Monday, February 4, 2008
Super Bowl XLII Rewind
Super Bowl XLII
February 3, 2008
New York Giants 17, New England Patriots 14
Was Super Bowl XLII the best Super Bowl I have ever seen?
I want to answer cautiously, because as I write this sentence, there is still one second remaining on the official game clock. But my answer is that I think it was.
Coming into the game, I thought Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriot's first Super Bowl win, held that title. I've seen old favorites like Super Bowls III and XIII and XXV. I saw the snooze-fest that was the first three quarters of Super Bowl XXXIV and the wildly uneven Super Bowl XXXVIII, all of which have been suggested as the best ever. What this game featured was the best total defensive effort I have ever seen in a Super Bowl. The Giants weren't the '85 Bears, but this year's Patriots didn't let Refrigerator Perry score a touchdown. Both teams played exceptional defense tonight, though they did seem to tire a little in the fourth quarter. The other characteristic this game highlighted was remarkable clutch performance, on both offense and defense.
The most notable example, of course, was New York's game-winning drive that began with 2:42 left in the game, and in honor of that drive I would like to announce a change in all of my future columns. For four seasons, I have demeaned Eli Manning — a mediocre and consistently overrated quarterback — as "Little Manning" compared to his multiple-MVP, six-time all-pro brother. Well, no more. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not drinking the Kool-Aid yet, and I don't think five good games in a row suddenly makes Eli an elite QB. But that final drive is going to become legend, and Eli was terrific on it. He's still not Peyton or Brady — he's not even Ben Roethlisberger or Carson Palmer — but he showed something special tonight.
Comparisons to Super Bowl XXXVI
I already mentioned that if someone had asked me yesterday to name the best Super Bowl ever, I probably would have suggested XXXVI, when New England upset the 14-2 Rams. Besides the terrific quality of both games, there are some other similarities between that year's game and this one. Both the 2001 Rams and the 2007 Patriots were dominant, almost flawless, in the regular season. Both teams had terrific passing games led by MVP-winning quarterbacks. The teams that beat them, the '01 Patriots and '07 Giants, were both heavy underdogs whose victories probably shouldn't have surprised as many people as they did. The 2001 Pats were very, very strong at the end of the season, and they were a perfect fit to take advantage of Kurt Warner's weakness as an interception machine.
The 2007 Giants picked up strength throughout the playoffs, getting better every week, and their potent pass-rush was the only hope to knock Tom Brady out of rhythm. Beyond the teams, the games themselves were similar. In both cases, a young quarterback led his team to last-minute victory.
What set this Super Bowl apart for me, aside from the terrific defense and the fourth-quarter scoring drives, was that at no point during the game did either team lead by more than four points. This was the most evenly-played Super Bowl in history, and I don't think that's up for debate.
Exactly what you saw: New York's pass rush disrupted Brady in a way that hadn't happened all season. Brady was sacked five times and knocked down countless others. The Giants kept him off balance early by rushing on most plays, but occasionally dropping into coverage. Later in the game, it was all heat, all the time. With New England unable to sustain drives, that old defense spent a lot of time on the field, and by the end of the game, it was worn out. That opened the door for one moment of glory from New York's offense, a 2:07 touchdown drive. When you play great defense and keep the score close, all it takes is one good drive, sometimes even one great play.
More broadly, I've been asked what happened to the Patriots at the end of the season. For the first three months of the 2007 season, New England wasn't just winning. We were seeing scores like 38-14, 38-7, 52-7. The Patriots won each of their first eight games by at least 17 points. It wasn't just that nobody could beat the Patriots; no one could even give them a decent game. Then, slowly, even though the Patriots kept winning, it included some games they probably shouldn't have. The invincibility started to crack. First, the Colts — a great team I fear history will underrate since they put no visible effort into their playoff game — nearly beat New England. Two weeks later, the Eagles gave them a scare on Sunday Night Football. A week later, they nearly lost to Baltimore. After a pretty thorough beatdown of the Steelers, the Pats seemed to sleepwalk through a pair of less-than-dominant wins over bad teams, and then they edged the Giants in the season finale.
I think the Pats were done in by four factors:
1. The Giants wanted it more. One of the qualities that distinguishes Bill Belichick is his ability as a motivator, to always make his players feel like they have more left to prove, that the work isn't done. Watching the Super Bowl, I thought the Giants were the team that played with more intensity. They were more active, more fired-up, more involved. I don't mean to say that the Patriots didn't play hard or weren't trying, because I don't think that's true. I just think the Giants were trying harder. They elevated their game.
2. By the end of this season, the Giants were a great team. History will remember the 2007 New York Giants as the team that beat the undefeated Patriots and the winner of Super Bowl XLII, but these Giants will never be included among of best-of-all-time discussions. They went 10-6 in the regular season and only outscored their opponents by +18. They had injury problems, and early in the season struggled to establish an identity on defense and in the running game. Eli Manning was inconsistent and often played poorly. At the end of the season, though, everything seemed to come together.
I know lots of other analysts have spoken or written about the significance of that Week 17 game against the Patriots, but I don't think that can be overstated. From a purely practical standpoint, the game meant nothing to either team. Both had already clinched playoff position to the point that the results of the game wouldn't affect it. Most teams would have gone through the motions and played a snoozer. These two battled it out and gave us a great game. Manning had his best game of the season and the Giants proved they could go toe-to-toe with the best team in the league. They entered the playoffs with confidence and momentum, and they got better every week. By Super Bowl Sunday, the Giants were playing at a very, very high level.
The Patriots were the best team in the league for the 2007 season as a whole, but the Giants were the best team on the field tonight. They deserved to win.
3. The Patriots got tired. Conventional wisdom says that a team full of veterans will play well in the regular season, but be worn out by the playoffs. New England played its best football in September and October. But the team was full of savvy old veterans, and there comes a point at which your body just can't keep up. Mike Vrabel is 33. Tedy Bruschi is 34. Rodney Harrison is 35. Junior Seau is 39. Even Brady, Kevin Faulk, and Randy Moss are all over 30. When you're counting on key contributions in February from guys that old, you're pushing your luck.
The Patriots were pushed to their limits in the last two months. It all started with that game against the Colts, but then there were draining efforts against Philadelphia, Baltimore, and the Giants, followed by tough, down-to-the-wire playoff games against the Jaguars and Chargers. By the end of the Super Bowl, New England's defense was worn down — too worn down to stop Manning and the Giants — and it showed.
4. The Giants played it perfectly. I don't mean that the Giants played a perfect game. They didn't. But their strategy was dead on. The offense kept its cool and didn't try to force anything that wasn't there. It mixed just enough runs in with Manning's passes to keep New England's defense honest, and Manning spread the ball around, hitting seven different receivers. Plaxico Burress is the Giants' premier offensive weapon, and the Patriots shut him down for most of Sunday night's game. So Manning hit his second and third receivers for a combined 11 receptions. No panic.
On defense, as I've already noted, the Giants put Brady off-balance early and kept pressure on him throughout the game with a consistent and successful rush. This followed the so-called "blueprint" laid out by Jim Johnson and the Eagles in their near-upset of the Patriots after Thanksgiving. Committing pass rushers rather than defensive backs means you might get burned, but if you try to play it safe, you'll get eaten alive. The Giants never called off the dogs or changed their strategy.
A Moment of Controversy
The Giants won this game by three points. At the beginning of the third quarter, the Patriots drove into Giants territory and went for it on 4th-and-13 rather than attempt a 49-yard field goal. They didn't pick up the first down. If New England had made that field goal, the game probably would have gone into overtime. In hindsight, it's easy to say that Belichick made the wrong decision. But the question is whether the Pats had a better chance of converting 4th-and-13 or making a long field goal. There are extra advantages, even, to picking up the first down: extra rest for your defense, a shot at seven points instead of three, and eight yards of field position that would be lost with a missed kick. I understand the logic in going for the first down, but I don't think it was the right move.
I never vote for the person who is named Super Bowl MVP. I've covered six Super Bowls for Sports Central, and here are my votes in each one:
Super Bowl My Vote Actual Winner
XXXVII Simeon Rice Dexter Jackson
XXXVIII Richard Seymour Tom Brady
XXXIX Deion Branch Deion Branch*
XL Antwaan Randle El Hines Ward
XLI Joseph Addai Peyton Manning
XLII Justin Tuck Eli Manning
* I assume the vote was counted incorrectly.
Eli played very well, and he's not a bad choice for this year's award. But in a game so dominated by defense, I just can't see picking an offensive player. If coaches were eligible, New York defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo would be an easy choice. As it is, Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and Michael Strahan would probably be my top three choices. But I can also understand viewing New York's defensive performance as an outstanding team effort and Manning as the one big star on offense. Whatever else Eli does in his career, that drive at the end was something special.
Credit Is Due...
...to referee Mike Carey and his crew. One of the reasons this game was so enjoyable was that the officials didn't play a big role. There were no game-turning penalties or controversial replays, and for the most part, the officials kept the game moving.
Announcers and Entertainment
This section is a scattered collection of thoughts that don't fit well into paragraph format, so I'm just going with bullet points.
- You have my pity if you watched the miserable pre-game affairs. I did like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at halftime, though their set seemed a little long.
- Howie Long was at his best as part of FOX's behind-the-desk analysis team. He was focused on the game and provided solid analysis of what we were seeing.
- I really hope those idiots who were sitting behind Jimmy Johnson don't contribute to the gene pool.
- Joe Buck and Troy Aikman did a fine job of calling the game. Nothing spectacular, but for Buck, anything short of horrendous is a plus, and I thought he was professional and effective. He was even in a funny commercial.
- This was Anheuser-Busch's best year of Super Bowl ads since those frogs a decade ago.
The world has been waiting 25 years to see CGI lizards doing the "Thriller" dance. At last, the wait is over.