Once again Eli Manning spoiled a Super Bowl lead for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, this time leading an 88-yard drive for the game-winning touchdown by Ahmad Bradshaw. As Mark Maske reported :

There was no perfect season on the line this time, but the New York Giants did it again to Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. Quarterback Eli Manning engineered the big drive in crunch time when the Giants needed it and New York beat the Patriots, 21-17, on Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in another down-to-the-wire Super Bowl between these rivals.

A season that began with Manning declaring himself an elite quarterback ended with him backing up that proclamation with his second Super Bowl most valuable player performance.

After crafting six fourth-quarter, game-winning drives during the regular season, five of them to cap fourth-quarter comebacks, Manning pulled off that feat again in another nerve-rattling Super Bowl. The Giants, trailing by two points, drove 88 yards to the winning touchdown on a six-yard run by tailback Ahmad Bradshaw with 57 seconds left.

It was one of the oddest game-winning touchdowns in Super Bowl history. The Patriots, trying to preserve their final timeout and precious seconds on the clock for their offense, allowed Bradshaw to score. Bradshaw, realizing that, attempted to stop just shy of the goal line but tumbled into the end zone.

The strategy didn’t work. The Giants failed on a two-point conversion attempt and the Patriots took over at their 20-yard line for a last-gasp drive. Brady kept them alive with a fourth-and-16 completion, and New England reached its 49-yard line. But Brady’s desperation heave into the distant end zone as time expired was tipped and fell incomplete beyond the outstretched hands of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Wes Welker, who had a critical drop as the Patriots tried to put the game away, blamed himself for the loss in the postgame news conference. As Matt Brooks explained:

Wes Welker finished the 2011 regular season with 22 more receptions than any other wide receiver in the NFL, and precise route-running and sure hands are two key reasons why.

With the New England Patriots clinging to a two-point lead and driving late in the fourth quarter of last night’s Super Bowl XLVI matchup with the Giants, that route-running ability resulted in a wide open Welker streaking down the field. At the very least, a catch would have extended New England’s drive and helped them milk more time off the clock. At most, it could have led to a touchdown that would have put the game out of reach.

But Welker couldn’t hold onto a challenging ball thrown high and over his outside shoulder. The Patriots were forced to punt, and the Giants marched down for what proved to be the game-winning score.

“It’s one of those plays I made 1,000 times,” Welker said. “The ball is right there. I’ve just got to make the play. It’s a play I’ve made 1,000 time in practice and everything else. It comes to be the biggest moment of my life and I don’t come up with it. It’s discouraging.”

But what about the throw itself? Welker was wide open, and Brady put the ball over his head and behind him. If Brady puts it over Welker’s inside shoulder, it’s a touchdown.

For the Patriots a second Super Bowl loss to Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin will have them asking tough questions about missed opportunities late in the championship game. As Mike Wise reported:

Beyond their late-game drops, penalties and missed defensive assignments, this was the worst kind of déjà vu for Brady, Belichick and the Patriots , the absolutely worst, most wrenching way to see your season die. A few minutes left, Manning with the ball and a field of green in front of him.

This was the ending the Patriots had tried to prevent by turning over most of their roster, a late-game loss that furthered the notion that as long as a team makes the playoffs in the NFL it has a chance to lift the Lombardi Trophy.

Beneath Brady’s carefree demeanor all week was the serrated edge of a champion who had one taken away four years ago. After it happened again — and Brady was outplayed in the final minutes by Eli — he was as reflective as he was crushed.

“I’d love to come back to this game and have another shot after doing it five times in the last 10 years,” he said, ruefully. “It’s better than sitting at home and watching it, that’s for sure.”

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