The game was meaningless, or as meaningless as a game can be against a team on the brink of making history. The only question for the playoff-bound New York Giants was whether it was worth risking injury by playing starters on the off chance they just might make a statement against the New England Patriots.
The starters played, and the statement was made, even though the Giants fell in their final game of the regular season. Behind a quarterback who seemed to gain confidence with each throw, they managed to play the unbeaten Patriots deep into the fourth quarter before losing.
Two playoff wins later, the Giants are in the NFC championship game for the first time in seven years, making the much-maligned Tom Coughlin suddenly look like a coaching genius.
And his equally maligned quarterback is starting to look an awful lot like his Super Bowl champion older brother - with one big difference. Peyton Manning is staying home this weekend while Eli Manning and the Giants have a date with the Packers in Green Bay.
``I don't know if he silenced the critics. In this game, you're always going to have critics,'' Giants running back Brandon Jacobs said. ``I think Eli Manning is a great quarterback. He's the best I've ever played with.''
New York fans would have argued that contention long and often during the last four years. They, like some of Manning's own teammates, were frustrated by the young quarterback's inconsistency and his tendency to throw wild passes that often landed in the hands of players wearing uniforms of a different color.
He wasn't much of a leader, either. If anyone didn't know already that, recently retired running back Tiki Barber made sure they did at the start of the season when he launched his television career by calling Manning's efforts to take charge of the team ``comical.''
No one on the Dallas Cowboys was laughing Sunday. Manning may have come of age as a playoff quarterback by taking just 46 seconds to lead his team on a game-tying drive in the final seconds of the first half. And this was after the Cowboys had held the ball more than 10 minutes before scoring. They certainly weren't laughing early in the fourth quarter when Manning engineered a six-play drive that gave the Giants the only lead they would need.
And now Manning, who at 27 is four years younger than Peyton, has a chance to have the last laugh by beating the Packers and putting the wild-card Giants into the Super Bowl, something most would have thought impossible when New York lost its first two games of the season.
``He's playing with a lot of confidence,'' said wide receiver Plaxico Burress. ``As long as that continues, we'll be going to Arizona.''
Most football fans figured the only Manning going to the Super Bowl would be Peyton, whose giant shadow has always loomed over that of his younger brother. Peyton Manning may still be the best quarterback in a family sired by a quarterback, but his chances of adding a second ring to the one he won last year evaporated when the Chargers upset the Colts.
Peyton Manning threw two interceptions in the game, and the dome in Indianapolis grew strangely silent when he misfired several times while trying to lead his team on the kind of last-second drive that has become his trademark.
``What happened last year doesn't make it any easier this year,'' Manning said. ``When you come back and commit yourself to the '07 season and you don't finish it like you want to, it hurts.''
Manning will have to be content to root for his brother this weekend, just as Eli cheered him on when the Colts beat the Chicago Bears to win the Super Bowl. Better rooting, though, than commiserating, as Peyton has had to do with his younger brother through much of his turbulent pro career.
While Eli Manning made it to the NFC title game in his fourth year, it took Peyton six years to get there. And while Eli lost his previous two playoff games before this season, Peyton was 0-3 in the playoffs before he came through with a win.
One thing Eli hasn't done nearly as well as Peyton is make television commercials. Peyton Manning is the NFL leader in that category, and hardly an NFL game goes by that he is not seen in one of his funny and sometimes self-deprecating spots. Eli doesn't have the public presence of his older brother, and he rarely offers anything other than stock cliches to the media after games.
The Cowboy game was no exception, but soon it might be time for Eli to start talking about himself more. Since throwing four touchdowns in the season finale against New England, he has seemed a more poised and confident quarterback who seems to be figuring out how to keep his mistakes to a minimum.
That was the case against Dallas, when Manning sat on the bench much of the game as the Cowboys controlled the clock. But he got his licks in quickly when he played, with the Giants scoring their three touchdowns on drives that totaled only 6 minutes, 20 seconds on the game clock, and didn't turn the ball once.
Including the New England game, Manning has thrown for eight touchdowns against only one interception in his last three games. Those kind of stats win games, especially in the pressure of playoff time.
``How he has focused and how his teammates have responded to that focus, these are all very, very good things,'' Coughlin said. ``As I have said before now, very timely.''
The Giants will be underdogs in Green Bay, but they were thought to be overmatched in Dallas, too. And while Green Bay will be cold and frosty, the Giants have put together a nine-game road winning streak in a league where teams are happy if they split their games away from home.
So a Manning will still be playing this weekend.
The only surprise is which Manning it is.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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