IRVING, Texas -- Peyton Manning has a championship game to be at next weekend after all. He can go watch baby brother Eli guide the New York Giants.
A few hours after the reigning Super Bowl MVP lost his chance to get back to the big game, the less-heralded, often-criticized member of football's most famous family got the biggest victory of his career. Manning led the Giants past Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys 21-17 on Sunday and into the NFC title game.
"I won't get tired of hearing that this week," Manning said. "No one's given us much credit and probably still won't. But that's OK. We like it that way."
Eli, the Manning who doesn't do many commercials, threw two touchdown passes to Amani Toomer and led another scoring drive early in the fourth quarter. While he wasn't great, he was good enough to lead New York to its ninth straight road win and into a 10th road game -- at Green Bay, with the winner getting a spot in the Super Bowl. It's the furthest New York has advanced since the 2000 season.
"I was a little nervous," said Eli, who was 12-of-18 for 163 yards. "I know (Peyton) was watching and rooting for me."
Peyton and Romo can commiserate together at the Pro Bowl next month. That's the next game either will be playing.
The elder Manning and the Indianapolis Colts lost at home to the San Diego Chargers in the early game Sunday. Then Romo and the Cowboys blew their chance of advancing, a loss that's even more painful than their exit last January because of what a great regular-season they had.
"It hurts," said Romo, 18-of-36 for 201 yards with a touchdown and a sack on each of the final two drives. "It's tough right now."
Just 10 days ago, Eli Manning was 0-2 as a playoff quarterback and finishing a season that's had the kind of love-hate relationship with New York fans that Alex Rodriguez knows all too well. Now he's got two wins, the admiration of his teammates -- and an unprecedented amount of public support.
"Everybody goes through their ups and downs and he's on the upswing right now," Toomer said. "We're going to ride him as far as we can go."
The Cowboys were thinking the same about their quarterback. Instead, their season ended with Romo throwing a fourth-down pass into the end zone and cornerback R.W. McQuarters stepping in front of Terry Glenn for the interception. It marked Romo's second straight disappointing finish to a playoff game, following his flubbed hold of a short field goal in Seattle a year ago.
This one is huge because "America's Team" seemed pointed toward a ninth trip to the Super Bowl, maybe even a sixth championship.
Dallas tied the most wins in team history with 13, but followed it by tying an NFL record with a sixth straight playoff loss. Romo fell to 0-2 and coach Wade Phillips finished his first year with the Cowboys by falling to 0-4 in his playoff career.
There are other dubious footnotes for Dallas, like being the first No. 1 seed in the NFC to lose in this round since the NFL went to the 12-team playoff format in 1990 and being the seventh team to lose a playoff game against a team they'd beaten twice in the regular season; the '98 Cowboys did it, too.
Romo came in looking to make up for last season's finish, to prove his sluggish December was no big deal and to quiet everyone who accused him of mixed-up priorities for joining girlfriend Jessica Simpson on the beach in Mexico last weekend.
He couldn't do it, but it wasn't all his fault.
The offense stopped drives with penalties, while the defense kept New York drives alive by drawing more flags. There also was sloppy tackling on defense and special teams, dropped passes and wasted timeouts.
Still, Romo is the marquee man and the most likely to be blamed, though not by Terrell Owens.
Owens, who made good on his vow to return from a high ankle sprain sustained three weeks ago, cried behind dark sunglasses with a quivering bottom lip while declaring, "You can point the finger at him, you can talk about the vacation, and if you do that, it's really unfair. That's my teammate. ... We lost as a team."
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Thursday he would keep Phillips regardless of what happened in the playoffs, and said it again in the dreary locker room. There are bound to be changes, though, especially with highly valued assistant coaches Jason Garrett and Tony Sparano interviewing for jobs elsewhere.
Dallas scored 45 and 31 points in winning the first two meetings with New York by loading up on big plays, usually because Romo did a great job avoiding the blitzers who racked up an NFL-best 53 sacks.
This time, the Giants were content to give up short yardage and the Cowboys accepted the invitation, especially with Marion "The Barbarian" Barber joining the starting lineup for the first time.
A Pro Bowler as a backup, Barber racked up 101 yards by halftime but the game was tied at 14, thanks to a last-minute drive aided by a 15-yard facemask penalty and capped with Manning throwing a 4-yard touchdown pass to Toomer. The pair hooked up for a 52-yard touchdown on the game-opening drive, with Toomer taking a short pass, bouncing off two defenders and running from everyone else.
The Cowboys stuck to their slow-go game plan to open the second half, but the mistakes began biting them. A dropped pass in the end zone and false start forced Dallas to kick a field goal after a drive that burned the first 8:07 of the third quarter.
The Giants trailed only 17-14. After not getting anywhere on their next drive, a 25-yard punt return by McQuarters left Manning only 37 yards from the go-ahead touchdown. He needed only six plays to get it on a 1-yard run by Brandon Jacobs, who celebrated by throwing the ball into the play clock.
There was still 13:29 left, the 92nd between these division rivals but the first in the playoffs. While it got more interesting, the caliber of play didn't improve. Dallas made more sloppy mistakes and New York missed chances for clock-killing drives.
It finally came down to this: the Cowboys had 1:50 left to go 48 yards.
A Brett Favre-esque scrambling shovel pass to Jason Witten got the Cowboys to the 22 with 31 seconds left, then came more mistakes -- another false start, a short pass that forced Dallas to use its final timeout and a pair of poor throws, a ball in the end zone that Patrick Crayton seemed to give up on before futilely speeding up and the final play, caught by McQuarters.
Owens had four catches for 49 yards. Glenn, who missed the first 15 games following two knee surgeries, caught two passes for 30 yards.
The Giants rushed for 90 yards, with Jacobs getting 54. Toomer had four catches for 80 yards.
"I'm so proud of our players," New York coach Tom Coughlin said. "They really rose up."