SI Vault
Tim Layden
February 13, 2008
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February 13, 2008

Perfectly Imperfect


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THIS TIME THE CELEBRATION WAS FOR THE YOUNGEST CHILD OF A FOOTBALL FAMILY AND FOR THE TEAM HE HELPED CARRY TO AN UNLIKELY CHAMPIONSHIP. A YEAR AGO IN MIAMI, ELI MANNING HAD SEEN HIS OLDER BROTHER PEYTON TRANSFORMED BY A SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONSHIP. HE HAD SEEN PEYTON WALK INTO HIS OWN VICTORY PARTY SO BLISSFULLY SATISFIED THAT the moment found a place in Eli's soul and changed him as well. "It put a hunger inside me," Eli says. "You always want to win, but after that I felt like I wanted it even more." And now, so soon afterward, it would be his turn.

A second-floor restaurant at the New York Giants' team hotel outside Phoenix had become a thrumming nightclub into early Monday morning, a steady bass beat providing the backdrop to the unmistakable buzz of victory shared with friends and family at another Manning Super Bowl celebration. One floor below, some Giants players and a horde of the team's supporters filled a massive ballroom for another party, and outside in the night a long line of cars snaked nearly the full two miles from the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort in Chandler, Ariz., to Interstate 10 as the desert sky spit raindrops and high winds buffeted the sagebrush along the highway. Drivers wore Big Blue jerseys and wanted only a piece of the delirium.

It was to have been a historic night. The New England Patriots would win their 19th consecutive game and become only the second NFL team, along with the 1972 Miami Dolphins, to complete a season unbeaten and untied. They would fortify the legacy of a modern professional dynasty with a fourth Super Bowl title in seven years. They would prove themselves perfect.

Instead, the Giants completed an unexpected and emotional postseason run with a 17-14 victory in Super Bowl XLII. It was history cut from another cloth, a performance built on the sturdy underpinnings of a ferocious defensive effort, sustained when quarterback Manning and wide receiver David Tyree combined on one of the most memorable plays in NFL history and sealed when Manning threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds to play. The game will take its place not only as the second-greatest upset in a Super Bowl—behind the New York Jets' epic 16-7 defeat of the Baltimore Colts in January 1969—but also as the culmination of a season in which a team, a quarterback and a coach found themselves linked by a deep resilience and rode it to the top of their sport.

Here in the afterglow Manning, the game's MVP, worked the room, bouncing among groups of friends: those from Isidore Newman, his New Orleans high school; from Ole Miss, where he played his college ball; and from New York. His mother, Olivia, stood talking with Eli's fianc�e, Abby McGrew. Peyton remained in the back of the room, ceding the stage to Eli. "It's just surreal," Eli said over the noise. Past midnight he joined with his oldest brother, Cooper, and together they sang. The selection, of course, was New York, New York.

THROUGHOUT THE WEEK LEADING UP TO Super Bowl XLII, the Giants were loose, the Patriots smooth yet practiced. For Tom Brady, coach Bill Belichick, wideouts Randy Moss and Wes Welker, linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau, this was another day at work. The Super Bowl would be either a coronation or a colossal upset; it would not simply be an NFL title game. The Patriots had spent the entirety of their 16-0 regular season, including a riveting 38-35 win over the Giants on Dec. 29, and their run through the AFC playoffs denying their pursuit of history, but that larger task defined the game. Some of the New England players even admitted it. "You have to finish," Seau said in midweek. "You have to finish, or it doesn't count to be in that 'great' group."

The Giants, who were 10-6 in the regular season and the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs, slowly grew sick of their role. "Everywhere you went, it was all about the Patriots and 19-0," said cornerback R.W. McQuarters after the game. "We go into the city, and there's Tom Brady on the buildings. We get to the stadium today, and there's a Super Bowl program in our locker, and it's like a Tom Brady magazine. We come out to warm up, and Tom Brady is on the big screen. It's like Tom Brady was everywhere."

In the December home loss to New England, New York gave up 22 points in the final 19 minutes; Brady passed for 356 yards, including a 65-yard bomb to Moss for the go-ahead score. But the Giants' defensive front—ends Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and the unit's veteran leader, Michael Strahan, and tackles Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins—had pressured Brady all night, despite sacking him only once. "We did some things really well against them the first time," said Tuck. "We just didn't get him on the ground."

They did on Sunday. Mixing A-gap blitzes from weak-side linebacker Kawika Mitchell with steady four-man pressure from the line, the Giants brought relentless heat to the highest-scoring offense in NFL history. New York had five sacks and hit Brady nine other times. Central to the effort was Tuck's constant movement, making it difficult for Brady to identify where the rush was likely to come from. ("The Jets did that to them near the end of the season, and it looked like Brady had a hard time," said Tuck). The Giants manhandled the Patriots' offensive line, which includes three Pro Bowl players, and limited tailback Laurence Maroney, who had 244 rushing yards over two playoff games, to 36 yards on the ground. All-Pro left tackle Matt Light was beaten repeatedly by Umenyiora and spooked into two false starts in the second half.

The upshot of all this defense—New England's unit also played solidly—was a brutal game in which, after the Patriots took a 7-3 lead on the first play of the second quarter, the two teams went 33 minutes, 52 seconds without scoring, a Super Bowl record. Then they played a 15-minute masterpiece, compressing a night's drama into the fourth quarter.

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