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Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2008

ODDS AND EVENS

Confidence, right formula helped Giants to Super upset


GLENDALE, Ariz. — I had a short chat with my uncle Jack on the telephone Saturday afternoon. He lives in northern New Jersey, grew up in New York City and has always followed the New York Giants.

Ed Odeven

I asked him if he thought the Giants would win Super Bowl XLII. He didn't think so.

Why?

He mentioned the fact Eli Manning had played the game of his life in leading the Giants to an improbable, epic overtime win over the great Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers on Jan. 20 at Lambeau Field, but didn't think the Ole Miss product would play that well again. And we briefly touched upon the fact that New England had beaten New York 38-35 in the teams' regular-season finale.

Uncle Jack wasn't the only one who thought this way.

And that's why this shocking upset, a 17-14 triumph for Tom Coughlin's Giants, will go down in the history books as one of the greatest football games of all time, and maybe the greatest fourth quarter in Super Bowl history.

After all, the Patriots were 18-0 entering Sunday's showdown, trying to become the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to have an unbeaten season.

Their head coach, Bill Belichick, had been a part of five Super Bowl-winning teams (two as the New York Giants' defensive coordinator and three as the Patriots' head coach).

And Tom Brady, their golden boy quarterback with the Brazilian supermodel girlfriend, had drawn well-earned comparisons to the game's all-time greats, specifically Joe Montana, for his ability to win the big games (his three title-winning efforts were all decided by three points, all games in which he delivered the big plays in the fourth quarters) and elevate the QB position to a new level (he threw a league-record 50 touchdown passes this season).

So there I was Sunday afternoon at University of Phoenix Stadium (in section 402, row nine, seat 10) with more than 70,000 witnesses and millions more spanning the globe, watching this brilliant, tense, well-played game.

Through three quarters, there had been only two scoring drives, giving New England a 7-3 advantage. In that span, the Pats had gained 184 total yards to the Giants' 167. They had run 49 offensive plays to the Giants' 41.

News photo
Michael Strahan, seen here sacking Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, helped the New York Giants pull of a huge upset in Super Bowl XLII. AP PHOTO

New York understood that in order to win this game it had to make Brady's life as miserable as possible. It's a fairly simple concept, but easier said than done.

For Giants veteran end Michael Strahan, one of the game's all-time great pass rushers, this was the topic of discussion Sunday morning.

"We knew we had to get to Tom Brady," said Strahan, one of two Giants holdovers (receiver Amani Toomer is the other) from the Super Bowl XXXV team. "Osi (Umenyiora) came up to me at breakfast and said, 'Do you realize if we don't hit Brady, we don't win the game?' "

And so Strahan and his fellow linemates, who outmuscled, outhustled and outplayed opposing offensive linemen time after time to give the Giants a league-best 53 sacks in the regular season, as well as the team's aggressive, strong linebackers and secondary crew, pestered Brady at every available opportunity.

Listen to lineman Justin Tuck, who had two sacks in the first half, explain the Giants' strategy to limit Brady's effectiveness:

"That offense is made to stay in rhythm and some things we showed him up front and in the secondary, you could tell it kind of threw him off rhythm.

"He made some errant throws and held the ball a little longer than he normally does."

In essence, the Giants dictated the pace of the game.

Yet they still had enough energy for a miracle finish.

It's the notion here the Giants had two signature plays in this game that didn't produce points. They'll both be remembered as key moments in this game.

The first occurred in the third quarter. The Patriots faced third-and-7 from the Giants 25 with 7:23 on the clock. Strahan, a 15-year veteran, forced his way around the end of the line and into the backfield, where he unloaded a hard hit on Brady, wrapped him up for the sack.

Strahan pumped his fists with glee. Then he raised his arms in a muscle pose, as if to say, "Look at me. I'm big. I'm strong. I'm tough. And I will make big plays when I have to."

That left the Patriots with a critical fourth-and-13 at the 31. Curiously enough, Belichick opted to go for it rather than giving kicker Stephen Gostkowski a chance to make a 48-yard attempt. Gostkowski's career-long kick is 52 yards.

The move backfired. Brady's fourth-down pass was incomplete.

Now fast forward to the fourth quarter. The Giants grabbed a 10-7 lead with 11:05 left on a 5-yard TD reception by David Tyree, a fifth-year pro out of Syracuse University.

This drama was still unfolding. Brady put the Pats back on top, 14-10, on a TD pass to Randy Moss with 2:42 to play.

But it was far from over.

And that was the mood on the New York sideline.

"Actually, I was thinking about an Eli Manning great comeback, honestly," Tuck said. "We were running up and down that sideline saying, 'believe.' In the heat of the game, you never really allow yourself to think you're not going to win it."

This is the second signature play: The Great Escape. On third-and-5 at the Giants 44 with 1:15 to play, Manning takes the snap and breaks free from the Pats' stranglehold defense, scrambling to buy time, a la Fran Tarkenton. Then Manning releases a high throw over the middle that Tyree leaps up to grab, beating New England safety Rodney Harrison to the ball for a 24-yard gain.

"It was just a great catch by David Tyree," Manning declared.

Hit rewind on your DVR. Watch it again. It was an unbelievable sequence of athletic timing.

Or as Manning put it: "I found a way to get loose, and just really threw it up. He made an unbelievable catch and saved the game."

Said Tyree: "I just pulled up. I was probably going on a deep post. I saw that he was under duress and I pulled up. Most times when a receiver sees a quarterback under duress, they cut (the route) short or they expect it to be short. I just laid up, found an open gap and he put the ball up high. You have to get it. . . . You have to get (the ball) at its highest point."

Plaxico Burress made the game-winning TD catch seconds later, producing the appropriate last highlight play for these improbable champions.

When a perfect season ends in failure, a season that many people wanted to see end with a 19th victory, a victory that would establish a new standard of greatness, there's an abrupt, incomplete ending to it all.

"I don't know how to feel right now," Patriots center Dan Koppen decided moments after the game.

Coughlin knew how to feel: elated, proud of his players and full of compliments for his team, which was the league's third-youngest squad on opening day, and his coaching staff.

"I thought that our preparation was good, and I also thought that we had so many young guys who were hyped up about playing in this thing," Coughlin said.

Said Strahan: "We could sit here and go, 'We told you so,' but that's not this team. We didn't do this to say, 'I told you so,' and prove you wrong. We did it to prove to ourselves that we could do it.

"This was for us, man. This whole season was for us. This season was not for anybody else. This season was for the guys in that locker room, and for those coaches and for the Giants and the fans."

And it was the perfect reminder that perfection is the rarest of accomplishments, in professional sports and in life.



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