November 2008


This one is on the Times’ Fifth Down Blog again. Obviously, lots to talk about with Plax, but let’s just win this game and let more details emerge before we concern ourselves with that.

A lot hinges on Sunday’s game for the Redskins, writes Jake Williams, my freshman year college roommate, who introduces us to some key Redskins and spouts some serious cynicism about his Dan Snyder-owned team.

**

On the Sunday morning sidewalk,
Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.
’Cos there’s something in a Sunday,
Makes a body feel alone.

-Kris Kristofferson

I am nauseous Sundays in the Fall. For a time I thought it was the impending work week or bourbon Saturdays, but then I quit my job and whiskey to no remedy. The writing’s on the wall: I dread the Redskins.

I imagine on some level New York fans can relate. But with the Knicks courting Bron Bron and Bosh, it’s possible that 5 NY teams will soon be contenders. As a Washington sports fan, all I have is the Redskins. And more times than not, they’ve disappointed me.

I was too young to appreciate Gibbs’ glory. I do remember very well, however, the bad teams that followed. The recent return to quasi-prominence has done little to disassociate this franchise with failure. This year is the same. Much promise after the Dallas and Philly wins, but not a good game since.

So I am terribly excited and anxious about Sunday. If we win, we could be the 2008 version of the Giants, propelled late in the season to greatness (I’m two bourbons deep as I write this sentence). But if we lose, let there be no doubt, we are unlikely to make the playoffs.

For those who have not watched the Skins frequently this season, I offer my take on several players of prominence:

Jason Campbell: Needs to take more risks. His interception-less streak was admirable, but was also a result of him checking down too often. Even on 3rd and 10 he’ll throw it 4 yards. It’s maddening.

Clinton Portis: My favorite Redskin and, as Aikman points out incessantly, an incredible blocker. Doesn’t have the burst of speed a lot of elite backs have, but makes up for it by being straight gangster.

Santana Moss: Worst hands for a big play receiver other than Braylon Edwards. He’s a stud #2 wide out or a very mediocre 1. Please God let Kelly or Thomas be legit.

Chris Cooley: Overrated. But I’m probably just jealous.

London Fletcher: My second favorite Redskin. A little ball of fury. London’s calling.

Sean Springs: Gets injured more than Greg Oden. Which is weird because he doesn’t tackle.

Sean Taylor: Let us remember that S.T. had the potential to be a great football player. There has been no one I’ve seen who hit people as hard. Not even close. I imagine it was what watching L.T. was like, although as mentioned I don’t remember the 80s.

Jim Zorn: A for effort. C for execution.

So on the whole as much bad as good, and this has been one of our better teams. But, in this year of hope, I offer the following possibility: Michael Vick, the Wildcat offense, and the Washington Redskins in 2009.

After the Jets smacked around the Titans last week, it’s hard to dispute that the Giants are the best team in the league.  As FootballOutsiders’ advanced DVOA stats show, this isn’t merely my opinion.  By their measurements, it’s a fact.  (For more on DVOA, click here.)

The G-Men rank first in DVOA by a rather massive margin: Their 41.6% DVOA dwarfs the second-best Ravens, who pull in at 27.7%.  (What, you have a problem with the Ravens being second?  Early in the season, the Ravens choked away a 10-point second half lead to the Steelers.  The next week, they almost definitely would have beaten the Titans if not for a bullshit personal foul penalty on Terrell Suggs, which saved the Titans from a fourth-and-10 deep in their territory.)

Anyway, as Aaron Schatz points out in his weekly DVOA analysis, the difference between the Giants and Ravens is roughly equal to the difference between the Ravens and the ninth-best Packers.  They have been that much better than the rest of the league.  Their 14.0% lead in DVOA is the second best since 1995, to when DVOA stats date back. (The FootballOutsiders guys are slowly but surely making their way deeper into history with this, but it takes time to chart the play-by-play data.)

Indeed, their 41.7% DVOA indicates they are worthy of their Best Team in the League status.  After the Steelers game, NYGMen commentator Flume declared the G-Men “The worst Best Team in the League” in recent memory.  I doubt he would make this claim now, but he was wrong.  The 2008 Giants sport the seventh best DVOA after Week 12 since 1995.

Here’s the top 10 list:

1) ’07 Patriots: 71.3%

2) ’99 Rams: 50.0%

3) ’98 Broncos: 46.7%

4) ’01 Rams: 44.2%

5) ’04 Patriots: 43.0%

6) ’02 Bucs: 42.9%

7) ’08 G-Men: 41.6%

8) ’95 Cowboys: 41.1%*

9) ’95 49ers: 41.0%

10) ’04 Steelers: 40.2%

It’s worth noting that four of the other nine teams did not win the Super Bowl – it’s obviously possible that the 2008 Giants, as good as they’ve been, will not either.  Still, whatever happens in the future should not retroactively diminish what we’ve accomplished to this point.

In his column, Schatz makes a good point about how the Giants 2008 season changes the way one views their 2007 playoff run, particularly their “major upset” over the Patriots.  He writes:

“Obviously, hindsight it 20-20, and you can’t predict games using future information.  However, now that we know that they were on their way to becoming the strongest team in the league, last year’s Giants run through the playoffs makes a lot more sense.  If we could put together a hypothetical game between this year’s Giants and last year’s Patriots, a Giants win would be a minor upset, but not a major one.”

* Note: There is a ridiculous smiley-face that keeps showing up here, and I have no idea why.  Just so you know, I didn’t put it there.  There was nothing funny or cute about the 1995 Cowboys.

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the nadir of Eli Manning’s professional career, a game that Ralph Vacchiano describes as “his hideous, 21 for 49, 273-yard four pick performance” against the Vikings.  Two of those four picks were returned for touchdowns in a game we lost, 41-17.

Since then, as Vacchiano writes, the Giants have won 17 of their 20 games.  Eli has completed 58.9 percent of his passes for 4,133 yards, 31 touchdowns and 13 picks, good for a QB rating of 87.3.

I attended this depressing game with loyal NYGMen commenter Dan, and the thoughts running through our heads leaving Giants Stadium went something like this:

Wow, that sucked.  We’re 7-4, so we might luck into another bogus playoff appearance in the weak-ass NFC, but this franchise clearly isn’t going anywhere serious.  After more than three full seasons as a starter, our quarterback has pretty much shown us what he is.  Yes, he’s capable of some clutch moments, but he doesn’t seem capable of exceeding a mediocre 55% completion percentage and 75.0 rating.  And great quarterbacks – the type Ernie Accorsi’s old, deluded, Frankensteinish ass convinced himself Eli was – simply don’t turn in performances like that. 

The Giants are halfway decent now, and we should be halfway decent for the next several years.   But our quarterback will hold us back from elite status, a sad irony considering we drafted him to take us to the Promised Land.  Despite his last name and the early promise he showed, Eli is officially a mediocrity.  And now we have to wait an hour and a half for this fucking bus.  This sucks.

This is worth reflecting upon because 1) It shows us how miraculously our fortunes have turned for the better since then; and 2) It reminds us that there was nothing in Eli’s past performance that pointed to his sudden improvement.  It’s not as if Eli had gradually gotten better since 2004, and that last year’s playoff run represented the culmination of a linear progression.  No, Eli was sputtering more than ever until the New England Week 17 game, when behind his goofy smile and tousled hair, a lightbulb switched on.  Nearly a full season later, it hasn’t gone off.

It’s worth noting that the title for Vacchiano’s blog post – “It all began one year ago today, at rock bottom” – is a bit misleading.  For Eli, there were more depths to plumb after the Minnesota game.  He followed the Vikings game with two uninspired efforts against the Eagles and Bears (granted, in the Bears game, he led one of his patented fourth quarter comebacks).  Then came the ugly Sunday night game against Washington, in which – windy conditions and brutal Gilbride playcalling notwithstanding – he went 18 for 52, averaging an unsightly 3.5 yards per attempt.  Then came the two-interception, five-fumble performance against the Bills the next week, during which he went 7 for 15 for 111 yards.  Think about how bad Eli was at this point.

Anyway, as we approach Thanksgiving, it’s worth reflecting with gratitude upon the miracle we’ve witnessed in the past year.  There was nothing to indicate that this would happen.  No, Eli isn’t a world-beater, but as Tom Coughlin said after Sunday’s game, “He just continues to do what has to be done to win a game.”

A 10-1 start and a the customary day off for NFL players on Tuesday?  Sounds like a good excuse for a party.  Select members of the G-G-G-G-MEN!!! will be hanging out tonight at Branch club on 54th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues.  Doors open at 11.

This is the second installment of a series of parties at Branch.  Last week’s fiesta drew R.W. McQuarters, James Butler, Kevin Dockery, and Robert Henderson.  I attended the party and talked to all of them, and they were all really chill dudes.  If you’re thinking that the players are gonna be dickish and inaccessible, you’re wrong, and you should see for yourself.

All G-Men fans 21-and-up are welcome, provided they bring an ID and abide by the dress code: button-down or collared shirts, and absolutely no work boots, baggy jeans, hoodies or hats.

I can’t make it tonight (too much work for my day-job), but I plan on attending these on a semi-regular basis.  But a word to the wise about getting into the club: If you’re a guy, you should probably show up with some sort of female accompaniment.  The G-Men appreciate your support, but they don’t like it when you fuck with the ratio.  Neither would you.

I. A Model Organization

It doesn’t always come easy in this league, and it didn’t today for the G-Men.  But once again, they showed us something: Against a good team in their place with a rowdy crowd behind them, the G-Men won in convincing, if not overwhelming fashion.  Without their most productive running back and wide receiver.

This is an obvious point which is being made everywhere, but this win underscores the amount of talent oozing out of every corner of the Giants locker room these days: Plaxico went down, but Domenik Hixon, Kevin Boss, Steve Smith, Amani, and even Sinorice Moss made big contributions in his stead.

On defense, Kenny Phillips and Terrell Thomas had their official coming-out parties.  Since we know Brian Kehl is at least a serviceable starter already, it seems like the 2008 draft class represents another smashing success for Jerry Reese, the GM with the 1.000 batting average.

At 10-1 and officially the consensus best team in the land now that the Titans have been exposed, the state of our organization has never been stronger.  The success of the rookies for two straight years isn’t just a reflection on Reese’s ability to draft players, but also our coaching staff’s ability to develop them.  All this does not represent a guarantee of another Super Bowl title, but the Giants have become a model organization.

II. Eli

Early in the game, you saw the Cardinals stacking eight guys in the box and successfully stopping the run.  And then you saw Warner catch a rhythm with those receivers and knew they would score some points.  It was then that you knew this game would hinge on Eli.

And boy, did he come through!  Last week, I pointed out that it had been awhile since Eli’s last big performance (against Seattle in Week 5).  I said that it would be unfair to say that Eli had been bad in recent weeks, only that he hadn’t shown us his best in a while, and it was something to monitor.  Today, he showed that the Giants offense is multifaceted – our passing game can hurt teams even without Plaxico.  Eli’s line was awesome: he was 26 for 33 (an amazing 78%!!!) for 240 yards, 7.3 yards per attempt, and three touchdowns without a pick.

I made this point last week, but what continues to impress me most about Eli is his poise in the pocket.  I can think of three plays off hand when this was on display: On a third- and-one in the second quarter, when Eli rolled away from pressure to hit Boss for a first down; later on that same drive in a goal-to-go situation, when he stepped up in the pocket to avoid the rush and hit Toomer on a litter crossing pattern that Amani turned up into the endzone; and on that third quarter 30-yard pass to Smith that set up Hedgecock’s touchdown, when he held onto the ball for long enough for Smith to get downfield, absorbing a big hit in the process.

In the past, Eli would respond to pressure by backing up in the pocket and making throws from his heels, often resulting in him sailing balls high.  Now, he deftly moves in the pocket and buys himself time to deliver crisp passes.  The guy really knows what he’s doing these days.

But most impressive about Eli today was the way performed when we needed it most.  After Tim Hightower’s third quarter touchdown cut the Giants’ lead to 24-19, Eli engineered a touchdown drive that saw him go 6 for 7 for 66 yards, hitting five different receivers.  The drive ended with a touchdown to Boss – and a perfectly placed throw that used Boss’ height advantage – that gave the ‘Men a commanding lead.  To their credit, ‘Zona didn’t go away, but that touchdown sort of sealed the game right there.

That drive illustrated what is so impressive about these 2008 New York Football G-Men: We are often dominant, but when we are not, we are clutch.

III. Hixon

In addition to his 248 all-purpose yards, dude even made a tackle on special teams!  What a ballplayer this kid is, and what better example of the talent up and down our roster?  NYGMen has long called for Hixon to return kicks – he finally gets a chance today and channeled Desmond Howard circa 1996.

As a return-man, Hixon’s best attribute is his ability to time his explosion through the seam.  To paraphrase Walt Frazier, Hixon displays the “uncanny knack” of knowing when to accelerate.  Watching him read and react to his blocks is night-and-day from watching Bradshaw, who never seems to work in concert with his blockers.  Why Ahmad was in there in the second quarter – before that Cardinals penalty nullified his 22-yard return, setting the stage for Hixon’s 78-yarder – is a total mystery.  At this point, it should be obvious to everyone what a weapon Hixon is, and what a squandered opportunity it represents to not have him do what he does best.

But Hixon’s talent goes beyond returns.  He ran his second end-around today, with another good result.  And his abilities as a receiver are no longer be in question.  This guy is a playmaker, and we need to get him more touches.

 IV. Boss, Smith, Toomer, and Sinorice.

How much more do you trust Boss when the ball is in the air than Shockey?  Those hands at one-tenth of the price and on one-thousandth of the bitching?  And a second-round draft pick?  Good job, Jerry.

Smith had been quiet in recent weeks going into this game, but he resumed his status as a first down machine today.  There was no bigger first-down than that 30-yard pass near the sideline that set up Hedgecock’s touchdown, the latest example of Smith’s outstanding body control.

Toomer dropped a pass on the first series of the game, but was his clutch, reliable self after that.  And do you know what was a really important play in this game?  On third-and-three on the Giants third series, early in the second quarter, when Eli hit Sinorice for a 12-yard first down that set up Ward’s touchdown two plays later.  The 2008 New York Giants: Everyone can play some ball, and everyone contributes.

V. Plax

I’m pissed about this one.  If there was a chance he was going to re-aggravate the injury, he shouldn’t have played today.  It’s that simple.  Bad job by Tom and everyone else: his long-term health is not worth jeopardizing. 

VI. Ward, Ahmad, and Hedgecock

Because the Cardinals stacked the box and made Eli beat them – which he did – Ward didn’t have much room to run today.  But despite his mediocre line – 20 for 69, at 3.5 a pop – he was actually pretty clutch in terms of picking up first downs.  Who knows what Jacobs would have fared any better against a defense designed to stop the run as much as the Cards’ was?

But with Ward struggling a bit, why no Ahmad today?  Come on, Tom, when are we finally gonna break this out this weapon, who seems to be a secret only to you?  Did we think his success in last year’s playoffs was a fluke?  I thought I wouldn’t have to say this when I found out Jacobs was scratched today, but…  FREE AHMAD!!!  For Heaven’s sake.

Moving on, give credit to Hedgecock, who rediscovered his hands after a bad case of the drops in recent weeks.  I knew the guy could catch, and combined with his awesome blocking, we can say that Hedge is officially a huge asset at fullback again.  But as much as I love the rowing dance, “rowing to the Pro-Bowl?”  How ‘bout you go a few more games without dropping passes…

VII. Spags’ Game Plan and Blitz Packages

Our strategy for this game was to take away the run, blitz the hell out of Warner, and see who he would hurt more with his passes: us or the Cardinals.  It turned out to be a good strategy.   We didn’t fully stop the Cards’ upper-upper-echelon offense, but we did contain them.  (‘Zona came into the game ranked 2nd in offensive DVOA?  Ranking first?  The NY Football G.)

Sure, their 371 yards and 29 points weren’t too shabby.  But those were helped along by kick returns, and more importantly, came at the price of two critical turnovers in their territory that positioned us for points of our own.  And given the number of tipped passes we had, those two turnovers easily could have been more.

So again, our strategy revolved around a three-pronged approach: 1) Stop the run; 2) Make sure the blitzes get to Warner with enough frequency; and 3) Hope our corners do their best to stay with their receivers.

In the first two areas, we executed about as well as we could have imagined.  The Cards had 14 carries for 23 yards, and even though we sacked him only once, we knocked Warner on his ass all game long.  So great job by both the run defense and the pass rush.

In terms of covering their stud receivers, we did well enough, particularly in terms of making tackles after catches to prevent huge plays.  Our performance in this area would have looked much better if not for some horseshit penalties – and one non-penalty on an obvious pick-play – on the Cards’ third quarter touchdown drive.

On the other hand, it would have looked much worse if…

VIII. Kenny Phillips…

hadn’t made one of the sweetest plays of the season by punching the ball out of Larry Fitzgerald’s strong hands in the second quarter, limiting the Cards to a field goal instead of a touchdown that would have given them a little more control of the game.  Phillips was all over the place – he made another great play on the sideline in pass coverage and had seven tackles, the second-most on the team. 

Who was the team’s leading tackler?  Terrell Thomas, who had eight tackles – including some big ones on special teams – to go along with an interception.  He even drew a 15-yard facemask penalty on specials as the team’s “gunner” on punts.  Jerry Reese was criticized for “reaching” for Thomas with a second round pick, but it seems Jerry knew what he was doing: the guy might not have the best 40-time, but he is a pure football player who, as Jerry said, is contributing already.

There’s a lot more to dissect about the defense, and I’ll get to the tape later in the week.

In the meantime, a couple of other points:

1)    Glad to see Carney in for Tynes, even though his kickoffs are probably a little bit worse.  In no way is Tynes a “hero” in the minds of Giants fans.  Heros are cops, firefighters, teachers, parents, and Matt Bahr.  Lawrence Tynes, you are no Matt Bahr. 

2)    But seriously, the kickoff coverage has been too big a liability for too long.  Is it because of the lengths of the kickoffs?  I don’t know.  But it’s confounding, because you would expect this deep, athletic Giants team to be good at kickoff coverage.

3)    You’ve probably already read this, but with Carolina’s loss to the Falcons, the Giants are now two games ahead of the rest of the conference with five to play.  Time to start saving up for playoff tickets in earnest.

There’s lots more discuss about the Ravens game, but I’ve frankly been swamped/fucked with my day job, so I’ll get to it later.

But a special NYGMen shoutout goes to R.W. McQuarters, James Butler, Kevin Dockery, and Robert Henderson, who I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with last night at a party.  Going into the night, I feared it would be a sleazy, uninviting club scene where the players would be dicks with no interest in talking to someone like me.  It wasn’t like that at all.  All of these guys were down-to-earth, jovial dudes just looking to have a good time.  They, along with everyone else at the party, did just that.

So those guys are awesome, and provide yet another reason to root for the New York Football GGGGMennnnnn!!!!

 

Tuesday is a day off for football players, which means Monday is party night.  Tonight, two Giants – Ahmad Bradshaw and Kevin Dockery – will host a party at the Branch Club, on 54th Street between 2nd and and 3rd Avenues.  Doors open at 11 p.m.

All G-Men fans 21- and-up are welcome, provided they bring an ID and abide by the dress code: button-down or collared shirts, and absolutely no work boots, baggy jeans, hoodies, or hats. 

In addition to Bradshaw and Dockery, Jacobs will probably be there along with some of the other guys.  And so will I, shaved and showered and, in accordance with the dress code, without my Bradshaw jersey, unfortunately.

So come one G-Men fan, and come all!  And a final word to the wise: The promoters tell me it’s probably best to show up at the door with female accompaniment.  (If you’re a female, don’t worry about bringing a dude.)  This isn’t Green Bay, so we’re not trying to make this a sausage-fest.

To RSVP, email Penetration101@gmail.com.

At this point, it’s getting a little repetitive, but it’s worth saying again: Another week, and yet another statement.  Has there ever been a better time to be a Giants fan?  It seems like nearly every week, we severely outplay the opposition.  When we don’t catch breaks and we’re playing a good team – Eagles game, Steelers game – we win gut-it-out games that prove our character.  When we do catch breaks like we did yesterday, we blow teams out.

 

I. The Running Game

 

Not only does this team win convincingly every week, they win in the most enjoyable way possible: by dominating the line of scrimmage and ripping off big chucks of yards on the ground.  If there is a signature image of the 2008 New York Giants, it is Brandon Jacobs turning the corner with a head of steam, his stride kicking into full gear as the crowd noise rises around him before blowing past flimsy arm tackles on his way to a big gain.

 

Jacobs left the game with what he and Tom Coughlin described as a “sore knee” – he will have a precautionary MRI today and people are saying it’s not serious, but this is obviously cause for concern until he’s officially out of the woods.  But even without him, the train kept right on rolling yesterday.  On the first series Jacobs sat out, Ward came in and accumulated 50 total yards rushing and receiving, setting up our third touchdown in our first three series’ that pretty much ended the suspense right there.

 

And as he does every week, Ahmad managed to do something impressive late in the game, even when everyone knew a run was coming.  His 77-yard burst – during which he devastatingly cut back on a slightly out of position Ray Lewis – was his most remarkable run this year.

 

By now, we’ve probably all heard the numbers: the G-Men rushed for 207 yards against what was by far the best run defense in the league.  This makes it five times in 10 games that we have surpassed the double-centch.  What this means is that the Giants turn in a rare rushing performance half the time; there is as good a chance the Giants will thoroughly dominate on the ground as not.  I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic here, but we are witnessing something very special.

 

With any good running game, the temptation is to parcel out credit on an either/or basis.  Is it the O-line, or is it the running backs?  But this is a false choice in our case, because I firmly believe it’s both. 

 

I have been hard on Jacobs in the past, but it’s time I own up to the fact that I was very wrong: Jacobs is fucking amazing.  As my brother said, watching him is like watching an Earl Campbell highlight film.  But I think it’s important to note that, even more than other backs, Jacobs talents are brought out by the dominance of his O-line.  While Jacobs has improved dramatically at maneuvering in tight spaces, he is most dangerous at the second level, when his stride kicks in and he starts running downhill.  When he gets a head of steam, there is nobody in the game better.  I don’t mean this to sound like a backhanded complement, but Jacobs and our line are perfect complements for each other.

 

As for Ward, he has no weaknesses in his game, and is an excellent player by virtue of being good in every phase: He runs hard between the tackles; he blocks well – he had one very nice blitz pick-up on the first series on Eli’s 21-yard throw to Plax; he’s a very good receiver; and he’s good on the edge and in the open field.

 

And then there’s Ahmad, who flies through holes.  The following comparison only goes so far, but doesn’t Ahmad display an aptitude similar to that of Tiki’s when it comes to timing his cuts through holes?

 

The other piece of our running game, the O-line, has been getting its due on this blog and the mainstream media as the best in the game.  The other week, I used Football Outsiders stats to support this point, and I’ll do it again: The Giants line ranks first in the league in Adjusted Line Yards (run blocking) and seventh in Adjusted Sack Rate (pass blocking).  Only Denver (third and sixth, respectively) is close to being excellent in both categories.

 

(The only not-so-great area in terms of our running game is short-yardage and goal-line situations, what Football Outsiders terms “Power” situations, in which the Giants rank 22nd in the league.  This may be due to their overuse of Jacobs in those situations.  His size notwithstanding, Jacobs is not a great short-yardage runner.  You know who is though, size also notwithstanding?  Ahmad.)

 

II. Eli

 

Thanks to the running game, we were able to dominate on offense on a day when our passing game wasn’t clicking on all cylinders.  Eli’s day was not bad, but less than stellar: he went 13 of 23 for 153 yards (6.7 yards per attempt) with a touchdown and one interception that, save for another smart Coughlin challenge, easily could have been two (I’m not counting the one on that tipped ball to Plax that was nullified by the offsides penalty because that wasn’t Eli’s fault).

 

But really, this game was pretty much over at 20-0.  And during the time where we accumulated the lead, Eli was sharp, going 7 for 10 for 82 yards and a touchdown, an integral part of our awesome offense that put the game away early.  (Another mitigating factor yesterday was the wind, which effected at least a couple of his throws.)

 

Still, we can’t get around the fact that Eli hasn’t been great in recent weeks.  I wouldn’t say he has been bad, only that he can be better.  See?  There’s room for improvement on this team after all, and that should be a scary thought for the rest of the league.

 

One very noticeable thing about Eli this year is how comfortable he is in the pocket, which I think owes to both his experience and our improved pass-blocking.  Where he used to back off and throw off his heels, he now displays great presence of mind in the pocket, deftly stepping up into empty areas to buy himself that extra moment to throw.  This ability was most evident on his first completion of the game, that 21-yard out to Plax near the sideline.

 

So even though he’s not putting up such great numbers, you don’t get the sense that Eli’s confidence is the least the least bit shaken.  He is still inconsistent with his throws and still makes some stupid mistakes, but we’re long removed from the whipped-dog days when you could see in his face that he was rattled and would be useless for the whole game.

 

Ok, lots more to talk about, but I have to cut it off for now…  I’ll be back later in the day with more thoughts.

The Giants Sunday matchup with the Ravens presents the opportunity to reflect on Super Bowl XXXV, that repressed moment in Giants history when a feel-good season was marred by a humiliating loss.

“A loss” is a severe understatement.  This was a beating.  After the game, the Giants – a franchise known for its toughness and physicality – looked like victims of a violent crime.

Before that traumatic night in Tampa, things had been going so well.  Somewhat implausibly, the Giants had managed a 12-4 record and the top seed in the playoffs in a weak NFC, which they rolled through in spectacular fashion to earn a place in the Big Game.  It was a magical run that, even at the time, seemed a little too good to be true.

And it was.  I will never forget the precise moment when I realized this: It was during the pre-game introductions to the starting lineups, after every Ravens defensive player had been introduced except one.  And then they called Ray Lewis’ name, and he emerged from the tunnel and did the most intimidating thing I’ve ever seen.

Many people are familiar with Ray Lewis’ dance, those spastic contortions he does during pregame intros.  I was too, but until then, I always thought of the dance as goofy and even endearing.  But I had been wrong: As I realized now, it was downright threatening.

Because in this dance was everything the Ravens were and the Giants weren’t: explosive, violent, and brimming with the fury of having been overlooked.  The Giants were a nice team and a good story, but the Ravens were bad, both in the 1980s sense of the word and in their intentions.  The Ravens were the villains, and they had the confidence to relish the role.

The dance also put into stark clarity that the Giants would have to reckon with Ray Lewis, who not even a year before had been charged with murder.  He was acquitted, of course, and now, eight years later, his image has been fully redeemed.  But at the time, it didn’t seem out of the question that the middle linebacker staring across the line of scrimmage was literally a killer.

Before that moment, the Ravens had never scared me.  Going into the game, I was confident about the Giants prospects, reasoning that while both teams had good defenses, the Giants’ had a good offense while the Ravens didn’t.  The Giants would win, I figured, because their advantage on offense was bigger than the Ravens’ advantage on defense.

But as boos from the pro-Giants crowd showered him, Lewis made it clear who the star of this evening was going to be.  I realized then that I had underestimated how ferocious he and his fellow Ravens defenders were.

And after Baltimore’s nondescript offense capitalized on a Giants blown coverage for an early touchdown, Lewis made what became the signature play of that Super Bowl in my mind:

The Giants had 2nd and 10 from their own 16 yard-line, having mustered just one first down on their first three series.  But when Tiki Barber took a handoff for a sweep to the left edge with a cavalcade of blockers and a lot of green space ahead of him, it looked like the Giants might have a chance.

But just as he was about to turn the corner for the Giants first big gain of the day, Lewis emerged to drag Tiki down from behind like a lion taking down a gazelle.

The Giants had no chance.  Tiki was a good player, but Lewis was a force of nature.

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