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Posted: Sunday January 11, 2009 7:42PM; Updated: Monday January 12, 2009 1:20AM
Tim Layden Tim Layden >
INSIDE THE NFL

These Giants were less than Super

Story Highlights

The Giants started to slip even before a win in Week 13 made them 11-1

Injuries and the loss of Plaxico Burress contributed to the Giants' downfall

Last season, the Giants were healthy and played their best in the playoffs

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There was no confetti falling on Eli Manning as he left the field after his final game this season.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Memory of Eli Manning just less than a year ago: He is standing in a lobby-level restaurant at the New York Giants' team hotel in the tourist desert outside Phoenix. Music is playing loudly and fans are clamoring for a glimpse inside. Friends and family are toasting a second consecutive Manning Super Bowl victory, this one far more improbable than the last. Two months earlier Manning was struggling to prove himself worthy of playing quarterback for the Giants and now he is at the top of his profession, singing 'New York, New York' with his brother Cooper and just riding a wave.

Memory of Eli Manning just past five o'clock Sunday evening: He is walking up the ramp of a loading dock and into the gathering darkness of a cold winter night. There is no music and precious few fans are clamoring for anything. He is walking with his father, Archie, and with Cooper, but none of them are toasting anything. Most assuredly, none of them are singing.

Super Bowl history is relentlessly compelling. It defines careers and franchises. It will be said often in the coming days that the Giants, who were beaten on their home field, 23-11, Sunday afternoon by the Philadelphia Eagles, were dethroned as Super Bowl champions. If that is accurate, it is also misleading. Those Giants, the ones who beat the Patriots early last February to end the longest unbeaten season in NFL history, have been dead for a long time, a name etched on the trophy and little more.

In the aftermath, they said what beaten champions are supposed to say.

Manning: "Just disappointing.''

Offensive guard Rich Seubert: "This is tough. We let our fans down. We let ourselves down.''

Defensive end Justin Tuck: "Our goal every year is to win the Super Bowl.''

Yet there was a palpable sense of resignation in the Giants' losing locker room. Athletes are skilled at willing themselves to believe that anything is possible, but they also understand reality in ways that fans do not. A year ago, the Giants played their best in January and their best of all in the Super Bowl, a rare and precious achievement.

In 2008, they peaked in November, when they beat Dallas, Philadelphia, Baltimore (a 30-10 beatdown of the toughman Ravens in which the Giants rushed for more than 200 yards), Arizona and, three days after Thanksgiving, the Redskins, 23-7, at FedEx Field in suburban D.C. The last win left the Giants with an 11-1 record for the first time in franchise history. Superficially, a repeat Super Bowl seemed possible. In fact, the Giants were already sliding.

The Redskins' victory came less than 48 hours after gifted and troublesome wideout Plaxico Burress shot himself in a Manhattan nightclub. He did not play in that game and was permanently gone from the Giants before they took the field to play a rematch against the Eagles on Dec. 7 in New Jersey. Without Burress to dictate coverages and provide Manning with an outlet against blitzes, the Giants lost three of their next four games. The only win was in overtime against Carolina on Dec. 21 to secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC, a hollow victory in retrospect. (And, in fairness, the Giants sat regulars in a season-ending loss to Minnesota).

Asked about Burress's absence after the game, Giants' coach Tom Coughlin said, "I don't think it has a whole lot to do with that.''

But general manager Jerry Reese was less certain. "The guy [Burress] has a presence out there. When you lose that, teams play you differently. Your margin of error is less when you lose that presence.''

Eagles' veteran safety Brian Dawkins concurred. "When [Burress] isn't there, there is a huge part of their offense taken away. The ability of him and Eli to be on the same page ... if he has one-on-one over there, they feel he is going to win that battle nine times out of 10.''

Burress was literally missing. So were defensive linemen Osi Umenyiora (injured in training camp) and Michael Strahan (retired). Others were simply not whole. Linebacker Antonio Pierce, who was questioned by police for his role in the Burress Affair, struggled down the stretch. On Sunday, he was flagged for two important penalties on drives that led to 10 Philadelphia points. And he was the only key Giants' player to leave the locker room without speaking to reporters.

Tailback Brandon Jacobs was injured for much of the last five games. Tuck, who took apart the Patriots' offensive line in the Super Bowl, was hurting on Sunday against the Eagles. NFL teams accept injuries as part of the cost of doing business, but the Giants who upset the Patriots were healthy and complete in December, a stroke of good fortune.

It should be said that they might have beaten the Eagles, and their fans will autopsy a number of plays and issues.

• Midway through the first quarter, Manning threw a horrific interception deep in his own territory. Pressured up the middle, Manning threw high and late over the middle to a wide-open Domenik Hixon and the pass sailed to cornerback Asante Samuel, who was sitting deep and outside. The Eagles took a 7-3 lead four plays later when Donovan McNabb snuck in from the one, and that was one touchdown more than the Giants would score all day.

"Just threw it high,'' Manning said afterward. "You can't throw high over the middle. There's a good chance it's going to be intercepted.'' (This is gospel in the Manning household: Eli's big brother once told me the same thing when he was a sophomore at Tennessee, as if it's stuck by a magnet to the family fridge).

• Trailing, 20-11, with 12:39 to play in the game and facing fourth down and less than a yard to go on the Giants' 44-yard-line, Manning was stopped on a quarterback sneak. ``They had everybody up on the gaps,'' said Seubert.

But more to the point, why wasn't the ball in the hands of the 265-pound Jacobs? "Coach calls the plays,'' said Jacobs. "I just go out and run what's called.''

• Still trailing, 20-11, with more than six minutes to play, the Giants had another fourth down, this time with two yards to go on their own 47. And this time they gave the ball to Jacobs. He was stopped a yard short.

The play was a snapshot that summarized a season. A year ago Jacobs converted a crucial fourth down on the Super Bowl-winning drive, running to the right behind center Sean O'Hara, right guard Chris Snee and right tackle Kareem McKenzie. The play is seldom recalled because David Tyree's miracle catch and Burress's game-winning catch came soon after, but it was as critical as any of them.

This time Jacobs again ran right, looking for space. O'Hara led, along with fullback Madison Hedgecock. But there was no space and no room. Only Eagles, soon celebrating. And, one year later, that is an entirely different sort of memory.

 
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