New York's defensive line was destroying New England's offensive line. Not just beating the Patriots' front. Not controlling. Not even just dominating. The only applicable word was destroying.
Of all the matchups in this championship game, that one had not stood out in advance as being pivotal. If anything, it was a given. New England, especially after a week off, would protect Tom Brady. And the Patriots, with a healthy Laurence Maroney, would run the football as needed.
Brady thus would have time to pick apart the Giants' vulnerable secondary, and New England would waltz into history with a convincing romp to wrap up its 19-0 season.
That was the script. But it was wrong.
Instead, the Giants' defensive front won battle after battle, then Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and the rest punished Brady like a rookie at training camp. He was sacked five times and hurried or knocked down on many other occasions after being sacked just 21 times in 16 regular-season games.
Brady was able to produce a touchdown on New England's first series, thanks largely to a Giants penalty. Otherwise, the Patriots looked largely inept and/or inconsistent until they somehow awakened for the desperation drive that gave them a 14-10 lead with less than three minutes remaining.
You know the rest. Eli Manning wouldn't go down. David Tyree showed how to make a catch against the top of his helmet. Plaxico Burress turned around a defender, after being shut down for more than three quarters. Giants, 17-14.
Nobody has reported this, but Las Vegas just might have enjoyed its biggest economic windfall ever, because so many people were so sure the Patriots were invincible.
They weren't, and now many observers are calling it the biggest upset in NFL history.
That's not true. It's one of the biggest, certainly, because of what New England did during the regular season. But the Patriots clearly weren't the same anymore after expending so much energy in their drive to 16-0. They looked vulnerable in their first playoff game against Jacksonville, and they had far too much trouble putting away San Diego (without LaDainian Tomlinson and Philip Rivers) in the AFC Championship Game.
At the time, the general consensus was that New England was saving itself meaning energy, emotion and strategy for the grand finale in the Super Bowl. Now we know that wasn't the case.
New York wasn't the only team capable of beating New England on Sunday. Green Bay and Brett Favre could've done it. Dallas also could've.
As the world could see, the Patriots simply were out of gas, starting with that offensive line (which has three Pro Bowlers to only one, Umenyiora, for the entire Giants roster). Also, by the fourth quarter, the Pats' defense was spent.
There are shockers, and then there are shockers. The biggest ones are when the lopsided favorite plays well and still loses. Green Bay fans might argue this, but when Denver was a 12-point underdog and knocked off the Packers, 31-24, a decade ago in Super Bowl 32, that was a bigger upset than this. Green Bay was the defending champion, the NFC had won 13 straight Super Bowls, Favre was at his zenith and somehow John Elway and the Broncos still won.
If you ask me, even New England knocking off defending champion St. Louis, 20-17, exactly six years ago in Super Bowl 36, was bigger than this one. Brady began that day with the same kind of fanfare as Eli Manning had entering Sunday very little.
Perhaps the most unexpected part of this Super Bowl was how the Patriots as a group didn't really seem as hungry. It was as if they expected the Giants to cave in at any moment, and were stunned when it never happened.
But nobody can fault New England coach Bill Belichick for going after 19-0. Sure, he could've rested people in December, and the Patriots might have lost a game or two. They very well might have been able to recuperate and win the Super Bowl. But as long as they were this close to historic perfection, they did the honorable thing by giving it their best shot.
Now, though, instead of everyone bowing to the unquestioned dynasty, New England has lost that aura of invincibility. Suddenly, the Patriots look like a team needing new parts, and a few of their old-timers might not deserve another shot. They need some blockers, they need a tight end who can be a weapon and they need to fill some weak spots on defense.
Meanwhile, when a wild-card team like the Giants can win it all, that gives renewed hope to teams like Denver. Perhaps the Broncos aren't as far away as people thought. If their young quarterback can emerge as the next Eli Manning and Jay Cutler hasn't disqualified himself yet and Denver can repair its broken defense, who knows?
One last thought: After this, you have to wonder if the pendulum is swinging in the NFL. You have to wonder if the AFC's decade of near-total superiority over the NFC, which began with Denver beating Green Bay in January 1998, is coming to an end.
New England will have other ideas, of course. But the big storyline going into the 2008 season has abruptly changed.
Instead of how much longer the Patriots' dynasty will last, we're wondering if it just ended.
Sudden exit We won't have Bob Knight to kick around anymore, but at least he went out with a win, Texas Tech clipping Oklahoma State last Saturday.
Not often Wondering the last time the Super Bowl-winning quarterback wasn't a Pro Bowl pick? Trent Dilfer, Baltimore, 2000 season.
See the headline? Former Air Force athletic director Randy Spetman (1996-2003 before going to Utah State) has been hired as Florida State's new AD.
On the air Denver Nuggets at Cleveland Cavaliers (and LeBron James), 5 p.m. Sunday, ESPN and Altitude.
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