We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
From: Daniel Engber
To: Dan Kois, Josh Levin, Barry Petchesky
I was thinking of you, Dan, when Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs iced last night's game for the Giants with nearly identical runs late in the fourth quarter, straight into the Packers' entire defense (and seemingly half the bench), and then, oh, what the heck, back across the field for big gains. I was thinking of you, Dan—you and the children.
It hasn't been a month since you staked your daughters' future on Green Bay football, and now they're left holding junk bonds. A couple of times it looked like the Kois family might benefit from a regulatory bail-out, when an overlooked fumble and a freebie 15-yard penalty led to a couple of ill-gotten Packers touchdowns. But you can't invest your fandom without taking on risk. At some point, a Hail Mary pass will find its target. At some point, the bubble will burst.
A few months ago, it was Giants fans who were said to be holding toxic assets. "Neither the Giants nor the Jets look to be competitive or even lovable for a long time to come," you wrote. That seemed true enough, at least to the late-night talkers on WFAN, who had a lot to say about the team's inept decision-making on defense, its miserable run-blocking, and—as always—Brandon Jacobs' poisonous attitude (he may not have thrown his helmet into the stands this season, but we all know he wanted to).
In late November, after the Giants got flattened by the New Orleans Saints for their third loss in a row—the bleakest, sub-prime-iest moment in their annual mid-year slide—ESPN.com's Dan Graziano wrote what we were all thinking: The Giants "just aren't built to win." Whatever combination of good luck and bad opponents had put them at 6-2 and in seemingly guaranteed playoff position, had obscured some major structural problems. "This is the reality that has underlain this Giants season since their stagnant offseason and the start of training camp," wrote Graziano.
Yet here we are. The oddsmakers are giving San Francisco a couple of points in the championship game, but again the Giants are the covert favorites for a not-so-unexpected upset. So what kind of stimulus helped this team escape its autumn slump? I've heard a few explanations.
First, the injury rebound theory. According to this line of argument, the return of several of the Giants' best defensive players restored the pass rush and saved the season. Justin Tuck, Michael Boley, and Osi Umenyiora had all been out of the lineup at various points (along with some important offensive players like Bradshaw and Hakeem Nicks). But every team has injuries, and the rebound theory ignores the fact that at least six other Giants defenders—notably Jonathan Goff and Terrell Thomas—got injured and never came back.
Then there's the great-man theory, or, in its most common formulation, the great-Manning theory. After throwing 25 interceptions last year, Manning has been the team's best player by far this season, with almost 5,000 yards passing and half a dozen game-winning drives. Another great-man contender is Jason Pierre-Paul, the second-year defensive end whose blocked field goal helped the Giants beat the Cowboys and end their losing streak. And there's my favorite: former cast-off and high-school math teacher, Chase Blackburn. Could a mediocre linebacker be the Rosetta Stone of the supercharged New York defense?
A third group swears by the freak-it theory. Starting with the game against the Jets, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has cut back on the number of responsibilities assigned to each player and returned to the more stripped-down approach of last season. "We knew exactly what packages we were running in each game, so we knew the defense," Safety Deon Grant told Mike Garafolo of the Star-Ledger. That meant the team could improvise when necessary, and cover up for each other's mistakes. "We knew how to freak it if we wanted to."
Finally, there's the ruddy imp-genius theory. Like you, Dan, I've never thought of Tom Coughlin as a particularly skilled head coach. It seems like the Giants always play a little flat at the start of the third quarter—and isn't that when a coach's adjustments are supposed to take effect? But as Toni Monkovic points out in the New York Times today, a few more wins could put Coughlin in the Hall of Fame. Another Times post, by George Bretherton, makes the fascinating case for why Manning's heave at the end of the first half was actually a high-percentage play. The Packers were crowding the line, looking to jump on a quick out pattern (as they did against Atlanta in last year's playoffs). When Nicks went up to make the catch in the end zone, the Giants had their defenders outnumbered. All hail Coughlin!
I've got my own theory, involving a hippopotamus tail smuggled out of Africa on the Giants food truck, which protects New York wide receivers against arm tackles via the healing power of muti. It's either that, or some combination of the above.
Which brings me to the Giants' next opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, who beat the Saints 36-32 on Saturday to advance to the NFC title game. In our tunnel vision of Packers and Giants fandom, we've so far ignored what was clearly the best game of this year's playoffs. Josh, what did you think of Jim Harbaugh's clock management down the stretch? The 49ers won, of course, but wouldn't they have made things easier on themselves if Alex Smith had taken a knee instead of running into the end zone for what turned out to be the game's third-to-last score? San Francisco had the ball on third-and-8 when Smith slipped out of the pocket for a 28-yard touchdown, giving the 49ers a 29-24 lead. If he'd stopped at the goal line, or run sideways like he was playing Madden, his team would have had a first down at the one with just more than two minutes to play and the Saints down to their last timeout. Chances are they'd score the touchdown anyway, and at worst, they'd kick a field goal, leaving the Saints with no timeouts and well under a minute to go. That maneuver would've cost the world a classic game, but it would've saved 49ers fans a lot of grief.
Daniel Engber is a senior editor at Slate, and writes for the magazine about science, culture, and sports.