Thursday, February 9, 2012

Greatness Unfolding Right In Front Of Your Eyes

Last night I enjoyed the common rite of passage for people my age and went to my grandmother's apartment to help her with her computer. That part of the experience wasn't particularly difficult or burdensome, but I was a bit taken aback when my grandmother asked me the following question:

"Oh, did you watch the Super Bowl?"

I'm sure my grandmother never actually entertained the thought that I might not have watched a Super Bowl, let alone one with my favorite team since childhood in it. I imagine it was more her way of bringing up the topic, but I think I still seemed amused or at least surprised before I composed myself and let her know that, "Yes, of course I watched the Super Bowl."

But as we now sit four days after the Giants' 21-17 victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI Sunday night, not only have I watched the fourth quarter about five or six times since the game itself, but I've had time to reflect on a title that was pretty remarkable not just in how similar it was to the championship New York took home four years ago -- and it is quite similar -- but also on the differences and what it says about the players involved, in particular Eli Manning, the once much-maligned and now seemingly endlessly-praised quarterback.

Many people will be stuck on the fact that both Giants teams had mediocre regular seasons before sneaking into the playoffs, both faced an undefeated foe in the regular season whom it would lose to by an identical 38-35 score before beating them in the playoffs, both knocked off the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds on the road to reach the Super Bowl, both won an NFC title on an overtime field goal by Lawrence Tynes and both teams defeated the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Those are indeed an overwhelming amount of similarities, eerily so.

But there are significant differences, too, both in perception and in reality. For one, this different have the same mental combination on either sideline. In Super Bowl XLII, part of what made the Giants' upset so incredible was that it came against the first team ever to go 18-0 and, in my mind, the greatest football team I ever saw, at least when it was at peak performance. This was a team loaded with firepower and Bill Belichick for whatever reason he saw fit, let loose the reins during the regular season and set his horses wild. The results were staggering to see, but the modern media does not allow a run at perfection to be undertaken lightly. The Patriots were hit by an enormous amount of pressurized scrutiny and mental strain that clearly weighed down on the team by the time it hit Super Bowl XLII, to the extent that it was physically exhausted and mentally spent.

Sports Illustrated detailed this in an article from two weeks ago that noted by the time the cresting Giants and the exhausted Patriots met in Glendale, Ariz., the Pats were likely no longer the better team. Indeed, there were shades of this in the weeks prior to the championship showdown, as the Giants gutted out a mentally fortifying upset win in Green Bay, while the Patriots sneaked by the Chargers in the AFC bracket. Lost in that victory over San Diego however is the fact that New England was outplayed in the game. The Chargers led after the first quarter, Tom Brady actually threw three interceptions in a sloppy performance and San Diego actually had more scoring drives than New England, a better barometer of who played well than you might think.

This time around the Patriots' mentality was not of the same ilk. Yes, once again they sneaked through an AFC Championship Game they probably shouldn't have won, but while the Pats had won 10 straight, their 13-3 season record meant they didn't have to bear the expectations of perfection this time around. In fact, despite having a worse, albeit still impressive record, New England was probably in a far better, easier state of mind this time around. The Giants, meanwhile were riding the same kind of unexpected emotional wave they rode four years ago, but this team did so with the hindsight of having already accomplished the ultimate goal. That bred a certain type of mental toughness that its forbear developed but did not yet have. This team's confidence was sky high, not quiet and carried an expectation of victory that the 2007 team's did not.

Perhaps more to the point, however, is that the Giants' victory in Super Bowl XLII was a David-and-Goliath matchup that was won on a final drive that was thrilling both for its dramatic intensity and the high stakes, but also for its surprising nature. Again Manning led the Giants down the field for a late game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLVI, but this was of a different nature. It was not an unexpected aw-shucks upset. When Manning took the field with just under four minutes remaining and 88 yards separating his team from the end zone, viewers -- and quite possibly players -- knew that this time there was no pluck-driven miracle afoot. Instead this would be an anticipated manifestation of greatness.

For any indication of the anticipated end result look no further than the broadcast of the final minutes on NBC, all of which was crafted to mold and present the aura of Manning's unflappable fourth-quarter brilliance. Right when Manning takes the field for the final drive NBC immediately shot him from a closeup low angle that made him look as if he was a cool, collected larger-than-life cowboy marching onto the plains to survey all that is his. And what's more, announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth speak of him as if his reputation is so established that a touchdown is a foregone conclusion.

Herein lies the dramatic difference between this game and four years ago. Juxtapose NBC's presumed conquering hero motif with FOX's Little Engine that will try to answer greatness but won't, and you see a dramatic difference in how we as fans or of American football intelligentsia view and interpret the skills, gumption and likelihood of success for Manning. FOX shoots him straight on as he enters the field, jogging to waiting teammates and looking like an adorable kid whose wide-eyed optimism is set to be dashed. In these two moments we see the truest example of growth not just for Manning but in those around us. Four years apart he has gone from a young dreamer who has a brief brush with greatness, to a legend of which greatness is expected -- and the moment that certified it developed right in front of us on Sunday night.

It is a truly remarkable transition for a player, who despite having a fourth-quarter Super Bowl-winning drive in his back pocket once already, was left off a player-determined list of the top 100 in the NFL last season behind other luminary quarterbacks like Joe Flacco and Josh Freeman. Perhaps this was because some still viewed his calm, cool demeanor as less cucumber and more childlike, as he continues even after Super Bowl XLVI to look adorably unintimidating in any photo he takes. But now the controversies are not about whether Eli Manning's star is overrated due to one game played four years ago. His remarkable 2011 season, which happened to come right after I traded him from my fantasy team, quelled those concerns with impressive numbers and numerous fourth quarter comebacks (as well as two others against Seattle and San Francisco that were botched).

Instead now the furor is over his Hall of Fame credentials, an almost unthinkable idea before the season. These days those who say he isn't yet destined for Canton are being rebutted with the furor of other sportswriters and New York talk radio, even if their arguments are probably right for the time being. The point is that four years ago, Giants fans got a brief taste of glory that appeared to many like a flash in the pan. This time around, when Manning reaffirmed his greatness on the game's biggest stage, it was a turning point in that while he will still face questions, those questions will be of a completely different sort from here on out.

Those of us who sat in front of our televisions Sunday night will always know that we got to see why.

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