Thursday, January 26, 2012

Road to Super Bowl XLVI: Giants have been down this path before

While the narrator in Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" may have decided to take the path less traveled, the New York Giants have opted for a different approach on their route to Super Bowl XLVI. Some of the situations in the Giants' current season and the one that ended with a Super Bowl victory on Feb. 3, 2008 are so similar that it almost seems like a foregone conclusion that New York will once again hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy following this year's NFL championship game.

 For starters, both clubs got off to 6-2 starts before hitting a bit of a bump. For the '07 Giants, they dropped two of three games to near the .500 mark before responding with wins in three of their last four outings en route to a 10-6 finish to the regular season. Things got a lot tighter for the latest edition of the G-Men. Their fast start, which included a win over their Super Bowl XLVI opponent New England Patriots on Nov. 13, was nearly snuffed out by a four-game losing streak to heavy-hitters San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Green Bay. The Giants seemed to hit a low point with a 49-24 pounding at the Saints in Week 12, but the real back-breaker could have came the following Sunday, when New York failed to halt a late drive by the then-undefeated Packers en route to a 38-35 home defeat. "Hopefully something that we learn from it is that those are the champs and you have to knock the champs out," defensive end Justin Tuck said after that loss. "You can't let them linger around. You have to knock them out." 

A comeback victory at Dallas in Week 14 looked to get New York back on track, but a tough-to-swallow 23-10 loss to visiting Washington the following week seemed to indicate the Giants -- 7-7 at the time -- were set for a third straight late-season collapse that would cost them a playoff spot. Backs against the wall and needing to win out, the Giants put forth consecutive convincing victories, winning the battle of New York with a 29-14 decision over the Jets 29-14 before sealing the NFC East title with a 31-14 rout of the visiting Cowboys on New Year's Day. 

While both the '07 and '11 Giants have been guided by Eli Manning under center, one difference between the teams has been the big-play ability that wide receiver Victor Cruz has brought to the present squad. The undrafted breakout star torched the Jets for a 99-yard touchdown that put a spark back into New York's season, and then caught a 74-yard scoring pass from Manning in the finale with the Cowboys, one of three thrown by the Giants' quarterback on the day. "I think we had a lot of ups and downs throughout the season," Cruz said after that win. "When our team needed us the most, we responded. We've done some good things. We were able to keep a level head going on a four-game skid. We were able to keep our composure and not get crazy or not start a spatting board with each other."

 The Giants went into the playoffs having already been in elimination mode, and hardly blinked over the first two rounds. Up first was a dominating 24-2 victory over the Wild-Card winning Atlanta Falcons in which the New York defense allowed just 247 yards and helped the offense control the ball for over 34 minutes. That was followed by the Giants avenging their earlier loss to the top-seeded Packers with a 37-20 win in Green Bay.

 Manning threw for three touchdown in passes in both games versus the Packers, with his effort in the Divisional Round coming at Lambeau Field, a place not known to be easy for opposing teams. That victory gave the Giants plenty of confidence going into their showdown with second-seeded San Francisco in the NFC Championship. "Well, considering where we came from, it means everything," defensive end Osi Umenyiora said after the Green Bay win. "Everybody wrote us off. They always do that. So we're just going to keep on fighting and keep on playing hard and hopefully we'll keep things going." That they did, thanks to another gutsy effort from Manning, whose accomplishments this season have helped him once and for all step out of the shadow of big brother Peyton. 

The younger Manning shook off six sacks to help rally the Giants for a 20-17 overtime win over the 49ers, and erased a late four-point deficit with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham with 8:34 left in the fourth quarter. After the Niners forced overtime on a 25-yard field goal with 5:39 remaining in regulation, a Giants' fumble recovery on a punt helped to set up Lawrence Tynes' 31-yard winning field goal. After notching five fourth-quarter wins during the regular season, Manning helped put together another strong finish to become the first player in NFL history to record five road postseason victories. That has him on the verge of grabbing his second Super Bowl championship, which would be one more than future Hall-of-Famer Peyton. "Some of the questions that have come to me about Eli -- we have such great trust in him," said Giants head coach Tom Coughlin. "He stands in there and he'll take the blows. He'll get right back up, he gets right back in the huddle. He's the same positive influence on everybody around him. "He doesn't get real upset and point the finger or want to know what the deal is. I'm sure he does in his mind, but he's never going to show that. He's got a real sense of toughness about him and it's demonstrated by the way in which he plays."

 With eight touchdown passes in the playoffs, Manning looks nothing like the quarterback that was picked off five times over New York's four-game skid, or three times in the late loss to Washington. He looks like a true leader, one who can once again have his team standing tall at season's end. "Guys never quit, never ever have any doubts," Manning said. "They keep believing and fighting until the very end, no matter what the circumstances are." Coughlin agrees that his team's rough and at times seemingly impossible road to the Super Bowl has toughened it up. "They have grit now. They're battle-tested," he remarked. "We've had five straight single-elimination games. Somehow, some way we've found a way to scratch our way to a win. We prepare well. The guys really do know what's at stake." If the Giants look in the mirror, they may very well see a lot of 2007 staring back at them. And that's fine as long as this campaign ends the same: with New York having triumphed over New England in the season's biggest game. Super Bowl XLII featured "The Helmet Catch," a pass from Manning to David Tyree that the wide receiver cradled against his headgear after Manning escaped pressure to give the Giants a first down and lead to the game-winning touchdown in a 17-14 New York victory.

 Who knows what the Giants have in store this time around, but it won't matter as long as it ends in a win. And by the way, the Giants had to knock off the NFC's top-two seeds in the 2007-08 playoffs before besting the then-undefeated Patriots that year. While New England doesn't bring a perfect record into this rematch, New York once again triumphed over the best the conference had to offer to reach this Super Bowl. "It does [feel like 2007] and hopefully we will have the same result," said Umenyiora. "We still have one more game to go, but this is truly unbelievable."

January 26, 2012
| Sports Network