- Associated Press - Monday, February 6, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Back in August, back before the season began, Eli Manning was asked whether he considered himself an “elite” quarterback a la Tom Brady.

Manning replied simply that he belonged “in that class.” He was questioned and criticized for that, and _ shocking, right? _ it all became quite a big deal in New York.

Hard to imagine anyone arguing about his status now.

Perfect at the beginning, cool and calm on a closing drive to the go-ahead touchdown, Manning won his second NFL championship in a four-year span _ and second Super Bowl MVP award, too _ for steering the New York Giants to a 21-17 victory over the New England Patriots on Sunday night.

Right now, no one, not even his older sibling Peyton, is as good in the clutch right now.

Right now, no one, not even New England’s Tom Brady, is as adept at erasing deficits.

“We’ve had a bunch of them this year. We’ve had some fourth-quarter comebacks,” said Manning, 30 for 40 for 296 yards, with one touchdown pass and zero interceptions. “We’d been in those situations, and we knew that we had no more time left. We had to go down and score, and guys stepped up and made great plays.”

Led, as usual, by Manning himself.

He opened the game by becoming the first quarterback to complete his first nine attempts in a Super Bowl. And he finished the job by directing the nine-play, 88-yard TD drive that put New York ahead with 57 seconds left.

“That was quite a drive that he was able to put together,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “He deserves all the credit in the world, because he really has put his team on his shoulders all year.”

This late drive, so reminiscent of the way New York beat New England in the 2008 Super Bowl with Manning as MVP, started on the Giants‘ 12, with a little more than 3 1/2 minutes left and the Patriots ahead 17-15. It closed with running back Ahmad Bradshaw easing into the end zone from 6 yards out. The Patriots decided not to contest the run, trying to save some time on the clock for a final drive _ a risky and desperate decision by Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

But New England couldn’t get the ball back in the end zone, with Brady’s final heave from his 49 falling barely beyond the grasp of tight end Rob Gronkowski.

“We had this goal to finish, finish, finish,” Coughlin said, “and win the fourth quarter.”

That’s precisely when Manning takes over.

In the regular season, he threw an NFL-record 15 TD passes in the final period.

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