By Neil Keefe
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Two down. One to go. That's all that's left for the Giants to return to the Super Bowl. One win. One win!
I never thought the Giants would be here. No one did. How could you when they were 9-7 and losing games to Rex Grossman (twice) and Charvaris Whiteson and Vince Young? I just wanted a shot at the playoffs. I just wanted some meaningful January football for the first time in three years. I didn't expect anything if they got in. I just wanted that chance to get in the playoffs and hope that something could happen if they did get in.
The comparisons from 2007 to 2011 are eerie, but true for the most part. The paths have been the same, but the Giants teams haven't been. That postseason they beat the Buccaneers 24-14, the Cowboys 21-17 and the Packers 23-20. Three wins by a combined 17 points. This postseason they have knocked off the Falcons 24-2 and the Packers 37-20. They have won two playoff games by a combined 39 points, and have scored just seven fewer points than they scored in those three playoff games in 2007.
This is a much different Giants team that's just happening to do it the same way that team did. The team isn't built around the running game and the defense anymore. Earth, Wind and Fire is long gone and Perry Fewell is the second defensive coordinator since Steve Spagnuolo left after the '08 season (I try to forget about the Bill Sheridan experiment). It's already been four years since the Giants shocked the world, but these last few weeks have made it feel like it was just last year by bringing back and reviving glorious memories. These last few weeks have also made the "What Should Have Been" season of 2008 hurt a little less, as the franchise has rebounded from the disappointing 2009 and 2010 seasons.
After the Giants won the Super Bowl in 2007 and then went 12-4 in 2008 and locked up the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, I thought they would compete for the Super Bowl every year for the next decade the way the Patriots have since 2001. And I still believe the Giants would have won the Super Bowl in 2008 if Plaxico Burress didn't go to The Latin Quarter that night, and I don't think I'm the only one.
In 2008, the final four teams were the Cardinals, Eagles, Steelers and Ravens. The Giants beat all four of those teams in the regular season. The Cardinals ended up winning the NFC (the Giants beat them 37-29 in Arizona in Week 12). In the playoffs, the Cardinals won at home against the Falcons, won in sunny Carolina in the divisional round and then beat the Eagles back in Arizona. But during the regular season, the Cardinals lost every outdoor game they played on the East Coast. They lost 24-17 in Washington. They lost 56-35 to the Jets at Giants Stadium. They lost 48-20 in Philadelphia. They lost 47-7 in the snow in New England. (They also lost 27-23 in Carolina, but we won't count that since it's not cold there, even if it does help my case.) They went 0-4 in northern, cold weather, outdoor stadiums and lost by a combined 175-79 (an average loss of 44-20). So, yeah if Domenik Hixon isn't the Giants' No. 1 receiver against the Eagles in the divisional round, and the Giants beat the Eagles (like they would have with Plaxico), then the Giants host the Cardinals in Giants Stadium on Jan. 18, 2009, and the Giants play the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
The Giants were on top of the world as defending champions and looking primed for another Super Bowl run before Plaxico's big mistake. They were built for consistent success in the league, and visions of a dynasty filled my head. The way '08 ended and the way '09 and '10 went, I wondered if the Giants would ever get back to the playoffs, which was a long way from thinking about a dynasty. It was second-half collapse after second-half collapse mixed with dagger losses and questionable coaching and general managerial decisions. But that all changed a few weeks when Tony Romo overthrew Miles Austin, and now the Giants are one win from getting back to where they should have been three years ago. They are one win from trying to salvage the lost time of the last three seasons.
Last week I turned to the greatest football motivator ever in Coach Eric Taylor from Friday Night Lights to help prepare for the Giants-Packers (Who cares if he's not real? I still don't believe he's not real. That's right I believe that Kyle Chandler is an actual high school football coach and not just some guy that's an amazing actor.) Since last week went about as good as a playoff game could go for a 9-7, 8-point underdog on the road against the 15-1 defending champions, I figured we had to go back to Coach Taylor for the NFC Championship Game.
"I say if we do our best we will have success. And that we own the fourth quarter. The fourth quarter is ours."
A lot of people think this game will come down to the fourth quarter, but I'm hoping it doesn't. I'm hoping the Giants come out like they did against the Packers, get on the board early and never look back. But if the Giants can't follow my simple strategy or if Ed Hochuli takes a few pages out of Bill Leavy's ref manual and decides that he will do everything in his power to send San Francisco to Indianapolis then this game might come down to the fourth quarter, and I like our chances in the fourth quarter. The fourth quarter is ours.
Eli Manning is the two-minute drill and he's the fourth quarter. Sure, "Flood Tip" needed a lot of things to go right to be successful, but it was a perfect throw to the corner of the end zone from the Packers' 37 where Hakeem Nicks had gained position on the Packers defense. And it's not like we haven't seen Eli orchestrate incredible and memorable drives at the end of either half. (The drive before halftime against the Cowboys in 2007 divisional round was the biggest non-David Tyree play of that postseason.) It just so happens that Eli passed his brother and Johnny Unitas for the most fourth-quarter touchdowns in a single season in NFL history (take that, Tom Brady). So, yeah if this thing has to go down to the wire, we have the best possible quarterback for the job.
Then there's Alex Smith, who is responsible for the 49ers' miraculous comeback in the final minute against the Saints last week. And while it was fun to watch and while I'm thankful that he knocked out the Saints (so that the Giants wouldn't have to go to the Superdome this weekend) it was still one drive.
There's already talk about Alex Smith being an "elite" quarterback, and I feel like I'm taking crazy pills like Mugatu in Zoolander. Eli won a Super Bowl. He beat the undefeated Patriots. He had been to the postseason four times before this season and now has six postseason wins and a Super Bowl. He has been selected for the Pro Bowl twice and has done all of this in New York under the biggest microscope in the world with arguably the best quarterback in the history of football as his older brother. It has taken him beating a fourth-quarter touchdown record held by his brother and Unitas and a second playoff win in the Yankee Stadium of football to get non-Giants fans to believe in him.
Alex Smith has been in the league for six seasons and has won one playoff game, and has played in one playoff game. He has had five seasons of .500 football or worse in the league and has played in all 16 games of a regular season just twice. He's responsible for the head coaching revolving door in San Francisco, and despite a 13-3 record this season, he's 32-34 in his career.
Look at the situation Mark Sanchez is in. He's 25 and has played in the league for three years. In his first two seasons, he led the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship Games. Now after an 8-8 season and missing the postseason, his job status is being questioned and sports radio is being filled with questions like, "Is Mark Sanchez the right quarterback for the Jets?" and "Is Mark Sanchez a starting quarterback in the NFL?" So once again, "I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!"
Smith is two years older than Sanchez. He has played in the league for three more years than Sanchez and has accomplished far less than the Jets' franchise guy, who despite what Woody and Mr. T say, might not even be the team's starter in 2012.
Let's not forget that Alex Smith was the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft. The No. 1 pick! That means the 49ers thought he was not only the best available quarterback, but the best available player in the entire draft. If Smith had been drafted No. 1 by the Jets and put in Mark Sanchez's situation and put up the numbers he has put up in San Francisco, he would have either quit or been released by now, and probably wouldn't be allowed in the tri-state area.
Somehow Sanchez is viewed as a loser who can't win the big game while Smith is now being treated like someone who has done anything at all in the league, and there's actual debates about him moving up to the top tier of quarterbacks because he won a single playoff game in six years. Sometimes I hate football.
"Gentlemen, there has been a lot of talk about expectations. Expectation of what we should be able to do, to win. People are expecting … people are expecting quite a bit. I see us winning out there tonight. I have no trouble seeing that. That is not what I'm expecting. I expect you boys to go out there and not take this team lightly, because I promise you … they are gonna come at you with everything they've got. I expect you boys to execute. I expect you boys to play football."
I have tried to keep the hype on the Giants quiet, and I have tried to keep my confidence about this Giants team in the playoffs and this game on Sunday to a minimum. But it's really hard to not see the 49ers, the perennial underachievers under Alex Smith and look at Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis and not think the Giants have an unbelievable chance of getting there.
The problem is exactly what this quote talks about in "expectations." I think I have mentioned it in everything I have written about the Giants since they started this miracle run almost a month ago, so why not talk about it again?
The Giants aren't good with expectations. Actually they suck with expectations. When they came back to beat the Cowboys, everyone thought they would go on this special run since they had their signature close loss to the undefeated Packers (just like the Week 17 loss to the Patriots in 2007). Instead they came out and got lit up for the second time during the season by Rex Grossman and the Redskins. Then they were playing a must-win game against the Jets, and came out sluggish before Victor Cruz's touchdown changed everything.
They were given a decent shot at beating the Falcons at home, but people expected them to lose. They weren't really given a shot to beat the 15-1 Packers in Green Bay, and people expected them lose big (Las Vegas opened them at 9-point underdogs. The line moved to 7.5 and then back to 8 before the game.) But now they are still alive after fending off everyone counting them out, and they have done enough to make believe in them with the majority of people now picking them to win in San Francisco this weekend.
"Right now y'all are in control of your destiny. You remember that."
For the Giants to be where they are, a lot of things had to fall perfectly.
Tony Romo had to overthrow Miles Austin on third down in Dallas (This was the most important because with a first down, the Giants' season is over). Then the Giants had to complete the comeback.
The Giants had to beat the Jets, which it didn't look like they would before Victor Cruz's 99-yard touchdown.
The Giants had to beat the Cowboys again, this time at MetLife Stadium
The Falcons had to win in Week 17 and the Lions had to lose so the Giants would play the easier opponent of the Falcons in the first round than the Lions, who didn't appear to be a good matchup for the Giants.
The Giants had to beat the Falcons.
The 49ers had to beat the Saints, so that if the Giants beat the Packers, the Giants wouldn't have to play the Saints in New Orleans were the Saints were 9-0 this year (including the playoffs) and outscored opponents by an average of 41-19, and had already beat the Giants in Week 12.
The Giants had to go on the road and beat the 15-1 Packers who had lost one game with Aaron Rodgers as the starting quarterback since Nov. 28, 2010 and won four playoff games and a Super Bowl in that time.
So, here we are. Everything and I mean everything has broken just right for the Giants to be playing this Sunday in San Francisco. They have gotten help around the board for the possibility to play the lesser 49ers for a chance to go to the Super Bowl, and they have to know this, and they have to do their part in completing the massive parlay they hit to get here.
And my picks for the NFC and AFC Championships...
New York Giants +2.5 over SAN FRANCISCO
I think I have said what I need to say.
Giants 31, 49ers 16
Baltimore +7 over NEW ENGLAND
Everyone is talking about the Tom Brady Revenge Tour? What Revenge Tour? Is he a punk rock band? Is winning one playoff game against the .500 Broncos at home considered "revenge" for losing in Denver to a completely different Broncos team six years ago? Is going 13-3 in the regular season with zero wins against teams with winning records considered revenge?
I love Patriots hype. It's my favorite kind of hype in sports. People are still expecting the Patriots to win and people are still picking them to win it all. It reminds me of the Yankees from 2001-2008. Everyone still believed they were the Yankees, but as they got more and more separated from their 2000 championship, people began to pick against them. We still haven't gotten to that point with the Patriots even though it's been seven years since they won the Super Bowl.
The Patriots don't have a defense though not many teams in the league do. But the Patriots have zero defense. We saw it all year long. The problem is we didn't see it last week because the Broncos offense is so bad. So, there's Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich and Brandon Spikes dancing around and going nuts, and Gillette Stadium rocking as the Patriots won their first playoff game since the 2007 AFC Championship Game. And that's what everyone's last image of the Patriots currently is. It's Tom Brady throwing for six touchdowns, their defensive line rocking Tim Tebow's world and the most convincing of playoff wins with a 45-10 score. The Patriots didn't prove anything last weekend other than that they can beat a first-year starting quarterback and the option at home in a playoff game coming off a bye. Congratulations!
But you know who has a defense? The Ravens. They have had the best defense in the league for the last 12 or so years, and if they had a real quarterback during that stretch they would have won at least one other Super Bowl since 2000.
You need a defense or a pass rush or something to win in the playoffs the way you need starting pitching in the playoffs. There's a reason the Yankees didn't win for eight years. You can't let Jon Lieber and Kevin Brown and Jaret Wright and the Ghost of Roger Clemens start playoff games and think you're going to win. And there's a reason the Patriots haven't won the Super Bowl since they turned their team from a defensive juggernaut into an offensive one.
Feb. 5, 2012 will be a rematch of Jan. 28, 2001.
Ravens 24, Patriots 21 ("We're only going to score 21 points? Haha. OK. Is Plax playing defense?")
Last Week: 2-2
Regular Season: 118-129-12
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