While everyone west of Albany gently wept, the sports world found itself once again victimized by East Coast bias in a national championship: The New England Patriots and New York Giants will face each other in this year's Super Bowl, bringing together the same charming groups of fans that brought you Red Sox vs. Yankees and, I can only assume, further alienating our fellow fans in the heartland.
In their separate games, the Patriots and Giants both showed breathtaking tenacity in bone-crackingly cold temperatures, and both showed why the last game they played against each other in Week 16 was so dramatic. After watching the Championship games yesterday, I can only agree with one of our esteemed commenters in predicting that the Super Bowl will be "jolly tough."
Both games had their heartbreak--Phillip Rivers battled valiantly against a sprained knee to play four gritty, respectable quarters, despite gimping around painfully on a braced-up right leg. Brett Favre, the lion in winter, led his team one last time into overtime, just a heartbeat away from one last trip to the Big Dance, before he succumbed to fate in the form of the New York Giants.
Both games had their mysteries. Ladanian Tomlinson has been the source of some bewilderment, having spent all but a few plays skulking like Darth Vader behind his helmet's sun-shade on the heated bench. And what caused New York Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes to miss not one, but two, potentially game-winning kicks?
But then, both games had their unlikely heroes. Kevin Faulk was the indisputable MVP of the AFC Championship Game, and his diving, barreling catch for a crucial third down as the Patriots bled the clock in the fourth quarter was the moment we knew: 18-0 was on its way. And poor Lawrence Tynes would not pass up a third chance to redeem himself.
There were some differences, of course. Somehow, bizarrely, sadly, the Packers basically handed the NFC Championship to the Giants, when they won the battle of who could incur the worst luck by turning the ball over in sudden-death overtime. I personally will never forget the look on Tom Coughlin's frost-bitten face after Tynes missed that first field goal and ambled back over toward the sideline; the Packers had lost that game twice before they even got into OT. I was already planning to ask a Giants-fan / Yankees-fan friend of mine if Lawrence Tynes could be considered the Bill Buckner of New York football once the game was over. Favre had it all laid out for him on a platter, too, winning the coin toss to begin overtime and at first driving confidently down the field. And then the aging gunslinger was struck down by his own impatience, as he has been so often, and threw an interception. Moments later, on his longest attempt yet of 47 yards, Tynes didn't miss a third time.
The Patriots won a different way--their usual way. They were stymied in the first half, but they all kept grinding away relentlessly, until ever so slowly, they first bent, and then broke, the will of the other team. Tom Brady wasn't sharp (there! I said it! OK!?), but by the third quarter, the offense had at least found a rhythm in the form of Laurence Maroney, who plowed through the Chargers with sheer force of will. The final two clock-bleeding drives in the fourth quarter to crush the last of San Diego's hopes weren't the Brady-Moss Show New Englanders are constantly fiending for, but they had their own kind of ruthless beauty.
Ultimately, though, Bill Belichick was hoisting the Lamar Hunt Trophy yesterday because of the defense. As a unit, the defense is this team's Most Improved Player, and yesterday was a vintage Belichick masterpiece, straight out of the glory days of the 'Homeland Defense' of 2003. Had it not been for the Patriots' resilience inside the 10-yard-line, turning potential touchdowns into field goals almost every time, the final score might well have been 28-21...Chargers.
Last night, as I watched the Patriots wriggle their way to a win like Houdini, I realized that if there's one image I will take with me that encapsulates this season, it actually won't be a long bomb downfield from Brady to Moss. It will instead be the image of Bill Belichick with his back to the field mid-game, crouched down with a white board, drawing arrows and circles and shouting urgently over the cacophany of the stadium at his veteran linebackers. The glamour for this team is in the offense, but its heart and soul are on the other side of the ball.
It's a scary proposition nonetheless to face the team that came closer than any other to destroying the Patriots' dreams of perfection this year, and which is emerging victorious and full of confidence from the howling hell that is Lambeau Field in January. You could say they were lucky; at the same time, they played as physical a game as I've ever seen in the most extreme weather conditions possible, showing that what they lack in having a Manning for a quarterback, they make up for in intestinal fortitude. (I kid, I kid. Well. Sort of.) I don't relish the thought of facing them again.