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They're History

Feb. 11, 2008
Feb. 11, 2008

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Feb. 11, 2008

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They're History

Behind a ferocious assault on Tom Brady and a final drive for the ages, the upstart Giants broke the unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl XLII and pulled off one of the NFL's greatest upsets

EDITOR'S NOTE: Ten years ago, the New York Giants shocked the world. Tom Brady and the Patriots had marched into Super Bowl 42 in Phoenix undefeated, the stink of spygate still fresh in the air, the supervillain stigma as strong as it ever would be. On the other side, Eli Manning was more Questioned Kid than Chosen One. The Giants had finished 10-6, with the 14th best offense and the 16th ranked D. Then the Helmet Catch happened.

This is an article from the Feb. 11, 2008 issue

Relive Coughlin—Belichick I with an annotated version of the game story that ran in Sports Illustrated the last time that New England lost a Super Bowl as a heavy favorite (Doug Pederson, are you listening?). Click the highlighted text to read new anecdotes from Tim Layden, who was dealt this monster of a game as his first Super Bowl assignment; Peter King, who wasn’t at the big game for the first time since 1985; and Steve Spagnuolo, the Giants defensive coordinator at the time, who could not celebrate David Tyree’s heroics because he had to worry about stopping Randy Moss for 29 more seconds. — By Jacob Feldman

This time the celebration was for the youngest child of a football family, and for the team he helped carry to an unlikely championship. A year ago in Miami, Eli Manning had seen his older brother Peyton transformed by a Super Bowl championship. He had seen Peyton walk into his own victory party so blissfully satisfied that the moment found a place in Eli's soul and changed him as well. "It put a hunger inside me," Eli says. "You always want to win, but after that I felt like I wanted it even more." And now, so soon afterward, it would be his turn.

A second-floor restaurant at the New York Giants' team hotel outside Phoenix had become a thrumming nightclub into early Monday morning, a steady bass beat providing the backdrop to the unmistakable buzz of victory shared with friends and family at another Manning Super Bowl celebration. One floor below, some Giants players and a horde of the team's supporters filled a massive ballroom for another party, and outside in the night a long line of cars snaked nearly the full two miles from Interstate 10 to the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort in Chandler, Ariz., as the desert sky spit raindrops and high winds buffeted the sagebrush along the highway. Drivers wore Big Blue jerseys and wanted only a piece of the delirium.

It was to have been a historic night. The New England Patriots would win their 19th consecutive game and become only the second NFL team, along with the 1972 Miami Dolphins, to complete a season unbeaten and untied. They would fortify the legacy of a modern professional dynasty with a fourth Super Bowl title in seven years. They would prove themselves perfect.

Instead, the Giants completed an unexpected and emotional postseason run with a 17–14 victory in Super Bowl XLII. It was history cut from another cloth, a performance built on the sturdy underpinnings of a ferocious defensive effort, sustained when quarterback Manning and wide receiver David Tyree combined on one of the most memorable plays in NFL history, and sealed when Manning threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds to play. The game will take its place not only as the second-greatest upset in a Super Bowl, behind the New York Jets' epic 16–7 defeat of the Baltimore Colts in January 1969, but also as the culmination of a season in which a team, a quarterback and a coach found themselves linked by a deep resilience and rode it to the top of their sport.

Here in the afterglow Manning, the game's MVP, worked the room, bouncing among groups of friends: those from Isidore Newman, his New Orleans high school; from Ole Miss, where he played his college ball; and from New York. His mother, Olivia, stood talking with Eli's fiancée, Abby McGrew. Peyton remained in the back of the room, ceding the stage to Eli. "It's just surreal," Eli said over the noise. Past midnight he joined with his oldest brother, Cooper, and together they sang. The selection, of course, was New York, New York.

On Wednesday morning of last week, at the Giants' Super Bowl headquarters, a press conference had concluded and defensive ends Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora sat together reading a newspaper. A headline posed the question, BRADY: THE BEST EVER?

"Is he the best ever?" Umenyiora said of Tom Brady, the Patriots' superstar quarterback, setting up his partner.

"We'll see on Sunday," Tuck replied disdainfully.

The two fell silent for several moments, until Tuck, turning straight man, seized on another intriguing piece of reportage. When the Giants arrived in Phoenix six days before the Super Bowl, most of the players were dressed entirely in black, a sartorial choice designed to display solidarity, intimidation or humor, depending on which player was asked. But amid the Super Bowl's media saturation, it became big news. Now Tuck found a story claiming that Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss had said he would be wearing black after the game, ostensibly to mourn the beaten Giants.

"He will be wearing black," said Umenyiora, clearly implying that Moss would be mourning not the Giants but his own team. Together the big men laughed out loud.

Throughout the week leading up to Super Bowl XLII, the Giants were loose, the Patriots smooth yet practiced. For Brady, Moss, coach Bill Belichick, wideout Wes Welker, linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau, this was another day at work. The Super Bowl would be either a coronation or a colossal upset; it would not simply be an NFL title game. The Patriots had spent the entirety of their 16–0 regular season, including a riveting 38–35 win over the Giants on Dec. 29, and their run through the AFC playoffs denying their pursuit of history, but that larger task defined the game. Some of the New England players even admitted it. "You have to finish," Seau said in midweek. "You have to finish, or it doesn't count to be in that 'great' group."

The Giants, who were 10–6 in the regular season and the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs, slowly grew sick of their role. "Everywhere you went, it was all about the Patriots and 19–0," said cornerback R.W. McQuarters after the game. "We go into the city, and there's Tom Brady on the buildings. We get to the stadium today, and there's a Super Bowl program in our locker, and it's like a Tom Brady magazine. We come out to warm up, and Tom Brady is on the big screen. It's like Tom Brady was everywhere."

In the December home loss to New England, New York gave up 22 points in the final 19 minutes; Brady passed for 356 yards, including a 65-yard bomb to Randy Moss for the go-ahead score. But the Giants' defensive front—ends Umenyiora, Tuck and the unit's veteran leader, Michael Strahan, and tackles Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins—had pressured Brady all night, despite sacking him only once. "We did some things really well against them the first time," said Tuck. "We just didn't get him on the ground."

They did on Sunday. Mixing A-gap blitzes from weakside linebacker Kawika Mitchell with steady four-man pressure from the line, the Giants brought relentless heat to the highest-scoring offense in NFL history. New York had five sacks and knocked Brady down a half-dozen other times. Central to the effort was Tuck's constant movement, making it difficult for Brady to identify where the rush was likely to come from. ("The Jets did that to them near the end of the season, and it looked like Brady had a hard time," said Tuck). The Giants manhandled the Patriots' offensive line, which includes three Pro Bowl players, and limited tailback Laurence Maroney, who had 244 rushing yards over two playoff games, to 36 yards on the ground. All-Pro left tackle Matt Light was beaten repeatedly by Umenyiora and spooked into two false starts in the second half.

The upshot of all this defense—New England's unit also played solidly—was a brutal game in which, after the Patriots took a 7–3 lead on the first play of the second quarter, the two teams went 33 minutes, 52 seconds without scoring, a Super Bowl record. Then they played a 15-minute masterpiece, compressing a night's drama into the fourth quarter.

First, Manning threw a touchdown pass to Tyree with 11:05 to play. Three series later, Brady completed 8 of 11 on an 80-yard drive, capping it with a six-yard TD pass to Moss that put New England back on top 14–10 with 2:42 remaining. The game rested in Manning's hands.

To New York fans and media, Manning had been the biggest of targets for more than three seasons. Blame for any fresh failure inevitably was laid at his feet, until he directed the wild-card Giants to January playoff wins at Tampa Bay, Dallas and then frigid Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game. Slowly, New York began to embrace its quarterback. Two days after the win over the Packers, Manning had dinner with friends at Rao's, a popular Italian restaurant in East Harlem. While he was in the restroom, owner (and Sopranos regular) Frank Pellegrino announced to the diners that Eli was in their midst, and when the quarterback emerged he was given a standing ovation. He got another one as he left.

Yet Manning had been neither brilliant nor bad in the first three quarters of the Super Bowl. When he took the field for what would be the defining drive of his career, he was 14 of 25 for 178 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The Giants took six plays to move from their 17-yard line to their 44, where, on third-and-five, Manning took a shotgun snap and carved a place in football lore. Quickly swarmed in a collapsing pocket, he was grabbed by the Patriots' Jarvis Green, a 6'3", 285-pound defensive end. For an instant Manning disappeared, presumed sacked. Somehow, though, he pulled away from the scrum. His mother watched and was transported back nearly four decades, to a time when her sweetheart was tearing up the Southeastern Conference with a freewheeling quarterbacking style. Said Olivia Manning, "That looked like Archie running around at Ole Miss."

Once free, Manning squared himself and lobbed a pass into the middle of the field toward Tyree, who had stopped after running a post pattern. A fifth-year wideout best known for his special teams work, Tyree scarcely fit the hero's mold—he had caught only four passes in the regular season and one in the playoffs. But Manning likes Tyree. After a disastrous Friday practice in which Tyree had dropped a half-dozen passes, Manning went up to the receiver and told him, "You forget about this. You're a gamer. I know you are."

With the Super Bowl in the balance, Tyree rose high and outfought Patriots veteran strong safety Rodney Harrison, clutching the ball against his own helmet. "Harrison is a dirty cheap-shot artist and also a heck of a football player," said Tyree. "But once that ball was in the air, it was mine, mine, mine, like a little kid." The 32-yard gain—Harrison called it "a Hail Mary"—took the ball to the New England 24-yard line. Three plays later Manning threw 12 yards to rookie Steve Smith for a first down at the Patriots' 13 with 39 seconds left.

The Giants' next formation sent Burress to the left. He was all alone, and not for the first time. The eighth-year veteran had isolated himself on the Monday before the game, casually tossing out a prediction to the New York Post that the Giants would win the game 23–17. While that collected mountains of attention, Burress quietly struggled physically. After playing most of the season on a sprained right ankle, he slipped in the shower on the Tuesday morning of Super Bowl week—"a freak accident," he called it. When he was told that he had injured the medial collateral ligament in his left knee, "I busted out crying," said Burress. "I thought I wasn't going to be able to play in the biggest game of my life." He didn't practice again before the game and said, "I didn't even run until [Sunday]."

But on the deciding play, the Patriots blitzed, leaving cornerback Ellis Hobbs in single coverage on Burress. Hobbs guessed slant—"He pretty much has to guess one way or the other," said Peyton Manning—the play called for a fade, and Hobbs was badly beaten. "End of story," said Eli.

Or perhaps the beginning. A year ago Manning was at the center of a Giants collapse during which the team dropped six of its final eight in the regular season and lost in the first round of the playoffs. In the run-up to the 2007 season Manning's leadership was criticized by retired New York running back Tiki Barber, in his role as an analyst for NBC, and the quarterback was under intense scrutiny from fans and media. For now, he is set free. "I've had a lot of downs in New York," Eli said, as he stood to the side at his victory party. "A lot of times I've thought, Why have I gotten this treatment? Do I deserve this? So to come out here and win, not just for me but for our whole team, is really special. And for me personally, I'd have to say it is kind of sweet."

x

But once that ball was in the air, it was mine, mine, mine, like a little kid.

x

There was a meeting during the season that blended into the endless chain of other football meetings, except for an exchange between Tom Coughlin, the Giants' fourth-year coach, and Strahan, the 15-year veteran. Strahan arrived wearing a shirt with his name stitched on the breast pocket. Coughlin eyeballed Strahan. "What are you, a maintenance man?" he said with a laugh. "Can you fix my refrigerator?"

Tuck says, "That was amazing in two ways. First of all, that Coach Coughlin said it. And second of all, that Mike didn't say anything back. Because Mike always has something to say back."

By the time the Super Bowl kicked off, it was old news that Coughlin's personality shift—from dour disciplinarian to back-slapping players' coach—was a significant part of the team's rise. For those closest to Coughlin, the issue is far less complex. "We've always known who our dad is," said Tim Coughlin, 35, a Wall Street bond trader and the second of Tom's four grown children. "And we've all seen what he had to go through."

Like Manning, the 61-year-old Coughlin had been pilloried by fans, media and Barber. Like Manning, he felt the heaviest blows in the wake of the Giants' 2006 collapse. (It got worse after New York started the '07 season 0–2.) "My father was hurt by the criticism last year and in the off-season," said Tim, as he stood on the field at University of Phoenix Stadium in the aftermath of the Giants' victory. "And that's what makes this night so special for our family and for him."

In the weeks and months to come, the Giants will be celebrated as only a precious few cities can lift a champion. Coughlin, Manning, Burress, Strahan and the rest will hear many more ovations. To the north, the Patriots will answer questions about their two-drive Super Bowl. About the meaning of winning 18 games but finishing with a loss. About history denied.

But beneath a dome in the desert on Sunday evening, time was the province of the winners. Players lingered with family. In the stands scattered groups of Giants fans chanted mockingly, "Eighteen-and-one ... eighteen-and-one." On the battered grass two of Coughlin's grandchildren, four-year-olds Emma and Dylan, lay on their backs and swept their arms and legs, making snow angels in the confetti.The only word to describe the scene would be: Perfect.