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Originally published 2/10/2008


February 10, 2008 — THE ball was in the air for what felt like a lifetime, and David Tyree was perfectly willing to wait it out that long if that’s what it took. All around him, the Super Bowl had come to a complete standstill. All around him, every eye, thousands of them, were fastened on a football.

“I couldn’t hear a thing,” Tyree said. “I felt like I was all by myself.”

There were, in reality, 71,101 spectators inside University of Phoenix Stadium. There were a couple hundred others, give or take, patrolling the sidelines: players, coaches, photographers, officials, various other folks with lanyards and credentials around their necks. All of them entranced by the football. All of them seized by the moment.

Half of them had come in search of perfection, hoping for a rare glimpse of history, waiting for the New England Patriots to complete a 19-0 season, something that never before had been done in the NFL. Half of them had come bearing the thinnest sliver of belief that they would see an underdog rise out of the dust and the desert, a literal phoenix in Phoenix, the Giants attempting to throttle the throne.

The Patriots had been professional assassins all season, relishing their role as America’s Most Disliked Team. The Giants had settled nicely into the role of cuddly upstarts, three road playoff wins in the bank already, arriving in Arizona bearing the look of gamblers with house money filling their pockets.

“Nobody expects us to do anything,” Michael Strahan, the Hall of Fame-bound defensive lineman, had crowed earlier in the week. “If we lose, we’re not doing anything but what the people expect. And if we win … hell, if you keep score, anything can happen.”

He let the thought linger out there, because it was too fantastic to ponder, too crazy to castigate. But Strahan believed. All of them did. Some even took the unexpected step of saying so, on the record. Giants fans winced. Patriots fans pounced. The usual chatter of Super Bowl week ensued.

And then, in a heartbeat, it was all prologue. None of it mattered, not with fewer than two minutes remaining in the football season, with the Patriots leading 14-10, and looking to lay a hammer down on the Giants’ skulls, once and for all, once and forever.

This mattered: Eli Manning, half a second away from absorbing a crunching sandwich of a sack, dancing a Gene Kelly two-step out of harm’s way. A football in the air. A Super Bowl at a standstill. Two seasons, two destinies, one championship.

Literally up in the air.


THE AIR WAS thick with desperation, with the unmistakable whiff of imminent crisis. Outside was muggy and suffocating, late September in Washington, DC, having turned FedEx Field into a muggy quagmire. Inside, in the visitors’ locker room, was something else.

“Guys,” Tom Coughlin announced, “this is the time for us to find out who we are as a team. It’s as simple as that.”

In the past, this message may have been delivered at a higher decibel level, with a shade of sarcasm frosting the words, with quivering anger audible with every syllable. The Giants already were 0-2. They already were trailing the Redskins 17-3, staring at the abyss. Every now and again, a team finds a way to recover from 0-3. More often what you get is a one-way ticket to disaster.

But Coughlin had promised things would be different this year. In this uncomfortable moment, the Giants could have dismissed him. But he proved to be a man of his word. In Albany, training camp had seemed less like Parris Island. There had been a famous bowling night out. There was a freshly formed “leadership council” that already had solidified the bonds between staff and roster.

What followed was the first dividend.

“Fellas,” Strahan announced, “we’re going to win this game.”

Strahan had long been an unquestioned locker-room leader, 15 years of excellence earning him that place of prominence. That wasn’t always a good thing, Strahan’s moods occasionally turning dark and sour, clouding the room. He and Coughlin had a rough start, the player used to one set of standards, the coach demanding another. Yet it was Strahan who’d made the first move simply by deciding not to retire. His teammates voted him captain, though he never set foot in Albany for that training camp. In the past, that probably would have been impossible for Coughlin to stomach. Not anymore. He needed allies.

“The season starts right here,” Strahan said, “right now.”

The new season began with the Giants reeling off 21 unanswered points, then heroically keeping the Redskins out of the end zone in the final minute, stoning them four straight times. Six straight wins followed. Suddenly, in a weak conference, the Giants were solid contenders. Most days, Giants fans could even allow themselves the occasional leap of faith, believing they had the necessary ingredients to piece together a playoff run.

There was only one problem with that formula.

The quarterback kept getting in the way.


IT WAS HARD to determine where the low point came. Week 12 was a good place to start, when Minnesota visited the Meadowlands and threw a frightening jolt of uneasiness into the whole of Giants Nation, and the hole of the Giant offense. Eli Manning threw four interceptions that day. Three were returned for Vikings touchdowns. The final was 41-17. The repercussions were resounding.

“It’s pretty simple,” Coughlin said. “We need the quarterback to play better than that. He knows it. He’s not trying to throw interceptions. He’s playing hard. He just needs to be better.”

Four weeks later, inside the swirling, snowy bowl of Ralph Wilson Stadium, he may have been even worse, fumbling the ball five times, throwing two picks, allowing the pedestrian Bills to haunt him and spook him, and having to rely on two long touchdown runs by Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw (quietly emerging as precisely the kind of 1-2 running punch the Giants needed to allow Eli to “manage” games rather than dominate them) and a terrific effort by the Giants’ defense.

It should have been a feel-good day, two days before Christmas. The Giants thrashed Buffalo, 38-21. They wrapped up a playoff spot. And later in the day, when the Redskins went into Minnesota and beat the Vikings, it all but assured that the Giants would gain a favorable playoff slot, drawing the Buccaneers in Tampa rather than the Seahawks in Seattle.

But really, it didn’t seem to matter whom they played or where they played. Not as long as their quarterback was this bad.

“I still have confidence,” Eli said, but he said it in the monotonic voice that had started to drive New York City crazy, his room-temperature outlook starting to look like a bad fit for the city’s high-octane perspectives. “I know what I’m capable of doing. I know that I can be a good quarterback in this league. And will be a good quarterback.”

New York nodded, and listened, and wanted to believe. A week later, Manning looked sharp against the Patriots, a game less notable for that than for the fact that Coughlin decided to play his regulars, and play them all game long, despite the fact there was nothing tangible to be gained. The Giants were a locked-in five seed in the playoffs.

“The question is a little frustrating, to be honest with you,” the coach said. “The Patriots are 15-0, and they’ll be playing to win the game. Why shouldn’t we?”

Again, there was another concession to the New Coughlin, the open-minded Coughlin. His players badly wanted to play the game. They wanted a crack at the Pats, because it was so unlikely they would ever get another one. He decided to let them play for a half. Then for three quarters. And then the whole game. The Pats won, 38-35. But it hardly felt like a loss for the Giants.

“We know how good we can be,” Amani Toomer said afterward. “If we didn’t, we just showed it all over again. You can’t have a 12-point lead on a team that good if you aren’t pretty good yourself.”

They were pretty good. But pretty good and playoffs don’t often go together.


EXCEPT, IT TURNED out, they were a bit better than pretty good. In Tampa, in the 80-degree heat, they wore down the Buccaneers, winning the franchise’s first playoff game in seven years, 24-14. In Dallas, with the glitter twins of Tony Romo and Terrell Owens waiting for them, they ground down the Cowboys, reducing Texas Stadium to a whisper with a 21-17 win. Quietly, the quarterback had played a second straight terrific game, outplaying Romo the way he’d outplayed erstwhile Giant-killer Jeff Garcia the week before.

“He’s the best quarterback I’ve ever played with,” Jacobs gushed. “You can have anyone else you want. I want Eli.”

That vast field of candidates would include Brett Favre, waiting for Eli and the Giants in the sub-zero frost of Green Bay a week later. There was no way the Giants were walking into Lambeau Field and doing battle with both the 14-3 Packers and the ghosts of Lombardi and walking away with the George Halas Trophy. That was clear. Vegas almost laughed when it posted a seven-point spread. That seemed kind.

“We like Vegas,” linebacker Antonio Pierce said, smiling. “They’re like everybody else, underestimating us. I like that. It gives us fuel.”

They needed the fuel at Lambeau, where the temperature dipped to minus-4 and the wind-chill to 23 below, where just breathing was an adventure and where Lawrence Tynes, the Scottish-born kicker, made it even more audacious by missing two fourth-quarter field goals to keep the Packers alive. The game went to overtime. Old Giants fans still have very queasy memories of playoff overtimes. Some remember Flipper Anderson. Many more remember Alan Ameche.

This time, they would remember Favre, throwing an inexplicable ball that Corey Webster picked off. And they would remember every bit what they were feeling as they watched Tynes get a third chance at glory, booting a football through the chill of Lambeau … the Giants’ season literally up in the air, and not for the last time.


THE FACT THAT the ball was in the air at all was a miracle, of course. Eli Manning is good at many things. Escapability is not one of them. Yet he had gotten free and he had heaved the ball.

Now, there was a time, maybe as recently as two months earlier, where a heaved Eli Manning ball meant one thing: an easy interception. Which in this case would have meant a season-ending interception. Tyree and Rodney Harrison were both poised, looking at the ball, like two kids playing catchers-flies-up. Both went for the ball. Both jumped.

Tyree’s hands hit leather first. Then trapped the ball against his helmet, of all things. Then reached around. Then held on tight, waiting for impact.

And then held on. An Immaculate Connection.

And there, in one snapshot, you have your 2007 New York Giants, your Super Bowl XLII champion New York Giants. You have a ball in the air, and a championship in the balance, and no one – no one – believing that David Tyree will beat the great Rodney Harrison to that ball.

And yet he beats him anyway.

A few moments later, Manning found Plaxico Burress in the end zone, and a few minutes after that Tom Brady’s fourth-down prayer found the grass, and a few minutes after that Eli Manning’s knee found the turf, and the final gun went off, and man, oh, man, people will be talking about all of that for as long as they play football games. Or any kind of sports, for that matter.

Knowing if they keep score, anything can happen.

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