Eli Mann's up in NFC title game

SAN FRANCISCO -- Eli Manning began the season telling everyone that he's an elite signal caller who should be considered on the same level as Tom Brady.

Manning should add toughness to that list. Once again, the Giants' franchise quarterback proved not only how good he is, but how he may be the toughest player on Tom Coughlin's team. And now the best season of his life will end in the Super Bowl against Brady' Patriots.

For the second time in five seasons, Manning will play for the Vince Lombardi trophy, a feat that should cement his status among the top quarterbacks in the game no matter what the outcome is.

All season long, Manning has carried the Giants. While he did not have his most prolific game, Manning delivered his toughest performance of the season to guide the Giants to a 20-17 overtime victory over the 49ers.

Manning, who on Sunday became the first quarterback to win five playoff games on the road, already owns the longest active consecutive starts streak with 119. But his toughness in the pocket and ability to somehow avoid injury was on full display as he was hit 20 times -- including six sacks -- by the Niners.

He was crushed on a few of those hits, holding onto the ball until the last possible moment before delivering key passes at times.

Facing one of the NFL's toughest defenses, Manning threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, which was as big as any stat in a game that was decided by turnovers.

Manning got help from his defense, which held Alex Smith and the Niners to three points in the fourth quarter and overtime. And the special teams, a unit that was maligned all of last season, helped send the Giants to the Super Bowl by recovering two Kyle Williams' fumbles on punt returns, the last coming in overtime which helped set up Lawrence Tynes' Super Bowl-clinching 31-yard field goal.

"We had to fight for every yard that we got," Manning said. "Our defense played outstanding. Our special teams got us two turnovers. That was huge."

"[The] guys never quit, never have any doubt, keep believing, no matter what the circumstances are," Manning added. "Everybody knew we would get a break, get a chance to win this game, make a big play. Something was going to happen. That was the mindset."

The Giants forged this never-say-die mentality because of Manning, who had led six game-winning fourth-quarter drives when the Giants were tied or trailing this season.

Manning entered this fourth quarter trailing 14-10. But Devin Thomas recovered a punt that bounced off Williams' knee at the Niners' 29. Six plays later, Manning drilled a 17-yard pass on a third-and-15 into the end zone to Mario Manningham to put the Giants up 17-14 with 8:34 remaining.

Peyton Manning showed up to support his little brother and told reporters that he and Eli discussed the exact coverage the 49ers had shown on that touchdown last Friday. Peyton called it a "great throw" that came at a pivotal point in the game.

"Eli is just as calm in the fourth quarter as he is in the first quarter of a preseason game," Peyton told reporters after the game.

After the Niners tied the game 17-17, Manning had three drives to win the game but couldn't score in regulation. He was blasted several times, including one hit that left him with his helmet askew, his shoulder pad sticking out of his jersey and grass in his facemask.

"We give him a lot of grief about his dorky appearance and he doesn't look like he has been in a weight room ever," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "But that guy is tough. He is like the energizer bunny. He keeps firing. He is the leader of this football team because of that."

Even though the Niners' defense refused to budge, stopping Manning twice in the overtime, the Giants got the break they needed when rookie Jacquian Williams stripped Kyle Williams and Thomas had his second gigantic recovery.

Manning had the ball at the Niners' 24 and after three Ahmad Bradshaw runs, the Giants quarterback took a knee at the Niners' 8 to hand it over to Tynes, who has this whole NFC championship overtime game-winning kick thing down.

Manning said he hasn't thought about his place in history and what going to a second Super Bowl means for him personally.

"I am thinking about this team and how proud I am of these guys, what we have overcome and what we have been through," Manning said. "Never had any doubts. I kept believing in our team that we could get hot and start playing our best football and we did that at the end of the season."

He returns to the Super Bowl this time playing better than ever along with a better play-making tandem of receivers in Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, who had 10 catches for 142 yards against San Francisco.

He'll try to beat Brady for the second time this season after topping the Patriots quarterback in New England back on Nov. 6.

And he'll do it all in Peyton's house in Indianapolis.

"I'm just proud as a quarterback to see the way he's played," Peyton said. "I'm even more proud as his brother."