Giants quarterback Eli Manning passes under pressure from 49ers defensive… (Monica M. Davey / EPA )
Reporting from San Francisco -- At one point during his favorite quarter Sunday, Eli Manning's chin strap better resembled an oxygen mask with the way it had been repositioned over his mouth by the punishment of an opposing player.
One play earlier, the muddied Manning, working feverishly to pull off his sixth fourth-quarter comeback victory of the season, escaped heavy pressure from three San Francisco 49ers pass rushers and completed a 30-yard pass to Ahmad Bradshaw.
Manning absorbed the hit that followed, face-planting onto the soggy Candlestick Park grass.
That act, along with the displaced chin strap and torn jersey from later blows that included six sacks, wound up being the badges of courage Manning takes with him to his second Super Bowl, Feb. 5 in Indianapolis against the team he beat in the 2008 edition of the game, the New England Patriots.
"The guys never quit, they keep believing, keep fighting — that something good will happen, and we'll get a chance to win this game," Manning said after his New York Giants defeated the 49ers, 20-17, in overtime.
It has been that way for Manning and his teammates for much of the season. They were 7-7 after Week 15, close to elimination from postseason contention after a 38-35 home loss to the Green Bay Packers in Week 13 and a 23-10 defeat at the hands of the woeful Washington Redskins two weeks later.
They have not lost since, closing the regular season with wins over the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys. Then they beat the Atlanta Falcons in the first round of the playoffs and top-seeded Green Bay in the conference semifinals.
"I'm proud of the guys for never having any doubts, to just keep believing, to get hot at the end of the season," Manning said. "We did it before."
That poise and resilience have the hard proof of numbers backing Manning.
Facing the 49ers' fourth-ranked NFL defense — one given the boost of high winds and a soggy field to further complicate life for the visiting quarterback — Manning threw the ball a staggering 58 times.
He completed 32 of the passes for 316 yards with two touchdowns.
And he did not have a pass intercepted.
"Not turning the ball over against this defense," Manning said. "That was big."
So was withstanding the pressure.
Manning did not warm to the weather in the first quarter, completing six of 11 passes. With the 49ers leading 7-0, he leaned on gifted wide receivers Victor Cruz (10 receptions, 142 yards) and Hakeem Nicks (five receptions, 55 yards) and directed a 10-play, 69-yard touchdown drive capped by a six-yard scoring pass to tight end Bear Pascoe.
After a muffed punt was recovered by the Giants while they trailed 14-10 in the fourth, Manning skirted defensive tackle Justin Smith and hit Nicks for a 14-yard gain on third and seven, then threw a precision pass that allowed receiver Mario Manningham to outjump a 49ers defensive back in the end zone on third and 15.
"We have fierce players here in the offense," Nicks said.
As Eli's older brother Peyton endures an uncertain off-season that could be marked by his release by the Indianapolis Colts — or, perhaps, retirement — Eli will head to Peyton's home stadium looking to take a 2-1 lead in Super Bowl rings.
"The leadership he's shown all year — he's battle-tested, getting us through all these elimination games," Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said of Manning.
"To get back up the number of times he did, it shows you the type of focus, courage, toughness and the type of leader he is."