INDIANAPOLIS — Sunday's Super Bowl between two northeast city slickers in America's heartland turned out to be an NFL Expo '12.
The Giants and Patriots showed at Lucas Oil Stadium what is needed to win in this day and age. You better have a guy that can pitch, a couple of guys that can catch, and someone on the other side that can pressure the guy throwing those darts more than a few times during a game that is now as wide open as the newest video creation.
As the Pats and Giants usually do when they meet, both teams traded all these elements for 59 minutes until the Giants' Eli Manning made one more play than New England's Tom Brady in a 7-on-7 duel as well quarterbacked as any title game in any era between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
Giants 21, Patriots 17.
"I don't need to say anything about Eli. I shouldn't say anything about Eli," said Giants running back Brandon Jacobs. "Two-hundred and twenty-eight countries just saw Eli. I don't have to say anything."
Bengals fans checking in on the annual extravaganza also saw Manning and had to take some heart as the 2011 season wrapped. Their team looks to be on the right track with one of the best young quarterback-receiver combinations in the NFL in rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green and an intriguing inside-outside pass rush combo heading into its third season of Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins and left end Carlos Dunlap.
(As if to sum up the season of the Bengals going one way and Chad Ochocinco going the other, the last play of the year featured Brady's unsuccessful Hail Mary into a crowd of four of his receivers in the end zone and The Ocho wasn't in the frame.)
Manning and Brady fittingly capped the Year of the Quarterback with a passing camp. After Manning became the first player to complete his first nine passes in a Super Bowl, Brady broke Joe Montana's Super Bowl record with 16 straight completions.
While Manning sifted the Patriots on 30-of-40 for 296 yards and a 103.8 passer rating, Brady went 27-of-41 for 276 yards and 91.1. And just think if wide receivers Wes Welker and Deion Branch and tight end Aaron Hernandez didn't betray him with drops in the fourth quarter. But the Giants also added to the misery with two sacks and eight hits.
"It's a quarterback-driven league; it's a pass-rush league," said David Tyree, a visitor in the boisterous Giants locker room. "I think we can expect things like this from Eli. He puts his receivers in a position to make plays where the defense can't. That's prime-time football. You want a few guys to catch it, give yourself more options. He's put a big stamp not only on this game but his career going forward as one of the best quarterbacks to play."
Tyree showing up is a little like the Boston Strangler showing up at the scene of the crime. It was four Super Bowls ago in the desert that he and Manning conspired to blow up New England's perfect season with Tyree's unbelievable leaping catch that he Velcroed to his helmet as he came down. That came with 1:15 left and set up Manning's winner to Plaxico Burress.
So who better to discuss Mario Manningham's Swan Lake 38-yard catch down the left sideline with 3:39 to play Sunday than Tyree?
Trailing, 17-15, on the first play of what would be his last series of the season, Manning gunned it from his 12 as Manningham raced past safety Sterling Moore. Not only did Manningham stretch over his shoulder to catch it, he had to stay in bounds while talking a hellacious hit from safety Patrick Chung in a breathtaking combination of ballet and brass.
"Everything you want in that situation, Mario Manningham gave you," Tyree said. "What I love about it beyond the catch itself, which was tremendous, but he came back from missing an opportunity earlier in the game to make the same catch. This is what makes a championship football team. You're (faced) with an opportunity and somebody has to make a play. Mario Mannigham was that guy.
"There has to be some plays made. It might not be Santonio Holmes's catch. It might not be my catch. But it's the plays that have to be made to be the champions. That was a well above average, outstanding, maybe not miraculous, play. I think he feels like he should make that play and he did."
That's how these games are won now. If it's not Green muscling over the middle to beat the Browns in the last minute, it's Alex Smith stunning the Saints or Demaryius Thomas bailing out Tim Tebow against the Steelers, or Dalton finding Green among three defenders in the winning drive against Tennessee on third-and-a-long shot.
It's cool under fire. Dalton fits the trend with his four icy fourth-quarter comebacks that froze the rookie jitters. Brady came into this game with a record seven fourth-quarterback comebacks in the postseason, but Manning finished off his masterpiece of a season with his eighth fourth-quarter comeback victory of the year, the last two in the last two weeks.
But a quarterback needs a lot of help, which is why the Bengals are trolling for a No. 2 receiver early in the upcoming draft. Manning point-guarded it with 13 throws to wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (for 10 catches and 109 yards) and nine to Manningham (for five catches for 73 yards) to offset the doubling of wide receiver Victor Cruz in the slot that held him to four catches for 25 yards.
After Manningham put the ball at midfield, Manning forced Patriots coach Bill Belichick to make the decision to let the Giants score a touchdown with 57 seconds left in the game when he got the ball out rapidly on quick shots underneath to Manningham for 16 yards and Nicks for 14. They had to be quick because the Pats were coming.
Giants tight ends coach Mike Pope, a former Bengals offensive coordinator from the early '90s, has watched the game evolve and saw another chapter unfold Sunday night.
"The quarterback play in this league is as good as it's ever been," Pope said. "These two guys are Hall of Famers the way they're going. There are some great quarterbacks who are going to have to wait because these guys now are putting up twice the numbers than they did 15 years ago.
"If you can't rush the passer, like happened several times today for both of us, if you give them enough time, they're going to find a guy."
The game hung on the protection and harassment of the two dart throwers. When Pope lost his second tight end of the night on the next-to-last drive with Jake Ballard's knee injury, the Giants had to go to formations they had only practiced lately and not used in games. Pope said they went with three wides and two backs so the backs could slow down the furious rush from the edge.
"(Brady) is a great quarterback," said Giants right end Osi Umenyiora. "I don't know if we rattled him but anybody under that kind of pressure … can't stand in there forever."
Umenyiora had two of the hits, the ubiquitous tackle Jason Tuck had both sacks, and rush end Jason Pierre-Paul oozed carnage with two tipped balls, a tackle for a loss, and a hit.
"At the end of the day, when somebody has your number, they have your number and there's nothing you can do about it," Umenyiora said. "Apparently, we found a way to beat the unbeatable team."
That's because whether it was four years ago in the desert or three months ago in Foxboro or Sunday in Lucas, the Giants put the heat on Brady.
"That is a very good football team," Brady said. "They put a lot of pressure on us."
The Giants put a lot of pressure on themselves, too, with an inordinate amount of talking during the week for a Tom Coughlin team.
"It wasn't overconfidence; it was we knew what had to be done," Umenyiora said. "We're playing with the house money. We had nothing to lose. What have we got to lose by talking?"
They lost nothing after winning this game of pitch and catch.