The Giants, starting with their quarterback, are one smart team.
Last week, Eli Manning's backup for three years at Ole Miss, Seth Smith, had a game-tying double in game four of the American League Division Series for Oakland against Detroit. "You call me a quarterback, and you should use that word loosely,'' Smith said Saturday. "I was never a threat to win the job from Eli. I was never close to playing. He was in another league.'' Smith, it seemed, had much in common with Manning, though -- the ability to treat a ninth-inning playoff at-bat with 50,000 screaming fans watching the same as a March at-bat in Arizona. "You have to be able to forget about the pitcher, the pitch, the situation, the crowd, everything -- except concentrating on seeing the ball and doing what you've done all your life. That's what the good ones do, anyway. I really do enjoy watching Eli late in big games, in games like the Super Bowl, because that's obviously what he does --block out everything and just play.''
"What I say,'' Manning said after the 26-3 win in San Francisco, "and it sounds bad, but you've got to understand what I mean, is you've got to care enough not to care. You do your best and live with the results."
This was a hornet's nest game for the Giants. Some Niners talked in the offseason and during the week before the game about being the superior team in the NFL title game last year, which the Giants won thanks to two muffed punts by San Francisco's Kyle Williams. Clearly, the 49ers felt they were the better team. And with a fortified offense in the offseason and all 11 starters returning on defense, who could blame the Niners for feeling like they were the better team? Then Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride late in the week, while praising San Francisco defensive star Justin Smith, said he "gets away with murder'' with excessive holds that aren't called, prompting San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh to fire back Friday. So the Niners were the hot team coming in, and the angry team, and the motivated team.
The Giants were the smart team. Tom Coughlin is fond of saying, "We'll never not be able to run the ball,'' and Gilbride had that in mind when designing the gameplan. In the first half, Manning would move it with quick passes and just enough running to keep the Niners off-balance up front. Once they got the lead -- if they got the lead -- Manning would lean on Ahmad Bradshaw, suddenly the NFL's hottest back. And that's exactly how it worked.
Giants' first-half offensive production: 176 yards passing, 23 yards rushing.
Giants' second-half offensive production: 17 yards passing, 126 yards rushing.
"The offensive line did a great job in establishing the line of scrimmage,'' Manning said. "I didn't want a game where we threw it 64 times again. [Manning had 64 pass drops in the NFC title game last year, taking six sacks and seven additional knockdowns.] That's not the way you want to play this team. You can't live in the shotgun against them. You mix up some quick [passes] with the runs, and that gives you a chance.''
Manning knew that by running, the 49ers could move one of their two safeties down toward the line, giving him the chance to throw against quarters coverage -- four defenders across the back, with chances for his wideouts to be singled-- instead of two-deep coverage, with two safeties over the top, meaning his receivers would always have a second man over the top of them.
What was a huge help, obviously, was the revival of a slumping pass rush. The Giants sacked the quarterback six times and forced Alex Smith into some bad throws downfield, including three interceptions. He's been a smart quarterback all year, but it's hard to be smart and productive with Jason Pierre-Paul breathing down your neck. It helped, too, that the Giants read what the 49ers were saying. And even if it wasn't more than the garden-variety pre-game quotings, Coughlin could use it to his advantage. "We read them talking about how they should have won the game last year,'' said Manning, "and that got us fired up.''
Well, San Francisco should have won the game last year. But you know what they say about shouldas and wouldas. The Giants have the Super Bowl trophy at the Meadowlands, and now they have the satisfaction of knowing they were the better team, and not by a little bit, when they met for the rematch.
My Ten Dot-Dot-Dot Items of the Week.
I'm told the Ravens fear the worst, a torn triceps for Ray Lewis and torn ACL for Lardarius Webb, when they read the results of their MRIs today. But I do think defensive tackle Haloti Ngata plays Sunday at Houston. How'd you like to be going to Houston, who are coming off that loss to Green Bay, down three or four key defensive guys? At least Terrell Suggs could return to practice Wednesday ... Really like Pat Shurmur's approach with his young players in Cleveland: "You've got to coach a young team differently. You've got to go through the process, go through everything, thoroughly. Everything is hard. You have to encourage and inspire them, and then, behind the scenes, you have to coach them hard. It's a different mindset than with a veteran group. Prior to winning this game against Cincinnati, we've been better; we've been scoring a touchdown more per week than we did a year ago. But you can't stand up on Mondays and keep telling people we're better -- you've got to start winning games.'' ... Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd had interceptions of both Arizona quarterbacks, including his pick of John Skelton that set up the game-winning field goal, and credited Chan Gailey and defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt for not panicking in the week leading up to the game. "We got buried two straight weeks in the second half,'' Byrd told me. "But look at our first halfs. Not bad. We knew we could play like that for a full game.'' ... Mario Williams lives: 65 snaps, two sacks, one quarterback knockdown. Granted, it was against the worst set of tackles in the NFL, but production is production ...
Detroit coach Jim Schwartz was as ebullient as I've ever seen him after the Lions' comeback win in Philly, but an hour later, he was clinical discussing the meaning of getting to 2-3 and staying in the NFC North race. "We're fine,'' he said. "We're fine. I don't look at this as a defining moment. Last year, the Giants lost four in a row and five of six and they went on to win the Super Bowl. The year before, Green Bay lost three out of four -- twice. We lost three out of four. So what? You fight, you improve, you play. We're fine.'' I checked his math, by the way. Schwartz is right about both the '10 Packers and '11 Giants ... Great fake punt calls by Mike Westhoff/Rex Ryan with the Jets and Darren Rizzi/Joe Philbin with the Dolphins ... In Atlanta, the Falcons enter the bye 6-0, and Mike Smith wants his players to scram. "Usually on a victory Monday,'' Smith told me, "we'll have 70, 80 percent of the players come in anyway to watch film on their own, which is great,'' he said. "But I want them to unplug totally for a few days. Get away.'' Smith on being 6-0: "I'm really not surprised, but I know we all feel we haven't played our best football." The Raiders could easily have beaten Atlanta in the Georgia Dome Sunday ... Adam Teicher of the Kansas City Star countered the report out Sunday that Scott Pioli has been in discussions with the team on a two-year contract extension. As I said on NBC Sunday night, I can confirm the debunking -- I'm told Pioli and Chiefs owner Clark Hunt haven't been talking contract ... Green Bay wideout James Jones is the most underrated receiver in football. What hands ... Guess who's first in the NFL in completion percentage (70.2), second in average yards per pass attempt (8.34) and third in passer rating (100.5)? Robert Griffin III.
If Alex Karras had been born half a century later, he'd have been a star on Warren Sapp's level -- even brighter.
Think of the things Karras, who died last week at 77, did as a football player and entertainer:
1. He was All-Pro four times, and a member of the All-Decade team of the '60s as a Detroit defensive tackle. Green Bay guard Jerry Kramer said Karras and Merlin Olsen were the two best tackles he ever had to block. During the week of one Lions-Packers game, Kramer wrote in his best-selling book Instant Replay: "I think about him morning, noon and night -- even when I'm watching TV."
2. He was so angry at Lions quarterback Milt Plum for throwing a game-turning interception that allowed the Packers to come back to beat the Lions in 1962 that, in the locker room, he took his helmet off and flung it at Plum's head, missing him by inches. And admitted doing it.
3. He was suspended for the 1963 season for gambling on football games, and was eternally bitter at commissioner Pete Rozelle for what he thought was overreacting to a penny-ante hobby. But when his first son was born, Karras sidled up to Detroit News beat man Jerry Green, according to Greene, and said, laughing, "Know what we named him? Alvin.'' That was Rozelle's first name.
4. He got into the wrestling ring with probably the most noted professional wrestler of his day, Dick The Bruiser, while suspended. And he actually fought Dick The Bruiser in a Detroit bar -- no joke -- a couple of days before the match.
5. He once overpowered Kramer, the author of the book about life inside the Packers dynasty, and slammed into Bart Starr, and on the way back to the Lions huddle said to Kramer: "Put that in your f-----g book."
6. He was the third man in the booth for Monday Night Football for three seasons after retiring, occasionally singing off-key and coming up with some of the best lines in MNF history ... such as saying the frighteningly bald Raider Otis Sistrunk hailed from "the University of Mars."
7. He was an accomplished actor. One of the three or four funniest movies for men of a certain age (like me) was Mel Brooks' 1974 hit Blazing Saddles. In the movie, Karras played a slow-witted outlaw named Mongo, who punched out a horse and delivered the most famous line in the movie: "Mongo only pawn ... [pause for comedic effect] in game of life."
8. He played a closeted gay man, Squash Bernstein, in Victor Victoria, a 1982 musical comedy. He played himself in the movie adaptation of George Plimpton's Paper Lion. He played the lead role, a dad, in the 1980s sitcom Webster.
9. He joined the scores of lawsuits against the NFL for not doing enough to raise awareness for head trauma late in life, his final years ruined by dementia.
10. He has a heck of a case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, all Hollywood and broadcasting stuff aside, and I hope the Hall of Fame selection committee has a chance to consider him as a seniors candidate during one of the upcoming election meetings.