THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

He saves his best for last once again

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / February 6, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS - When Eli Manning and the Giants offense took the field with 3 minutes, 46 seconds left in Super Bowl XLVI, trailing, 17-15, Patriots fans around the world no doubt were sharing similar unpleasant thoughts, either verbally or telepathically: There’s too much time left, they’ve done this to us before, they’re going to do it to us again.

The Patriots defense wasn’t thinking any of those things.

“We were thinking we were going to make a play,’’ safety Patrick Chung said. “We were thinking the game was on us, we were going to make a play and stop them.’’

Once again, though, it was Manning and the Giants making the necessary plays late, driving 88 yards in nine plays, taking 2:49 off the clock, and beating the Patriots last night at Lucas Oil Stadium, 21-17, with a last-minute touchdown.

Four times in the past five seasons, the teams have met when it counted. The three times the Giants have won, they have overcome deficits to win by scoring touchdowns in the final minute. And while this Super Bowl loss might not sting as much as the one four years ago, the manner in which the Patriots let another victory slip away by giving up a Manning-led touchdown drive with just seconds left doesn’t get any easier to stomach.

“It’s like almost getting to the top of Mount Everest, then falling back down,’’ defensive lineman Gerard Warren said. “Today’s a tough day, a tough pill to swallow. Hopefully we’ll get another chance.’’

They had their chance, either a defensive stop or a Giants’ offensive mistake away from nailing down a hard-fought win. But Manning made clear he was intent on doing the same thing he did in Super Bowl XLII, and the same thing he did in this season’s meeting in Foxborough. Both of those times, he stayed calm at the end and guided the Giants into the end zone.

He didn’t waste any time. Needing only a field goal to go ahead and starting the drive from the 12-yard line after the Patriots were forced to punt, Manning threw long for Mario Manningham down the left sideline in front of the Patriots bench on the first play. A step ahead of Sterling Moore, and with Chung charging from the side, Manningham hauled in Manning’s pass and barely got both feet inbounds before falling out of bounds.

“All we can do is try to knock the ball out,’’ Chung said. “It was a good throw, a good catch.’’

The catch happened right in front of Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who challenged the referee’s ruling on the field of a completed pass.

“It was close,’’ Belichick said.

But the ruling was upheld after a video review, giving the Giants a 38-yard completion and moving the ball to midfield in just seven seconds. Two more completions to Manningham gained 18 more yards, and sent the Giants to the Patriots’ 32, the edge of field-goal range.

When Manning hit Hakeem Nicks with a 14-yard pass that moved the ball to the 18-yard line, the two-minute warning allowed the Patriots to discuss strategy: Dig in and try to force a potential game-winning field goal, or get the ball back in quarterback Tom Brady’s hands as quickly as possible, however possible, even if it meant letting the Giants score a touchdown.

Once the Giants moved inside the 10-yard line with a short pass to Nicks, the decision was easy. Let the Giants walk into the end zone.

“We were going to drag them into the end zone if necessary,’’ linebacker Jerod Mayo said. “We were trying to let them score. You want them to score so you can get your offense back on the field. It’s situational football. We go over those situations all the time.’’

Ahmad Bradshaw took a handoff on second-and-goal from the 6 and could have crawled into the end zone, but, also thinking strategy, nearly stopped short of the goal line, thinking that if he failed to score a touchdown, the Patriots would use their final timeout, the Giants would run the clock down, kick a field goal, and win without giving the Patriots the ball back.

But Bradshaw’s momentum carried him across the line, giving the Giants a 21-17 lead with 57 seconds left. It also gave the Patriots one final chance on offense, but Brady’s last-play heave from midfield was knocked down in the Giants’ end zone.

Once again, New England’s defense took the field against the Giants with a few minutes left, nursing a slim lead. Once again, Manning found a way to direct a touchdown drive and ruin the Patriots’ day.

“Eli does that to a lot of teams, not just us,’’ Mayo said. “They came up with the big plays, my hat’s off to them.

“He’s had numerous fourth-quarter comebacks all year. He’s a great fourth-quarter quarterback.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.

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