Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Imperfectionists

Later today, the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens will meet in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.

As you have no doubt heard, there are many dramatic storylines in this year's Super Bowl — the first time brothers will be coaching against one another, the final NFL game for Baltimore's Ray Lewis, etc.

And's Lee Siegel writes that, if they win today, the 49ers will be 6–0 in the Super Bowl, matching Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the NBA.

As dynasties go, I guess Jordan's Bulls have become the gold standard.

But the comparison of the Bulls and the 49ers is a bit of a stretch. Jordan really did participate in six championship–winning efforts in Chicago. The 49ers won their first four Super Bowls in truly Jordanesque style — behind the leadership of Joe Montana. But the fifth was won behind Montana's successor, Steve Young, and today's squad will be led by a fellow who was in elementary school the last time San Francisco hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. He hadn't been born when Montana won his first two Super Bowls.

And Siegel acknowledges that fact — albeit somewhat grudgingly — when he writes that, even though it will have taken three quarterbacks to accomplish it, a victory today still will be "yet another feather in the cap of this area and this franchise."

The game's final outcome will determine which storyline is the most relevant and the most intriguing, I suppose.

But today's Super Bowl will have to go some to match the drama of the Super Bowl that was played five years ago today.

On that day, the New England Patriots were the first team in 35 years to enter the Super Bowl with a perfect record — and, if they won the game, they would be only the second team to win every regular season and every postseason game — the first since the 1972 Miami Dolphins.

That alone probably rendered that game more dramatic than the one that will be played today.

But then the Giants, who were 12–point underdogs, snatched history away from the shocked Patriots, who had become the Dolphins (well, perhaps, more like the Steelers — or even the 49ers) of their generation with three Super Bowl appearances in the previous six years.

The Patriots had won all three of those Super Bowls, including a last–second triumph over the St. Louis Rams, widely regarded at the time as the NFL's greatest franchise.

Considering how Tom Brady and the Patriots had ruled the NFL in the first decade of the 21st century (not to mention the AFC's Eastern Division), it was logical to assume that an unbeaten New England team, with all that postseason experience on its roster, would crush the Giants, a mere wild–card entry.

Wild cards, of course, weren't part of the NFL's postseason landscape in the 1960s, but ever since 1970, there has been at least one in every playoff picture. In those 37 seasons, only eight wild cards had ever made it as far as the Super Bowl — only four had won it all.

It's safe to say that nearly everyone (with the noteworthy exception of Giants fans) assumed New England would win — and most probably assumed Brady would win his third Super Bowl MVP as well.

Not only had wild cards rarely prevailed in the Super Bowl, but there had been relatively few Super Bowls that were truly competitive — at least in the first 30 or 35 years of its existence — regardless of whether a wild card played in them.

Football fans in the 21st century have grown accustomed to close scores in Super Bowls — thanks largely (but not exclusively) to the Patriots, who may have dominated their conference but won each of those three Super Bowls by three–point margins. Perhaps, in hindsight, that was something of a warning of what to expect.

For decades, the Super Bowl was frequently seen as a rather anticlimactic championship game in which one team dominated the other. There were some competitive games — but they were considered the exceptions to the rule.

The first decade of the 21st century produced more single–score margins than any decade since the Super Bowl era began yet, when the game began five years ago today, the two most recent Super Bowls had been won by more than a single score.

Those scores hadn't been nearly as lopsided as many Super Bowls that were played in the 20th century, but they were sufficient to make some people (especially football people, not just casual fans) wonder if the NFL was returning to a time when wide margins were the norm.

What happened on this day five years ago drove such thoughts far from observers' minds. What happened five years ago today was probably one of the most astonishing upsets in football history — more astonishing than when Broadway Joe led the Jets past the Colts in Super Bowl III.

I guess it took a team from Broadway to do it.

It was dramatic from the start. The Giants opened the game with the longest drive in Super Bowl history (including a record four third–down conversions). The drive consumed nearly 10 minutes, but the Giants ultimately had to settle for a field goal.

After taking a 3–0 lead in the first quarter, the Giants fell behind at halftime, 7–3. That was still the score when the fourth quarter began. It's safe to say that few who were watching that day, either at University of Phoenix Stadium or on TV, anticipated what happened in the fourth quarter.

There were three lead changes in that fourth quarter — first, Eli Manning led the Giants down the field for a touchdown, giving New York a 10–7 advantage. Then Brady retaliated with a touchdown pass to Randy Moss (who will participate in the Super Bowl later today), giving New England a 14–10 lead with less than three minutes to play.

But then came the kind of moment that can define a football player's professional career, for good or ill.

And, in the case of Eli Manning, it was for good. He drove the Giants more than 80 yards and threw the winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with about 30 seconds to play.

But he might not have been in the position to throw that pass if he had not completed an improbable third down pass to David Tyree, who caught the first go–ahead TD pass earlier in the quarter.

In a catch that really defied description, Tyree outleaped the defender and made a one–handed grab in which the ball appeared to be stuck between his hand and his helmet.

The catch gained more than 30 yards for the Giants, who scored the go–ahead touchdown a few plays later. Manning, who completed 19 of 34 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns, was named the game's MVP.

When Manning and the Giants beat the Patriots again four years later, he eclipsed his older brother Peyton, who, to date, has one Super Bowl title.

But even if Peyton matches his brother in Super Bowl victories, he will probably never match what his brother did five years ago today ... when Eli denied the Patriots their bid for perfection.

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