Eli Manning announced his retirement from the NFL on Wednesday, ending a 16-year career that included two Super Bowl victories.
While the Giants quarterback never delivered elite regular season numbers, he did step up on several monumental occasions, eliminating some of the most talented teams of his era.
Manning’s 2007 Super Bowl triumph over the Patriots is probably remembered most, but his portfolio of upset wins extended far beyond that game.
Here are the stories of five extraordinarily talented playoff teams Manning knocked off in his career:
5. 2007 Packers
The 2007 NFC Championship game was supposed to secure a late-career trip to the Super Bowl for Brett Favre, who had long before sealed his place as an NFL legend. The Packers welcomed the Giants to a snowy Lambeau Field as clear favorites, having already whipped New York in New York during the regular season by a score of 35-13.
At various points over the past couple of decades, Green Bay has been perhaps too offense-centric. This iteration, though, was not at all unbalanced. Charles Woodson, Al Harris and Atari Bigby were ball-hawking staples of the secondary. Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk offered youth in the middle of the field. Aaron Kampman regularly applied pressure to opposing quarterbacks.
Favre, meanwhile, was surrounded by capable downfield threats. His connection with veteran wideout Donald Driver was telepathic — the duo had competed together for nine seasons. Greg Jennings was already one of the best No. 2 receivers in the league. James Jones and Donald Lee were respectable passing options, too, and rookie running back Ryan Grant had just exploded onto the scene with 201 rushing yards and three touchdowns in an NFC divisional round romp of the Seahawks.
As for the Giants? They had underperformed most of the year with Manning under center. The quarterback threw 20 regular season interceptions and had been wildly inconsistent despite the presence of Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer and Jeremy Shockey. Defensively, New York prided itself on the fearsome pass rushing trio of Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. To that point, however, those players had not overcome the shortcomings of a secondary that ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in passing touchdowns allowed and takeaways.
In part because of the weather, the NFC title game began as a defense-first battle — the Giants kept the Packers to just 27 first-quarter yards and took a 6-0 lead via two field goals. But when New York’s secondary cracked early in the second period, allowing Driver to race 90 yards to the end zone, it seemed Green Bay would eventually restore control.
Control never arrived for the Packers.
Manning didn’t throw a touchdown pass, but he avoided costly turnovers and fed Burress over and over in the second half. The Giants hung around and gained possession in a tie game with a little over two minutes remaining in the contest. Manning threw for two first downs to set up a 36-yard chip shot for Lawrence Tynes that would have sent the team to the Super Bowl. Tynes missed. Unfazed, the Giants picked off Favre at the start of OT, giving their kicker a chance to redeem himself. This time, Tynes was good from 47 yards out.
4. 2011 Packers
Green Bay went 15-1 in the 2011 regular season after beating the Steelers in the previous year’s Super Bowl. Aaron Rodgers won MVP honors with a dazzling 45-touchdown, six-interception campaign, and Jordy Nelson had established himself as a superstar receiver. 24-year-old tight end Jermichael Finley appeared destined to be the next big thing at his position, racking up 767 yards and eight touchdowns in his fourth NFL season.
The Packers’ defense was a bit of a mess, ranking dead last in yards allowed per game. Still, the unit wasn’t supposed to have much of a problem in the NFC divisional round against the Giants, who had lost at home to Green Bay one month earlier.
New York didn’t just beat the Packers. It eliminated them with a crushing 37-20 blowout at Lambeau Field.
Manning’s Hail Mary touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks end the first half seemed to break Green Bay’s spirit. The quarterback ended his night with 330 passing yards and three passing touchdowns. In the process, he relegated a spectacular Packers team to a historical footnote.
3. 2011 Patriots
While not on par with the undefeated 2007 Patriots (more on them soon), New England’s 2011 team was still an offensive force. Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Deion Branch all surpassed 700 receiving yards in the regular season, giving Tom Brady an array of formidable weapons to work with.
As they have almost always done in the Brady era, Bill Belichick’s squad became increasingly dangerous late in the campaign. The Patriots won their final eight regular season games and pushed past the Broncos and Ravens to reach the Super Bowl. They entered as the favorites against the Giants, who had stunned the Cowboys, Packers and 49ers to claim the NFC crown.
Manning outplayed Brady in the Super Bowl, completing 30 of 40 passes for 296 yards and a touchdown. Manning also led the game-winning drive, converting three first downs to set up a go-ahead rushing touchdown by Ahmad Bradshaw. Brady, meanwhile, committed intentional grounding in his own end zone for a safety and threw an interception.
Manning claimed Super Bowl MVP honors for the second time in his career.
2. 2011 49ers
A top-10 NFL defense of the 21st century never reached the Super Bowl in large part because of the way Manning stepped up against San Francisco in the 2011 NFC championship game.
The 49ers, reinvigorated under coach Jim Harbaugh, entered the playoffs starved for a deep run. The franchise hadn’t been to the postseason since 2002, and its extended drought was filled with ugliness that went beyond mere mediocrity. In the divisional round — its first playoff game in almost a decade — San Francisco beat New Orleans in an inspired performance after tight end Vernon Davis secured a game-winning touchdown reception with 14 seconds remaining.
What made this 49ers team special was how perfectly its roster was constructed to fit its playing style. It relied upon prime Davis and Frank Gore on offense, as well as a quarterback in Alex Smith who deftly avoided mistakes. The unit could chew clock as well as any team in the league, a perfect complement to a dominant group on the other side of the ball.
San Francisco was loaded all over the field defensively, but especially at the linebacker position. Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith were an unmatched core at the time.
Manning played a brilliant NFC championship game against that group. He took six sacks and a number of brutal hits, but finished with 316 passing yards and two passing touchdowns. His second score — a 17-yard strike to Mario Manningham on third-and-15 — gave the Giants a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter.
The 49ers tied the game with a 25-yard field goal later in the quarter, and the contest went to overtime after Willis broke up an over-the-middle pass by Manning on a crucial third down near midfield in the final minute of regulation.
Disaster struck for San Francisco in the extra period when Kyle Williams muffed a punt deep in his own territory.
From there, Bradshaw picked up a first down on the ground, Manning took a knee and Tynes drilled a game-winning field goal to send New York to its second Super Bowl in five years.
1. 2007 Patriots
It’s been 12 years since Super Bowl 42, but it’s still hard to believe Manning and the Giants pulled off an improbable upset of the then-undefeated Patriots.
Had New England won, it would have clinched its place as the greatest NFL team of all-time, and remained there indefinitely. The Patriots, of course, went 16-0 in the regular season behind an absurd offense, and comfortably advanced past the Jaguars and Chargers to set up a matchup with New York.
Tom Brady, then 30 years old, threw for 50 touchdowns in the regular season. He had prime Randy Moss, prime Wes Welker and underrated deep threat Donte’ Stallworth to throw to. He was protected by a sturdy offensive line.
The Patriots were also stacked defensively, boasting one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL in Asante Samuel, interior lineman Vince Wilfork and veteran linebacker Mike Vrabel.
New England entered the Super Bowl as 12.5-point favorites.
Just as it had in the NFC championship game against the Packers, New York managed to slow down the Patriots’ high-flying offense from the start. It constantly pressured Brady, sacking him five times and forcing him to to get rid of the ball before his receivers could expose a suspect secondary.
Manning was steady throughout the contest, but particularly in the final quarter, when he led his famous game-winning drive.
Down 14-10 with 1:15 remaining on the clock, Manning muscled out of a sack before launching a deep throw to unheralded receiver David Tyree. Tyree secured the ball against his helmet just past the Patriots’ 25. Manning finished the job by finding Burress for the game-winning touchdown. His 255-yard, two-touchdown effort earned him Super Bowl MVP honors.