CLUTCH FIGGIES CLINCH THREE SUPER BOWLS and a CRUCIAL PLAYOFF GAME

by on February 16th, 2015
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Patriot Games

New England’s veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe was injured early in the 2001 season, recovered, but never got his job back. Tom Brady took over and guided the Pats through the regular schedule, the playoffs, and into the big one.

The St. Louis Rams, a two-touchdown favorite, were a high-powered scoring machine that was expected to dominate the Patriots in the 2002 Super Bowl. The unflappable 24-year-old Brady in his second NFL season gave his usual solid performance, kept the Patriots in the game with the help of a hard-bitten defense, and engineered the final drive. With the score tied 17-17 and seconds to play, the Pats’ field-goal specialist Adam Vinatieri read the angle on a 48-yard game-winning kick, waited for the snap and placement, and under everything-riding-on-it pressure nailed it. It marked the first Super Bowl ever won on the final play of the game³⁰ and made Tom Brady the youngest winning quarterback in Super Bowl history. (This record was soon broken. In 2006, 23-year-old Ben Roethlisberger quarterbacked the Pittsburgh Steelers win over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.)

The record crowd that turned out for the victory parade on Boston streets a few days later didn’t know that it was the first of several Super Bowl celebrations.

Snowboots

Two weeks earlier, the Oakland Raiders were in New England for a playoff game. Vinatieri, in a prelude to his Super Bowl heroics, kicked two crucial field goals in a snowstorm. The first, a 45-yarder with less then two minutes remaining (the storybook Kick in the Snow, a line drive that could have knocked a bird off the crossbar), tied the game. The second a less-demanding, but still difficult kick given the conditions from 23 yards gave the Pats an overtime victory. Placekicking on a snowy surface is about as easy as riding a bicycle around a hockey rink. The kick can be made (as shown by the best clutch placekicker in NFL history), but the results are usually ugly.

NOTE. The Raiders will be forever bitter. Before the tying kick they thought they had recovered a fumble, but on review the referee ruled that Tom Brady’s arm was moving forward as he was tackled. Hmm.

Vinatieri’s wintry kicks against the Raiders were reminiscent of Pat Summerall’s (yes, the announcer Pat Summerall) long field goal in a snowstorm when the New York Giants beat the Cleveland Browns to win the 1958 Eastern Conference title. It was snowing so hard that Summerall didn’t see the long kick (off his toe, not soccer style) go through the goalposts and could only tell it was good by the roar of the New York crowd.

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Has He Ever Missed a Big One?

After a one-year break, the 2004 Patriots put together a 15-game win streak to again reach the Super Bowl, this time against the Carolina Panthers. The teams were well matched, and like the Super Bowl against the Rams two years earlier, the game seesawed. With a minute left, Carolina’s touchdown tied the game 29-29. Tom Brady, calm and precise as always, quickly guided his team into field-goal range, and, like the climax in 2002, Adam Vinatieri came onto the field with the game and season riding on his ability to make the 41-yard kick. Vinatieri (has he ever missed a must field goal?) lined it up, the ball looked good off his foot, and it was.

The 2004 Patriots’ 15-game win streak was the longest since the 1972 Miami Dolphins put together a perfect 17-0 season. New England coach Bill Belichick is a master improviser and probably the best defensive mind in the game. He recruits good athletes who can handle multiple positions: Guards play linebacker and linebackers become receivers, along with other combinations that work. Also, like his intrepid quarterback Tom Brady, Bill Belichick is a forward-looking model of consistency and discipline who knows how to win.

“If you live in the past, you die in the present.” -Bill Belichick

Three Out Of Four

New England played most of the fall of 2004 with a defensive secondary that was decimated by injuries, with two all-star cornerbacks out for the season and the strong safety out for several games. Not to worry, Belichick played Troy Brown his all-Pro wide receiver at cornerback, and the reserve defensive backs stepped up.

The Pats cruised through the regular season, went through early 2005 playoff games with the Colts and Steelers with relative ease, and faced the explosive Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl. The icily efficient Brady connected with receiver Deion Branch for a record-tying ten Super-Bowl receptions.

The Patriots had used a 3-4 defense, with three down linemen and four linebackers, most of the season. They switched to a 4-3 setup for the Super Bowl, confused the formidable Philadelphia offensive line enough to keep the dangerous quarterback Donovan McNabb from breaking out, and sacked him four times. And although Adam Vinatieri’s field goal was not last second, it was the margin of the 24-21 New England victory, and a mini-dynasty was born.

Because of his strong and accurate throwing arm, ability to see the entire field, and serene leadership under extreme pressure, New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady is often compared to his idol the eminent Joe Montana. Like Brady, Montana was a master of late-game comebacks.

Eli and the G-Men

It was typical younger brother measured against a preferred older brother: Peyton Manning, record-setting all-Pro, Super Bowl-winning darling of the media. Eli, the sibling struggling with fumbles, interceptions, and the unrelenting boos of a satisfied-with-nothing-but-victory New York crowd seeing too many defeats and two consecutive years of first-round playoff losses.

Suddenly, as it does for most successful NFL quarterbacks: Troy Aikman, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, it all came together for Eli Manning. With the 2007 New York Giants’ record at 3-5 and the season slipping away, a refreshed and composed Manning led the Giants through a string of wins leading to a wild card playoff berth. The regular season ended with a road game against the 15-0 New England Patriots. The Pats kept their perfect season intact with a 38-35 victory, but the Giants, who fearlessly played their regulars in an otherwise meaningless game, learned that they could compete with New England, and the team found certitude.

Enough certitude to win three straight playoff games on the road, with the NFC championship game played in sub-zero Green Bay. Eli Manning outplayed Packer-immortal Brett Favre in a contest won by a last-second field goal, booted after the kicker had already missed three shorter ones. Meanwhile, the Patriots won two playoff games, and at 18-0 were odds-on Super Bowl favorites. (Contrary to folklore, everything that happens in Las Vegas doesn’t always stay in Las Vegas. A lot of smart money bet on the Giants and against the 12-point Patriots’ spread left Sin City.)

The 2007 Patriots set several single-season scoring records: 589 total points, 50 passing touchdowns from Tom Brady (surpassing Peyton Manning’s 49), and 75 total touchdowns. Randy Moss caught 23 touchdown passes breaking the record set by Jerry Rice, the master of them all.

A juicy back-story made the Patriots the villains of the piece. They had been fined by the league and also forced to forfeit a first-round draft choice for videotaping the New York Jets defensive setups earlier in the year. In addition, they were accused of videotaping the St. Louis Rams before they beat them in the 2002 Super Bowl.

The mutual loathing in the New York-Boston rivalry was palpable. Payback for Boston’s 2007 World Series win would be delicious for New York fans who were also depressed by the Celtics’ resurgence and the Knicks’ woeful play. Adding to the Super Sunday theatricals, the Patriots were attempting to complete the first undefeated season since the Miami Dolphins went 17-0 in 1972. Also, a New England win would match the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49’ers four Super Bowl titles.

Tom Brady is virtually unbeatable when given time to throw. The Giants had the best pass rush in the NFL, and the name of their game was get to Brady. They got to Brady early and upset his game. Despite their sluggish play, the Patriots led at halftime by an abnormally low 7-3 score.

Like most football games, it was won in the trenches. The Patriots’ offensive line which, up until this game, had protected the wonder-working Brady, couldn’t control the Giants defensive line, and the Patriots defensive lineup didn’t pressure Manning much and only sacked him once.

However, despite repeated sacks, knockdowns, and rushed passes, Brady didn’t throw an interception and played a respectable game with the Giants’ defense in his face all night. (Pats’ receiver Wes Welker had a Super Bowl record-tying 11 catches and was runner-up MVP.)

An early fourth-quarter Giants’ drive gave them a 10-7 edge. With two and a half minutes left in the game, a Giants’ cornerback appeared to trip on the goal line, and Brady hit Moss in the end zone. 14-10. The kickoff put the Giants deep in their own territory. Eli Manning coolly led the Giants’ final drive, although he nearly threw a game-clinching interception.

The defining moment came near midfield when Manning slipped out of the grasping hands of Patriots’ defenders, eluding what looked like a probable, third-down sack, and launched an interception-bound floater to David Tyree in triple coverage at the twenty-five yard line. Tyree and the laudable Patriots’ safety Rodney Harrison were wrapped like a soft pretzel as they elevated pogo-like. Tyree got to the ball first at the apogee of their leap. With Harrison poking at the ball in Tyree’s big hands, what looked like an apparent incomplete pass ended with David Tyree crashing to the turf with the football pinned to his helmet and Harrison underneath.

Plaxico Burress (who had earlier predicted a 20-17 Giants’ win) faked the Patriots’ cornerback out of his you-know-what, and Manning found him in the corner of the end zone with a half-minute to play. The Patriots couldn’t move the ball, and the Giants had pulled off a storybook Super Bowl triumph.

It was Broadway’s first ticker-tape parade in many years. The G-Men were bathed in unconditional love, but Super Bowl MVP Eli, no longer the castigated other Manning, was the main object of the New York fans’ affection. (In the quote below, Hippocrates spoke of the need for physicians to take care of their own business and persuade others to follow and cooperate. The spirit applies to quarterbacks as well.)

“Life is short, but the art is long, the opportunity fleeting, the experiment perilous, the judgment difficult.”

Adapted and excerpted from GUTS IN THE CLUTCH: 77 Legendary Triumphs, Heartbreaks and Wild Finishes in 12 Sports, with a Foreword by Drew Olson of ESPN. (Amazon, Nook and Google e-Books.)


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