On Monday morning, September 17, 2007, New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin woke up to a world where his team was 0-2 in the standings, had just shipped eighty points against Dallas and Green Bay combined, and every Giant fan in New York city and beyond wanted him run out of town. Four months later, the Giants are in their fourth ever Super Bowl, where they are the last line of defense between history and the New England Patriots. What the hell happened?
Lots of things happened. Firstly, Coughlin’s quarterback came of age. Eli Manning has been a Hemmingway-esque lesson in grace under pressure in the playoffs, as he coolly marched the Giants up and down the home fields of Tampa Bay, Dallas and storied Green Bay, and came away with the win each time. Eli Manning is Peyton’s kid brother no more.
Secondly, the Giants defense has been monstrous. The Giants have rung up fifty-three sacks in the regular season to lead the league, and that translates into pockets collapsing all over the country as harried quarterbacks desperately offload before Osi Umenyiora hammers them into the turf, or hot read running backs getting zapped in the backfield by Antonio Pierce. The Giant defense was all over Green Bay in the Championship game, like sharks that had got a smell of blood. They fear nothing, and fight for everything.
And thirdly, in a cynical era in sports, Tom Coughlin made one of the gutsiest calls a coach can make in the final game of the regular season. New England arrived at the Meadowlands on December 29 one game away from a 17-0 regular season record. The Giants were already going to Tampa Bay for the Wild Card game; they had nothing to gain by playing their starters, and they had a lot to lose should key men, like Manning, like Burress, like Strahan, get injured. The professional, sensible thing was to play a second string, and concentrate on the Tampa Bay game.
But Coughlin didn’t do that. He sent out his starters, and they stood toe to toe with the Patriots, fighting for pride and courage alone. They lost by three points (easily covering a thirteen point line), but they played until the final whistle. They did not run away. They stood up, and fought to the last man.
The football gods notice that sort of thing. The Giants will show no fear in Arizona on February 3. If anything, they’re probably looking forward to it.