EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- On a far more prosperous New York Giants night than this one, the night they beat the New England Patriots in a Super Bowl for the second time, John Mara stood near the victory stand in Indianapolis and notarized Eli Manning as the best offensive player in franchise history.
In Peyton Manning's building, Mara said Peyton's kid brother "has something different in his DNA than everybody else has. ... The more pressure on him, the better he's going to perform. There are very few people on the planet that have that, and this guy's got it."
Eli hasn't been back to the playoffs since, a truth that inspired Mara to consider this season a win-or-else proposition for his coach, Tom Coughlin, and general manager, Jerry Reese. But the 0-2 Giants of 2015 have become the 3-2 Giants of 2015 and a first-place team in the NFC East because Manning played like his former self, like that quarterback with rare DNA.
So as he headed toward the locker room after the Giants' heart-stopping 30-27 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, Mara was asked for his assessment of the two-time Super Bowl MVP who might have just played the best regular-season game of his 12-year career.
The Giants president shook his head and smiled. "That's why we pay him the $22 million," he told ESPN.com.
Twenty-two million, 21 million, who's counting anyway? Given the circumstances Sunday night, Manning was worth the money with interest.
His best receiver, Odell Beckham Jr., was out in the fourth with a hamstring injury. His second-best receiver, Rueben Randle, also went down late with a bad hammy. His second-best receiver when healthy, Victor Cruz, was looking on in street clothes.
So with 1 minute, 41 seconds left and the 49ers up 27-23, Manning was left to work with wide receivers who could walk through Times Square at rush hour without a single New Yorker recognizing them. Dwayne Harris. Geremy Davis. Myles White.
"It just shows you Eli can work with anybody," Prince Amukamara would say.
Sure, Manning needed some luck on this eight-play, 82-yard drive. He needed to survive Tramaine Brock's direct hit on an ill-advised 11-yard run. "Lucky it was a defensive back and not a linebacker," Manning said.
He needed a replay to overturn an interception (the ball bounced) on a dreadful floater down the middle of the field, a throw that compelled Coughlin to fire his oversized play chart into the ground. He needed Beckham to return with 45 seconds left and draw a pass-interference call. He needed Shane Vereen to compensate for the problems at receiver and play like the winner he was in New England.
More than anything, Manning needed Larry Donnell to make a great catch on a great throw between two defenders in the back of the end zone with 21 seconds to go.
"That's what they expect from me," Manning said, "what my teammates expect, my coaches, fans, myself."
He threw for three touchdowns and 441 yards. His 41 completions broke Phil Simms' franchise record, and his 102nd career victory, including the postseason, did the same.
As far as the comeback goes, Coughlin said "it ranks no doubt about as high as you can rank it." It negated a terrible interception in the end zone near the close of the first half -- let's face it, Manning is never going to pitch a perfect game -- and reinforced the point that the quarterback remains the most valuable Giant from the Isidore Newman School in New Orleans.
The other Isidore Newman star, Beckham, has a chance to grow into the greatest receiver the Giants have ever dressed. He showed why on his third-quarter catch and run for a touchdown, stopping on a dime to break one defender's ankles in pure Allen Iverson form, and then beating another to the pylon before performing a dance best described as Cruz's salsa moves times Michael Jackson's moonwalk times Elvis' wildest gyrations.
Giants medical personnel surrounded Beckham after his touchdown dance, breathing life into the theory that he was hurt while celebrating his own greatness. But the receiver maintained later that he'd tweaked his hamstring five or six plays before the score. That was his story, and he was sticking to it.
Though he isn't the sucker-punching, one-year wonder Antonio Cromartie might make him out to be, Beckham would be wise to temper the inner flame that he admits burns too hot. Meanwhile, the guy who used to throw summertime spirals to a young Beckham at the Manning Passing Academy has never had a problem playing within himself.
Eli didn't panic Sunday night when his receivers started resembling cast members from "The Walking Dead." What does it say? "It says we've got a better quarterback than a lot of people think," Vereen answered.
"His focus and his work ethic and his preparation is second to none," Coughlin added.
Only 11 quarterbacks in NFL history have thrown for more yardage than Manning, who has managed 27 fourth-quarter comebacks to win or tie a regular-season game. Asked if this one against San Francisco was as satisfying as any, Manning said, "Well, there were a couple in the Super Bowl, obviously."
He drew a good laugh on that one.
"This one was special," Manning said, "just because we hadn't been as good in the two-minute drive as we once were."
He spoke of being in a sweet rhythm all night, of seeing the field one frame ahead of the people paid to stop him. Manning didn't want to knock his second- and third-string receivers, but yes, he validated his paycheck against San Francisco by rising above the limited Giants around him.
This is why John Mara pays Eli Manning the big bucks. This is why the 34-year-old quarterback is still the biggest Giant and, until further notice, the most valuable star on the roster with an Isidore Newman diploma.