Monday, February 6, 2012

So, All In All, I Had A Pretty Good Day Yesterday

Kids, I know you've all seen me write in here about what I like to call "Hat Trick Nights" -- a day when any three teams I like win in a 24-hour period. It's not as common as you'd think, and I have, once or twice, experienced the opposite effect, but yesterday, I had a hat trick night and my sweet lord, it was probably the hat trick night to end all hat trick nights.

It all started earlier in the day when the Devils managed to beat up the division-rival Penguins for their fourth win in a row, not too shabby an achievement considering three of those wins came against teams ahead of them in their own division. That was a nice start and Northwestern, in the midst of a highly disappointing basketball season and with little time to turn it around for a potential first-ever NCAA bid, somehow managed to knock off Illinois at Assembly Hall for the first time since 1999. And really, with those two games in my back pocket, my day was going pretty well.

And then the Giants won the Super Bowl.


You'll have to excuse me for writing sporadically, but really, it is taking quite a bit of time to sink in. It isn't often that your favorite team since early childhood across all sports wins two championships in a span of five years with each coming on last-minute rallies against favored opponents and vindicates their much-maligned star player in the prospect. But sometimes it happens. And when it happens, it's pretty sweet even if some people don't quite know how to handle it and the winning score came accidentally after being foretold by a commercial earlier in the game. The feeling is all the more remarkable given the mediocre streakiness of a season that saw the Giants lose 5 of six games at one point, lose twice to the Redskins of all teams and suffer multiple injuries that had me optimistic but clearly still anxious way back in August even.

Of course in this situation, what makes the feeling so great, oftentimes, is not just the fact that my favorite team won, but the way in which they did it. I wouldn't characterize this one as quite the same gut-wrenching experience as watching the Giants sneak past the 49ers in San Francisco two weeks ago, but much of the game was an angst-inducing tenuous seesaw that finally saw New York pull out a championship, as it had many times before, in a fashion that wasn't pretty but required a certain level of mental toughness and clutch calmness that has slowly become the trademark of a championship hardened team.

There were dozens of wild and crazy moments throughout the game that turned the tide one way or the other, and I'll try to hit on as many interesting ones as I can in here, but it's nearly impossible to cover all of it.

Still, here goes nothing.

The biggest story of all, and frankly, I hate bringing it up because anyone who watches football knew long ago the whole idea that Eli wasn't a great quarterback was completely bunk, is that Manning can have no legitimate detractor that honestly believes he isn't among the best signal callers on the planet, even if he does come off a little too ho-humish. In fact, we almost have the exact opposite issue now of people thinking Eli Manning is so good that he's been around forever as ESPNNEWS tried to convince us last night. Even if this graphic isn't technically wrong, it's certainly at least a little misleading.

Not only are we now aware that Manning's calm, reasoned demeanor is absolutely perfect for managing a fourth quarter drive in the final minutes, but he's also smart enough to realize when off-beat strategy might best serve his interests. Look no further than the Giants' utterly bizarre clinching touchdown in which Ahmad Bradshaw accidentally sat down in the end zone for the winning score after being unable to stop his own momentum at the one yard line. As Bradshaw attempted to stop himself from getting the winning points it was Manning yelling at him not to enter the end zone because in this completely bizarre backwards moment, Manning knew New England was letting him score in hopes of getting the ball back with more time left. That logic might seem somewhat backwards at first, too, and it's not the first time someone has tried it in a Super Bowl after Mike Holmgren tried the same trick with the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII, but a deeper look at probability shows what Patriots coach Bill Belichick must have assumed -- because they were about to get the ball back, New England's chances of winning the game actually increased by nearly 10 % when Bradshaw scored.

Of course, what makes Eli so great is not just his brain, but his skill and moxie, which were also on full display when he nailed Mario Manningham -- who made an equally as incredible catch -- on the play of the game, a 38-yard pass up the left sideline to start off New York's game-winning drive. As was noted by Chris Brown on Grantland, Manningham wasn't the designed target of the play -- in fact, the throw shouldn't have been made at all given the riskiness -- but Manning's brilliance made it work.

In addition to those remarkable moments, however, numerous other things come to mind when looking at this game, among them the realizations that New York's front four actually underperformed for most of the game before coming through in a big way on the final drive. Jason Pierre-Paul may be the exception to them, though Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora also made their presences felt. JPP in particular was instrumental on pressuring Tom Brady on the final hail mary of the game, which may have caused the throw to be rushed, keeping Rob Gronkowski too far away to make a play on it after the initial deflection.

Gronkowski, meanwhile, after all of the gamesmanship regarding his injury the past two weeks, was clearly not healthy and a virtual nonfactor both as a producer and a decoy. This came into particular focus when he was unable to out-jump Chase Blackburn on an up-for-grabs pass Blackburn picked off in the fourth quarter. Brady, meanwhile, made a few errors, namely on that particular interception and on his pass to Wes Welker in the final minute for which Welker has been crucified for dropping even though the pass was high and behind him. Most of those errors by Brady were counteracted of course by the fact that he apparently is coated in vaseline and slipped out of multiple potential sacks throughout the game. Also he somehow managed to overcome the absolutely ridiculous poses NBC had him stay in for a photo montage that just might have undone every connection he had to the classic American male archetype. Really, when a man who looks like the guy to the right loses, everybody wins.

The other notable thing was that the Giants may have uncovered a rather peculiar loophole in the rules in that they got flagged for having too many men on the field on the second to last play, which cost them only five yards in field position but cost the Patriots eight precious seconds on the clock. Such zaniness was clearly accidental -- the 12th man, Tuck, was attempting to get off the field at the snap -- but what if it wasn't? Could a team conceivably keep more than 11 men on the field in an attempt to use their superior numbers to seal a win by accepting penalties in exchange for a chunk of the clock disappearing? Evidently a team could, and the Giants last night were not the first people to stumble on it, as Buddy Ryan once toyed with the idea of deliberately using just that kind of a defense.

Such are the natures of a game so complex and nuanced that going over it in my mind now is giving me a headache -- albeit the best kind. I found the whole thing absolutely riveting from start to finish and not simply because the Giants were in it. This was tremendous, intellectually engaging football from start to finish even if the refs reared their ugly heads once or twice -- perhaps most notably on a tide-turning, questionable hold call on Kevin Boothe on third and 1 in the first half which turned a potential 16-3 game into a 10-9 one in the other direction, and a safety on Tom Brady on the Pats' first play from scrimmage that ultimately would force the Patriots to seek a touchdown instead of a field goal on the final drive. More than anything, of course, I'm just happy I wound up on the right side of it all, and I have several newspaper covers to remind me of it. In fact, the only thing that really could have made last night better is if I also got to see something completely bizarre and ridiculous like, say, Flavor Flav hugging Giants coach Tom Coughlin after he left his victorious interview on the NFL Network set.

Oh wait. I got that, too.

This just might have been the best night ever.

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