A Giant Super Bowl Treatise: Principles of the Rematch in Relation to Cosmological NFL Philosophy
Yes, this is a Giant Super Bowl Treatise, in the sense that it concerns the Giants and in the sense that it is gigantic (close to 4,000 words). But it’ll be worth fifteen minutes of your time if you care at all that the Giants and Patriots are set for a rematch in the Super Bowl. If that’s not something you care about, you may still want to read on—by the end, you just might care.
When Lawrence Tynes kicked the Giants into Super Bowl XLVI with a 31-yard, overtime field goal two Sundays ago, I reacted much like David after the dentist – “Is this real life???”
You see, four years ago the Giants provided me with perhaps the most exciting moment of sports fandom in my 24 year, 9 month, 29 day life, and now, in the unlikeliest of scenarios, they’re on the verge of replicating it. It is my pleasure—no, my obligation, my responsibility—to unpack what this all actually means. The story is well documented, but it’s worth recounting because soon we’ll get to the ridiculous similarities between the magic that happened four years ago and the magic that’s happening right now. In 2007-08:
- The Giants slogged through an up-and-down regular season and head coach Tom Coughlin’s job was on the line. In his fourth season in New York, he had yet to win a playoff game and the team barely clinched a playoff spot in the second-to-last week of the season.
- In the regular season finale, they hosted a 15-0 juggernaut of a Patriots team that had defeated opponents by an average of almost 20 points per game(20 points!) and was looking to become only the second team ever to finish a regular season undefeated (the first team to do it was the 1972 Miami Dolphins).
- Many wondered whether the Giants would play their starters or rest them for the playoffs. After all, they had already clinched a play-off spot and had nothing tangible to gain by playing at 100 percent against the Patriots. Why risk injury to your best players in a game in which you’ll probably be blown out anyway?
- Coughlin, in retrospectively prophetic fashion, declared that the Giants would indeed play their starters under the belief that they owed it to the league and the fans to give the Patriots their best shot at ending the undefeated season. In other words, if the Patriots were going to go undefeated, they were damn sure going to have to work for it.
- The Giants gave the Pats all they could handle and even carried a lead into the fourth-quarter, but the Pats eked out a three-point victory. Only two other teams had come within three points of beating them the whole season.
- Energized and full of confidence after the near-victory, the Giants tore through the NFC playoffs and defeated the Buccaneers, Cowboys and Packers (keep in mind for later) on their way to a rematch with the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
- The rest, as they say, is history. The Giants toppled the mighty, previously undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII and brought us the helmet catch, a game-winning touchdown, and the biggest NFL upset since Joe Namath and the Jets took down the Colts in Super Bowl III.
Following Super Bowl XLII, I realized it would be tough to care very much about whether the Giants won or lost from that point forward. What else could they give me? What other scenario could top that game? Huge underdogs; miraculous plays; a last-second, come-from-behind, game winning touchdown; history; New York over Boston (not technically, but close enough)—it was all there. If I could draw up a perfect scenario to enjoy as a fan of the Giants, that was it. Whatever happened in seasons to come, my ultimate destiny as a Giants fan had been fulfilled.
So what have the Giants done since?
Well, in the 2008 regular season, they rode the wave of their Super Bowl victory to the best start in franchise history, going 11-1 in their first twelve games. It was all gravy as far as I was concerned; it was fun to watch, and the chance to win back-to-back titles was exciting, but I didn’t really care.
And then Plax shot himself.
Yes, if the 2008 season was to end in more bizarre fashion than the previous season ended, it could only have happened as part of an off-the-field incident, because the Giants had exhausted themselves of all the on-field drama possible. And, as it turns out, Plaxico Burress was more than happy to oblige in both scenarios:
February, 2008—he catches the Super Bowl-winning touchdown with 35 seconds left to play.
November, 2008—he walks into a NYC nightclub with a Glock tucked in his sweatpants; it begins sliding down his leg and as he reaches to grab it, he inadvertently pulls the trigger and shoots himself in the thigh. (Don’t you hate when that happens? That’s why when I carry a gun in my sweatpants, I wear a jockstrap and a cup to keep it tucked safely inside—the gun, that is.)
The Giants suspend Plax for the rest of the season, he goes to jail for two years for felonies of criminal weapon possession and reckless endangerment, the Giants lose three out of their last four regular season games, and then get manhandled by the Eagles in the playoffs. In any other year, this scenario would’ve been maddening (as in frustrating and annoying, not as in John Madden). But following Super Bowl XLII, it was simply a temporary spell of sobriety in an otherwise ongoing state of blissful football inebriation.
The next two seasons weren’t any better; in fact, they were worse—they missed the playoffs both years. They had the talent and the opportunities to succeed, but they just couldn’t get it done. The intoxication had lifted. If Super Bowl XLII was the raging, all-night kegger, then last off-season was the massive, skull-splitting hangover the morning after.
The media and the fans were catching on to a trend. If the Super Bowl-winning season was subtracted from the Eli Manning/Tom Coughlin era up to that point (2004-2010), then their resumes included three seasons of missing the playoffs and three seasons of losing in the first game of the playoffs, totaling ZERO playoff wins. That’s usually more than enough to get a coach fired and a quarterback run out of town. I had figured the victory over the Patriots in the Super Bowl was a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing (time will tell if it was or not), but I didn’t quite think it would be the last time the Giants would ever win a playoff game in my lifetime.
Coughlin deserved to be fired after last season and was shown a lot of grace in being retained. He had consistently been given talented teams, and, under his leadership, they had continually been one of the most undisciplined, inconsistent and dysfunctional teams in the league. Still, I personally didn’t really care. All I had to do was pop in the Super Bowl XLII DVD and that dizzying elation of four years ago would creep into my bloodstream all over again.
That brings us to 2011. I had no hopes for the Giants this season. The NFC East looked to be stacked, and the Giants looked to realistically be the third or fourth best team in the division. But then they jumped out to a 6-2 start that culminated in a win over—who else?—the Patriots, in Foxborough, in the teams’ first meeting since Super Bowl XLII. The Giants won in dramatic come-back fashion, in a scenario eerily similar to that of the Super Bowl match-up. It seemed highly unlikely, even if only during the regular season, for a rematch to play out in such a parallel manner. But we’ve only scratched the surface of unlikelihood.
The week after beating the Pats, the Giants traveled to San Francisco to face the (7-1) 49ers. They lost a hard-fought battle by the score of 27-20. It was particularly frustrating because Eli had marched them down the field in the final minutes and they had the ball on the Niners’ 10-yard-line with a chance to tie, but couldn’t get it done. After the game, WR Mario Manningham, who had a potential game-tying TD pass bounce off his fingertips late in the fourth quarter, had this to say: “They are a good team. We are a good team. We will run back into them.” What kind of crystal ball does he have in his locker?
The loss to the Niners began a four-game losing streak that put the Giants’ playoff hopes in jeopardy. The last of those four losses came at home versus the defending champion Green Bay Packers, who were this season’s version of the 2007 Patriots. Coming into that game, the Pack was 11-0 and had beaten their opponents by an average of 14 points per game—not quite the juggernauts that the Patriots were four years prior, but pretty close.
The most interesting thing about the 2011 Packers is that, while this year they resembled the 2007 Patriots, last year they resembled the 2007 Giants. They went 10-6 last year and barely made the playoffs with a win in the final week, then went on to shock the world with an incredible run and a Super Bowl victory. I can’t make this stuff up: in this season where it’s amazing that we have a rematch between the Patriots and Giants in the Super Bowl, the team that was originally favored to win the Super Bowl this year (Packers) had back-to-back seasons that perfectly encapsulated all the very specific characteristics that made the Patriots and Giants match-up so intriguing four years ago (including what the Giants are about to do to this year’s Packers team later in this narrative).
Against the Packers, the Giants again gave an undefeated team all it could handle by tying the game at 35 with a minute left before Aaron Rodgers led Green Bay down the field and set them up for a game-winning field goal. The Packers won 38-35, the same score the Giants lost by in the 2007 regular season finale against the Patriots. And just like in 2007, this near-victory galvanized the team and propelled them into the playoffs after they won three of their final four games against two of their biggest rivals—their stadium-mates, the Jets, and the hated Cowboys (who they beat twice in four weeks—a lovely, lovely thing indeed).
After easily disposing of the Falcons in the first round of the playoffs, they got their rematch with the Packers (who they had also beaten in the NFC Championship Game in 2008). After destroying Green Bay, they got another rematch, this time with the 49ers just as Manningham had predicted, and we all know what happened there. Super Bowl, here we come.
To recap the similarities between the 2007-08 season and the 2011-12 season:
- 2007-08: Tom Coughlin was on the brink of losing his job after three years of no playoff wins
- 2011-12: Tom Coughlin was on the brink of losing his job after three years of no playoff wins
- 2007-08: Giants finished 10-6 and squeaked into playoffs
- 2011-12: Giants finished 9-7 and squeaked into playoffs
- 2007-08: Giants faced an undefeated team (Patriots) late in regular season and lost 38-35, but the near-victory gave them confidence and when they got a second chance against that team in the playoffs, they beat them
- 2011-12: Giants faced an undefeated team (Packers) late in regular season and lost 38-35, but the near-victory gave them confidence and when they got a second chance against that team in the playoffs, they beat them
And to list the rematches that have already occurred for the Giants this season:
- Regular season versus the Patriots (first time the teams met since Super Bowl XLII)
- Playoffs versus the Packers (which was a double rematch, chiefly for the loss in the regular season in which the Giants almost handed them their first loss, but also from the 2008 NFC Championship game)
- NFC Championship game versus the 49ers (after losing a nail-biter to them in the regular season)
All this makes for a pretty crazy narrative. There’s just so much symmetry—it’s amazing. Regardless of who they ended up playing in the Super Bowl, it would’ve simply been an incredible story.
But wait—who are they are playing in the Super Bowl?
(wait for it…..)
(waaaait for it…..)
(waaaaaaait for it……..)
THEY’RE PLAYING THE PATRIOTS AGAIN!!!!
THEY’RE PLAYING THE PATRIOTS AGAIN!!!!
ARE YOU $@#%!& KIDDING ME!?
Yes, on Championship Sunday the Patriots stamped their own ticket to Super Bowl XLVI by defeating the Ravens. Four years ago, these teams played what is perhaps the greatest Super Bowl ever, and now, just four years later, they will face each other again under very similar circumstances—the Patriots the ones who were supposed to be there, and the Giants the ones who weren’t. Granted, the Patriots are not the team they were then, and they were far from a sure bet to make it this far this year. But the scenario is close enough.
The whole thing is even more remarkable when you dig into the NFL history books. Only twice before have two teams played each other twice in the Super Bowl over a five-year span. The first occurrence came in 1976 and 1979 when the Pittsburgh Steelers, led by coach Chuck Knoll and QB Terry Bradshaw, twice defeated the Dallas Cowboys of coach Tom Landry and QB Roger Staubach. The second occurrence came in 1993 and 1994 when the Dallas Cowboys of coach Jimmy Johnson and QB Troy Aikman twice defeated the Buffalo Bills of coach Marv Levy and QB Jim Kelly. Now we have the Giants of coach Tom Coughlin and QB Eli Manning looking to twice defeat the Patriots of coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady. In other words, this is only the third time in Super Bowl history that two coaches and two QB’s have faced each other twice in the big game, and it comes following an already historical first meeting. Unlikely? Indeed.
So here we are—Giants vs. Patriots II. It’s like Rocky Balboa/Apollo Creed. And that brings up an interesting point. In Balboa vs. Creed, the underdog (Rocky) lost the first match-up but won the second. In this match-up, the underdog (Giants) won the first match-up. This game is really about revenge for the Patriots. It’s Goliath shaking off a rock to the head and getting a second chance against the little shepherd boy.
Tom Brady has been quick to downplay the whole revenge factor, but think about the series of events that have surrounded him in the years since Super Bowl XLII:
- After no doubt spending all of that off-season brooding over the loss to the Giants, Brady suffered a tear of his ACL and MCL in the very first quarter of the very first game of the next season and didn’t take another snap the rest of the year, meaning he had another whole season to think about the missed shot at perfection. Talk about two bad games in a row…
- The next season, 2009, he suffered the worst playoff loss of his career when the Ravens dismantled the Pats 33-14 in Foxborough.
- In 2010, the Pats again lost in the first game of the playoffs, this time against the rival Jets, and again it was in Foxborough. Teams as good as the Patriots aren’t supposed to lose home playoff games to wild card teams, yet they had done it each of the last two seasons.
The media is saying Brady has nothing to prove in this game, that there’s no revenge on the line. Yes, he’s won three Super Bowls. Yes, his legacy is already cemented. But great players are motivated by losing, and the Giants set in motion a string of losing that Brady had not yet experienced in his career. You can’t tell me it doesn’t mean a little more to him that he happens to be facing the Giants once again.
Honestly, I don’t know what kind of chance the Giants have in this game. How many times can lightning strike? If the same pattern of symmetry continues through this Super Bowl, the Giants will lose. In 2007, they lost to the Pats in the regular season and then won in the Super Bowl. This year they already beat the Pats in the regular season, so does that mean a loss this time is imminent? Who knows? But at this point, who can really predict anything that will happen? If they’ve made it all the way back here against all odds, why shouldn’t they go ahead and win it again?
The truth is that the Giants match up extremely well with the Patriots for the following reasons:
- Brady is at his worst when pressured and hurried, and the Giants’ pass rush obliterated him four years ago. With the addition of Jason Pierre-Paul, their pass rush is even scarier this year.
- The Giants offense is infinitely more potent this year than four years ago, and the Patriots defense is infinitely weaker this year than four years ago. The Giants will move the ball on them.
Basically, the things at which the Giants exceed (passing game, pass rush) correspond directly to the Patriots’ main areas of weakness. For that reason, I like our chances. But just the fact that this whole crazy, dramatic scenario is happening again is enough for me.
So what does this all mean? Sure, it’s exciting, but it’s just football right? Not quite.
I’ll be the first to tell you that we idolize sports in this country. We spend too much time thinking about them and talking about them, we place athletes on a pedestal, we act with ignorance and bias towards other teams and their fans. But that just makes sports an ever more appropriate paradigm of human nature in a world where we idolize everything, where we are all ignorant and biased, but where we’re still surprised and blessed by the unraveling of new mysteries every day.
We live in a world where flakes of frozen water fall from the sky and wrap us in a fluffy white blanket. We live in a world where tiny creatures that we can destroy with a flick of our fingers spend their time organizing complex colonies connected by chambers and tunnels and defined by numerous levels of social classification, even as we ourselves are also tiny, fragile creatures performing the same charade in a gigantic universe. We live in a world in which we can look up at the night sky and see balls of fire that have exploded over billions of years and are just bright enough to reach our line of vision. We live in a world that sits just close enough to one of these balls of fire that we don’t freeze, and yet just far enough away that we’re not incinerated by it, even though it’s ninety three million miles off in space. And we live in a world where the Giants and Patriots are playing in the Super Bowl again four years after they played one of the most unlikely and dramatic games in the recorded history of athletic competition.
Am I over-romanticizing football? Am I letting my sentimentality concerning the Giants skew my perception of reality? Possibly. But if so, it’s only in reaction to our collective under-romanticizing of life in general, in reaction to our failure to realize that we live in a world ruled by fairytales, in reaction to our belief that the sun should rise everyday rather than the reality that we could never make it rise and that every time it does we have the opportunity to be flabbergasted by the fact that it did. It’s hard for me to maintain that mindset every day because I get bogged down in the tiresome pace of life, but that doesn’t make it any less miraculous. Sometimes I just need to observe a correspondingly miraculous occurrence on a smaller scale to point me back to a more accurate perspective on the world I inhabit. Why shouldn’t that reminder come through a football game?
There’s so much out there that will always be a complete mystery to us. We don’t have the ability to observe the cosmos from a bird’s eye view where we can take it all in. That’s why we need little staging areas where we can watch life unfold in its simplest forms and then use what has transpired to find parallels to all the things we can’t fully understand. The football field is one of our little imitations of the cosmos. On it, we watch a clash between the natural and the supernatural, between brute force and blind belief, between physical strength and intellectual fortitude and a naïve but battle-tested dependence on providence. We watch the unlikeliest of scenarios unravel and try to decipher whether sheer chance and coincidence are responsible or if fate, destiny, and supernatural intervention also play a role. We might never know the answer, but we begin questioning, and it’s in sincere questioning that Truth is revealed. And that Truth revolves around One who comes back, in the sense that He has faced defeat in the final seconds only to come back and conquer death itself, and who is coming back to treat us to the drama of a rematch with the opposition, even though He already won the first time (like the Giants).
So what will happen in this game? Will Lawrence Tynes kick a 70-yard field goal with a second left to win the game? Will Tom Brady throw seven touchdowns? Will Hakeem Nicks catch a pass with his feet on fourth down to keep a desperation drive alive? Will Bill Belichick go for it on every fourth down play? Will Eli Manning throw a touchdown left-handed? Nobody knows for sure.
Will the sun rise on Super Bowl Sunday? Will the atmosphere continue to preserve the earth’s oxygen through pressurized concealment so the players have air to breathe? Will gravity maintain the strength of its pull or will the players bounce across the field like they’re on the moon? Again, nobody knows for sure. We have a good idea, but we also thought we had a good idea about whether or not the Giants would be here in the Super Bowl again, and we turned out to be wrong about that.
That’s why this game matters. We thought we had seen it all. We thought we knew the bounds of possibility. We thought we were wiser this time around and that we would never again be blindsided by the unexpected the way we were in the past. But we were wrong. We’re always wrong. It turns out there’s something we didn’t know. It turns out there’s more to see.
And that’s why I care.