Sunday, February 05, 2012

Super Bowl XLVI

Giants Beat Patriots in Final Rally

INDIANAPOLIS — Four years ago, the Giants were the charming underdogs who took the New England Patriots’ perfect season and turned it into a game of what-if.
This season, however, having survived summer injuries and free-agent defections, a four-game losing streak, calls for the coach’s job and six late-game comebacks, the Giants arrived at their Super Bowl rematch with the Patriots as something that seemed more formidable: a team prepared to face tension and overcome it.
Just as they did four years ago, the Giants prevailed in the final minute against the Patriots, beating New England, 21-17, to give the franchise its fourth Super Bowl championship — one more than the Patriots — and its second in four years over this generation’s greatest coach-quarterback combination, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
The Giants are the first team to finish the regular season 9-7 and win the Super Bowl. And in Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning, they have a coach-quarterback duo to match with any other in today’s N.F.L.
For the Patriots, who were 13-3 in the regular season, it was another bitter loss, a devastating repeat of the loss that ended their undefeated 2007 season.
The victory came, fittingly for a season with so many strange twists, in the oddest fashion. Trailing by 2 points with 3 minutes 46 seconds remaining, the Giants started the winning drive. Manning — who now has one more championship than his brother Peyton — lofted a perfect pass down the left sideline to Mario Manningham, who kept his feet inbounds by inches with two defenders on his back. The pass went for 38 yards, a pointed answer to the yearlong question of whether Eli was elite.
With a minute remaining, running back Ahmad Bradshaw rushed through a wide-open hole — Belichick said the Patriots allowed him to score — and tried to fall down short of the end zone. That would have kept the Patriots from having substantial time to mount a comeback of their own.
But his momentum carried him into the end zone, the 6-yard touchdown run giving the Giants a 4-point lead with 57 seconds left. The Giants’ sideline did not even celebrate because the players knew that meant: Brady had nearly a minute and one timeout to score a touchdown.
But the Giants’ defense, maligned early in the season, had pulled itself together for critical victories in the final weeks of the regular season against the Jets and Cowboys, then for the playoff run. And starting with 57 seconds remaining, they thwarted Brady one last time, forcing incompletions and sacks and finally an incomplete pass in the end zone as the final second ticked away.
Manning, who completed 30 of 40 passes for 296 yards and a touchdown, was named the game’s most valuable player for the second time.
The Patriots’ offense suffered with the star tight end Rob Gronkowski seemingly at less than full strength after injuring his left ankle in the A.F.C. championship game two weeks ago. Brady was 27 of 41 for 276 yards and 2 touchdowns and an interception. Gronkowski, who had the most productive season by a tight end in N.F.L. history, was held to two catches for 26 yards.
The Giants dominated most of the first two quarters, looking sharper and more focused than the gaffe-laden Patriots. But it was one critical decision — to play prevent defense on the Patriots’ final drive of the half — that cost the Giants a lead they had constructed on the back of those Patriots errors and their own stout defense.
The Giants held a 9-3 lead late in the second quarter, helped by a safety on the Patriots’ first offensive play of the game. Taking over after a Giants punt on their opening series, Brady, under pressure in the end zone by Justin Tuck, threw the ball deep downfield, with no receiver near the ball. He was called for intentional grounding, worth a safety and the game’s first 2 points. It was just the sixth safety in Super Bowl history, but the first mistake in a cascade of New England lapses.
When the Giants got the ball back, the Patriots were penalized for having 12 men on the field, negating a fumble by Giants receiver Victor Cruz. Two plays later, Manning rifled a 2-yard pass to Cruz in the end zone just as Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo hurtled past the play, failing to break it up. That gave the Giants a 9-0 lead that seemed greater than it was.
When the Patriots finally got the ball back — for just their second play, with 3:24 remaining in the first quarter — they drove deep into Giants territory. But Jason Pierre-Paul, the fearsome defensive lineman with a wingspan seemingly as wide as the field, batted down a Brady pass on third-and-4 from the 11, forcing the Patriots to settle for a 29-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.
But it was a mistake by the Giants that ended another drive. With Manning driving them again with less than five minutes to play in the second quarter, guard Kevin Boothe was called for holding the Patriots’ mammoth defensive tackle, Vince Wilfork, negating a 10-yard gain on third-and-1 and effectively ending the drive.
That put the ball in Brady’s hands with 4:03 left before halftime. The Patriots deferred the opening kickoff the way they usually do because they crave the opportunity to double up an opponent: to score on the final drive of the first half, then again on the first drive of the second.
In this case, the Patriots got a significant assist from the Giants, who decided to play deep, taking away the big play but allowing an accurate Brady to chew up the field. The Patriots’ drive began on the Giants’ 4, and was pushed back another 2 yards on a holding call.
With Brady unleashing quick pass after quick pass to nullify the Giants’ pass rush — the safety was the only significant pressure of the first half — he shredded the defense, completing 10 of 10 attempts for 98 yards. A 4-yard touchdown pass to Danny Woodhead with eight seconds remaining was a gut punch, a reminder that the Patriots are rarely out of a game, no matter how poorly they start, as long as Brady is on the field.
Then, Belichick’s strategy worked perfectly when the Patriots went on a surgical 79-yard touchdown drive to open the second half.
Throughout, the Giants had no pressure on Brady. After Brady completed a 12-yard scoring pass to Aaron Hernandez that put the Patriots ahead, 17-9, he tapped the MHK patch on his jersey and pointed to the heavens, a revealing reminder that Brady and the Patriots were playing the season in memory of Myra Kraft, the wife of the team’s owner, Robert K. Kraft. Myra Kraft died last summer after a long struggle with cancer just as the lockout ended.
The Patriots’ defense was maligned all season, ranking 31st in the league in yards allowed, but it was merely in the middle of the pack in points allowed, the barometer that coaches care most about. When the Giants got the ball again, the Patriots proved why scoring defense is more critical.
The Giants drove down the field, but they could not finish the drive, settling for a 38-yard Lawrence Tynes field goal that barely sneaked inside the left upright.
The Patriots’ lead then was 17-12, but it felt as if the Patriots and Brady had taken over the game. Brady completed 16 passes in a row, a Super Bowl record. And even when the Giants finally put pressure on him again — their first sack of the game came with 5:40 remaining in the third quarter — they could not capitalize.
The Patriots’ defense held again, this time on a Giants drive that started with their best field position, at the New England 48. The Giants managed another field goal, this one from 33 yards, allowing the Patriots to hold on to a 17-15 lead going into the fourth quarter. And just as it was four years ago, the fourth quarter decided the game, and defined the legacies of Tom Coughlin, Eli Manning and the Giants.
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