'You can't spell elite without Eli'

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tom Brady had just orchestrated another fourth-quarter masterpiece.

Then it was Eli Manning's turn. And the result was simply elite.

"Call it what it is," New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said after a 24-20 victory over the New England Patriots. "He just beat probably the best quarterback in the league … in his house."

Faced with a fourth-and-9 from the 14, Brady calmly found Rob Gronkowski for a touchdown with 1:36 remaining, putting the Patriots up 20-17.

So here was Manning -- who caused an uproar in August by saying he was in Brady's class as an elite quarterback -- with a chance to back up the big talk.

"I'd rather [have possession of the ball] down by three with 1:30 than up by four with 1:30 and Tom Brady on the field," Manning said. "You like those situations where you have the opportunity to go win the game."

Playing without his leading receiver, his top running back and his starting center, Manning drove the Giants 80 yards in eight plays, culminating with a game-winning 1-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds left. And in Brady fashion, Manning won on a play-action pass to his tight end, Jake Ballard.

The quarterback who owned the best fourth-quarter passer rating entering Sunday was not Aaron Rodgers or Brady. It was Manning, who shook off a costly interception to rule crunch time again, leading touchdown drives of 85 and 80 yards in the last seven minutes.

"I have been here seven years with him," Tuck said. "I would dare to say he is playing his best ball in the whole seven years."

The Giants (6-2) did something not many people gave them a chance to do. Without receiver Hakeem Nicks, tailback Ahmad Bradshaw and center David Baas, the Giants beat an angry Patriots team in New England, where Bill Belichick had won 20 straight regular-season games. Brady, who missed most of the 2008 season with a knee injury, had not lost at home in his previous 31 regular-season home starts.

But with Manning on the field, the Giants feel right now that they can beat anybody -- no matter what the deficit is. For the sixth consecutive game, the Giants played a game decided in the fourth quarter and Manning pulled out his fifth win during that stretch.

This one, though, felt like the type of victory that can define a team in the middle of the season. The Giants started a ridiculous six-game stretch -- which includes four games against division leaders -- by beating Brady and the Patriots on the road … in dramatic fashion … while undermanned.

This team's confidence continues to rise at a time when the Giants usually are beginning a second-half swoon. They have started 5-2 or better every year under Tom Coughlin since 2004, only to suffer several setbacks.

It remains to be seen how the Giants will finish 2011, but Manning is determined to prove that his play will not dip after Halloween. And he made one enormous statement Sunday.

It's one thing to direct a fourth-quarter comeback against the Arizona Cardinals. It's quite another against a team that the Giants consider an elite opponent, even if the Patriots' pass defense did rank 32nd in the NFL entering Sunday.

Manning, who had thrown a costly interception in the end zone late in the third quarter, had two signature fourth-quarter drives.

Down 13-10 with just over seven minutes remaining, Manning completed four of five passes on an 85-yard drive that led to a 10-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham with 3:03 remaining. On the drive, Manningham was able to draw a defensive pass interference flag on Kyle Arrington for a gain of 35 yards.

But Manning left too much time on the clock for Brady, who also was handed 15 yards on his drive due to an unsportsmanlike penalty on Manningham after his touchdown.

The Giants' defense nearly won the game but couldn't get the fourth-down stop it needed, as Brady appeared to be on his way to another late-game victory.

But with Manning at the helm, the Giants have become accustomed to pulling out the type of finishes that used to be seen in those classic "Alcoa Presents: Fantastic Finishes" commercials.

With Brady watching, Manning opened the final drive from the Giants' 20 with a 19-yard completion to Victor Cruz. Two incomplete passes later, Manning was facing a third-and-10 at his own 39 when he hit Ballard across the middle on a play that looked like one of his many connections with Kevin Boss, but felt more like the David Tyree catch in Super Bowl XLII against the Patriots.

After that 28-yard gain, Manning escaped a collapsing pocket and scrambled for 12 yards and safely slid down at the Patriots' 21.

The Giants burned their second timeout with 35 seconds left before Manning threw a deep pass toward the left corner of the end zone for Cruz. Manning was throwing the ball away, but he was hoping the Giants could get lucky with Cruz tightly covered by two defenders. The play paid off as Cruz was tripped and safety Sergio Brown was called for pass interference, giving the Giants the ball at the 1-yard-line with 30 seconds left.

After an incomplete pass and a Brandon Jacobs run up the middle, the Giants called their final timeout with 19 seconds to go.

On third-and-goal, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride might have had enough time to try to run Jacobs again. But he put the ball in Manning's hands.

Dropping back and faking to Jacobs, Manning hit Ballard in the left corner to beat the Patriots with another magical drive at New England's expense.

"It brings back memories," Tuck said. "We all know what memories."

Manning's greatest professional moment came when he beat the previously undefeated Patriots and won the Super Bowl MVP trophy on Feb. 3, 2008.

After a 25-interception season in 2010, Manning was asked during a radio interview in August if he considered himself to be in Brady's class. Manning didn't back down, answering in the affirmative.

When told that some Patriots fans held signs saying that Eli is not elite, Tuck said, "You should go ask them how they feel about it now.

"To quote one of our captains, you can't spell elite without Eli."

Manning said he did not notice the posters.

"I don't make a habit of looking into the stands and reading their signs," Manning said. "And if I did, I don't think I would have thought they were the experts to make that decision."

As for whether he is an elite quarterback, Manning wasn't going to go there again.

He really didn't have to after letting his performance do all the talking.