as motivation.

“He just always plays above what people may think of him,” Cruz said told me in 2012. “He’s getting hit. He’s getting up, brushing himself off and just plugging away onto the next play.

“He’s just a great quarterback, and I wouldn’t want any other guy under the helm.”

Tynes was speechless in trying to describe the punishment Manning suffered in the championship game.

“The toughness Eli showed …” he said, trailing off.

But there was another overlooked aspect of Manning’s game — how he brought his receiving corps together.

Special bond

Cruz thought it was an accidental misdial.

He stared down at his phone’s screen in the spring of 2011, perplexed as to why the caller was reaching out.

It was Manning.

Cruz was a nobody, a second-year, undrafted receiver out of UMass who spent most of his 2010 rookie season on injured reserve. He had exactly three NFL games and zero career receptions on his resume.

But Manning wanted to work out with Cruz and a few others at a high school near his New Jersey home.

”To be one of those guys he calls up and for me to make it there, it was huge for my confidence just to have him call my phone,” Cruz said. “I looked at it and I was like, ‘Eli Manning? Is this working?’”

Those workouts over a few weeks that spring were the beginning of Cruz’s emergence as an NFL star. And they set the foundation for the Giants’ transformation from a run-first offense to the dangerous passing attack under offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride that led them to Super Bowl XLVI.

Cruz finished the season with 82 receptions, nine touchdowns and a franchise-record 1,536 yards. His salsa dance touchdown celebration — a tribute to his grandmother, Lucy Molina, and his Puerto Rican roots — went viral, only raising his profile.

His success partially resulted from the rapport he built with Manning in those workouts and how he used them to improve his route running and decision-making.

Of course, the season wasn’t a completely smooth ride.

Cruz entered training camp fighting for a roster spot. Then he was sent a frank message by the organization in Week 2 after he struggled in the season-opening loss to Washington, held without a reception. The Giants signed veteran Brandon Stokley, an old friend of Manning’s brother, Peyton, to play the slot — Cruz’s position.

But Cruz broke out with a big game in Week 3 (three receptions for 110 yards and two touchdowns) against the Philadelphia Eagles and unveiled the salsa dance celebration. And a star was born.

Manning and Cruz then connected for 10 receptions and 142 yards against the Niners. Nicks, who also attended some of the New Jersey workouts as well as separate sessions with Manning at Duke, had five receptions for 55 yards.

“I’m not going to say that’s the reason why we reached the Super Bowl, but we definitely got some work done,” Manning told me in 2012. “One of the guys that was at every one of those throwing [sessions] was Victor Cruz. We got close.”

Pure joy

Nearly 68 minutes of bruising football had come down to this.

Tynes lined up for a 26-yard field goal in overtime on the wet and muddy field.

Weatherford, the holder, could barely contain himself.

This was his fourth conference championship game. He was with the Saints in 2006 and then with the Jets in 2010 and 2011. Those teams lost all three games.

“That was his fourth championship game, and he had lost the previous three,” Tynes said.

The streak was all but broken ... but then flags flew and whistles blew.

Delay of game. Move the ball back five yards.

Yet Tynes was happy — for more than one reason.

“I thank the Lord because that field goal was going to get blocked if it was on-time,” he said. “One of our guys got beat. I don’t know if he heard the whistle [stopping the play], but somebody beat our left side clean. And this guy was literally right there. We had no chance of making that field goal.

“The delay of game was actually great also because the spot I had originally sucked. It was a little mud hole, and I didn’t have a lot of room to move. So we get the five-yard penalty to a perfect little patch of grass. I’m like, ‘Oh sweet! This is awesome.’ ”

The snap from Zak DeOssie was low, but Weatherford scooped it up cleanly and placed it perfectly for Tynes.

The kick sailed right through the uprights.

Game over.

“He did a hell of a job picking it up off the ground,” Tynes said. “I mean, it was just barely off the ground.”

Weatherford utterly lost it, taking off in a dead sprint and flinging off his helmet to reveal a huge smile. He then shouted, “We’re going to the m-fing Super Bowl!” — caught by TV cameras — and finished with a slip-and-slide on his back.

“He stole my thunder,” Tynes said with a laugh. “He deserved that. That was just emotion pent up for four years. He was ecstatic.”

The Giants were headed to Indianapolis to take on the New England Patriots once again in the Super Bowl. There was no angst about facing Brady and Belichick.

They had beaten this dynasty before. And they had just survived an epic battle in San Francisco.

“We thought, ‘We have been through something worse than this before, so this is nothing,’” Umenyiora said, with a laugh.

But as usual, it wouldn’t be easy.