With two weeks between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl, every conceivable angle--real and imagined, substantive and frivolous--will be examined before the New England Patriots and the New York Giants take the field to determine the 2007 NFL Champion. There will be plenty of time to talk about Patriots' perfection, the Giants' road winning streak and Tom Brady's injury status but one of the most interesting things about this matchup is that the two teams that are left standing are the two teams that played every game as if it mattered. The Patriots received a lot of criticism for not only playing as if every game mattered but for playing as if every minute of every game mattered: some people accused them of running up the score in games that were well in hand, but Patriots Coach Bill Belichick dismissed such criticism by noting that in the NFL no lead is safe, which is why he wants his offense to try to score every time it takes the field. Don't forget that New England's 2006 season ended in the AFC Championship Game when the Indianapolis Colts came back from a big deficit. The Patriots' dual themes this year are "60 minutes" (not the TV show, but the complete length of a regulation NFL game) and "finish," meaning to not let up on a play, a series, a quarter, a half or a game. The result of this fanatical attention to detail and heavy emphasis on execution has been the relentless destruction of every opponent to date and a season for the ages. The Patriots have not played perfect football but they have played harder for a longer time than all of their opponents and that is why they have a perfect record.
When the Patriots played the Giants in the last week of the regular season, the game was "meaningless"--at least in terms of playoff seeding. Of course, the Patriots had a chance to complete a perfect 16-0 regular season and the Giants had an opportunity to make history by thwarting them from doing so but many people wondered if it was worth it for either team to risk getting key players injured just prior to the playoffs. Belichick and Giants Coach Tom Coughlin eschewed such concerns and the result was one of the most entertaining and exciting games of the year. The Patriots earned their 16-0 season against worthy competition as opposed to obtaining it cheaply in a game contested by substitute players. It should be noted that this was also an opportunity for both teams to get some more experience playing in winter weather conditions, something that served them well in their subsequent playoff games. The Giants, particularly quarterback Eli Manning, also clearly derived some confidence from being able to perform so well against the league's best team.
In contrast, the Indianapolis Colts have a history of treating such games as glorified exhibition games--and they also have a history of losing at home in the playoffs after doing so, including this season. I don't think that this is a coincidence. Once you send a message to your team that it is OK to lose focus and that every game does not matter then it is not such a simple thing to rev things up again and declare that now the games are important again. The Patriots and Giants did things the right way and richly deserve the opportunity to play in the biggest game of the year.