Continued from page 1

Eli Manning had gotten some tips about the 49ers defense a few days earlier from his brother. Though helpful, this was a game more about perseverance than figuring out schemes, more about battling to the end than figuring out how to run a screen play.

It wasn’t like Manning didn’t have a decent day. He completed 32 of 58 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns, numbers that were more than serviceable under the conditions.

But this was a defensive battle that was more about field position than quick strikes. And this was a 49er defense that clamped down in the second half to make life awfully difficult in the pocket for Manning.

His 17-yard pass midway through the fourth quarter to Mario Manningham off a turnover by Williams gave the Giants new hope when they were struggling. Manning was so excited about the spark that he pumped his fist in celebration and spun around to give high fives when Manningham caught the ball.

And when Williams made yet another miscue in overtime, all Manning really had to do was make sure Tynes got a chance to win it.

“There wasn’t much variety in what we were doing,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “Our screens didn’t seem to work especially well but Eli just hung in there, hung in there, hung in there and made plays when we needed him to make them and displayed the kind of leadership he’s shown all year long.”

The kind of leadership that Giants fans once questioned from the former No. 1 pick. The kind of leadership that they won’t question anymore.

Not after Manning led the Giants to two final regular-season wins in games they desperately needed. Not after he guided them through three playoff wins to get into the Super Bowl.

“He stood in there loud and proud today, even when times were tough,” center David Baas said. “We had some difficulties up front protecting him with some stunts and picking up stuff. We should have done a much better job.”

As they did four years ago, the Giants are peaking at the right time. They’re playing with the confidence of favorites even when they’re underdogs, which they will be again against the Patriots _ by 3 1/2 points.

Unlike four years ago, they have an undisputed leader to take them to Indianapolis. Eli Manning will have a chance to do something Peyton Manning hasn’t been able to do _ win two Super Bowl rings.

He won’t have to declare himself among the elite of the game anymore. Other people will do that for him, after a late season run almost as improbable as the one four years ago.

The Super Bowl is all that remains. And anyone betting against Manning and the Giants will be doing it at their own risk.

____

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or follow at http://twitter.com/timdahlberg