- Associated Press - Monday, January 23, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - As if by design, the rain started swirling through Candlestick Park as it became clear that more than 60 minutes would be needed to find a proper opponent for the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Eli Manning had already thrown the ball 52 times, with mixed results in the NFC championship game Sunday. Now he put on his helmet and headed out for overtime against a San Francisco defense that had no intention of allowing him to do anything that would spoil the 49ers’ magical ride through the playoffs.

Earlier in the season, he had proclaimed himself among the top quarterbacks in the league. If this were a script, he would have marched the New York Giants down the field for the game-winning touchdown to prove himself a man of his word.

Didn’t quite happen that way. There was no long drive. No quick touchdown strike.

Just the satisfaction of being in another Super Bowl, which was plenty by itself to put a wide grin on the face of a quarterback who no longer has to live in the shadow of his big brother.

“I think everyone knew we were going to get a break, get a chance to win this game,” Manning said. “Something was going to happen.”

What happened will be a sore spot for years among 49ers fans. It will hurt even longer than that for Kyle Williams, the backup punt returner who couldn’t keep his hands on the football.

Manning’s last play was an anticlimactic kneeldown to get Lawrence Tynes into position for the field goal that won the game 20-17. But it felt nearly as good as any touchdown pass he will ever throw.

“Just a hard-fought game,” Manning said. “I’m excited about this win, excited to have another chance to go to the Super Bowl.”

Hopefully, excited about facing the Patriots again, too. They were the opponents the only other time Manning was in a Super Bowl, where he led the Giants to a late comeback against a heavily favored opponent enjoying a perfect season.

That won him respect. A second Super Bowl win in four years might someday put him in the Hall of Fame.

Not that any of it was on the mind of Manning and his teammates as they celebrated on a soggy field after Tynes‘ 31-yarder went through the uprights. They were just ready to celebrate, after yet another road win put them on the road to Indianapolis.

Hakeem Nicks gleefully held up a copy of a New York tabloid declaring his team Super Bowl-bound. Tynes hugged his crying wife, while his teammates were busy hugging each other.

Manning watched it all, with a smile that never left his face. When he went back to the locker room he had another reason to smile _ his brother had flown in unannounced.

“I got my own tickets. I didn’t want him to have to handle tickets,” Peyton Manning said. “I’m glad I was here to witness it. I look forward to watching him play in two weeks.”

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