Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A Glorious Wrench

(Non-sports fans will have to forgive me this entry. My deeply-rooted love of athletic contests demands that I expound on Super Bowl XLII, the greatest Super Bowl of all time, in my humble opinion.)

Over 3 quarters of a defensive struggle, the tension had been building for an historic climax. The Giants continually stymied the Patriots' already legendary offense. New York's pass rush put Tom Brady on his back repeatedly while the secondary locked down Randy Moss and held the other receivers to short gains. Except for the game's opening drive, a 9-minute marathon that ended with a field goal, the Giants had been kept off the scoreboard by New England's time-tested bend-but-don't-break defense.

Heading into the 4th quarter, the Patriots held a 7-3 lead, but I suspect few thought that score would stand. The G-men broke through first with an efficient drive that culminated in a short precision strike from Eli Manning to David Tyree, the receiver's first touchdown of the season. With less than 7 minutes to go, the Patriots suddenly reassumed the ruthlessly efficiency they'd displayed throughout their perfect season. Brady picked apart the Giants' defense and methodically drove his team to the go-ahead touchdown. The score was anticlimactic, a piece-of-cake toss to Moss after the cornerback lost his balance while backpedaling into the end zone. Since I was rooting for New York, that play filled me with despair, but I also thought it was a shitty way to lose a Super Bowl, with the defender falling down.

What happened next is the kind of drive of which legends are made. Surely, long after our bodies and blogs have returned to the dust whence they came, people will still be telling this story to their children around post-apocalyptic bonfires. The winning drive was a stupefying string of missed connections and miracles. Only a sequence of events this unlikely could've undone the heretofore-perfect Patriots.

There were almost 3 minutes left, so the Giants still had plenty of time. Down 14-10, it was end zone or bust. They were soon faced with a 4th-and-1 in their own territory. The play-by-play man (Joe Buck) suggested they might punt and use their 3 timeouts to keep the Pats from running out the clock. I thought that was insane and was relieved when the G-men went for it and (barely) got it. The next turning point was a long 3rd down. Eli anxiously stood his ground in the pocket, unable to find a receiver. The d-line eventually converged on him, with at least 2 Pats getting a hold of his jersey. In a maneuver that can only be called Tarkentonian, Eli scrambled out of the scrum, reared back and lobbed an (ill-advised) Hail Mary down the middle of the field. Tyree leapt for the ball simultaneously with New England safety Rodney Harrison. Clearly, the New York receiver had said his prayers the night before, because the catch he made was at least as blessed as the Immaculate Reception of football yore. He somehow managed to trap the ball against his helmet and, as he came down, held onto it despite Harrison's attempt to rip it away.

This was the greatest play in Super Bowl history, but it still left the Giants thirty-odd yards short of their goal. They narrowly converted a 3rd down thanks to a heads-up catch and run along the sideline by the rookie Steve Smith. With the ball inside the 15, New England brought a blitz, leaving Plaxico Burress in single coverage. Plax faked an inside route and darted past the fooled defender to the front corner of the end zone. Eli lofted the ball over the helpless Patriot and, adjusting slightly, Burress caught it and kneeled into the end zone as the surprisingly numerous Giants fans erupted.

I too erupted in my parents' den, shocked and delirious that the script had been flipped so unbelievably. 35 seconds remained for the Patriots to keep the dream alive, but it died when Brady's 4th-down bomb to Moss bounced harmlessly off the hands of one of the Giants' defensive backs. There was still 1 second left, although apparently the Patriots head coach, the esteemed and enigmatic Bill Belichick, thought the game was over as he shook the hand of Tom Coughlin (New York's coach) and left the field. Or he was too crushed by the defeat to stick around for the Giants' final snap and kneel-down. This incident can only add to his mystique.

What made this experience so captivating for me was the way the Giants had thrown a glorious wrench in the gears of the Patriots' storybook season. Just when it looked like Tom Brady had manufactured the perfect ending to an unblemished year with that methodical march down the field to take the lead, Eli Manning engineers an implausible comeback with a lot of help from David Tyree and the Almighty. It wasn't so much David vs. Goliath as it was the General Lee vs. KITT.

Too bad my dad was rooting for the Patriots. He didn't seem too disappointed though.

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