By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 4, 2008
GLENDALE, Ariz., Feb. -- From the start, this week was supposed to be about history. Longtime observers of professional football were trotted out, one after another, to discuss just where the New England Patriots would rank among the National Football League's greatest teams if they completed their unprecedented perfect season with a Super Bowl victory.
Their opponents, the New York Giants, were something of an afterthought. They had been as erratic as the Patriots were consistent, qualifying for the playoffs as a wild-card team and being installed as nearly two-touchdown underdogs against the first 18-0 team in the sport's history.
Moments after the Giants completed a shocking 17-14 upset of those Patriots on Sunday night, leading to an on-field explosion of blue and red jubilation, the question of New England's greatness was shelved in favor of a different sort of historical debate: Where does this heart-stopping victory stand in the annals of Super Bowl surprises? Was it as shocking as the Super Bowl III victory by Joe Namath and the New York Jets over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts? How about the come-from-behind win Tom Brady and the Patriots registered over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI?
The Giants' come-from-behind win in the futuristic suburban Phoenix stadium surely will be placed near the very top of that list. It required sometimes-maligned quarterback Eli Manning to lead a final drive that nearly expired several times before he finally threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress, ending New England's dreams of perfection.
Manning was named the Super Bowl most valuable player a year after his older and more famous brother Peyton had achieved the same honor with the Indianapolis Colts. This result, though, was considerably more unexpected.
"It feels great, it's unbelievable," Manning said moments after the game ended. "We find a way to win. We had no doubt. We believed the whole time."
The Giants complained all week of being overlooked, but the Patriots' pedigree seemed to demand such disparate attention. New England Coach Bill Belichick seemed almost invincible, winning a higher percentage of his playoff games than any NFL coach besides Vince Lombardi, for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named. New England's Brady, he of the archetypical good looks and supermodel girlfriend, had already won three Super Bowl titles, and threw more touchdowns this season than any quarterback ever had.
The Giants countered with a coach, Tom Coughlin, whose job seemed in jeopardy four months ago, and a quarterback as famous for his last name and his gaffes as he was for his passing.
But the Giants' defense harassed and hammered Brady from the very start of the game, and the Patriots quarterback -- who had suffered an ankle injury during the postseason -- played abnormally poorly. The Patriots led 7-3 at halftime and by the same score after three quarters, but the Giants burst ahead on a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Manning to little-used wide receiver David Tyree. After Brady found Randy Moss for a go-ahead score, Manning countered with another dramatic scoring drive, and his pass to Burress with 35 seconds left made improbable Super Bowl champions of the Giants.
"Every team is beatable," said Coughlin, who was formerly known for his gruff intransigence but seemed to mellow somewhat in recent weeks. "You never know. The right moment, the right time, every team is beatable."
Still, at several points this season, the idea of a third Super Bowl championship for the Giants would have seemed laughable. New York lost its first two games, and was on the verge of a potentially season-ending third loss, trailing the Washington Redskins 17-3 at halftime, on the road.
Even after they rallied to win that game and five more in a row, the Giants at times barely looked like a playoff team. Manning had several high-profile meltdowns, throwing four interceptions in a November loss to the Minnesota Vikings and fumbling the ball five times against the Buffalo Bills.
The Giants finished with the fifth-best record in their own conference, forcing them to play all of their playoff games away from home. And their star tight end, four-time Pro Bowler Jeremy Shockey, saw his season end with a broken left leg in December; he was the third Giant to suffer that injury this season.
But the Giants seemed to play better in his absence; their well-played loss to the Patriots in the regular season finale began a stretch in which the team's cool bravado seemed to increase each week, a trend which continued in the run-up to this game.
"I've been saying all year, it's not about everybody else, it's about the New York Giants," linebacker Antonio Pierce said. "All I know is I'm a world champion."
That confidence thrived even as souvenir shops around this Phoenix suburb began selling "Perfect Season" Patriots artwork and even as the debate continued as to whether a win would make New England the best team in NFL history.
The week leading to this point was filled with the pop culture hoopla that sometimes threatens to surpass the game itself, from the parties thrown by Diddy and John Travolta (with ticket prices well into four figures) to the private shows put on by recording artists Ludacris, Snoop Dogg, Akon and others. And amid that backdrop of celebrity ephemera, here were the Patriots, famous for their disdain of individualism, seeking some degree of permanence through perfection.
That perfection and its numerical representation -- 19-0 -- hovered over a relatively tame Super Bowl week, where the only controversies came from Burress's benign prediction of a Giants win and rapper 50 Cent requesting the removal of socialite Paris Hilton from his stage.
A win would have given the Patriots -- who set an NFL record for scoring this season -- four titles in seven years and a new record for playoff wins in one decade, but that success would not have come without controversy. After the first week of the season, the NFL fined Belichick $500,000 and the team $250,000 for improperly videotaping play calls on the New York Jets' sideline. Belichick chalked that up to a misunderstanding of league rules, but the issue has refused to go away, with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) recently suggesting Congress might get involved in the investigation into the destruction of those tapes.
But that scandal will now serve merely as a footnote to one of the biggest shocks in the history of this game. The Patriots have been famous for sublimating individual stars for a collective goal, but the Giants claimed that mantle for themselves on Sunday night.
"I know everybody thinks the NFL is a bunch of prima donnas, but we showed today what a good team can do," New York wide receiver Amani Toomer said. "We don't have the superstars and all that like the Patriots. But I'll take a team over superstars every time."