It took a moment for Ahmad Bradshaw to process what he was hearing. With just over a minute to play, the Giants trailed 17--15 and were six yards from the go-ahead touchdown in Super Bowl XLVI. The 5'10", 214-pound running back took a handoff from Eli Manning and shot toward a hole that looked as if it had been opened with the jaws of life. No sooner had he tucked the ball against his body, however, than the quarterback yelled two words that Bradshaw likely had never heard in all his years of football: "Don't score!"
Huh? The crowd at Indianapolis's Lucas Oil Stadium was rocking, so maybe he hadn't heard correctly. Then it hit him: Rather than run for a touchdown and give the ball to the Patriots with a minute left, why not stop, take a knee and run the clock down? Lawrence Tynes's gimme field goal would put the Giants up 18--17, and Tom Brady would have only about 20 seconds to get his team in field goal range. By the time it all registered—that he shouldn't score, that New England was conceding the touchdown to get the ball back—Bradshaw was at the two. He planted his right foot inside the one and tried to kneel, but his momentum carried him, backside first, across the goal line. Giants 21, Patriots 17.
Coach Tom Coughlin said he didn't send in instructions not to score. Manning considered the idea. "I made a mistake by not telling him beforehand," Manning would say later. "You hate leaving it up to a field goal where so many bad things could happen. But you want to take time off the clock. I should have said something in the huddle, but I didn't think of it. I thought about yelling back to him before we snapped the ball but I didn't want to confuse things."
The decision wasn't costly—in the remaining 57 seconds Brady could only move the Pats to their own 49-yard line, and his Hail Mary fell to the turf as time expired. But it wasn't the first time in Super Bowl history that two units were faced with the question of whether to do the exact opposite of everything they stand for. Super Bowl XXXII was tied at 24 with 1:47 when the Packers intentionally allowed Broncos running back Terrell Davis to score from the one-yard line. Brett Favre then got Green Bay as far as the Denver 31 before the drive stalled with 28 seconds remaining.
The logic may make sense, but swallowing it is tough—on both sides of the ball. "It killed me," says linebacker Brandon Spikes. "When the call came in to let them score, I was like, 'What?' I'm here to do a job, and it's my job to play the defense, and [on this occasion] let them score. It was tough, though. It definitely was tough."
Expecting Bradshaw to stop short of the goal line was, in some respects, not just counterintuitive but cruel. For much of the year New York struggled to run the ball at all. The Giants' rushing attack ranked last in the league in yards per game (89.2) and per carry (3.5). Now they had a chance for their easiest gain of the year, one that could seal a Super Bowl victory, and Bradshaw was supposed to take a knee? "I don't even know why he tried that," says running mate Brandon Jacobs. "We score touchdowns, we don't burn the clock. You try to be a team player, but our job is to score touchdowns."
The run game's struggles could be traced to injuries to Bradshaw and Jacobs, as well as a heavier reliance on the pass—New York's 411 regular-season rushing attempts were the team's fewest since 1960—but the Giants knew they would have to pose a threat on the ground in the postseason to have a shot at another title. They ran for 172 yards in their playoff opener against the Falcons and had a healthy 114 yards on 28 carries on Sunday. Bradshaw led with 72 yards on 17 carries; his touchdown was the game's only rushing score, awkward though it was.
And while he couldn't fully enjoy the moment, having given Brady 57 seconds—a millennium—to work with, his teammates were not as nervous. "We believe in our defense," said Jacobs. "New England never had a big-play offense [in the game]. They throw it for six yards, throw it for five for the first down. They throw the checkdown, first down. With 57 seconds they were going to need a big play to beat us. That wasn't going to happen."
In the locker room afterward, Bradshaw talked about the Giants' seasonlong mantra: Finish. The exhortation applied to an assignment, to a play or to a game. And in Bradshaw's case it applied to the biggest run of his life.