Monday, February 04, 2008

The Pats Lose In Giant Upset...

Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times

February 5, 2008
For The Giants, A Moment To Believe In

PHOENIX, Ariz. — The Giants stood 83 yards from the lead, trailing an unbeaten team by 4 points with just 2 minutes 39 seconds left in Super Bowl XLII. Defensive players paced the sideline shouting one-word directions: Believe.

“In the heat of the game, you really never allow yourself to think you’re not going to win it,” defensive end Justin Tuck said.

But for the Giants’ president and co-owner, John Mara — the man whose job it is to believe in the team even when all others might not — true trust in a Super Bowl victory had not yet arrived. It still had not come by the time quarterback Eli Manning squirted away from of a pack of Patriots tugging at his uniform, or when Manning flung the ball down the middle of the field toward David Tyree.

But then Tyree jumped while wearing Patriots safety Rodney Harrison like a poncho. He pinned the ball between his right hand and his helmet, then clutched it with both hands as he fell backward on top of Harrison.

There. That was it. That was the moment when Mara believed that the Giants would become champions.

“I just said to myself, how are we going to lose at this point?” Mara said, as joy and disbelief and exhaustion surrounded him in his team’s locker room after the 17-14 upset of the Patriots on Sunday. “It’s just like it’s meant to be.”

There were signs all along the way, beginning last summer, that the Giants could be Super Bowl champions. But who really thought they would?

It took until the end, or close to it, for hope to be spun into belief, and for belief to turn into reality, and for it all to be covered with the confetti that falls onto champions.

Across the locker room from Mara, the team’s chairman, Steve Tisch, whose family owns the other half of the Giants, credited Coach Tom Coughlin, General Manager Jerry Reese and “every New York Giants fan who believed in us in the preseason.”

To which the obvious retort was: There were some?

“By midseason,” Tisch said, “when this ship started to turn around, a lot of people believed that the Giants were a team of destiny.”

No team of destiny, of course, ever lost in the end. But with the advantage of hindsight, the milestones of a championship season seem clearer, if blurred by falling tears and confetti.

The goal-line stand against the Redskins in Week 3 seemed only to prevent a 0-3 start, but it might have rescued a season and set it on its proper course. The six-game winning streak came against six teams that did not make the playoffs, but it gave the Giants a taste of momentum that they would need to duplicate in the postseason. The big victories down the stretch were usually followed by perplexing losses, but those were always followed by a big victory.

There were inexplicable losses at home, where the Giants were 3-5, but those were trumped by a 7-1 record on the road, which forged bonds and a resiliency that the Giants carried with them, like carry-on luggage, through three road playoff wins and the Super Bowl.

There were injuries to key players, including tight end Jeremy Shockey, but they had the effect of building experience and confidence in an army of unheralded rookies and, perhaps, allowed Eli Manning the necessary shoulder room to become the team’s leader.

The Giants became masters of using perceived slights to fortify their resolve. They had only one Pro Bowl player (defensive end Osi Umenyiora), fewer than any Super Bowl champion and all their postseason opponents. They reveled in the possibility of a postseason revenge tour, with chances to beat three teams that had beaten them in the regular season: the Cowboys, the Packers and the Patriots. They were underdogs in all four of their playoff games and were not above counting how many more so-called experts predicted victories for their opponents than for them.

Last week, the Giants heard reports of the Patriots’ attempts to secure rights to “19-0” (already trademarked, as it turned out), of a book planned to hit the presses immediately after a New England triumph, and of plans for a victory parade in Boston.

Of course, all of those were simply cases of people preparing for the possibility, not necessarily the expectation, that the Patriots would win. Plans for a parade up Broadway in Manhattan on Tuesday were being made, too.

Being fueled by doubters was a trick that even reached the game-winning drive. Receiver Amani Toomer said the Patriots, who came from behind to beat the Giants in the regular-season finale, were teasingly inviting him to their postgame celebration as the Giants tried to mount their comeback, trailing 14-10 in the final two minutes.

“I don’t care what they say,” Toomer said. “They were holding on and expecting us to crack. They beat us the first time because we cracked, and this time the Giants came through. We are a tough team in a tough city, and that’s what we represent.”

At Sky Harbor International Airport, Umenyiora headed toward a plane to take him to Hawaii for this weekend’s Pro Bowl while his teammates were destined for Newark and Tuesday’s parade. Umenyiora shook his head and grinned, as if still in a state of disbelief.

“When Eli got free on that play, that’s when I thought we were going to do it,” he said.

In the end, it did not matter who believed in the Giants and when it was, precisely, that they fully converted. Manning completed a 5-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left. It was only the second time in Super Bowl history that the game-winning touchdown came in the final minute, and it immediately spun all the speculation about the Giants forward: Will defensive end Michael Strahan retire? When will the Giants and Coughlin agree on a multiyear contract extension? Was it all a dream?

Hope had turned to belief, and belief to a championship.

“We had no doubts,” said Manning, who was named the game’s most valuable player. “We believed the whole time and made it happen.”

But it was interesting to note what went through Coughlin’s mind immediately after Burress caught the winning touchdown.

“I said, ‘Holy cow,’ ” Coughlin recalled. “There’s still 35 seconds left?”

He wanted, more than anything, to believe. Finally.

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