Tuesday, January 17, 2012

So I Had A Pretty Good Weekend If You Didn't Notice

Let's put it simply folks. There are roughly nine different sports teams in the world that I pay fairly close attention to. They are in no particular order of significance, the New York Giants, New York Mets, New York Knicks, New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks, Northwestern University football team, Northwestern University basketball team, Southampton FC and Geelong FC.

Of those nine, six of them currently play a sport that is still in season, and all six of them played this past weekend. In an unfortunate -- and fairly embarassing -- performance in Oklahoma City Saturday night, the 'Bockers were unable to come away with a victory against Kevin Durant and company, a team that, given its very legitimate championship aspirations, isn't so much a shame to lose to as it is a shame to lose to them in the complete and utter manner the Knicks did.

However, if we can look past the unfortunate performance of the Knicks this past weekend, we can see the following: The Devils, in a Saturday afternoon in Winnipeg, rallied to beat the Jets for their fourth win in five games. The Blackhawks rebounded from an overtime loss in Detroit Saturday to knock off the Sharks, who might be the hottest team in hockey, Sunday evening. On Saturday, Southampton waltzed into Nottingham Forest and came away with a 3-nil victory that keeps them tied with West Ham atop the nPower Championship standings and inching closer and closer to finally returning to the Premier League. And perhaps, most notably of all these teams, my dear alma mater, Northwestern, still seeking its first elusive berth in the NCAA Tournament, pulled off the signature win it may have needed to beef up its tournament resume, shocking No. 7 Michigan State at Welsh-Ryan Arena Saturday night, just days after barely falling to No. 13 Michigan in Ann Arbor in overtime.

So so far we're doing pretty well.

Oh, right. Then there's the Giants. Now, when I said earlier that I listed those teams in no particular order, there is one spot in the hierarchy that I should probably make exceedingly clear. I began rooting for the New York Giants when I was eight years old. While I had declared myself a Mets fans a few years prior, the efficacy was minute at best. Big Blue, on the other hand was the first team I ever fell in love with. Seeing them succeed, in many ways, is what makes me go between the months of September and January. And this weekend they succeeded in a big damn way, absolutely stunning the 15-1 No. 1-seeded and consensus best team in football Green Bay Packers Sunday night at Lambeau Field in a 37-20 victory that was not just a playoff victory, but utterly and completely dominant.

And as a result, I spent the rest of the night listening to "San Francisco" by Scott McKenzie on repeat because the New York Giants are headed to the Bay Area to face the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.

Now, I need to try and keep myself in check because thoughts of excitement and glory are starting to run away with my rational side this week, but frankly, it's hard not to get excited about the way the Giants are playing, because in many facets they look as though despite their 9-7 regular season, they are the most complete, confident football team left in the NFL postseason. And considering how closely they played the 49ers earlier this season in a game they could, or perhaps should have won -- trust me, I was there -- I'm feeling pretty good about the trip across the country this weekend for New York.

Earning that trip to San Francisco comes as a thanks to just about everyone on the team, which put together what might have been one of the best efforts I've ever seen from it. But there are certainly a few obvious game balls to give out -- namely to Hakeem Nicks, who was unstoppable when he caught the ball, Eli Manning, who was brilliant once again, tossing for nearly 300 yards in the first half alone, and perhaps more than anyone else, Ahmad Bradshaw, who may have made the two smartest plays of the game. The first of those came in the final minute of the first half when Bradshaw, after hitting his cutback lane inside, immediately raced the Packers defense to the right sideline to stop the clock with six seconds left, setting up Manning's unbelievable hail mary pass to Nicks, which may have been more responsible than anything else for taking the wind out of Green Bay's sails. The second came in the fourth quarter when the Giants, holding a 10 point lead in the closing minutes, were driving down the field and Bradshaw made another cutback to the right side to pick up a huge amount of yardage, but this time stayed in bounds to allow the clock to roll.

The defense, too, had a solid performance, forcing four turnovers, getting four sacks and featuring a bravura performance out of Osi Umenyiora, who appears at long last to have his legs under him after nursing injuries most of the season. And what may be becoming more and more apparent is that Tom Coughlin is, simply, a tremendous, tremendous coach. Once players buy into his system, he manages to push the right buttons and instill the necessary confidence to force deep playoff runs against teams that New York probably should not be beating. He did it four years ago, and now it is looking eerily similar, as this group, much like the 2007 squad, is overcoming a relatively mediocre regular season to crest at just the right time.

This is not to say the 49ers are slouches. Their tremendous season of rebirth cannot be overlooked, and considering that they've already beaten the Giants this season, it's foolhardy to consider this game a walk. Indeed, it's anything but and the Niners are the early favorites according to Vegas, particularly with their home field and their incredible win over the Saints on Saturday. I'll withhold any predictions until this weekend, but we appear to be in for a good one.

In addition to that, we may be in for a familiar one. The Giants and 49ers have some impressive collective postseason history, meeting 7 times in the past 30 years, with the winner going on to win the Super Bowl four times. This meeting, the eighth, ties the mark for most postseason meetings between two teams in history. The last time they met -- and indeed the last time San Francisco had won a postseason game before this past weekend -- was an afternoon I'd rather not remember when the Giants completed one of the greatest collapses in postseason history, allowing a 24-point lead to slip away before a disastrous final botched field goal that was so insanely botched by both the Giants and the refs that it should never be spoken of ever again.

Instead, I'd like to remember the last time they met for it all in the NFC title game. That one came 21 years ago when I was too young to actually remember it, as the Giants ended the 49ers hopes of a first-ever Super Bowl three-peat by knocking out Joe Montana, containing Jerry Rice, inducing a fumble in the final minutes by Roger Craig and setting up Matt Bahr to pound his fifth field goal of the day through the uprights as time expired in a classic 15-13 upset at Candlestick Park.

There are many sporting events I wish I saw or was old enough to remember in my life, and that was unmistakably one of them. For now, I'll just have to settle for the helpful denizens of YouTube who make sure to have footage of every seminal sports moment from my youth online in perpetuity for free, including the thrilling conclusion to Super Bowl XXV a week after that NFC Championship Game, in which the Giants upset the Bills in an almost eerily similar finish with the two notable exceptions that the Bills were the ones setting up a game-winning field goal, and that they missed.

I wouldn't mind having another memory like those last two this Sunday against the 49ers, one that I'll replay in my head for far too long than is acceptable for a mature, professional adult, particularly one in my line of work. And really, on the whole, I just wouldn't mind having another weekend quite like this one.

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