By Neil Keefe
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It’s been almost four years since I watched the Giants end the Patriots’ perfect season on arguably the greatest night of my sports life. And when it’s possibly the best night of someone’s sports life, it’s likely the worst night for someone’s sports life on the other end of the game.
Enter Mike Hurley of NESN.com.
I have known Mike Hurley for almost three years now and not a day goes by that I don’t try to slip the names “Jay Alford” or “David Tyree” into a conversation with him or send him an email that asks “Is Plax going to play defense?” I have tried to make him relive a night he couldn’t have seen coming and a night that I wish I could relive every night.
I don’t have to make him relive it anymore. For the first time since Super Bowl XLII, the Giants and Patriots will play Sunday. No, it’s not the Super Bowl or the playoffs or in a neutral setting, but it’s as good as we’re going to get unless the Football Gods are willing to give us another miracle this winter. With the Giants heading to Foxboro and looking to maintain their lead in the NFC East, I decided to conduct another epic email discussion with Mike Hurley to get his feelings on the game and possibly bring up a moment or two from the past.
Keefe: Over the last two-plus years (almost three now), I have bombarded your email inbox and Facebook wall with videos of Eli Manning scrambling to find David Tyree, and Jay Alford soaring through the air like Bobby Orr trying to end Tom Brady’s career and not the Stanley Cup finals. I have sent you Tom Brady’s pre-Super Bowl XLII press conference asking, “We’re only going to score 17 points? OK. Is Plax playing defense?” after the wide receiver’s famous 21-17 prediction, and I have sent you remixes and mash-ups of that same press conference. I have tried to get you to watch Bill Belichick postgame session with Chris Myers outside the Patriots locker room. You have told me you will never watch that game again or any play from that game again and you usually end up threatening my livelihood.
But not anymore. Not this week. This week I know you were unable to escape the loops of the Helmet Catch and the replays of Plaxico Burress breaking Ellis Hobbs’ ankles in the end zone on every possible sports channel. I know you were unable to look away from every major sports website that’s been coated with coverage of the XLII rematch with endless content as everyone tries to relive that glorious day.
The other day I found myself wondering what would have happened if Brett Favre didn’t throw an interception to start overtime in the NFC Championship Game or what would have happened if Lawrence Tynes missed another field goal in that game. The answer is that the Packers would have played the Patriots in the Super Bowl and the Patriots would have been considered the best team in the history of football.
I thought about Bill Belichick deciding to go for it on fourth-and-13 instead of attempting the field goal, or his decision to not challenge the fumble ruling that would have been overturned in the Patriots’ favor. I remember being nervous that Brandon Jacobs wasn’t going to convert a fourth-and-1 and the Giants would turn the ball over on downs and lose in anti-climatic fashion, or that Steve Smith wouldn’t get that third-and-11 before going out of bounds. Sometimes I visualize Asante Samuel coming down with the ball that went through his hands and watching him go down and then get up only to run around the field celebrating with the other members of the Patriots defense. Once in a while I watch the Helmet Catch and wait for the officials to blow the play dead or for Rodney Harrison to knock the ball loose, but neither thing ever happens.
I know this is a lot to take in right off the bat and you’re probably crying or trying to not cry, and you might not even want to participate in this email discussion anymore. Now you’re probably searching on YouTube for clips from one of the three Super Bowls the Patriots won at the beginning of the last decade to try to build some self esteem and pride. I will give you a moment…
(Giving you a moment.)
Let’s start with last week. The Patriots never lose off a bye week. I know this. You know this. Everyone knows this. So what happened in Pittsburgh where the Patriots always win? What’s happened to Bill Belichick’s defense? How do the Patriots have the worst passing defense in the league? How do the Patriots have the worst anything in the league?
Hurley: That was absolutely, without question, the worst thing I’ve ever read. I hate you.
I’ll be honest, I’m having a little bit of a hard time answering your question at the end there, because you spent the first five paragraphs delivering haymakers. I’ll do my best though.
If you want the Patriots’ defensive problems explained to you in simplest terms, I can do that: Antwaun Molden, James Ihedigbo, Sergio Brown, Phillip Adams, Josh Barrett. Those are the names of guys who are being leaned on heavily to slow down opposing teams’ passing attacks.
Undrafted cornerback Kyle Arrington is actually having a decent year. Adams and Barrett were both seventh-round draft picks, and they play like it. Molden was a third-round pick by Houston in 2008 but was waived in August (Houston had the worst passing defense in the NFL last year).
That leaves Devin McCourty (first round, 2010) and Patrick Chung (second round, 2009) as the only reliable players in the secondary. Chung can only cover one person at a time, and McCourty’s experiencing a definite regression in his second year. Namely, he has no idea where the football is. Ever. That’s a problem when your job is to know where the football is.
Ben Roethlisberger did Sunday what Chad Henne did in Week 1 (Chad Henne!), Philip Rivers did in Week 2, Ryan Fitzpatrick did in Week 4 and what Eli Manning should do in Week 9. It’s not going to get any better for New England. Throw the ball against this Patriots defense, and you’ll get your yards and you’ll control the game. It’s really that simple.
Keefe: No retaliation from you? Nothing? You’re not going to tell me that the Giants haven’t won a playoff game since that Super Bowl or that they have missed out on the postseason the last two years? Oh, that’s right. The Patriots haven’t won a playoff game since before that Super Bowl and might as well have not made the playoffs the last two years with first-round exits at home to the Ravens and rival Jets. OK, I’m done with the insults. I promise.
You have already told me that you think the Giants will win. Chad Finn of the Boston Globe told me the same in the podcast I did with him. What is going on in Boston? What is in the water up there? I have never heard a Boston sports fan predict that their team is going to lose or that the thought of failure has even crossed their mind, especially when it comes to the Patriots. And you of all people think they will? This is unprecedented.
You made me feel good about the Giants’ chances by reminding me that Chad Henne picked apart the Patriots defense along with every other quarterback that has taken the field against the Patriots this year. But now it’s my turn to make you feel better about your team’s chances.
Ahmad Bradshaw is reportedly out with a cracked bone in his foot. That means that 2011 Brandon Jacobs is going to play. You remember Brandon Jacobs as a monster and beast of a running back whose career was about to take off after his impressive play in the 2007 playoffs and in the Super Bowl. But (almost) four years is a long time, and now Jacobs doesn’t run hard, doesn’t run people over and instead stands on the sidelines pouting when he isn’t throwing his helmet into the stands. He is a problem when he is the locker room or on the sidelines or in the game, and I’m surprised the Giants didn’t cut ties with him before the start of the season.
On top of that, Hakeem Nicks hasn’t practice all week with a hamstring injury (people usually heal from those quickly…) and his absence would put a massive dent into the Giants’ passing game and take away their deep threat. Yes, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham have been good, but they aren’t Nicks.
So, now that you know that the Giants might be without their starting running back and possibly their best receiver, do you feel a little better?
Hurley: Questioning my integrity as a sports professional? How dare you.
What’s in the water up here is that the Patriots’ defense is bad and has been for a long time. You could take Ty Law and Rodney Harrison off the street and put them on the field, and it’d be an improvement.
I do like how this has turned into an argument where we each argue why the other’s team is going to win. Seriously this is the first discussion of its kind here.
I know Brandon Jacobs is hilariously bad. The Giants, for whatever reason, are on in Boston almost every single weekend, so I have to watch them with their super-tight, armpit-exposing jerseys, and their non-shiny, all-too-revealing gray pants. I think it’s a conspiracy to get Bostonians to buy the satellite packages because it’s so boring to watch the Giants play football every single Sunday.
So I saw last week as Jacobs fumbled a handoff, which Dan Dierdorf blamed on Eli for being “a little high,” and I know he’s terrible, but the Patriots have no problem stopping the run. They’re actually top 10 in that category (hey, go Patriots!!). They’re going to have problems stopping Eli though.
Now, if you want to have some faith in the Patriots, which you clearly already do, you can rely on history. The Patriots don’t lose twice in a row. They just don’t. They lose Super Bowls when they’re 18-0, but they don’t lose twice in a row. They lost two in a row in ’09 and ’06, but have actually posted six of eight seasons since ’03 without losing consecutive games. That has a lot to do with the coach and quarterback, who are obviously still in New England, so there’s reason to believe Tom Brady could act like Tom Brady and throw for 400 yards and five touchdowns.
You can also maybe hope that Eli puts up a stinker (it will always kill me that he threw 23 TDs and 20 INTs in 2007 but beat Brady’s team in the Super Bowl), which is always a distinct possibility.
But all of that is hope and has nothing to do with the events we’ve all witnessed this season. Don’t make me say Antwaun Molden’s name again!
Keefe: There isn’t much integrity to question.
You love saying Eli is “terrible or “horrible” or “embarrassing” or “the worst” or “a joke.” Maybe it’s you trying to compensate for XLII or maybe it’s just you wearing a Pat the Patriot costume when you say those things. Does Eli put up the numbers that his brother or Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees puts up? No. But he’s still one of the best quarterback in the league, and you just said that the Giants are on every Sunday in Boston so you should know this.
It’s hard to defend Eli all the time because of his inconsistent stats. But you know as well as anyone that there should be a stat for interceptions that are tipped by receivers or dropped by receivers, and if that category existed, Eli would lead the league in it because of the play of his receivers (mainly Steve Smith) the last few years.
Right now everyone is all over Eli for his gaudy stats and for his third-best QB rating and his fourth quarter QB rating. He is getting the attention he has deserved for a while and the credit he hasn’t been given before by leading a very banged-up Giants team to a 5-2 record despite losing what seemed like the whole team in preseason. This isn’t anything new though. Giants fans have known what Eli is capable of for some time now, and we have known what he can do in the two-minute drill whether it’s at the end of the first half or the end of the game. I think Cowboys fans remember it from the 2007 playoffs, and I know you still remember it.
So before we continue, I need you to finally admit to me that Eli Manning is good and not the 24-year-old goofball, “gee whiz” southern boy you still view him as.
Hurley: I think I can say that Eli is good while still saying he’s the “gee whiz” kid that I say he is. He’s at the lower end of the second tier of quarterbacks in the league. Rodgers, Brady and Peyton are the cream of the crop, with Brees, Rivers and Eli the next up. I’ve always maintained that, just as I’ve maintained Rivers is better than Eli.
I say that in part because I know we’re running out of time and space and it’s going to make you lose your mind without the ability to write about it, but also because I believe it.
So I don’t know what you want me to do. I’ll throw a parade for Eli on Sunday for being a slightly above average quarterback. A poor man’s Carson Palmer, if you will. Hooray for Eli!
Keefe: A poor man’s Carson Palmer?!?! A poor man’s Carson Palmer?!?! I feel like Zoolander questioning Mugatu … “One look?!?! One look?!?! I don’t think so!”
The mood in Boston this week has been one worth watching from afar. The Patriots lost one game on the road to a team that went to the Super Bowl last year and a team that could go to the Super Bowl again this year. It’s one loss at Heinz Field! Yet somehow Bill Belichick’s coaching and drafting techniques have come into question here over the last week, and you would think the Patriots are 3-4 and that the dynasty is finally over (even if it ended that night in 2006 when the Broncos beat them).
That’s what makes this week even more interesting. If the Giants can beat the Patriots in Foxboro and stir up old memories of XLII, and have the Patriots at 5-3 with a trip to the Meadowlands next week to face the Jets, who might have the same record then with the Bills (the Bills!!!) sitting in first place, well I know how I will be spending my Monday: reading every Boston sports site and listening to Felger and Mazz starting at 2 p.m.
What’s going to happen on Sunday? Well, I hope it goes something like this…
The Giants score the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter on the first play after the two-minute warning on a pass to Victor Cruz, and he salsa dances in the end zone. Now, there’s 1:57 left on the clock and the Patriots have two timeouts, trailing by four and needing a touchdown to win. Tom Brady gets the ball and has a chance to go down the field in under two minutes at Gillette Stadium and be the hero he couldn’t be in Super Bowl XLII. Brady completes his first four passes and the Patriots are at the Giants’ 38 with 49 seconds left and they use their first timeout. The first play out of the timeout, Justin Tuck busts through the line, reenacting the Jay Alford sack from XLII. The Patriots burn their last timeout, and on the first play after that timeout, Corey Webster picks off Tom Brady for the win.
Giants 31, Patriots 27.
What do you think?
Hurley: Look, I know you love Eli, and you wear his jersey T-shirt to bed every night, but facts are facts.
31-year-old Carson Palmer’s career stats: 62.8 completion percentage, 7.0 Y/A, 1.50 TD-to-INT ratio
30-year-old Eli Manning’s career stats: 58.4 completion percentage, 6.9 Y/A, 1.43 TD-to-INT ratio
In terms of how I think this Sunday will play out, I don’t think it will be all that different from your prediction. However, I will not be referencing anything that rhymes with “Hay Malford Jack” because that is just cruel.
As much as there’s that gut instinct to believe in Brady and the offense, I can’t picture anything other than a whole lot of passing from the Giants.
Giants 34, Patriots 30.
Follow Neil on Twitter @NeilKeefe