Destiny's Chill

In a stone-cold playoff classic, fortune again favored the Giants, who prevailed over Green Bay for their third straight January road win. Next up: a karmic clash with New England in Super Bowl XLII
January 28, 2008

BRETT FAVRE and Eli Manning met for a private moment at midfield before Sunday's NFC Championship Game at the Lambeau Icebox, and the old lion leaned in to get close to the kid. You could only imagine what they were saying to each other—something about enjoying the moment because you never know when another one will come, perhaps, or how odd it was for two sons of the South to be playing in one of the coldest games in history. ¬∂ Not exactly. ¬∂ "Peyton here?" Favre asked. ¬∂ "Nah," Eli said. "He didn't make it." ¬∂ The NFL didn't need the elder Manning to stage one of the best playoff games in years. His kid brother did just fine. ¬∂ For much of the four years since the Giants paid a king's ransom (including fellow 2004 high draft pick Philip Rivers) to acquire him from San Diego, Eli Manning has embodied the term whipping boy, much as Tom Coughlin has been the exemplar for embattled coach during his time in New York. But on a day when a gallant Rivers and his Chargers came up short in the AFC Championship Game in New England, Manning outplayed Favre in New York's thrilling 23--20 overtime victory in Green Bay. The upstart, wild-card Giants—the first NFC team to win three straight road playoff games to advance to the Super Bowl (underdogs against division champs all three weeks)—will try to fulfill one more impossible dream on Feb. 3 in Arizona, when they face the 18--0 Patriots.

New York versus Boston in Super Bowl XLII. The towns that gave you Bucky Bleeping Dent and the greatest comeback in baseball playoff history, that repeatedly swapped football coaches (Coughlin spent three years at Boston College, and Bill Parcells went from the Giants to the Patriots to the Jets with Bill Belichick trailing him) and that produced Spygate are now matched for what could be the most-watched Super Bowl in history.

First, though, kudos for Sunday night's spectacle. "What a football game," said Archie Manning, Eli and Peyton's dad. "I don't care who you were rooting for. If you're a football fan in Idaho, you're saying, 'That's one of the best games I've ever seen.'" The lead changed frigid hands four times before the Packers tied the game at 20 in the fourth quarter. After missing field goal tries from 43 yards (high snap) and 36 (inexcusable knuckleball) in the final 6:53 of regulation, New York kicker Lawrence Tynes won it with a 47-yarder in OT. Eli stepped out of Peyton's shadow with a 21-for-40, 254-yard passing performance that moved the chains. Plaxico Burress had the greatest playoff game ever for a Giants wide receiver, catching 11 passes for 154 yards and embarrassing Pro Bowl cornerback Al Harris—all while playing with a torn ligament in his right ankle.

It was take-your-breath-away drama. Favre pump-faking, play-acting and finally throwing one deep to Donald Driver for a 90-yard touchdown; Giants cornerback R.W. McQuarters picking off Favre but having the ball popped from his arms right into the breadbasket of Packers tackle Mark Tauscher; Favre throwing away the game on an easy interception by corner Corey Webster 47 seconds into overtime. New York sent out its bruising running backs—mighty mite Ahmad Bradshaw, the 250th of 255 players selected in the 2007 draft, colliding helmet-to-helmet with a Packers defender so violently that the impact stripped much of the paint off Bradshaw's helmet; and 264-pound freighter Brandon Jacobs, plowing first into cornerback Charles Woodson, who was sent sprawling, and then into middle linebacker Nick Barnett, who was driven back five yards.

It was the kind of football you watch and wince at. "Mano a mano," Burress said. "Two great teams, just trying to survive on the coldest day any of us have played on."

In fact, it was the third-coldest game in NFL history, registering --1° with a --23° windchill at kickoff. Late last week Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy had a 25-minute meeting with his equipment man to figure out how to fight the cold on Sunday. (He donned electric socks, and his players had wool mittens sewn into pouches of their jerseys.) The Giants, unhappy with the effectiveness of the heated sideline benches supplied to the visitors, had five warmer ones shipped to Lambeau from Cleveland. Not that any of it helped. "It was so much worse than we thought it would be," said Giants wideout Amani Toomer. "When I'd breathe in deep, the air was so cold it felt like it was burning my lungs. A couple of times it hurt so bad, I thought I was in real trouble."

ONE PLAYER seemed immune to the conditions. For reasons even he could not fathom, Burress's game was largely unaffected by the cold. Playing with heat pads taped to the bottom of his socks, he caught passes behind, in front of and over Harris, once stealing a jump ball from him. In the third quarter Burress caught a pass and survived a Jack Tatum--force hit from safety Atari Bigby, holding on to the ball. Burress jawed with Harris. He squawked at the Packers' sideline. Time after time he wrestled with Harris past the five-yard bump zone, skirmishes that were often overlooked by the officials. He played the game of his eight-year pro career, gutty and physical and intimidating. In the 2007 postseason he has 16 catches; New England's Randy Moss has two.

Afterward, though, Burress wanted to talk about his quarterback. Throughout the New York locker room, players from both sides of the ball went out of their way to praise the reserved Manning. In 12 postseason quarters he has completed 62.4% of his passes and has not committed a turnover. Just the way the coaches drew it up. "I'm so happy for Eli," said Burress. "He's the captain of our ship. We like the way he leads."

In the divisional playoff against the Dallas Cowboys, the Giants fell behind 14--7 with 53 seconds left in the first half. Taking over at the New York 29-yard line, Manning walked into the huddle and, according to Jacobs, said, "We're going to score [a touchdown], and we're going to leave time on the clock." A little greedy, thought some of his teammates, who would have been happy to put any points on the board no matter how long it took. Manning drove the Giants 71 yards for a touchdown—with seven seconds to spare.

So the quarterback who had been maligned even by a high-profile former teammate has become a respected leader—and, says Jacobs, one of the biggest practical jokers on the team. Eli? "I pick up my cellphone one day, and somebody's turned the keyboard into Spanish," Jacobs said. "I can't figure out how to fix it, so I get one of our [Spanish-speaking] cafeteria guys, and he fixes it. Eli comes up to me a couple of days later and says, 'So, you been practicing your Spanish?' That's him—he keeps us laughing. The people on the outside don't know the real Eli."

Manning likes it that way. "He's been criticized for his lack of leadership," Archie says, "but I guarantee you he doesn't care. And I promise you he doesn't read the negative stuff about himself. He's not the type of guy, never has been, to say much about anything to people on the outside. Maybe it's because he's the youngest. Our son Cooper has a two-year-old who's not talking yet, and the other day [Archie's wife] Olivia said, 'Well, Eli didn't talk till he was three.'"

WITH THE score tied at 20, Manning spoke up. Center Shaun O'Hara said Eli talked urgently in the huddle about winning the game right there, not counting on help from the defense or the field goal unit. A good idea, but Manning couldn't close the deal. Neither could Tynes; the Lambeau crowd went nuts after he sent his kick wide left with :04 on the clock. When Green Bay won the overtime coin toss, the fans believed that, surely, Favre would lead the Pack on one more drive to victory and Green Bay's first trip to the Super Bowl in a decade.

But then he tossed a bad ball to Driver on an out route to the right—"I didn't throw it outside enough," Favre would explain later—and Webster had one of the biggest interceptions in Giants history, setting up the final field goal. Before the game, Coughlin had watched Tynes kick during the warmup and decided a 48-yarder would be his limit. This one would be from 47. The coach thought about trying for a first down on fourth-and-five at the Packers' 29. "But I knew when I looked at him we'd go for the field goal," he said. "He had a confident look." The kick was perfect.

Favre walked off the field, unsure if the game would be his last. Those close to him believe he'll likely play next season, but he wasn't tipping his hand on Sunday night. "I'm not going to let this game sway my decision one way or the other," Favre said.

The Giants walked off secure in the feeling that they won't serve as sacrificial lambs to the mighty Patriots; New York gave New England a 38--35 scare on Dec. 29, when Manning matched Tom Brady pass for pass.

Meanwhile, a week after the Indianapolis Colts' inglorious home playoff loss to San Diego, Peyton Manning was hunting in Mississippi on Sunday, visible to NFL fans only in his ubiquitous television commercials. As the season progressed, anticipation of a Manning-Brady rematch only grew. That's what's coming on Super Sunday. Just no one figured it would be Eli.

"He's been criticized for his lack of leadership," Archie Manning says of his son, "but I guarantee you he doesn't care. He doesn't read the negative stuff. He's NOT THAT TYPE OF GUY."


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PHOTOPhotograph by John BieverPLAXICO STAR Burress had the game of his life at Lambeau, leaping over and battling through defenders for 11 catches. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERWHO'S THE BOSS? Jacobs (27) and his mates handed Eli much of the credit for directing New York's postseason run. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERIN THE 'ZONA Webster's pick set up the winning field goal, leaving Michael Strahan and Manning (inset) to start thinking Pats. PHOTOSIMON BRUTY[See caption above]