In the end, it was a day for the weak to become heroes.
Well, perhaps not the weak, but certainly the underrated. Who would’ve thought that the course of NFL history would be turned by a rookie defensive lineman, an Englishman, the little brother and a wide receiver from so far down the depth chart he needed an aqualung?
Changed it was, though. No-one but a fool would accuse the Patriots of being overly complacent, but they certainly did pick the wrong week to hit a bad patch. The Giants took full advantage to pull off one of the biggest Superbowl shocks of all time with a 17-14 win.
From the outset it was clear what the Giants’ tactics would be: Play it safe, play it simple, keep the ball on the pitch and run down the clock. Their opening drive was a Superbowl record 18 plays and 11 minutes long. But when they only came away with a field goal, everyone thought that the other half of the game, the defensive battle, was easily going to go to the Pats.
At the end of the quarter, that view was reinforced. The Patriots had a 3rd and 10 from the Giants’ 17 yard line. Tom Brady tossed a speculative pass to Benjamin Watson in the end zone. Antonio Pierce, for some reason, chose to knock Watson aside instead of the ball. With the penalty being in the end zone, that put the ball on the Giants’ one yard line and, with the first play of the second quarter, Laurence Moroney steamed over the line.
There was no score in the rest of the second quarter. There was no score at all in the third. But a change was coming over the game. Never had the Patriots looked less like scoring. Brady was under more pressure than he had been all season, as the offensive line failed to hold up to the Giants’ defense. Left tackle Matt Light, so solid all season, was frightened out of his wits by London-born Osi Umenyiora, to the point where he was twice penalised for jumping offside in an effort to get to the marauding defensive end. Inside Umenyiora, rookie Justin Tuck was having the game of his life, finding holes where no-one had found them all season. With Michael Strahan and the rest of the Giants coming from the other side of the line, Brady never looked anything other than harassed.
Meanwhile, when he did have the ball in relative peace and quiet, he had no-one to throw to. Unlike other teams in this post-season, the Giants didn’t just look to shut down his long routes to Randy Moss and Donte’ Stallworth, they also looked to hammer his slot receivers, Wes Welker and Jabar Gaffney. At times it was as if he simply had nowhere to go.
Injuries certainly played a part in all of this. Brady himself, despite the claims to the contrary, was clearly still hampered by the ankle he had injured a fortnight previously. Kevin Faulk, who had been his go-to man in that AFC Championship game, injured a leg early in the second quarter and played little after then.
At the same time, the Giants were performing heroics when they did have the ball. Eli Manning was far from immaculate, but his offensive line played themselves into the ground to keep the famed Patriots rush defense away from him. Behind the line, fullback Madison Hedgecock had an immense game, acting as the sixth or seventh lineman. When he was out of the game, giant running back Brandon Jacobs took over the role. In all, they gave up only three sacks, one fewer than the Patriots.
The Giants had injury problems, too. Wideout Plaxico Burress had hardly practised all week, with a long standing ankle problem and a brand new knee one. The result was that he only made two catches, one of them on that opening drive. In his place, the rest of the receiving corps had to step up and did so. Whilst most plays saw Jacobs or Ahmad Bradshaw blasting up the middle of the pitch, when Manning had to throw, he had safe hands to look for. Rookie receiver Steve Smith, fit after missing 11 games to injury, ran the Patriots secondary ragged. Amani Toomer was, as usual, the safest hands on the park. Even Hedgecock had a rare reception.
Then we hit the fourth quarter. Manning took the Giants on another long drive downfield, starting with a 45 yard pass, his longest of the day, to tight end Kevin Boss. At the 5 yard line, he found the unheralded David Tyree for a touchdown. Tyree, who had slowly risen to fourth on the Giants’ depth chart, wandered into the end zone almost as un-noticed as the rest of his career had been.
There were still over 11 minutes to play. After a holding penalty, New England started from their own 11 yard line. For once, Brady managed to get some momentum going, only for the move to fizzle out. Then the Giants went nowhere on their next possession and Brady started again from the Pats’ 20. Over the next five minutes he drove them to the Giants’ six yard line, Welker on the way collecting a Superbowl record 11th pass. You can guess what happened next. From the shotgun, Brady flipped a short pass to Randy Moss for a touchdown and a 14-10 lead.
But the game was far from over. From the kickoff, Manning rushed the Giants downfield, burning all of their timeouts as he went. With just over a minute left, he stood on his own 44 yard line, third down and still five yards to go. The Patriots brought an almighty rush and in front of him the offensive line, for once, crumpled. Bodies drove towards him. Manning stepped calmly out of the front of the melee, shook off a hand grasping at his facemask and hurled the ball 32 yards. On the Patriots 24 yard line, Tyree leapt between two defenders, pinned the ball to his helmet with one hand before gathering it and falling backwards under the challenge of the Patriots’ Rodney Harrison. It was a remarkable play, probably one of the most remarkable seen in a Superbowl.
A timeout for the Giants and then more drama, as Manning was sacked by Adalius Thomas almost on the line of scrimmage. A failed pass to Tyree left 3rd and 11. This time it was Smith who rose to the challenge, making 12 yards to give the first down and at the same time get out of bounds to stop the clock. Then, with 39 seconds left, Manning lofted a looping, lazy throw over the head of cornerback Ellis Hobbs. Behind him, Burress took his other catch of the evening and the Giants were back in front.
It might not sound much, 39 seconds, but it is quite a long time when you’ve got three timeouts left. The Patriots were not done and dusted yet. But 14 seconds later they were, as yet another rookie, nose tackle Jay Alford, burst through the line to sack Brady for a ten yard loss. Two hopelessly speculative long passes in the direction of Moss later and it was all over.
Manning won the MVP award, like his brother the year before. In truth, it could easily have gone to any Giant I have mentioned. In fact, it should’ve gone to a man not even on the pitch, first year defensive co-ordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the man who finally worked out how to contain the Patriots.
Next weekend sees the season finale, the Pro Bowl out in sunny Hawaii. Last weekend also saw the appointments to the Hall of Fame for this year. The first is always something of a travesty. This year they both were. I’ll tell you why next week.