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Super Bowl 2012: Eli Manning, Giants save best for last

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Why did we get sucked in? We knew what was going to happen, didn’t we? So why didn’t we all skip the second and third quarters Sunday night and come back late in the fourth, when the game really began?

The Patriots were the favored team, the home team — because the National League won the All-Star Game — and the team most seemed to think was going to win despite having, I don’t know, seen them play in the postseason.

The Giants . . . well, the Giants lost twice to the Washington Redskins, and that scared most of those who try to apply logic to sports. But many still believed they would win. Even I believed they would win, and I’m never right.

But when I saw Tom Coughlin sing along with Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton on “America the Beautiful,” then again with Kelly Clarkson on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I didn’t think they’d win, I knew they would. He’s singing before coaching the Super Bowl! I can’t imagine Bill Belichick singing before a game unless he has his playbook set to music and he and Tom Brady become the Bernie Taupin and Elton John of the NFL. Now that would be a halftime show.

(Speaking of which . . . Madonna. On the positive side, it was the best use of a lyre in a halftime show that I’ve ever seen. On the negative side, why was she sitting on Weird Al Yankovic’s shoulders? I know that wasn’t really him, but it looked like him. My favorite part was when she was on one knee and had to use her free hand to push herself up. Finally, for the first time since my club days, I can relate to Madonna again! L-U-V Y-O-U, Madge!)

Back to the game. I thought about dusting my curios until, say, the 3-minute 46-second mark of the fourth quarter, when I thought things might get interesting, but decided to check out the first quarter, which was well worth it, just for the Eli Manning-led touchdown drive followed by the strangest safety in recent Super Bowl history. Gisele Bundchen was seen on her cellphone, trying to trade her husband in her fantasy league. (There were millions of takers, most of whom had no idea it was a fantasy football league.)

Even as the Patriots came back, and kept coming, and the Giants kept answering by not scoring in the red zone — where had I seen that before? oh, right — I was unflappable and more importantly, Manning was unflappable. Even Coughlin stopped singing and was flapped a few times, but not Manning. There was the Timeout Wastage Fiasco, and the Non-Call Incident, and meantime Lawrence Tynes’s field goals were scraping paint off the goal posts — albeit the inside of the goal posts. But still, not inspiring confidence.

But when Manning and the Giants took the field with 3:46 left, did anyone doubt what was going to happen, even in New England? The only hitch was keeping it from happening too fast. When Ahmad Bradshaw tried to keep from scoring yet somehow found himself falling rear-first into the end zone — with Manning screaming at him to stop — the only surprise was that the Giants had left the Patriots 57 seconds. And while Brady wasn’t at his best Sunday night, he is still Brady, and 57 seconds is a lot of time.

But not enough, not this year. Brady managed to get the Patriots to midfield before his Hail Mary that very nearly was tipped into the hands of Rob Gronkowski. That would have been a Super Bowl finish for the ages.

Instead, Manning has one more ring than his more vaunted brother. He has become a force to be reckoned with in the fourth quarter of any game, against any opponent. He said before the season that he belonged in an elite class of quarterbacks alongside Brady, and was roundly mocked for that, but he has two Super Bowl victories over the guy. That seems to back his argument; he never said he was better than Brady, just that he belonged in the conversation. And after Sunday night, he is the conversation.

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