Tom Coughlin, the crusty, often vilified, old coach of the New York Giants, is the team's secret weapon -- a coach with a remarkable ability to win unwinnable games against superior foes, and often on the road.
Sure, quarterback Eli Manning gets plenty of credit, and deservedly so, for clutch play down the stretch, both in 2007 and here in the 2011 postseason.
But Coughlin has a very long and perhaps underappreciated history as football's great big-game assassin.
The coach will always be remembered as the leader of the seemingly humble 10-6 Giants team of 2007 that turned it on in the playoffs, beating the NFC's top two seeds on the road before taking down the supposedly unbeatable 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. His 2011 Giants, just 7-7 heading into the last two weeks of the season, added to the legend by toppling the 15-1 Packers in Green Bay two weekends ago, then the No. 2 49ers last Sunday.
In both seasons, even Giants fans were ready to run the coach out of town.
But those remarkable recent victories are only the tip of the upset iceberg. Coughlin's history of toppling seemingly superior football foes dates back long before 2007. In fact, his teams have done the impossible for two decades. The coach probably doesn't get enough credit for this history.
Let's look at four notable games in his history, starting with a near-miss in his very first year as a head coach at any level.
Coughlin inherited a bad Boston College team that had floundered in the wake of the Doug Flutie glory days. His debut season started no better, at 0-4, before the Eagles won four of their next five. Their season ended with a visit from No. 1 Miami, fresh off its "wide right" win over Florida State.
The debut coach and his overmatched Eagles came one play shy of doing the impossible: Their last-ditch touchdown effort in the game's final seconds was stopped just short of the goal line. The Hurricanes went on to win the national title, but nearly lost it to Coughlin on The Heights.
The near misses would soon become history-changing home runs.
The road upset is the hallmark of Coughlin's coaching career. He first proved his chops in 1992, walking into Happy Valley to beat the Nittany Lions in a shootout. Penn State was 5-1 at the time, but its season spun out of control after losing to Coughlin's Eagles, ending the year 7-5.
This victory by Coughlin's Boston College club still reverberates around college football: The Eagles took down undefeated No. 1 Notre Dame in South Bend, 41-39, in one of the more remarkable games in modern college football history.
That loss to Coughlin's Eagles literally ruined the Fighting Irish: It cost Notre Dame a national title, an honor that went instead to Florida State, a team the Irish beat just a week earlier in the proverbial "Game of the Century." It's been 18 years now, and Notre Dame has never regained the No. 1 ranking it enjoyed that day.
Coughlin led Jacksonville to the AFC title game in the organization's second year. The wild-card 9-7 Jaguars first walked into Buffalo and knocked off Jim Kelly and the Bills, and followed up that win with a seemingly impossible win over John Elway and the Broncos in Denver.
The Broncos were 13-3 and appeared destined for a showdown with Brett Favre and the Packers in the Super Bowl. Denver took a 12-0 lead over the Jaguars and appeared ready to dominate. But Coughlin's Jaguars rallied and dominated much of the rest of the way, leading 30-20 well into the fourth quarter.
All those wins were just a prelude to the incredible victories we've witnessed in recent years by Coughlin's Giants.
Just a handful of teams in postseason history, for example, have bested the top two seeds in their conference on the way to the Super Bowl. Coughlin's Giants have now done it twice, beating the Cowboys and Packers in 2007 and the Packers and 49ers in 2011.
The Giants capped it off with a win over the No. 1 seed 18-0 Patriots in 2007; they look to cap 2011 off with a win over the No. 1 seed 15-3 Patriots in 2011.
But those wins tell only part of the story. The fact of the matter is that Coughlin won one Super Bowl, and is on the verge of winning another, with teams that, historically, had no chance of winning them.
The 2007 Giants, at the risk of engendering the wrath of the team's fans, are easily the worst team in history to win a Super Bowl. The 2011 Giants might even outdo them.
That statement is not to say those were not talented teams; and both were certainly teams that got better later in the year.
But teams that struggled as badly as both did throughout the regular season simply do not win championships -- or never did before the 2007 Giants.
Let's look at it from the most basic point of view: wins and losses.
The 2007 Giants went 10-6, joining Bill Walsh's final 49ers team in 1988 as the only teams to win Super Bowls with records of 10-6 or worse in the 16-game era.
The 2011 Giants, meanwhile, were even worse at 9-7. Only two other teams reached a Super Bowl with such a humble record in the 16-game era: the 1979 Rams and the 2008 Cardinals. The Giants could become the first nine-win team to win a Super Bowl since the 1967 Packers -- who went 9-4-1 back in the 14-game era.
Now let's look at points:
The 2007 Giants scored 373 points and surrendered 351. That +22 scoring differential is the worst of any Super Bowl champion. In fact, only one NFL champion (since 1940) was worse: Bobby Layne and the 1957 Lions were +20.
The 2011 Giants, meanwhile, were even worse: they scored 394 points and surrendered 400 (a fact lost on many analysts at this point in the season). That -6 scoring differential is the worst of any team to reach the Super Bowl. And, of course, it would be the worst scoring differential of any team that went on to win a championship.
Now let's look at Passer Rating Differential, a Quality Stat so important that the
The 2007 Giants were a rare exception in the entire history of football. They ranked 24th in Passer Rating Differential, easily the lowest ranking of any champion in history. In fact, the only other champ in history outside the Top 10 was the 1974 Steelers (12th).
And their Passer Rating Differential of -10.4 was also easily the worst in history. The only other champ upside down in PRD was the 1957 Lions (-4.5), those same Lions who were a mere +20 in scoring.
The 2011 Giants ranked No. 12 in PRD (the Patriots ranked No. 4, for the sake of comparison). With a win over the Patriots, Coughlin's crew would join the 1974 Steelers and his own 2007 Giants as the only teams in history to win a championship following a season in which they struggled so badly to dominate the passing lanes.
The 2007 Giants and the 2011 Giants already stand out as unique teams in the statistical history of the NFL -- accomplishing much more in the playoffs than their regular-season performances indicate are possible.
But they're not unique teams in Tom Coughlin's history. His teams have been doing the statistically impossible for 20 years.