Monday, February 4, 2008

Giants play small ball to slay mighty Patriots


The New York Giants, those guys who took down the heavily favored Patriots Sunday, remind me of a baseball team.

I know it sounds weird — the two sports don't have too many similarities — but when trying to put New York's championship in perspective, the 2005 Chicago White Sox come to mind.

A team no one expected to challenge for the peak of its sport's success prior to the playoffs.

A team that didn't light up the scoreboard, but did enough to win.

A team that didn't make "SportsCenter" plays, necessarily, but the little plays that coaches/managers notice.

A team with recognizable names, but not that one star, that stud with the famous girlfriend.

OK, I'll stop there. Comparing baseball to football isn't easy (and I don't advise you to try it), but the White Sox's bunting, run-producing offense and stellar pitching of three years ago is what I thought of as I watched from my couch Sunday night.

It started with the Giants' opening drive. As they set records for first downs made on the first drive of a Super Bowl and for the time of a possession (almost 10 minutes), I realized how they could pull off the monumental upset.

It wouldn't be easy, but they needed to run the clock as much as possible on offense, keeping Tom Brady on the sideline until his feet fell asleep. They needed to sustain drives and then make New England's offense do likewise. The Patriots were going to score — no one would doubt that — but if the Giants could make them march up and down the field, more time would run off the clock and there'd always be the chance of a turnover happening or a drive-halting penalty or sack.

Just keep the game close, I thought to myself. Shorten the game as much as possible and stay within a score, and the Giants had a chance.

And that's exactly what they did. In fact, they executed so well, they were able to get away with a few mistakes — most notably Eli Manning's interception deep in New England territory in the second quarter.

Just like the White Sox's improbable run to the World Series title began and ended with great pitching, the Giants' victory Sunday was all about defense. During the week, Brady laughed at New York wide receiver Plaxico Burress' suggestion that New York would win 23-17.

"We're only going to score 17 points?" Brady laughed. "OK. Is Plax playing defense?"

Burress wasn't on defense, but Justin Tuck and his fellow linemen were. You've heard the numbers by now, but the bottom line is that the Giants pressured Brady the entire game, never letting him get into the type of rhythm he's accustomed to.

When the Patriots go the ball back with 35 seconds remaining and all three timeouts, I predicted overtime. I certainly didn't forecast Jay Alford — I thought the Alfords were basketball people? — recording his lone sack of the game on second down, which was the play that essentially cemented the 2007-08 Patriots' first loss.

But that's exactly what happened. And when Brady fired deep balls to Randy Moss on the final two plays, both times they were broken up. No spectacular interception was needed. No fumble recovery. Just a big-time sack and a pair of breakups. That's how the Giants won.

Of course, similar to the White Sox's Scott Podsednik — the smallest, scrawniest guy on the team — hitting a walk-off home run in Game 2 of the World Series, the Giants got a big play from an unexpected hero.

My guess is that about 9.6 percent of the large television audience knew who David Tyree was prior to the fourth quarter Sunday, but with his first touchdown of the season — in the Giants' 20th game, for crying out loud — and then the play of the game, Tyree cemented his legacy even if he quits playing football on Thursday.

The Giants faced a 3rd-and-5 at their own 44-yard line with just over a minute to play. Manning dropped back and was immediately under immense pressure from every Patriots player in his vicinity. By someone's grace, however — maybe it was brother Peyton in the luxury suite who gave Eli special power for one play — Manning escaped the pressure and launched a pass about 35 yards in the air.

Watching Manning release the ball, I thought the pigskin was en route to the stomach of a Patriots defender. It seemed like the kind of rushed, off-balance throw down field that is destined for trouble.

But then Tyree made the catch of his life, leaping to not only out-muscle New England safety — and former HGH user — Rodney Harrison for the ball, but to hang onto it in his outstretched hands as he and Harrison hit the ground.

Again, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Initially, I was convinced the ball must have hit the turf. But no challenge was needed. It was a clear catch, just like Podsednik's clear home run, and it gave me the feeling that maybe — just maybe — Sunday night was a Giants night.

You know the story from there. Another unheralded receiver, rookie Steve Smith, keeps his feet in bounds to pick up a first down on 3rd-and-11, and on the very next play, Manning finds a wide-open Burress on the fade route for the go-ahead score.

After the defense finished the job, it was celebration time.

Before the game, I thought the Patriots were the better team, and I still believe that's the case. I would pick them to win seven out of 10 games against the Giants.

But that's the beauty of the playoffs, of the winner-of-one-game-takes-all scenario. On Sunday, the Giants were the best team on the field. The Patriots, as gracious in defeat as I've ever seen them (minus, of course, Bill Belichick), admitted as much. They didn't so much lose the game as the Giants won it.

There's no doubt about it.

You can always point to a play and say, "If only this had happened..." Today, I'm sure, Patriots fans are lamenting Brady's second-to-last throw, when if he could have chucked the ball 5 yards farther, Moss might have separated himself from the defenders and scored a miracle touchdown.

As good as the Manning-to-Tyree connection was — it's already a frontrunner in the "Greatest play in a Super Bowl" debate — the Giants' victory wasn't decided by one play. The game was not a sprint but rather a marathon. What happened between Jordan Sparks' protracted national anthem and Belichick's early departure from the field resulted in 17-14 Giants.

Not a bad guess at all, Plax. Guess your defense backed you up.

Now if only Jermaine Dye had predicted a sweep of the Astros in '05, my argument might be stronger.


Sportsattitude said...

I like the analogy of "small ball" to describe the Giants' game. Arguably the biggest upset in Super Bowl history due to the fact the Pats were undefeated and the New Yorkers were double digit dogs, but I do think some folks are getting carried away with talk of the "best Super Bowl ever." It was compelling television and the final drive was stirring indeed...but I'm not sure about the best one ever part...just goes to show you how badly people wanted the Patriots to lose and can't get over the fact they actually did!

J-bo said...

Called it. That's all I have to say. Well...okay I'll add one more thing. As a very casual NFL fan, this was the first ever Superbowl that sustained my interest from beginning to end. In my limited experience I would call it the most exciting one ever.

J-bo said...

Yeah, probably not the best Super Bowl ever, but a case could be made that it was the best fourth quarter of a Super Bowl, which is what most casual observers remember best.