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Take That, Tiki Barber

Six months ago the New York Giants were the Duncan Hunter of the NFL.

By 2.4.08

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PHOENIX, AZ -- My editor, Jayson Blair, insisted I use that dateline. I'm actually covering the game from a corporate suite here at One Blackwell Plaza in Jacksonville. Not to worry, my friends -- and I use that term warmly, with none of John McCain's implied threat. We've got you covered like Dixie by the dew. We have dispatched not one, but two keen observers to the scene: two nuclear family members who are, respectively, a multimedia pundit, and a pro football executive. (Where do kids come up with these crazy career choices?)

Both Mr. Media and Mr. Football, their mother has observed, contracted New York Giants fanaticism by genetic transfer and can thus be relied upon on for coverage that's consistently unfair and unbalanced. They will be filing live reports by cell and BlackBerry. Gathering those newsfeeds here at Blackwell's global nerve center, working the phones, calling on our vast experience in sports journalism and writing to deadline, we promise to keep you almost as well informed as the average beer consumer Barcalounging at home.

Those of you with elephantine memories will recall my TAS diary from Giants training camp a few issues back. It was a story of warrior culture and fan loyalty, as also a story of holes gaping, odds lengthening and hopes fading. Six months ago, facing a punishing Fall schedule with an undermanned squad, the Giants appeared to be the Duncan Hunter of the NFL -- a solid performer but not likely to be still playing in February. Well, my friends, it was all a pack of rotten mainstream-media lies. We have been duped once again, dammit, by those duplicitous drive-by dingbats.

When the Giants' all-world running back Tiki Barber retired a year ago, he said the team couldn't win under superannuated coach Tom Coughlin, much less under quarterback Eli Manning, whose field leadership Barber described as "comical." Not a classy exit by Barber, but widely regarded as a burst of candor.

Yet by the end of 2007, the Giants had revved it up, rolled through a bunch of heavily favored teams and now find themselves in the Super Bowl after 30 other teams have gone home to their families and orthopedists. I tell you, the surge is working, my friends.

MR. FOOTBALL AND Mr. Media converge on the game by different flight paths. Mr. Football corporate-jets in Thursday night, in time to loosen up for the Franco Harris Golf Classic, a sparkly-only tournament featuring John Stallworth, Fred Williamson, and other historic NFL figures. (Franco's after-party, but of course, is called The Immaculate Reception.) On Saturday, Mr. Football lets Budweiser sponsor him in their golf tournament, after which he attends a lavish party hosted by Coors. I catch up with him this morning having breakfast at a four-star hostelry. (On whom? Heineken? Rolling Rock? Thackwacker Pale Ale? Life at the top's a blur.)

Mr. Media leaves work Saturday morning and super-saves across the country on planes with freshly painted logos. On one leg of the flight he's surrounded by a loud pack of low-rent Patriots fans and, it's soon revealed, some relatives of Ahmad Bradshaw, the Giants' undersized rookie running back. Ahmad's extended family, an assertive clan, is taking no stuff and begins to respond with notable pungency. Some real pre-game excitement, apparently. Mr. Media reports, "Could be a harbinger for tomorrow. I like what I'm seeing."

Later in the trip, somewhere west of Minneapolis, Mr. Media BlackBerrys again, subject-lining, "Greatest Brother of Them All," copying Mr. Football. There follows an unprompted tribute to Mr. Football greased heavily with flattery. I interpret this communication as a plea to Mr. Football to comp Mr. Media on a few Thackwackers. I'm sympathetic. As a recovering journalist myself, I have always believed that under the First Amendment, properly understood, the press is entitled to free stuff.

I catch up with my crack reporting team late morning at the Ritz in Scottsdale, where a vodka company has been permitted to offer copious samples. My reporters, who were raised properly, seem to have accepted the hospitality with grace and alacrity. It's time for pre-game predictions and Mr. Media calls it 37-30 Giants, with Big Blue making no mistakes and an unlikely star emerging from obscurity, such as Dominik Hixon or Corey Webster. What he's saying is that the kick returner (Hixon) might bust one or a much-maligned cornerback (Webster) might run back a pick. Mr. Football sees it the same way as does the colorful if injudicious Giants receiver, Plaxico Burress -- 23-17 Giants. Plax is not big on the analysis thing; he picked the score, he announces, because his high school jersey number was 17 and today he's wearing 23. Who knows, that may be as sound as any other methodology.

Mr. Football sees cornerback Aaron Ross, or maybe Webster, having a "Dexter Jackson day." For those of you who wasted your time over the years on something other than NFL trivia, Dexter emerged so briefly from obscurity in Tampa Bay's Super Bowl victory that he became the only MVP in league history not to go to Disney World.

It is by now painfully obvious that both of our reporters are homers. What they're saying is that the Giants have no more than a slim chance. They'll have to get lucky to beat a Patriots team that might just be the best ever assembled. The world at large certainly agrees. As of late last night, almost $1 billion has been wagered in legal books and the Pats are 14-point favorites, a huge margin for a high-profile game. My own view is that the Giants have a chance if they can avoid the early screen, perhaps to Wes Welker or Kevin Faulk, that the Patriots then take all the way. My fear is that the underdog Giants will be amped up and likely to overreact to misdirection plays. But if the Giants can weather the first ten minutes, we'll find out -- finally -- just what kind of a leader is our quarterback Elisha Nelson Manning.

(It's not reassuring in this regard that, in an interview last week, Eli noted that, while his brothers Cooper and Peyton were close to their dad, he, Eli, was always close to his mother. If dad was out of town a lot, I would have preferred that Eli become close to an uncle named Rocco or Big Artie.)

AS THEY FILE into the stadium, Mr. Football, who has moved a bit of swag in his day, spots not only a sea of Shockey and Manning jerseys, but a hardy platoon of Taylors and Carsons and not a few Hamptons and Bavaros. Godlike figures from the Big Blue past. These jersey-wearers are the real fans, staunch through fair weather and foul, some of them veterans of bitter estate litigation, where the prize was never the boat or the summer home but the season tickets.

It's 6:18 pm eastern and I think we're ready for some football. At the ten-minute mark: Big Blue looking good, eating up the clock on a nine-minute drive, leading by 3-zip before Terrific Tom Brady even gets his hands on the ball. We have a chance, it says here.

Halftime: we've traded a field goal for a touchdown, which is always bad, but we're staying close to a high-scoring team, which is good. Let's see if Tom Petty and/or the Heartbreakers can still bring it.

End of third quarter: Who knew? It's turned into a defensive, back and forth, smashmouth game. This has to be good for an underdog trying to hold off the best quick-strike offense in NFL history.

And then it happens. Just as Mr. Football and Mr. Media had predicted, obscure Giants players start busting into the spotlight. A buzz-cut rookie named Kevin Boss makes a big catch-and-run. David Tyree scores his first touchdown all season. Rookie Jay (who's that?) Alford sacks Brady. (Defensive back Webster, it's noted, takes a step back toward obscurity, waving at Patriots star Randy Moss as he scores the go-ahead touchdown.)

And then, with two minutes to go, young Eli leads the Giants on an 83-yard, 12-play, opponent-deflating drive to seal the biggest upset in pro football's long, melodramatic, Steve Sabol-narrated story. At 9:46 eastern, Eli double-pumps a parabolic pass to the 6'5" Plaxico Burress. Yes! The Giants win and Eli secures for himself the MVP award, just a year after his older brother Peyton had become the "real Manning" by winning it with the Indianapolis Colts. No mama's boy, Eli. It's Giants, 17-14, and a victory for red-faced, old-school, just-one-more-lap coach Tom Coughlin. And that, my friends, is why you watch the game.

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About the Author
Neal B. Freeman is chairman of the Blackwell Corporation.