Remembering a Classic: The Day the Giants Played to Win
On Sunday, the Patriots play at the Giants for the first time in the regular season since a momentous Saturday night in December 2007. Bill Belichick is 1-3 as a head coach against Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning. The first time they met was on this cold night in 2007, and it’s also the only win for Belichick in the four games. It was one of the most dramatic regular-season games in the 96-year history of the NFL. I spent time this week revisiting it with some of the characters in the play—in part because the Patriots (8-0) again enter the game undefeated and the 5-4 Giants again play the role of underdogs, as they have in all four previous Belichick-Coughlin meetings.
The setup: Week 17, 2007. The Giants clinched a playoff berth the previous Sunday with a win at Buffalo and, at 10-5 entering the final game of the season, their playoff position or first-round foe could not change. Still, Week 17 against New England was a pretty big game. The Patriots, 15-0, aimed to be the first 16-0 team in NFL regular-season history.
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Giants president John Mara: “I was going to call Tom at the start of the week and tell him, ‘We gotta play to win.’ You know, Patriots playing for an undefeated season, a full stadium, the competition … That’s how you have to play—you have to play to win every game. So he called me, and I was waiting to hear what he said. He said, ‘John, we gotta play to win.’ I was really happy to hear him say it.”
Giants center Shaun O’Hara: “First thing Coach Coughlin says in our meeting to start the week is, ‘Guys we’re playing to win this game. We’re gonna be the first team to beat ’em. We got a chance to go toe to toe with the very best, so let’s see where we are.’ I think the guys in the room loved that. This was the Patriots, the best team in football. Everyone in the country would be watching. John Mara … he is a chip off the old block. That is what his dad [the late Giants owner Wellington Mara] would have wanted too.”
Patriots safety Rodney Harrison: “Usually, every week, I had a little bit of nerves before a game. This game, I had a lot of nerves. I wasn’t alone either. We had done such a good job all year—one game at a time, even when the media’s saying to us every week, Perfect season, perfect season, perfect season. Whether we acknowledged it or not, we all knew. We knew we were playing for all the marbles, something no team had ever done, going 16-0. We were a humble team, but after a while, it wears you out.”
O’Hara: “The game was amazing. The atmosphere in the stadium that night, just electric. No room on either side of the field—the sidelines were just packed. So many cameras, media. I said to [fellow linemen] Chris Snee and Rich Seubert, ‘This must be what the Super Bowl feels like.’ ”
Harrison: “On the field, the hype was slightly less than the Super Bowl. Just slightly. Some guy yells from the stands to me, ‘Rodney! ‘16-0! 16-0!’ I said, ‘Don’t tell me that!’ ”
Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck: “Magical. Electrifying atmosphere. I equate it to like a red carpet, Oscar award night. Who’s who on the sidelines. A mass of people, sideline to sideline, even crowded on the end zone line. We could feel it when we’re warming up before the game. It was the 16-0 stuff, but also the New York-Boston thing. A big night.”
O’Hara: “We knew all the hype that night. It was all about them. We felt like chopped liver. All week, the questions to us were like, ‘How great are the Patriots?’ But from the first drive of the game—we went right down the field on the first drive for a touchdown—we sent the message. We weren’t laying down for anybody.”
The game see-sawed, but the Giants went up 28-16 on Eli Manning touchdown passes on the last drive of the first half and the first drive of the second half.
Harrison: “The crowd was going crazy. What a loud place that was. But on the sidelines for us, it was like, ‘Guys, we’ve been there before. We’ve been down before. Just do what we do.’ That was the special thing about that team. No panic. A sense of urgency, but no panic. But the one thing you could see in the Giants was they were gaining confidence. They thought they could beat us.”
Patriots left tackle Matt Light: “My God, two quarterbacks that night, slinging the ball out there like crazy. I can remember having some pretty hot discussions on the sidelines around that time, in the third quarter. We were in a game. If we let off for half a second, they came up with a huge play. But Tommy [Brady], as usual, was all business. In the huddle. I can remember being down, but Tommy was just the same as always.”
Tuck: “When I step on the field for a game, I don’t really hear the crowd and focus on the outside stuff. I’m into the game. But I do remember thinking what a great game this was. I can’t think of a game more memorable that I played outside the Super Bowls.”
Eleven minutes to play. Giants, 28-23. New England, second-and-10 at their 35. Brady sent Randy Moss deep up the right sideline and high-arced a pass 37 yards downfield. Just short. Off Moss’ fingertips.
Harrison: “Damn! He underthrew Randy! We messed up our chance.”
Light: “Tommy and Randy had this supreme confidence in each other. They had the mojo. Unstoppable, especially that year. And Moss had a way of coaching himself out there. Lots of times he just drew it up with Tommy. They had these signals. What was funny was the next year, when Tommy got hurt and Matt Cassel played, it was different. Tommy and Randy had the signals between them, and when Matt did it next year, it was different. I remember one time I was in my stance forever and after the play I say to Matt, ‘I was in my stance forever, bro! Come on!’ And Matt says, ‘I keep giving Moss the signal, and he’s shaking me off!’ That was crazy.”
Tuck: “Brady threw that bomb, and then he threw the same pass again. Randy came back to the line, and they looked at each other, and they kind of gave each other the repeat signal, I guess. I was so pissed at our secondary. Same exact play, same exact route.”
Light: “We used to go back to a lot of things. If it worked once, and the guy was open, it’d work again.”
Harrison: “That damn Tom Brady. I’ve been around a lot of freakin’ players, but his will to win is freakin’ unbelievable.”
The 65-yard touchdown pass, with Moss streaking down the right side and catching it in perfect stride, put the Patriots up 31-28. They traded touchdowns to make it 38-35, and the Giants’ onside kick with a minute to go was recovered by Mike Vrabel. Ballgame.
O’Hara: “It was a loss that felt good, and I don’t think I can say that about any other loss I had.”
Harrison: “After the game, I was thinking, ‘Holy crap, I know no one wants to play that team. No one.’ I wouldn’t say doubt crept in that night, but I wondered, ‘Are we beatable?’ ”
O’Hara (who suffered a torn MCL late in the first half and didn’t play in the second half): “In the tunnel after the game, I saw [New England center] Dan Koppen, who I knew. He said, ‘You guys are freakin’ good. You’re the best team we played all year.’ ”
Light: “It’s funny. There was a lot of joy that night, doing something no team had ever done before, going 16-0. But it’s clouded to me in the fact that we didn’t finish it out that year. We didn’t win the Super Bowl. I was so upset that year for Junior Seau. We all knew that might be his last chance, and it was the opportunity that slipped away.”
Tuck: “That game really helped us before the Super Bowl. The Patriots did so much late in that game to try to win it, and they probably showed some stuff that night they really didn’t want to show us. In the Super Bowl, I remember one play where [inside linebacker] Kawika Mitchell faked a double-A-gap blitz and the protection stayed away from him—and we knew the protection would stay away, and so after he faked going back in coverage, he blitzed and he and Michael Strahan got Brady. We got to study that protection because of what they did in the [regular-season] game. That game made their offense well-known to us entering our Super Bowl week.”
The next day, John Madden left Tom Coughlin a voicemail. In the Giants’ first meeting in preparing for the wild-card game against Tampa Bay, Coughlin played the message to the team.
John Madden: “Just called to congratulate you and your team for a great effort last night. Not good, but great. I think it's one of the best things to happen in the NFL in the last 10 years, and I don't know if they all know it, but they should be very grateful to you and your team for what you did. I believe so firmly in this—that there is only one way to play the game, and it is a regular-season game and you go out and win the darn game. I was just so proud being a part of the NFL and of what your guys did and the way you did it. You proved that it's a game and there's only one way to play the game and you did it. The NFL needed it. We've gotten too much of, ‘Well, they're going to rest their players and don't need to win, therefore they won't win.’ Well, that's not sports and that's not competition. I'm a little emotional about it. I'm just so proud. It's something we all need to thank you for, and I believe the NFL needed that.”
Tuck: “I was a young, wet-behind-the-ears guy, but I thought that was unique. I didn’t know Coach Madden then, but I knew he must be pretty good to have a video game named after him. But that sort of made me realize the magnitude of the game. Hall of Fame coaches don’t glorify losses.”
Back to 2015. Pats-Giants, Meadowlands, 4:25 p.m. ET, Sunday.
Harrison: “That night, we probably should have won by two touchdowns and a field goal. This team should probably beat the Giants by two touchdowns and a field goal. But this is why football’s so great. You’ve got to go out and do it.”
Tuck: “Coughlin will definitely be up for this game. He’s got Belichick’s number. But you know Belichick will be up for it too.”
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About Last Night …
Buffalo 22, New York Jets 17. Amazing. The five key guys for the Bills on Thursday night were not with the organization one year ago today. The fab five in the win that tied the Bills for second place with the Jets in the AFC East at 5-4:
1. Bacarri Rambo, safety. Signed as a street free agent Nov. 17, 2014. He accounted for three turnovers, punching a ball loose to cause the first Buffalo touchdown of the day, stealing a ball from Chris Ivory in midfield, and picking off Ryan Fitzpatrick in the final minute. Of all the high-priced Buffalo defenders, this was a GM Doug Whaley find that turned into pure gold in the Meadowlands. “One interception, forced two fumbles,” said Rex Ryan. ”He just did a tremendous job.”
2. Ronald Darby, cornerback. Drafted as the 50th player overall last spring. Darby plays strong and confident and incredibly competitive for a rookie, and he knocked three Ryan Fitzpatrick passes away on the night, two of them that would have been third-down conversions. Another example of a maligned front office—deservedly, for some errors—coming up big for this team.
3. LeSean McCoy, running back. Acquired in trade from Philadelphia. Nineteen carries, 112 yards against the best run defense. Picked a great time for his best post-Eagles game.
4. Rex Ryan, coach. Signed as the new coach Jan. 13. Sometimes nutty guy with nutty ways, but he had his team ready to play Thursday night—and he had his very undermanned team ready to play. Lots of injury-related absences, including Kyle Williams and physically ill Mario Williams. Said Rex postgame: “Pretty satisfying. Now that I can talk the truth, it’s like being dumped by some hot girl that you had the hots for. That’s really what it feels like. Hey, you move on. But every now and then they call you back. But they can’t get you back.” The man was on fire in his postgame presser. Whatever you think of Ryan, he does make the game fun.
5. Greg Roman, offensive coordinator. Signed to run the offense Jan. 13. He had a shaky quarterback Thursday night, but he overcame Tyrod Taylor’s in-and-out play by calling a terrific run day. Against the best run defense in football, Roman kept calling for LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams, and the Bills responded with 76 rushing yards in the first half and 82 in the second. “He kept calling our number,” said McCoy. “He had a great night.”
This was a fun night, the kind of night that was good for football. America has to be glad it stayed up for it.
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Player You Need To Know This Week
Shaquil Barrett, linebacker, Denver (number 48). Forty-eight is a strange number for a linebacker. It shows the tenuousness of Barrett’s existence in Denver as a 2014 undrafted free agent, when he was a bit of a roly-poly but very athletic sackmaster coming out of Colorado State. Our Robert Klemko profiled his body change this week—a really cool story. Barrett is newsworthy this week because he replaces Demarcus Ware (out with back injury) rushing the passer for Denver in the Sunday's game against Kansas City. The Chiefs are rallying and rested, coming off a bye, and no game’s a gimmee for the Broncos. As a backup, Barrett has 3.5 sacks and should be an impact player against a vulnerable offensive line.
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Fantasy Player You Need to Know This Week
Shaun Draughn, running back, San Francisco. Carlos Hyde, Reggie Bush, Jarryd Hayne—all on the team in September, and all gone now, at least for the moment. Draughn gave the Niners 58 rushing yards in 16 tries, and with the Niners on their bye this week, you might still be able to sneak him onto your team for the last seven games.
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Stat of the Week
Regarding the discussion of “What’s wrong with Aaron Rodgers?”
Rodgers’ 2014 stats, and projecting his current numbers, and Green Bay’s record, over a full season:
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Quote of the Week
“You don't know. He could have an off game. He could be sick. I hope he's sick. That'd be better for us.”
—Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, on the specter of facing Tom Brady on Sunday.
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Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. Arizona at Seattle. Bruce Arians is right: When Carson Palmer plays, the Cardinals can beat anyone, anywhere. The best deep passer in football knows he’d better have some good stuff in the gameplan this week for his tight ends, with the deep secondary skills of the Seahawks. Expect a really good game Sunday night.
2. The Vikings, trying to keep pace with Green Bay. A Week 11 showdown with the Packers awaits Minnesota. But first, the Vikes are off to Oakland. Weird schedule quirk: If the Vikings win, they’ll be 7-2, and none of the seven wins will have come against a team over .500.
3. Eddie Lacy. Mike McCarthy named James Starks his number one back the other day. Lacy said the ankle that bothered him early this season is fully healthy. Why the nearly yard drop in yards per carry this year for Lacy? He looks a bit heavier, and I think he’s not running as hard as last year. Maybe the demotion motivates him.
4. Another must win for Dallas. Cowboys have lost six in a row without Tony Romo, who should return next week in Miami. How many times can Dallas have a “must win” in the same season? Well, at least one more. I’ll go out on a limb and say if the Cowboys lose in Tampa on Sunday and fall to 2-7, they won’t make the playoffs. What a gutsy call!
5. Another long Sunday in Wisconsin for the Lions? Detroit hasn’t won on the road against the Packers in 24 years. I mean, the last Lion win in Green Bay came pre-Favre. Mike Tomczak was the quarterback that December day in Green Bay, and the late Lindy Infante the coach, and the wind-chill temperature was minus-18. Brett Favre was inactive that day, the third quarterback for Atlanta behind Chris Miller and Billy Joe Tolliver.
6. The LA Story. After league meetings this week in New York trying to get more clarity on which team or teams will eventually play in Los Angeles, there will be headlines this weekend. I’m just not sure what they’ll be. My guess: Owners Likely to Push Off Final Decision Until March Meetings.
7. Big Ben’s big foot. Early word was Roethlisberger would miss two to four weeks with a mid-foot sprain. Now there are rumblings he might try to come out of the boot Sunday and play against Cleveland. I doubt it, but stay tuned. Smartest move: Keep Roethlisberger out this week in a winnable Landry Jones games, and next week with the bye.
8. Marcus Mariota against some great linebackers. Twice this season in six games, Mariota has thrown four touchdowns with no interceptions in a game. And he’s a threat to run. Luke Kuechly is a superb sideline-to-sideline run defender, obviously, as is Thomas Davis. Kuechly missed practice with a sore ankle, which could be a factor against Mariota’s change-of-direction skills. Might be an interesting game Sunday in Nashville for the 8-0 Panthers.
9. The Colts, hunkering down and hoping nothing else goes wrong. Indy’s on the bye. That doesn’t mean, however, that some further disaster can’t befall the team this weekend.
10. Greg Hardy. I mean, why not? Something always seems to be happening with the guy.
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