Monday, January 21, 2008

Eli's Coming

Throughout the entire football season, almost everybody assumed the AFC Championship game, in all likelihood, would be a contest between Tom Brady’s New England Patriots and Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts. For most of the season, it looked almost as certain that the NFC Championship would be a match-up between the Dallas Cowboys, headed by Tony Romo, and seventeen-year veteran Bret Favre and his Green Bay Packers. Some sports analysts were so convinced of this alignment, they had all but written the various scenarios while writing all others out. In both cases, they were only half-right

Both the Cowboys and the Colts won their respective conference divisions, and the Cowboys were at the top of their conference, and thus drew home field advantage. Nevertheless, both the Cowboys and the Colts lost their first post-season games. Peyton Manning and his Colts went down to a shocking defeat at the hands of AFC West champions the San Diego Chargers.

Perhaps the biggest shocker, however, was the domination of the NFC playoffs by the New York Giants, who started their post-season playoff schedule as a wild card team. First, they beat AFC South champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They went on from there to defeat Dallas, their fellow NFC East rivals, who actually led that division with a record of thirteen wins and just three losses, as opposed to the Giants relatively lackluster record of 9-7.

Then came last nights NFC Championship game, which the Giants won against NFC North division champs the Packers, in overtime, by a score of 23-20, in a brutally cold temperature and wind-chill that, at Lambeau Field, would seem to favor Favre and crew- but, it was not to be.

Had anyone said halfway through the season that a Manning would play in the Super Bowl, only not the Manning everyone assumed, most would have laughed at such a prediction. Eli has spent his professional career, if not his life, in older brother Peyton’s shadow. It had to be a little embarrassing last year, on some level, when Peyton guest hosted Saturday Night Live and, at the beginning of the show, introduced little brother Eli sitting in the audience-the New York City audience, mind you. Many of them had probably joined in the chorus over the last two years that the younger Manning was highly overpaid for his production and effort as the Giants starting quarterback. No one believed for one second he would be around were he not the son of famed former New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning.

Yet, there he was that night, not long following Peyton’s spectacular performance in last year’s Super Bowl as leader of the Colts as they trounced NFC champions the Chicago Bears. He stood and waved at Peyton’s introduction, this shy young man-comparatively awkward, and unassuming, maybe just a little out of his league-pretty much the way he strikes you during a typical Giants game.

Something happened though during the last third of the season, something that culminated in their last defeat, during their last regular season game of the year against the Patriots. No one expected them to win, of course. The last ones that expected them to win were probably the Giants themselves. Where most teams would have folded, however, barely going through the prerequisite movements, the Giants-and Eli Manning-came alive. It was almost as though some kind of team spirit permeated the crew, and whispered in a still, small voice-well, no need in worrying about it, let’s just go out and do our best.

Yes, they still lost-but what a game. It may have been the best regular season game of the year, one of the few times this season that the Patriots came close to losing. The Patriots also played, and defeated, Peyton and the Colts, last years Super Bowl champions. That game was obviously a heart breaker for Peyton, and a reaffirmation of Tom Brady’s claim to, once more, acclamation as the league’s greatest quarterback.

Without a doubt, the two of them are yet rival claimants to the title. Manning is a virtual offensive driving machine. The same is true with Brady, who combines his skill and ability with a kind of inner resolve and courage that is almost rebellious towards any kind of accepted conventions. This inner confidence led him to support the re-election of George W. Bush against Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. This of course contradicted the conventional wisdom that would suggest he either support the seemingly obvious choice of most New England fans, or stay out of it.

The football world looked with relish toward the prospect of the clash of these two titans of the AFC, and one of them going on to face off against, hopefully, the legendary Favre. Again, the conventional wisdom held this more than likely would be Brady’s Patriots. The quarterback of the future would then write finis to the career of Favre, the legendary Packer desperate to retire with one final Super Bowl ring to cap a final winning season. It would have been like an ancient Celtic tribal ritual, where the young chieftain ends the life of the fading elder in a bloody rite of succession.

It was not supposed to be this way. The old chief was to fall at the hands of a worthy successor, not a mediocre at best upstart like Eli Manning. Maybe the Giant’s management knows more than we realized. They have resisted the calls to bench Manning over the last couple of years, ignored the insistence of most fans that Eli just is not the quarterback Peyton is.

Nevertheless, the team has stayed by Eli and showed faith in him, and worked with him through thick and thin. It looks as though their faith and patience has paid off. Make no mistake about it. Eli managed his team through this post-season playoff run. It was not just luck accentuated by a great defense and some fortuitous interceptions and fumble recoveries. To be sure, the defense played a role, as did the offensive line, and the team as a whole. Well, that is what makes a great team, of course, overall depth. The greatest quarterback in the world can only do so much with a mediocre team-and that so much is not a lot.

Instead of seeing a rite of tribal succession in this years’ Super Bowl, we may instead be privy to a David and Goliath scenario. Unfortunately, I feel pretty safe in betting Goliath will win this round. I look for a score of somewhere in the neighborhood of 24-13, the Patriots wining their fourth Super Bowl, thus ending this season with a perfect record.

However, I would not bet the farm on it. The biggest rap against Eli has been his lack of consistency. Well, so far he has been pretty damn consistent through this play-off season at making us all look premature in our judgments and assessments. I would not be very shocked if he does it again.

Patriot's Head Coach Bill Bellachik-"Just get out there and do your job".

Tom Brady-Conceivably the greatest quarterback of all time.

Tynes kicked the winning field goal for the Giants, in overtime. About time-he missed two before this one, though he got two others earlier in the game.

Bret Favre-The end of a long and distinguished career?

Eli Manning and fans-Hey, yeah-Whut do ya think of me now?
Pictures from Reuters