Say all you'd like, but there are no two ways about it. The New York Giants are celebrating today as Super Bowl XLVI champions because the New England Patriots gave the game away by their failure to execute when they needed to in the critical fourth quarter. Something at which the Giants have become masters of the professional football universe.
Behind the younger Manning brother, Eli, on his older brother's home field at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the Giants put together another one of their patented late-game heroics and turned away their third 2011 NFL division winner in as many weeks to claim the Lombardi Trophy, the NFL's top prize, for the second time in five seasons and the fourth time in Super Bowl history. For the Giants' franchise, which just completed its 88th season of operation, it is their eighth NFL championship (they won four prior to the debut of the Super Bowl in 1967, which featured the American Football League champions, the Kansas City Chiefs, against the NFL Green Bay Packers, coached by the legendary Vince Lombardi).
Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady, with three Super Bowl rings already in his possession from five Super Bowl appearances, will shoulder the blame as the team's field leader, but to be perfectly truthful, he could have been the hero as easily as the goat if only his normally sure-handed receivers had not become afflicted at the worst possible time with a bad case of butter fingers.
Everybody expected it to be a close game, which it was. This point was emphasized on more than one occasion by the NBC announcer team of Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth, who pointed out that three of the last four meetings between these two teams leading up to Super Bowl XLVI have been decided by four or fewer points. The game was in doubt until the final play, but it really shouldn't have been.
The Giants had the ball for 19 plays before the Patriots ran their second play of the game, and the New Yorkers maintained a significant time of possession advantage throughout the game. Despite that, Brady completed 15 of 15 passes for 152 yards, capping off two long scoring drives, one at the end of the first half and the second early in the second half that put the Pats up 17-9 and looking to be in control of the game.
But that proved to be all that New England was able to mount on offensive. Brady was sacked by Giants' defensive lineman Justin Tuck on the Patriots' second possession of the third quarter, and the New England All-Pro quarterback appeared to injure his throwing shoulder. Injured or not, Brady was not the same afterwards. Before the play, he had been 21 of 24 for 201 yards. From that play forward, however, he completed only 7 of 17 throws for 75 yards.
Meanwhile, Manning was able to move his team into position for two field goals in the third quarter, inching the Giants within two points of the Patriots at 17-15 just before the end of the third quarter. At this point, you could feel the game slipping away for New England, even though there was still a full quarter left to play. You couldn't help but be reminded of Super Bowl XLII and the feeling that we were about to witness déjà vu all over again with another Manning-led miracle fourth-quarter finish.
This time the miracle was set up by a spectacular 38-yard leaping catch by Giants receiver Mario Mannigham of a perfectly thrown ball from Manning to set New York up on the 50 yard line. From there, Manning methodically milked time off the clock and moved his team deeper into Patriots territory, scoring the go ahead touchdown with 57 seconds left in the game. The Giants' plan, though, was to have running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who scored what turned out to be the winning score to stop short of the goal line, thus allowing New York to take even more time off the clock before taking it in for the TD or kicking a game-winning field goal.
The Giants took what Brady and the Patriots gave them and did what they had to do to win. No one can take that away from them. But the game-winning drive in the final four minutes of the largest TV audience in Super Bowl history shouldn't have happened.
Moments before Manning and Co. embarked on that final drive from inside their 20 yard line, the Patriots' blew a golden opportunity to potentially close out the game when Brady spotted a wide open Wes Welker, one of the NFL's surest-handed receivers and this season's receiving leader with 122 catches, up the left sideline around the Giants' 20 yard line. Brady fired the pass in Welker's direction, only this time, on what could have been the most important play of the entire season, the league's most prolific pass combination did not connect as Welker had the ball in his hands but couldn't hold on. New England was forced to punt, and the rest is history. Deion Branch also dropped a Brady pass on the same drive.
New England for sure would have been in position for a field goal on that ill-fated next-to-last drive, but given Brady's season-long proficiency in the red zone, a touchdown that in all probability would have put the game away for the Patriots was a distinct possibility. If you ask me, had Welker caught the aforementioned fourth-quarter pass, it would have been game over for Big Blue out of New York, one of the NFL's oldest franchises.
It didn't seem like it then, but the bizarre safety that the Giants' punishing defense recorded on the New England's first play of Super Bowl XLVI might have been the real turning point in the game. Brady took the snap on a first-and-10 play from the Patriots six yard line and dropped back into the end zone, surveying the field for an open receiver. When he couldn't find one and felt the pressure of a collapsing pocket, Brady heaved the ball deep down field out of the reach of anyone. The problem was, the officials ruled the New England quarterback was still in the pocket when he let the ball fly to avoid the sack, resulting in a defensive safety.
Those two points may have seemed insignificant at the time, but as it turned out, they would have made the difference between a four-point difference, forcing the Patriots to score a touchdown in the final seconds to win the game, or a two-point margin that could have been overcome with merely a field goal instead of having to resort to a hope-and-a-prayer Hail Mary heave in the game's final seconds.
If you haven't guessed by now, I am a self-admitted New England fan. That could explain why I'm not all that disturbed by my NFL-favorite Chiefs' perceived effort to become Patriot look-alikes, but that's an entire other story. Getting back to my central point in this piece, however, I refuse to believe that the Giants won this game as much as the Patriots' lost it.
Call me a poor loser or simply mired in the denial stage of my grieving process. The facts speak for themselves. New England was 13-3 this season. Granted the Patriots' wins weren't as dominant as in their previous Super Bowl seasons, but the Giants, who went 9-7 this year, wouldn't even have been in the playoffs if they hadn't defeated NFC East division-rival Dallas on the final day of the regular season.
O.K, O.K. New York walked away with the win, and that's all that matters, most everyone else says. But not me. They shouldn't have. And that's the story I'm sticking with. Now I feel better, and I'm ready to move on.