“That’s why we took the damn field! Now, if you want to crown them, then crown their ass!” -Dennis Green on playing the Bears, MNF 10/16/06
I’m surprised management splurged and actually flew the New York Giants to Arizona. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to just come to terms with the foregone conclusion of the Patriots’ perfect season? Big Blue is overmatched, and Tom Brady is clearly Christ himself. Hell, New England already has applied for a trademark patent on “19-0.” (I’m not making this up.) Does it matter who they’re playing? The Giants are merely slated to be another blip of road kill on the Patriots’ road to perfection.
Which means the Patriots go down in history no matter what. As perfect or as chokers. And the Giants? Only a catalyst to either. For New England and most of the country, Super Bowl 42 is nothing short of a formality. For New York, it’s like winning big on an improbable bet one weekend and then parlaying it all. We’re playing with house money. But what do we get if we win? If New England steamrolls through another one, they will undoubtedly be knighted as the Greatest Ever. It seems unfair that all the Giants are playing for is the Biggest Upset Ever.
Where do we draw the line between Biggest Choke and Biggest Upset? It’s a fine line, for certain, and notorious games usually don’t carry both stigmas. In other words, it’s rare for a team that upsets a juggernaut to be remembered as the victor, rather than the choker to be remembered as the goat. When the Giants topped the Bills in Super Bowl 25, Scott Norwood was the one awarded legendary status, not the team hugging the Lombardi.
So, in the spirit of the upcoming Tug-of-War between David and Goliath, here are five anomalies of glorious upsets where the victor did indeed receive the spoils:
1.) Denver Broncos over Green Bay Packers, 31-24: Super Bowl XXXII, 1998
In the wake of the recent Pack loss, it’s hard to see Favre as a beast, but in SB32, he was expected to cut through the 11-point underdog Denver as if they were playing the cast of 7th Heaven…not unlike the way Brady’s expected to blow through the G-Men. It was John Elway’s dramatic drive after the two minute warning that gave the Broncos the win. The Pack blew it, but it was Elway’s heroics that are celebrated.
2.) New York Giants over Chicago Bears, 30-13: 1934 NFL title
Big Blue’s 2008 post-season is oddly mirroring some of the nuances punctuating the 1934 championship. Not only was the game played in inhumane weather (a la the -4 degree Green Bay game), but it was against the original undefeated team, (albeit it was a 13 game season.) Chicago had some Polish wrestler on their team that was reported to be an unmitigated tackling nightmare, and the Giants came into the game with an 8-5 record. But after being down 10-3 at halftime, NY returned from the locker rooms having abandoned their cleats in favor of sneakers. The Bears slipped around the iced over field for the duration of the 2nd half while NY soared to a 30-13 victory.
3.) Buffalo Bills over Houston Oilers, 41-38 (OT): 1993 Wild Card game
The biggest comeback…or the biggest choke? It’s like one of those M.C. Escher paintings that wallpaper Generation X’s home offices. The Bills managed to creep back from a 35-3 hole. I don’t fully understand the logistics of this one, and I’m pretty sure it’s only possible to make a comeback like this only if Houston never returned to the game after halftime. But the sheer depth of the deficit that Buffalo overcame is somehow more stunning than the Oilers’ colossal collapse.
4.) New England Patriots over St. Louis Rams, 20-17: Super Bowl XXXVI, 2002
It’s hard to remember a time–a fairly recent time, at that–that the Patriots weren’t an uber-force to be reckoned with. It’s like trying to remember a time when Madison Square Garden wasn’t a morgue. When I think back to watching Super Bowl 36, my junior year of college, all I can see is Vinitieri’s winning 48-yard FG with 7 seconds left. I honestly didn’t even remember what team was on the other end of this miraculous victory–which may be the hallmark of an upset where anecdotal legacy favors the winner and not the upset-ee.
5.) New York Jets over Baltimore Colts, 16-7: Super Bowl III, 1969
My sister dated the son of David Herman, one of the guys on the 1969 Jets. After Joe Namath guaranteed a win over the 18-point favorite (the highest spread in SB history), he later said in an interview that only one guy on the team was pissed about this: David Herman. My sister must have heard (and told) this story a million times, but neither of us could have told you what team it was that Joe Cool was sentencing to defeat. I can’t decide if this was insanely lucky or astutely perceptive of Namath–but either way his called shot puts the ’69 Super Bowl underdog in the books over the muted Colts.
* * *
It’s difficult to say what’s worse: the pressure on New England, or the lack of pressure on the Giants. The New England Patriots are one game away from immortality, from locking up their dynasty status and chiseling out a spot in sports history as unassailably legendary.
And then there are the Giants, who seemed to have tumbled into the playoffs before we even had time to wrap our heads around it. I felt like I did when my dad used to wake me up for school at 6am: confused, disoriented, frantic, and still a little bit unsure of whether or not I’m still in REM or if I’m actually conscious.
It says something that all of New England isn’t treating their faith and sports loyalty with kid gloves. Things changed after 2004–gone are the days of frantically shushing people who start getting excited about the prospect of a championship. That era has since been replaced with a burgeoning tribe of sports fans that are less concerned about Super Bowl LXII, and more interested in moving on to capturing the NBA title.
I spent my formative years watching every last football game with my dad, who explained to me what a point spread was before I could even do long division. And after every game where “the bad guys weren’t supposed to win,” my dad would say, “Well, that’s why you play the game.”
Maybe the Giants will be embarrassed on Sunday, February 3rd. Maybe they’ll do what everyone thinks they’ll do and become the latest stepping stone in the Patriots’ climb towards immortality. But maybe not.
My college roommate slept through about 75% of our senior year. Luckily, her professors had a policy that you could take all 10 tests during the semester and have each count for 10%, or you could take less and just have them that much more weighted. My roommate wouldn’t go to class or take a quiz all semester, stay awake for 72 hours to study for the final, ace it, and wind up with an A+ for the term.
It doesn’t matter what New England got on the other 18 tests. Whether you come out of it as the Biggest Choker, the Biggest Upset-er, or just plain NFL Champion, the Super Bowl counts for 100% of the grade now.
If you want to crown the Pats now, then crown `em now. But there’s no sidestepping the simple truth that the game still has to be played.
And that’s why you take the field.