Even with the breakout seasons of second-year players Cruz (who set a franchise record for receiving yards, with 1,536) and Jason Pierre-Paul (whose 16½ sacks were the most by a Giant since Michael Strahan's 18½ in 2003), New York still entered the final two weeks at 7--7 after a four-game losing streak that tested the bonds Coughlin worked so hard to build. During the bye week following a 4--2 start, director of player development Charles Way invited fighter pilots from Afterburner Inc., a corporate training company, to address the team about the value of "debriefing" sessions. Pilots returning from missions build trust through sessions in which they sit in a room together, stripped of name and rank; each speaks openly about mistakes he made during the mission. Players also received a copy of a book by one of the pilots, James D. Murphy, the title of which expressed the ultimate goal: Flawless Execution.
Soon Manning and Tuck, respectively, were leading offensive and defensive debriefings the day after games. Coaches were not present. Meetings lasted from 20 minutes to an hour. "I wasn't coaching anybody," Manning says. "I was just coaching myself, looking at what I needed to do better and telling everybody. Then everybody would talk about what they needed to do to improve."
Says linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka, "There was a time there when we needed every single minute of [debriefing]. It wasn't about calling people out. It was an opportunity to see everybody hold themselves accountable. The big part of why we're here is that fingers don't get pointed. These kind of teams don't come along very often."
If accountability and execution characterized New York's undefeated run from 7--7, those qualities were beacons during the Super Bowl. The Giants had two fumbles but recovered both. (A third was negated by a New England penalty.) They trailed 10--9 at halftime and by eight early in the third quarter but shut down the Patriots after that. Brady, who at one point completed a Super Bowl--record 16 straight passes, was just 7 of 17 for 75 yards on New England's final three drives, which featured two sacks by Tuck, an interception by backpedaling linebacker Chris Blackburn on a long bomb and a slightly misthrown pass that slipped through the grasp of the normally reliable Wes Welker.
"We've won so many games like this, at the end, [in] the fourth quarter," Coughlin said. "We talk about finishing all the time and winning the fourth quarter, being the stronger team. It happened again tonight."
For the second time in five seasons Coughlin outfoxed Belichick, with whom he worked as an assistant coach on New York's staff from 1988 to '90. The night before the game, Coughlin showed the players a highlight video of their last six weeks, set to In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins. He told them to finish, his buzzword for the 2011 season. He told them championships are won by players who love one another, just as the Giants do. And he told them he loved them. "Tom Coughlin is one hell of a football coach," Jacobs said, simply.
In his early days in New York, Coughlin was viewed as heavy-handed, but now that phrase refers more to his hugs than his demeanor. Before kickoff, as the Giants stretched in lines on the field, Coughlin went up and down each row, embracing his players or delivering handshakes. "I remember hearing Michael Strahan saying that when Coach Coughlin first got there, he wanted to play for anybody else," says Kurt Warner, a quarterback for Coughlin's Giants in 2004. "By the time he retired, he said, 'There was nobody else I wanted to play for.' I don't know if you can say it any better."
After the game, Strahan was in the victorious locker room, which had the vibe of a family reunion. Ann Mara stood next to a Gatorade bucket, accepting handshakes from the players. Her granddaughter, Rooney Mara, the Oscar-nominated star of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, popped in for a visit. Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson, Super Bowl XLII hero David Tyree and the singer Seal mingled with the revelers. Outside the locker room, Olivia Manning sat on a bench, contemplating the possibility of two Manning boys headed to Canton.
"And we have another one on the way," she said. "This is my grandson, Arch Manning. Watch out, world."
Arch, age seven, the son of the eldest Manning brother, Cooper, was wearing a number 10 Giants jersey and would soon join a parade of Mannings and Maras heading out into the cool winter's night. His uncle Eli had arrived in Indianapolis as the youngest son in a quarterbacking dynasty. He would leave as a giant of the NFL.