Monday, February 4, 2008

Giant Upset: Eli Manning Calmly Cancels the Patriots' Pursuit of Perfection

Super Bowl XLII will forever be remembered as the game that ended the New England Patriots' pursuit of perfection--and wrote the first chapter in the legend of Eli Manning. The New York Giants' stunning 17-14 victory is, as ESPN's Steve Young put it, "contextually" the greatest upset in NFL history. Manning earned Super Bowl MVP honors by completing 19 of 34 passes for 255 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception--but the numbers only begin to tell the story of how cool Manning was in the clutch. He led the Giants to two fourth quarter touchdowns, including the winning score--a 13 yard pass to Plaxico Burress--with just :35 remaining. That capped off a dramatic final stanza that featured a Super Bowl record three lead changes.

The template for a Giants victory included shortening the game by winning the time of possession battle and putting constant pressure on Tom Brady when the Patriots had the ball. New York opened the game with a 16 play, 63 yard drive that consumed 9:59 and resulted in a field goal. The Giants set Super Bowl records for most plays on an opening drive and most third down conversions (four) on an opening drive. New England used the remaining time in the first quarter to drive to the New York one yard line. The two total first quarter possessions set a new Super Bowl low. The Patriots scored a touchdown on a Laurence Maroney run on the first play of the second quarter to take a 7-3 lead.

Amazingly, even though the Patriots set the all-time single season scoring record, the margin remained 7-3 entering the fourth quarter. This Super Bowl will have a special place in history because of its shocking outcome but the fact is that most of the game was not particularly exciting. Of course, an air of drama constantly hovered over the proceedings because of what was at stake: the 18-0 Patriots were playing for immortality. Manning opened the fourth quarter with a 45 yard pass to Kevin Boss. That turned out to be the longest play from scrimmage in the game; the Giants not only held the Patriots to 14 points but New England did not have a play from scrimmage longer than 19 yards, which is truly stunning considering how unstoppable that offense looked for most of the season. Boss' reception set up Manning's five yard touchdown pass to David Tyree. New England and New York traded punts after that but then Tom Brady--who went 29-48 for 266 yards and one touchdown--led the Patriots on a 12 play, 80 yard touchdown drive that put New England up 14-10 with 2:42 left; Brady completed 8 of 11 passes for 71 yards on that drive. It briefly seemed like order had been restored and that the Patriots would make another great escape along the lines of the ones that they made in several late season games.

After the ensuing kickoff, the Giants needed to go 83 yards to win the game. Manning seemed to channel the spirit of John Elway playing the Cleveland Browns as he and the Giants repeatedly avoided disaster by the slimmest of margins as they marched downfield; he narrowly escaped sack attempts, the Patriots missed a couple chances to make interceptions and his receivers made some spectacular catches. The Giants had one fourth down conversion and two third down conversions on the drive. Burress did not have a huge game statistically (two receptions for 27 yards) but his game-winning touchdown will have a permanent place in not only Giants' lore but also NFL history as the play that ended the Patriots' dream of going 19-0.

The Giants relentlessly pressured Brady all game long and that trend continued during New England's last desperate possession, which included three incomplete passes and a sack. New England has won three Super Bowl titles and just put together the only 16-0 regular season in NFL history--setting numerous individual and team records along the way--but the Patriots are now the only 18-1 team to not win the Super Bowl, a bizarre distinction that will surely never be matched. The Patriots may very well go on to win more Super Bowls but this season will always have a strange, twisted place in history: a fabulous achievement that will ultimately be remembered as a failure.

Eli Manning, Coach Tom Coughlin and the New York Giants have received a lot of criticism in recent seasons but all of that will be forgotten now because they have pulled off one of the most memorable victories in Super Bowl history. Whether this turns out to be the start of something big for Manning and the Giants or simply a once in a lifetime championship like the one that Joe Namath and the New York Jets famously won, no one can ever take this moment away from them.

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