The Theory of Chaos

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Why they play the game

I often recall the first Super Bowl win of the Brady-Belichick Patriots dynasty, when they broke tradition by choosing to be introduced as a team, rather than one superstar at a time. When Brady was just the backup thrust into the spotlight by a freak early-season injury suffered by Drew Bledsoe. When they were the underdogs standing in the way of 2-time League MVP Kurt Warner, League MVP Marshall Faulk, and the would-be dynasty of the St. Louis Rams.

The Patriots won that game as they have so many since; delicately, almost invisibly taking the other team's strengths apart piece-by-piece, making no mistakes of their own, and winning not with highlight-reel plays, but methodical, confident execution. Brady, the kid riding the pine back in September, won the MVP, which came with a new Cadillac SUV, and as it was pointed out to him, he exclaimed with disbelief - "
That's my car?!?!" I remember saying - he looks like he could really use a new car.

The humility of it charmed. The team spirit inspired. The world-shocking upset, cemented on a calm, clinical fourth-quarter drive for a field goal, was a legend.

These days Brady isn't the kid who's thrilled to get a new car, he's the official Man Crush of every sports fan in America, Superman on turf; the guy who breaks NFL records by day and sleeps on a bed made of supermodels at night. Bill Belichick is no longer the overlooked football genius getting his due, he's become the NFL's Bond Villain, the megalomaniacal Dr. Hoodie, scheming and scowling, sending out fraudulent injury reports and blowing off the "Spygate" videotaping scandal with a growling non-apology apology that Dick Cheney would find cold.

And tonight, in front of the world, as they sulked their way to the locker room with one second still on the clock, the once humble, now arrogant Patriots became the black sheep of sports: Sore Losers.

And the New York Giants became great.

I saw the Patriots-Giants game that closed the regular season during my trip to Chicago, and I remember saying to my friends how shocked I was at how hard they were playing. Playoff seedings were set, so these two teams had literally nothing at stake if they won or lost, save the Patriots' shot at finally telling the '72 Dolphins where to stick those champagne corks. The Giants were fixed for a Wild Card berth, facing road games against the strongest collection of teams the NFC has assembled this decade; and they were tired, and they were injured, and you know what they decided? They decided that if you're on the field, you're trying to win.

The Giants lost that game, but won a lot of pride and respect, and made the Patriots look human, and beatable. Eli Manning had a breakthrough, ripping off four touchdowns and finally clicking with the biggest and strongest receiving corps in the league.

And through the playoffs, week after week, they just kept putting it all together. Ferocious running. Vicious, unrelenting defense. Manning finding a coolness and tenacity that has finally given him his own identity, separate from his field general brother. Those (literally) Giant receivers putting the big hurt on secondaries. They were playing as a team.

Today, both teams were introduced as groups rather than individuals, but I noticed a key difference. As the Patriots sauntered down the tunnel, ready for destiny, Tom Brady walked front and center - the only one without his helmet on. Was it an unintended gesture? Or was Tom Brady just too used to his beautiful mug being out in front of this football machine?

I sensed weakness; I sensed pride that could goeth before a fall. And make no mistake - pride did in the Patriots today.

When facing a great quarterback, the formula has always been simple - keep him off the field as long as you can, and make his life miserable when he's on the field. The Giants achieved both, ripping off bruisingly-long drives that gassed the Patriots' defense and kept His Handsomeness on his butt. And he spent more time than he's used to on his butt on offense, too; I've never seen the Patriots' vaunted offensive line blown up so thoroughly and so regularly. Every Giant out there practically had their turn in the backfield. Brady spent so much time in the dirt I wondered how in the hell his uniform stayed so clean, and if they had spare ones and a steam cleaner handy on the sidelines so he could always look his prettiest. And Brady - as he's known to do - got rattled. He lost his composure, and he ignored his own weakness.

His throwing stance was clearly off, because any deep throw he let go went sailing far off target. Remember that he broke Phil Simms' completion percentage record just last month - this is a lethal sharpshooter on a normal day. But whether it was that weak ankle or his own safety clock going haywire from the Giants' pressure, he threw more bad deep balls than I've ever seen from him in an important game.

He did throw one great deep ball, a jaw-droppingly good one that might have kept the game alive in the final seconds. All Randy Moss had to do was - as Keyshawn Johnson pointed out in ESPN's postgame -
jump for the damn ball. Moss was double-covered, and tight, but he had both the height and the athleticism to make that catch - if he jumps. But you know what else happens if he jumps? He gets tackled, the Patriots take a time out, kick a field goal to tie it, and go to overtime. Moss was thinking touchdown. Moss wanted to catch it in stride and run all the way to Valhalla. So the Giants' Corey Webster jumped, batted the ball away, and the fat lady cleared her throat. You always go high to catch in coverage - basic football.

Some of the best Giants plays weren't magical at all - they were straight-up, basic football, executed impeccably under impossible pressure against The Team of the Decade. On many defensive plays, the pressure didn't come from some Byzantine blitz formation, but their four guys beating the Patriots' five. The winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress was single coverage, a basic slant-and-go route. All Burress had to do was take a step, juke right, run for the far corner and catch history, with no Patriot near him. When Eli Manning had his own Elway-helicopter-spin play, slipping out of enemy hands for that unbelievable bailout throw to David Tyree's helmet, it was, once again, football 101 - Quarterback: Keep looking down the field. Receiver: Stay in the play, help your quarterback by getting open. Referee: Don't on your life blow an early whistle for some namby-pamby "quarterback in the grasp" call.

Straight, real football. The Giants played it, the Giants won with it, and took one of the best Super Bowls I have ever, or will ever, see.

(*This post has been edited since that pitcher of margaritas wore off.)


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