By Sally Jenkins
Monday, January 21, 2008
GREEN BAY, Wis.
As home-field advantages go, it was a monster. The New York Giants weren't just up against the mythic history of the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, they were up against a cold that made the place seem impassable, a great barrier of frigidity that made even the bronze statute of Vince Lombardi, bundled up in his overcoat, seem to shiver.
It was a blasting cold that forced a sharp intake of breath and coughing fits. A cold that made frost form inside of car windows. A cold that seemed to have actual, physical properties, rebuffing Giants place kicker Lawrence Tynes on his 34-yard field goal attempt with four seconds left in this epic NFC championship game, the frozen ball sailing wide after a high snap, to force overtime.
It was historically cold, the third-coldest NFC championship on record. So cold that it made the Giants' job seem impossible. How was any team supposed to overcome such a combination of forces, between the lore of Lambeau, a ranting crowd of 72,740, the escapades of the great Brett Favre, and a wind chill that reached 24 below? It was almost unfair. But that made it only the more legitimizing when the Giants emerged winners: Tynes got another chance at the 12-minute 25-second mark of the extra period, after cornerback Corey Webster intercepted the careworn Favre, and this time Tynes stepped into a triumphant 47-yarder to send the Giants to the Super Bowl, 23-20.
"Our team has the heart," said Coach Tom Coughlin, his face red and raw from the wind. "These guys are something, they never say die."
Cold? What cold? "I felt pretty good out there," joked Giants quarterback Eli Manning.
With the victory, the Giants became one of the most implausible, yet laudable NFC champions in recent memory. They have won 10 straight games on the road, beating Tampa Bay, Dallas and Green Bay in a succession of playoff upsets. On each occasion, they were supposedly overmatched. As it turned out, they were merely underestimated.
"They deserve a lot of credit," Favre said. "They won some games no one thought they could."
It seems only right that in the Super Bowl they will meet the unbeaten New England Patriots, since it was the final regular season game against the Patriots on Dec. 29 that was the making of this Giants team. In that game, Coughlin played his starters even though they had already clinched a spot in the playoffs, in a quest for toughness. In retrospect, it was a masterstroke. The Giants fought their hearts out, and led the Patriots by 12 points in the third quarter before falling, 38-35. It was the closest anyone has come to the Patriots, and the Giants' confidence soared. "For some reason, that just sparked something," Manning said.
Ever since, they've been a force to be reckoned with, a team with fierce internal confidence that thrives on being discounted. They almost seemed to welcome predictions that they would wither in the environs of Lambeau against a Packers team that had beaten them, 35-13, in the regular season. The weather and how it might affect the game was a continual topic of discussion earlier in the week. One Giant who was thoroughly unfazed by the prospect was defensive end Michael Strahan.
"It's cold for everybody," Strahan said. "I don't care if you live in Green Bay, I don't care if you live in Chicago, I don't care if you live here. When it's cold, it is cold. All the guys with no sleeves on, I understand you're tough, I understand all that. You're not proving anything to me because I'm out there, too, and I know it's cold with sleeves on even when you are playing. So it's just a mind-set. If we have to play in the cold, I'd rather come out of it with a victory than to play in the cold and go in and go, 'Man, I just froze my butt off for three hours and we lost the game.' "
By game time, Lambeau Field was a frozen steppe. The grass was a dead, wintry color and the chalk lines were barely distinguishable under a layer of frost. It was so cold that the players breathed out white plumes that hung in the air, like snow cones. Sheets of ice covered the old metal benches in the lower deck seats.
This was just how the Packers liked it -- supposedly. "We felt like everything had fallen into place and all that was left was to play the game," Favre said. The crowd was festive in arctic parkas with fur hoods, orange hunting jackets and other creative cold-weather gear. There was the guy in the fur pelt, complete with animal head, and the guy in the hat festooned with icicles. The fans in the lower deck taunted and goaded the Giants as they jogged onto the field for the pregame warmup. "It's cold!" they shouted joyfully. "You're cold!"
When Manning and wide receivers Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burress took the field for some drills, they lasted just a few minutes before retreating to the locker room. "We only got through about a quarter of it and we said, 'Hey, we've got to go in,' " Manning said. "My left hand was numb, my receivers, they didn't have any hand warmers, they were done. I said, 'Hey, I can throw. Let's take it in. We're good.' "
Packers cornerback Charles Woodson made a point of prancing onto the field sleeveless, and bare-calved as well. As the Giants streamed past him, he flexed his arms and his sockless legs.
But in truth, the weather was hard on both teams. By kickoff, Woodson had donned wool leggings. The Packers and the Giants struggled equally to keep their hands warm and to find their footing. "It was a very tough game," Manning said.
Favre was uneven, completing 19 of 35 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns, but also two interceptions. He was ultimately outdone by Manning, the shy, oft-doubted younger brother of Super Bowl champion quarterback Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts. Eli has now affirmed his own status as a leader and a winner. He made it through three postseason games on the road without a turnover, and as he completed 21 of 40 throws for 254 yards. Manning repeatedly found his numb-handed receivers Toomer and Burress deep along the sidelines. The barging scoring runs of Brandon Jacobs (one yard) and Ahmad Bradshaw (four yards) merely finished the job.
"We just keep fighting," Burress said. "I saw on the TV earlier this week nobody picked us to win this game, and it was kind of funny that we won nine straight games on the road and still, coming in here, everybody was talking about how cold it was going to be, the weather, the wind chill, coming to Lambeau, and we didn't even have a shot. Watching it on TV, all you were doing was laughing. We came here, we got the job done, when nobody expected us to, and came up with a win."