Sunday, December 30, 2007
The Record (Hackensack N.J.) (MCT)
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.&38212; They say you do not get to pick the moment in sports; the moment picks you. This time around, the fickle forces of fate picked Tom Coughlin's Giants, of all people, cast as a band of unworthy hosts basking in the Patriots' glow.
The Giants have won two titles in the last 50 years, and the Patriots have won three titles in the last six. If Coughlin needed a reason to play this game for keeps, here was one:
History gives you only so many chances to leave a footprint. Having won all of six championships in their 80-odd years of football, the Giants were handed the most cherished of holiday gifts, a pressure-free crack at a forever place in the game's lore.
No sudden-death stakes. No season on the brink. No worry that a defeat would be written up in anything approaching an apocalyptic tone.
Coughlin had nothing to lose, not even his job. With a once-in-a-lifetime chance to claim Bill Belichick's headset on a silver platter, Coughlin would've been a damn fool to rest the boys for Tampa.
So what if the Giants were beating the Patriots after three quarters, but trailing after four? So what if New England became the sport's first 16-0 team in a 38-35 victory that was right there in the Giants' hands for most of an indelible night?
"We have nothing to be ashamed of," Coughlin said.
Not even close.
Coughlin had to risk his players' limbs and ligaments while going for the Patriots' throats. How would you measure a lousy first-round win over the Bucs _ followed by a 14-point loss in Dallas � against a conquest of the 15-0 Patriots that would be seen on every station but the Home Shopping Network and go down among the NFL's all-time regular-season events?
John Facenda didn't do wild-card games, but the voice of God would've been all over Giants-Pats.
In the third quarter Saturday night, the unthinkable was being thought. The Giants held a 28-16 lead, and Eli Manning had three touchdown passes to Tom Brady's one.
The `72 Dolphins were icing down the champagne. The 10-5 Giants, lousy at home all year, were dumping Gatorade buckets of Lake Placid all over the Patriots.
A New York minute later, the Patriots were seen merrily drying themselves off. A wide-open Randy Moss dropped a Brady heave at the Giants' 15, and on the next play a wide-open Moss _ sprinting clear of James Butler _ caught a Brady heave and raced into the end zone to give his team the lead.
Moss and Brady broke the single-season touchdown records held by Jerry Rice and Peyton Manning. The Patriots ultimately would rip off 22 unanswered points, and Eli fell a little short on the comeback despite big brother's pre-game pep talk.
Peyton told Eli the Patriots were beatable. "Any team is beatable," Eli would say. "He didn't say anything inappropriate."
Finished with his perfect season, a season that opened on an imperfect cheating scandal, Belichick ended it all with his ritualistic procession of sideline hugs.
That was OK for the losing team. The journey was more important than the destination.
"There's nothing but positives," Coughlin told his players.
Under the Saturday night lights, the atmosphere was far more festive than the one typical Giants crowds create on sleepy Sundays in the fall. The expected mass migration of New Englanders never quite materialized, as Giants blue was the jersey of choice in the stands.
The home team won the coin toss, and then won the crowd's faith on the second play from scrimmage, Manning's 52-yard heave to Plaxico Burress. Before he threw a short scoring pass to Brandon Jacobs, making the Giants the first team to manage a touchdown against the Patriots on its opening drive, Eli was seen jabbing his index finger in the air and patting an official on the back.
Even Manning was showing a pulse on this night, leading the Giants on a seven-play, 74-yard drive that put the fear of the `72 Dolphins into the `07 Patriots. For a change, the overly emotional Coughlin followed his quarterback's lead, running onto the field to check on an injured special teamer, Craig Dahl, and then patting defensive linemen on the pads on his way back to the sideline.
Yes, there would be a price to pay for this glory grab. Dahl's knee sprain was the least of it. Kawika Mitchell, starting linebacker, and Shaun O'Hara, starting center, made it an unholy trinity of knee sprains.
Three Giants were down and out before halftime. Defensive back Sam Madison would join them later. "It's most unfortunate," Coughlin would say, "but we're going to play the 16th game."
And so they played it against the greatest offensive machine the NFL has ever seen. Domenik Hixon ran back a short kick 74 yards for a touchdown, guaranteeing that he'd be remembered for something more than the violent collision that nearly shattered the life of the Bills' Kevin Everett.
Suddenly there was a feeling in the crowd, a trace of stardust in the black marshland night. Down was up, and up was down. Brady kept settling for field goals, and Eli kept pushing for the end zone.
Only it couldn't hold up across four quarters. In the end, Burress would accuse the winners of playing dirty, of delivering "cheap shots." The receiver would say, "That was some of the worst officiating I think I've been a part of in eight years."
It was the Giants' only silly play of the night. Before they even took the coin toss, their coach already had secured a victory that wouldn't show up in the NFC East standings.
In defeat, Tom Coughlin made the right choice in playing for the win and the lasting place in history that would have come with it.
(c) 2007, North Jersey Media Group Inc.
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