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Eli Manning may not be the toughest quarterback in the NFL, but he is the most talented of the tough ones.  He has what Ernest Hemingway called “grace under pressure.”

Although he didn’t play with broken ribs as Tony Romo did against Washington, and he didn’t soldier through most of the fourth quarter with a broken thumb on his throwing hand as Jay Cutler did, I cannot think of anyone currently playing the quarterback position in the NFL who makes more big plays while taking more big hits than Eli Manning does.  There should be a statistic for this.  If there was, there would be no question of Eli Manning’s place in the Hall of Fame.

Take, for example, his performance against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game.  Against that brutal defense he was hit twenty times, many of them vicious (but legal), and went down for six sacks, but still completed 32 of 58 passes (yes, 58 pass playswhat got into Tom Coughlin?) for 316 yards and two touchdowns.  Six sacks?  If that had been any other quarterback, we would be talking about the total stomping that the Forty-Niners put on the Giants.

But anyone watching that game had to admire what Eli was willing to do for the win.  At times he adopted a brutal version of the old Ali rope-a-dope strategy, hanging onto the ball as long as it took to get a receiver open–even if it meant getting absolutely jackhammered by several 49er defenders.  San Francisco plays a very physical game, even by NFL standards.  They blow up pass routes and obliterate blocking schemes, with the result that opposing offenses often look weak and out of sync.  But the New York Giants, and their gritty quarterback, were tough enough to play through that scheme.

Eli Manning almost beheaded by San Francisco 49er defenders in 2011-2012 NFC Championship game (photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Of all the weird statistics from this game, I think the most mind-blowing was the fact that the New York Giants had zero turnovers.  Entering the game, San Francisco led the league with a +28 turnover margin.  That is a Super Bowl worthy number, which makes Eli Manning’s performance that much more impressive.

It is hard to believe now, but when Eli came into the league there were questions about his desire, toughness, and ability to lead.  No longer.  Although his performance in the playoffs this year has been spectacular, his image really began to change in the 2007-2008 playoffs with that impressive win at Lambeau Field in Brett Favre’s first “last game.”  Then, in one of the great closing performances in Super Bowl history he made the famous high pass to David Tyree.

Trailing the heavily favored and undefeated New England Patriots 14-10 with less than two minutes left in the game, Eli miraculously broke loose from two New England defenders, then scrambled to an open spot behind the shattered remnants of a pocket, and heaved one of the two or three most legendary passes in Super Bowl history.  Although smothered by the excellent coverage of All Pro defensive back Rodney Harrison, a much taller Tyree jumped higher than I’m sure he ever had in his life to make a catch with his hand and helmet that was so miraculous that it is now simply called (outside of San Francisco, anyway) “the catch.”

Even if you’re like me and have seen the play at least a hundred times, I urge you to watch it again (below), just to remind yourself of how the impossible can be made possible when the right people rise to the occasion.

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