In a stunning repeat of 2008’s come-from-behind win in the Super Bowl, New York Giants Quarterback Eli Manning again led a scoring drive with just minutes left in the game to vault his team into the lead. This time, the New England Patriots may not have come into the game undefeated, though they were still the favored team to win. But as Giants safety Kenny Phillips told The New York Times, he and his teammates weren’t concerned. “When Eli got the ball back at the end of the game, we all just knew.”
Of all the accolades that are sure to fall upon Manning in the aftermath of Sunday’s Super Bowl victory, the one we are nearly certain to hear most often is how good he is come crunch time. He has been called “the most clutch player in the NFL.” His “calm, cool” leadership is heralded in almost every post-game recap. He’s even been nicknamed “Mr. Fourth Quarter.”
But what makes his performance in tough situations so powerful is not just that Manning can stay collected enough to throw the ball well. That’s necessary, of course. Yet what matters even more is that he’s done this so often, and has such an impressive record of performing well when the chips are down, that his teammates have confidence he can do it. They believe he will stay calm and perform, which makes them remain collected, too.
Just look at the numbers. Five of Manning’s career postseason wins have been in the fourth quarter or overtime; during the regular season, he threw for 15 final-period touchdown passes, an NFL record. And for all the fanfare that surrounded Tim Tebow’s fourth-quarter performances this year, the touchdown scored by Ahmad Bradshaw with 57 seconds left in Sunday’s Super Bowl capped the eight fourth-quarter or overtime game-winning drive led by Manning this year, the most in the NFL.
Leaders who perform well in big moments tend to be those who embrace it. Those who have made a practice of a calm, collected state of mind can fall back on it when the pressure rises. In an interesting story that looks at the science of clutch play, The Kansas City Star’s Sam Mellinger writes that “the best athletes practice with the hope of having pressure. The worst ones practice with the fear of it.” That’s what made Tom Brady tell Bob Costas Sunday that he’d rather be down three points with two minutes left in the game and have the ball than be up three points and not have possession.
Manning has a similar confidence—“pressure is something you feel when you’re unprepared,” he told Mellinger—but my guess is that his team’s confidence played just a big a role as his own. One of the major factors that helped Manning put together a game-winning drive with a minute left on the clock, while Brady stumbled (albeit with less than a minute left), is that Manning’s teammates have seen their on-field leader create enough fourth-quarter wins that they believe it will happen. As a result, they play with a similar coolness themselves.
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