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Monday Morning QB (cont.)

Posted: Monday December 31, 2007 1:40AM; Updated: Tuesday January 1, 2008 11:04AM
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Eli Manning threw four touchdown passes and almost led  the Giants to an upset the Patriots on Saturday. New England held on 38-35.
Eli Manning threw four touchdown passes and almost led the Giants to an upset the Patriots on Saturday. New England held on 38-35.
Al Bello/Getty Images
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Two: America tuned into a game that, with different coaches, might well have been a Cactus League game in the middle of March. Instead, what we saw was the seventh game of the World Series. Bill Belichick's mantra with his team all season has been "60 minutes,'' dating back to last year's AFC Championship Game, when the Patriots blew a 21-3 lead with 31 minutes left and lost to the Colts. That kind of second-half lethargy wasn't going to happen to the Patriots again. And so instead of waltzing through second-half blowouts this year, New England instead kept the foot on the gas, because Belichick felt the team was better prepping for January football by playing full games instead of partial ones. Other than the fourth-quarter stomping of the Redskins, my feeling is the Patriots haven't run up the score on anyone. Rather, they've been most concerned with doing what's best for their team in the playoffs. This storyline has been picked by too few in the media. Anyway, there was no way Belichick was going to change in Week 17, especially with two weeks off before the first playoff game.

Re: the Giants, I can just tell you this: The players badly wanted to play. They wanted to be the ones to knock the Patriots off. Tom Coughlin read this situation. He also has a sense for football history and doing what is right for the game. It certainly would not have been right to be playing a cadre of backups in a game this big. And he wanted his offense to get back in a groove before the playoffs. Injuries? He'd risk them. I loved the call. Loved it. Football players should play football, particularly with so much on the line, and coaches should read their players, which Coughlin did so well. So the time was right for both teams to play hard. The Giants would judge how long they'd go with their first-teamers at halftime; if the game was a new England rout, Coughlin likely would rest as many starters as he could for the wild-card game against Tampa Bay.

Eli Manning needed this game like the Browns needed his brother to play Sunday night. Eli play-action-passed a 52-yard bomb to Plaxico Burress on the second play of the game, and the Giants went 74 yards for a touchdown on the first drive to get the fans into the game. From the press box, it appeared the crowd was 75-25 Giants, even with all the talk of New York fans selling their tickets to Pats partisans. With the Giants unable to stop Brady, Manning was going to have to make some long drives for New York to have a chance, and he did just that at the two-minutes warning before halftime. Eight plays, 85 yards. Touchdown pass to Jeremy Shockey's understudy, Kevin Boss. Giants, 21-16, at the half. But ... and this is a bug but ... center Shaun O'Hara's left knee caved in on that last drive. Big problem. O'Hara is easily New York's most valuable lineman, the snapper Manning has gotten most used to and the only one he trusts, and the biggest injury shield for Manning against strong middle rushers like the ones on the Patriots. (He underwent an MRI Sunday, which showed damage to his medial collateral ligament. How much? We'll find out today, when O'Hara tests it.)

And every fan in the stadium who said the Giants should be resting their guys for the playoffs screamed in unison, "I told you so!'' One problem: It's likely O'Hara would have been playing much if not all of the game, because he wasn't hurt going into the game and because he's so vital to Manning's health.

The Giants went up 28-16 on another Manning TD drive early in the third, and the crowd now was ravenous. But this is where Brady is so good. "We got down 10, 11 points in the third quarter,'' Brady said afterward, and he said it twice, not even knowing how much he was down. With 24 minutes left, who knows how many more times New England would get the ball. Three? Four? And you couldn't count on Manning blowing his possessions, not with three touchdown passes and his confidence growing by the minute. Brady started playing pitch and catch with a receiver group he's making more famous by the day, moving from the Patriots 25 to the Giants 16 with five straight completions, then ending it with an unexpected handoff to Laurence Maroney and a 6-yard TD. Giants, 28-23.

Giants punt. Patriots punt. Giants punt. Then the silliest drive of the season happened. Pats' ball at their 35, and after a first-down incompletion, Randy Moss sprinted up the right sideline and beat coverage, but Brady, under pressure, underthrew him and the ball slipped off his fingertips. Third down. Surely Brady would do something to move the chains now, with 11 minutes to go, down 28-23. "The play was supposed to be a clear-out route for Wes [Welker], and it was supposed to go to him for a first down,'' said Moss. In other words, Moss takes two cover guys with him, streaking down the right side, and there's just single coverage on the elusive Welker. "But the Giants' corner and safety both trapped Wes and tried to trap Tommy into throwing it to him.'' At the same time, Giant corner Sam Madison pulled up lame, and safety James Butler was slow to respond. By the time Brady looked up, there was Moss running free up the right side. AGAIN. This time Brady had time, threw it deep and hit Moss right in stride.

Air out of stadium. Stunned disbelief. Record 23rd touchdown catch for Moss. Record 50th touchdown pass for Brady. And, after a two-point conversion, New England led, 31-28.

Manning's only big mistake of the night came when he couldn't afford it to come -- an interception three plays later. They traded touchdowns, and when it was 38-35 with 68 seconds left, the Giants lined up for an onside kick to prolong the agony. When Mike Vrabel recovered, six fans in the east end zone began chanting, "Unde-FEAT-ed! Unde-FEAT-ed!''

As the Patriots moved through the paparazzi scrum on the field toward the locker room, Welker bumped into owner Bob Kraft and said, "How's your heart?''

The hearts of both coaches, and both teams, were large on this night. The night was so noble, so exhilarating. Players who didn't have to play, megastars like Strahan and Brady and Moss, wanted to play. The Patriots for perfection and the Giants for the pride of the game. "There's nothing but positives about tonight,'' said Coughlin, who is not a moral-victory kind of guy but recognized the momentousness of the night. "No negatives come out of this game.''

Usually, a crowd at Giants Stadium is something like a Dodger Stadium crowd. In L.A., fans start leaving in the top of the seventh -- and that might be generous. At Giants Stadium, fans often leave at the first sign of a rout, but they stayed in their seats, largely, when the Patriots went up 38-28. And the TV fans stayed too. The combined 34.5 TV rating was the largest of the season for a football game. Next-highest: Colts-Pats game of the year, with a 33.8 rating

As Saturday turned into Sunday, player-turned-telecaster Cris Collinsworth said the game made him proud to be associated with the game. John Madden thought so much of it that he called Coughlin on Sunday to congratulate him on playing his guys and them playing so well. I heard a few Giants fans harp on the injured players, and I thought: Sad. Just sad. Here's art on a sporting canvas, and some people can't appreciate it.

I did. So did a stiff-upper-lipped losing coach and a quarterback we'll one day acknowledge as one of the five best quarterbacks ever to take a snap. Yes, a night like this doesn't happen often in sports. Cherish it.

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