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Further On Up the Road

Where the road is dark and the seed is sowed
Where the gun is cocked and the bullet's cold
Where the miles are marked in the blood and gold
I'll meet you further on up the road

It’s February 3rd, 2008.

The upstart Giants are in the Super Bowl. They aren’t supposed to be in the Super Bowl. You know it. I know it. Bob Dole and the American people know it. 13-3 Dallas was, as usual, favored to represent NFC East playoff hopes. Yet here they are. This 2007 Giants team had gone 4-4 to close the season, lead by an Eli Manning completing just 56% of his passes on the year, throwing nearly as many interceptions as touchdowns, and whose erratic play was frequently as bad as his haircut.

Opposite them on the turf at University of Phoenix stadium? Perfection.

The 18-0 New England Patriots were bound for glory and NFL legend. This Patriots team was special, having cut their way through the 2007 NFL ranks like a knife through warm butter. Scoring an average of nearly 37 points per game, with the 4th ranked defense in the league, and a +16 turnover ratio, the Patriots were a juggernaut that could not be stopped.

But with a 13 yard 4th quarter touchdown toss to Plaxico 'Quick Draw’ Burress, Eli Manning did the unthinkable. He ruined the perfect ending to the most perfect prom ever. Brady was not crowned king. Members of the 1972 Miami Dolphins got drunk, high-fived, and left Glendale satisfied that their perfect season remained the NFL Holy Grail.

And here we find ourselves again, looking at another Brady-Manning matchup for all the marbles. The Gunslinger vs. the Bubble Gum Kid. But there’s been a lot of highway travelled since their last historic duel.

Since shocking the world and stealing destiny in Super Bowl XLII, the G-Men have looked like Longfellow’s little girl. You know, the one with the little curl in the middle of her forehead. When they’ve been good they’ve been very, very good. But when they’ve been bad, they’ve been horrid.

The good? The Giants lead the NFC East in 2008, going 12-4 before being upset by the Eagles in the divisional playoff. The horrid? In 2009, they slumped to 8-8, 3rd in the division, and missed the playoffs. Calls for head coach Tom Coughlin’s head began in earnest. 2010 looked more promising, as Coughlin lead his team to a 10-6 record, but behind the surprising return of Michael Vick, the Eagles captured the division’s only playoff spot, and the Giants again watched the post-season from their recliners. And of course, this season the Giants were viewed by many as the 3rd or 4th worst team in the division, behind Andy Reid’s 'Dream Team’ and the always destined-for-glory Cowboys. Yet, amid continuing cries for Andy Reid’s ouster, the Giants scratched and clawed their way back to relevancy, riding the resurgent arm of Eli Manning and the suddenly impressive play of an over-achieving defense.

It’s been a twisted, winding road back for the New England Patriots as well. In 2008, the Pats continued their success, finishing 11-5, but lost out to Chad Pennington’s surprising Dolphins squad for the AFC East’s only playoff spot. The following year, 10-6 took the division but the Patriots floundered in their Wildcard game against the Ravens. And in 2010, the Patriots captured the division going 14-2, but again succumbed to an early exit, this time losing to the Jets in the divisional playoff.

In the 2 successive playoff losses since their near-perfect 2007 season, Tom Brady has looked downright human, averaging just 225 yards passing for a paltry (by Brady standards) 4 touchdowns, and a surprisingly equal number of interceptions. Brady’s claim to NFL greatness as perhaps the game’s best QB ever is under siege. Although the Patriots team he and Bill Belichick bring to Super Bowl XLVI is loaded with new faces, it is the familiar ones, namely Brady and Belichick, whose legacies will be judged on the outcome of this game. The great ones have lost their way since nearly achieving perfection. It’s taken them 4 years to find their way back to opportunity and the outcome is nearly completely on their shoulders.

In stark contrast, no one expected Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning to be here. Manning has gone from grudging respect to elite in the space of a single season, Coughlin from fighting for his very job to NFL coaching God in the space of 20 weeks. Think these guys are feeling any pressure to win Sunday?


So who prevails Sunday?

For more than a month, I’ve watched the opportunistic, over-achieving, inspired play of the all but down and out Giants. I’ve watched Coughlin will his team on, first to post-season survival, and then to road wins over two teams most didn’t think they could beat. I’ve picked them to continue moving on and I picked them to be here for the final game of 2011. My eyes tell me they should win SB XLVI. Eli Manning is the best QB in the NFL right now throwing to a top flight receiving corps. The Giants are playing inspired football. And their defense, criticized and vilified for most of the year, has looked scary of late. It’s hard to bet against the Giants. They’ve found themselves here before, improbably facing the daunting duo of Brady and Belichick and one of the 'great’ NFL franchises, and they didn’t flinch. Why doubt them this time?

That’s a hard question to answer. But I have a feeling it’s going to be different this time. It all comes down to Brady and Belichick, perhaps the most competitive and stubbornly obsessed QB-Coach combo in NFL history. They know the Patriots have been a shadow of their former selves the past 4 seasons. They know that each of their personal legacies will be forever bolstered or tarnished by the outcome tomorrow. And, I believe, that’s all we need to know.

Tom Brady had his worst playoff performance ever just two short weeks ago. His first words after the game? “I sucked pretty bad today...” Brady said. "I'm gonna go out and try and do a better job in a couple of weeks."

One could argue, pretty convincingly, that recent history shows us the Patriots are imminently beatable, that the failures of Belichick and Brady to capitalize on playoff opportunities since 2007 show they are not the force to be reckoned with they once were.

But I think that’s the exact reason the Patriots are going to humble the upstart New York Giants on Sunday. They’ve been thinking about and waiting for this rematch since that shocking day in February of 2008. And Tom Brady isn't just going to 'try and do better' tomorrow. He's going to make a statement.

Payback? It’s a bitch. And Sunday, it’s payback time.

Patriots 37 – 24.

Now I been out in the desert, just doin' my time
Searchin' through the dust, lookin' for a sign
If there's a light up ahead well brother I don't know
But I got this fever burnin' in my soul
So let's take the good times as they go
And I'll meet you further on up the road
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