No debating it: Eli Manning is elite

SAN FRANCISCO -- He stood on the sideline, at the 49-yard line, hands on his hips, just staring at the action 30 yards downfield. There was nothing Eli Manning could do but watch and hope that Lawrence Tynes didn't pull a Billy Cundiff.

The snap, the hold, the kick, it was all perfect, unlike what had transpired more than 3,000 miles away nearly four hours earlier in the AFC Championship Game between Cundiff's Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots. Cundiff missed a chip shot to force overtime, but Tynes' 31-yard attempt was straight down the middle.

When the ball split the uprights to give the New York Giants a 20-17 overtime win over the San Francisco 49ers, Manning raised his hands to the sky, hugged an assistant and then walked, ever so calmly, to midfield. He pulled on a white NFC Championship hat, tried to shake hands with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, hugged teammates Mark Herzlich, Kevin Boothe and Tynes, and then sought out 49ers quarterback Alex Smith.

Manning was ever stoic, ever calm, even on the doorstep of history and football immortality. Only two men in the modern class of "elite" quarterbacks has won more than one Super Bowl. Drew Brees hasn't. Aaron Rodgers hasn't. Even big brother Peyton Manning hasn't.

But thanks to Tynes' kick and the Giants' relentless defense and Eli Manning's ability to get up after hit after hit after hit, little brother has a chance to join Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger with multiple rings. Is Manning elite? The way he has played this season and gotten New York to the final game, Manning has rendered the question moot. It is no longer up for debate. Manning is there, with Brady and Brees and Rodgers and the man who used to own the stadium where Manning will play in the final game of this insane 2011 season.

Fitting, isn't it? In the season in which Peyton Manning didn't take a snap and his Indianapolis Colts disintegrated, Eli Manning will end it at Lucas Oil Stadium, against the team his brother used to love to hate and the one Eli beat to win his first Super Bowl ring. Talk about symmetry. And destiny.

Eli Manning was the MVP of Super Bowl XLII, but that Giants team wasn't his team the way this Giants team is. That team relied on its defense and running game. It needed Manning merely to manage the game and not make mistakes. And then David Tyree happened and the Giants ended the Patriots' quest to become the first team to win 19 games in a season.

Manning was a Super Bowl MVP -- "I thought he was a good player in '07 when he was MVP of the Super Bowl," Giants GM Jerry Reese said -- but he still didn't get the respect. He does now. He has carried this team and kept it together during a four-game losing streak that could have done in the Giants. They could have folded, but Manning would not allow it. He played well against the Jets and then again against the Cowboys, which allowed the Giants to finish the season 9-7 and sneak into the postseason as the NFC East winner and a not-so-spectacular No. 4 seed.

And this postseason, he has been spectacular. He entered Sunday's game against San Francisco having completed 67.7 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and only one interception in wins over Atlanta at home and Green Bay on the road.

The 49ers were the best defense the Giants had faced, and in the fourth quarter, with the score tied 17-17, San Francisco routinely either hit Manning as he threw the ball or collapsed the pocket to where Manning had to rush a throw. He got up, time after time after time, and never wavered -- and never turned the ball over.

Manning finished the game 32-of-58 for 316 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions despite being sacked six times.

"Tremendous, exceptional, unbelievable," was the way center David Baas described Manning's performance.

"The list goes on," Baas said. "You look at today, some of those things up front, to be blatant we didn't pick it up very well. They gave us some trouble. He took some hits and he hung in there. They were hard hits he didn't need to take."

David Diehl has played with Manning his entire professional career, and he lit up when asked how Manning has evolved from the young man out of Ole Miss to the one who has controlled, even dominated, games this season.

"He's evolved into an unbelievable player," Diehl said. "His knowledge and grasp of the offense, the way he handles things, that's just from a football standpoint, let alone his leadership."

Diehl told a story about how, early in Manning's career, people outside of the Giants' organization would get flustered at Manning's unflappable, even emotionless, demeanor. He was one direction -- down the middle -- whether the Giants won or they lost, whether he played well or like a dog.

"People said, 'Oh he's so calm under pressure,' then something doesn't go right and he's the same way, and it's, 'Oh my God, how come he doesn't show emotion?'" Diehl said.

"It's just been unbelievable to see the way he's improved, the grasp of the offense, the audibles, the sacks, the recognition of blitzes, but most importantly the leadership," Diehl added. "He's stepped up tremendously for this football team and our offense. When the game is on the line, he wants the ball in his hands. It's just been awesome."

The ride is not over. The Giants and Manning are on the brink of football immortality. Win one Super Bowl and you are cherished. Win two and you are validated. You are special. You are elite.

Manning is there now. He is elite, and special. And true to character after the game, he didn't really want to talk about any of it. Manning was proud of the team, proud they never quit, not in December or against the 49ers.

"I kept believing in our team, that we could get hot and we could start playing our best football," Manning said. "We did that at the end of the season, and hopefully we can continue this moment and keep getting better."

Before he disappeared in a mass of people in a back hallway underneath ancient Candlestick Park, Manning took one more question, about how he is different from the player who beat the Patriots four years ago.

"Four years older, I guess," he said.

Manning played it down the middle, as always.

Ashley Fox is an NFL columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @AshleyMFox.