Chemistry carried Giants

Without Tiki Barber, New York bonded throughout season and won it all

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Sports history is full of footnotes that turn into headlines.

When Tiki Barber retired from the New York Giants after the 2006 season, most fans wondered how the Giants would replace his 2,127 yards rushing and receiving, which was more than 40 percent of the team's offense.

But it turned out that replacing Barber had some significant benefits beyond the obvious.

Teammates considered him a distraction in the locker room, something of a clubhouse lawyer. They felt his in-season retirement announcement in 2006 created problems for the team. As good a player as Barber was, he was something of a divisive force in the locker room.

Now, the departure of Barber is not the only reason the Giants are celebrating a Super Bowl title today and it's not even the major reason, not after the way their defense overwhelmed the Patriots in Sunday night's 17-14 victory.

Yet Barber's departure brought the team much closer together, a point made by many in a locker room that was celebrating one of the biggest upsets in NFL history.

"The best part of it for me is the idea that this group of young men, who came together and believed in themselves, bought the team concept completely, took the names off the back of the jerseys, checked the egos at the door," said coach Tom Coughlin. "The reinforcement for team is the greatest source of satisfaction for me."

There was reinforcement for Miami coach Don Shula, too, because his 1972 team again stands alone as the only NFL team to complete a perfect season. And we don't have to worry anymore about assessing the Patriots' place in history. They still have a nice dynasty going, but they are not the best team in history.

Today, there is no question about that.

In fact, New England couldn't even beat the second-best team in the NFC East.

"Every team is beatable. You never know," said Coughlin. "The right moment, the right time, every team is beatable."

The Giants are the third straight team to survive the wild-card round of the playoffs and win the Super Bowl, and the fifth in 11 years. But they are the first team from the NFC, for years the weaker conference, to do it.

"I think we shocked the world," said Giants defensive end Michael Strahan. "Hell, we maybe shocked ourselves."

"Their intensity from the beginning snap to the end of the game was really higher than ours," said Patriots receiver Randy Moss. "It kind of surprised me."

Regular season MVP Tom Brady did not play well, but he did not have much help, either. The Giants defense, which was the NFL's best at sacking the quarterback during the season, dominated against the Patriots' offensive line.

The Giants blitzed on about a third of the plays, mostly on the inside instead of the outside to get pressure on Brady quicker. For most of the night, Brady looked uncomfortable and out of sync. The Patriots couldn't get their running game going and their offense consisted mostly of short screen passes.

Brady, knocked down a dozen or more times after throwing and sacked a season-high five times (he had been sacked 24 times in 18 previous games), looked nothing like the quarterback who set an NFL record by throwing 50 touchdown passes during the season.

Whether it was the mild ankle sprain he suffered in the AFC Championship Game or something else, Brady often seemed strangely unaware of pressure coming his way and seemed either unable or unwilling to maneuver out of the way.

Instead of Brady, it was Eli Manning, joining his brother Peyton to become back-to-back Super Bowl MVPs, who kept his cool and played brilliantly at the games most significant moments.

Nothing that Manning did was more impressive than the 83-yard drive he orchestrated in 127 seconds after Brady led the Patriots on a go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter.

Eleven of the 12 plays called on the drive were passes. Three of them came on third-and-5 or more, and all three were completed. One of the significant completions was so seemingly out of character for Manning that you could have sworn he was John Elway or Steve Young.

It was a play that began from the Giants' 44-yard line with 1:15 remaining.

Defensive end Jarvis Green burst through the Giants line and grabbed Manning by the jersey, trying to pull him backward and down. Two other defenders had a shot at Manning. No one would have been surprised if referee Mike Carey blew the whistle and ruled an in-the-grasp sack.

But Carey did not blow the whistle, and Green did not get Manning down. Manning got free of Green's grasp, escaped, circled back to his right and heaved the ball through the heavens and down the field. David Tyree, who earlier in the quarter scored his first touchdown of the season, out-jumped safety Rodney Harrison for the ball, gaining 32 yards to the Patriots' 24-yard line.

"That play alone took a few years off my life," Strahan said.

Three plays later, on third-and-11 from the 25, Manning threw to Steve Smith for 12 yards. And on the next play, cornerback Ellis Hobbs stood flat-footed as Plaxico Burress ran past him to catch Manning's 13-yarder in the end zone with 35 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.

Rookie Jay Alford put the exclamation point on the championship two plays after the kickoff when he burst through the Patriots line to plant his helmet on Brady's chest for a 10-yard sack, the final one of the night.

During the regular season, the Patriots averaged 36.8 points and 411.3 yards. They missed their average by more than three touchdowns and nearly 140 yards.

And, after a week of renewed controversy about taping and alleged taping of opponents, the Super Bowl defeat also left Patriots coach Bill Belichick with a burning question about his strategy.

Midway through the third quarter, with the Patriots leading, 7-3, Belichick passed up what would have been about a 49-yard field-goal attempt. The Patriots instead threw an incomplete pass on fourth-and-13 from the Giants' 31-yard line.

Was Belichick concerned about field position? Or that his overwhelmed offensive line might allow the kick to be blocked? Belichick said he thought about kicking, but pointed out the kick was not a gimme. But those three points looked large at the end of the game. Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski had made 22 of 26 field-goal attempts in the 18 victories.

"What I learned today is how tough it is to go undefeated," said Don Shula, coach of the '72 Dolphins, who was in the stadium. "That's why I'm even more proud of our '72 team than I've ever been. It shows it's a tremendous accomplishment.

"It hadn't been done before we went undefeated, and it hasn't been done since."

Ira Miller is Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange.

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