With two veteran teams lining up to contest Super Bowl XLVI, there was never any doubt that it would be a classic battle. Often the sense of occasion can prove overwhelming for teams contesting the Super Bowl, and those pre-game jitters can lead to blowouts and upsets on the field. That was never a danger here, with each of the teams led by an MVP quarterback and packed to capacity with players who were no strangers to competition at this level.
But cast your mind back to week 15 of the season, and I'm sure you'll agree, whatever your affiliation, that with the Giants having just been carved to pieces by the Washington Redskins and standing on a record of 7 and 7, it would have been difficult to feel a great sense of confidence about the chances of them lining up to play on Sunday, let alone emerging victorious.
At that point in the season, the Giants had only won a single game from their past six assignments, and something was clearly not right with their game. In true Giants fashion they rallied back against the expectations of the naysayers and their own floundering form, with two decisive victories that completely turned the situation around for them with regard for their prospects for the future.
In the first of these, they dispatched their rival New York team, the NY Jets, in what proved to be a haphazard and messily fought battle that ultimately was won on superior strategy. In that game, Eli Manning only managed to complete nine passes, but he made every one of them count, bagging himself a total of 225 yards - something you won't see happening very often on a football field!
Most of those yards came courtesy of a 99-yard catch by Victor Cruz who ran the ball a long way to turn the scoreline around in the dying stages of the second quarter, providing the Giants with the momentum they needed to take the roar out of the Jets' engine. Lawrence Tynes also made a significant contribution to the result with two field goals and three conversions for a total of nine points. Two of those touchdowns were run in by Ahmad Bradshaw.
The Giants came back with a classier looking game to put away the Dallas Cowboys the following week. Manning's completion rate improved to 24 from 33 for a total of 346 yards, Cruz again being a major component in Manning's game plan, including a 74-yard reception that was duly run in for a touchdown.
Within the space of two weeks the Giants had gone from being absolutely nowhere to looking like a serious contender! Meanwhile, the Patriots had, by that time, only lost three games all season, albeit one of those was a four point nail-biter against the Giants - their second straight loss, in fact, since returning from the bye week.
The next week brought a wild-card game for the Giants against an under-strength Atlanta Falcons (they were playing without Brent Grimes and, boy, did they pay for it!), while the Patriots were able to sit back and take it easy.
The Giants romped all over the Falcons, and nearly shut them out completely. The Falcon's offense never fired a shot, with the only points for Atlanta coming from a safety early in the second quarter (ironically the first scoring play of the game) putting them ahead by 2-0, but from then on it was the Giants all the way, going on to win 24-2.
It took the Patriots a little more than eight seconds to tame the Broncos the following week, but they did it easily, with six converted touchdowns and a field goal giving them 45 points, while Denver managed just 10 points in total. No matter what the Broncos did, the Patriots had an answer for it, yet also there was no stopping the Patriots offense from getting through, particularly Rob Gronkowski who inflicted a lot of damage, scoring four touchdowns before halftime.
The Giants had a tougher assignment that week against Green Bay. The Packers managed to keep the scoreline fairly even until, within the final two minutes of the second quarter, the Giants scored a field goal and a touchdown in quick succession. After half time it was an interesting battle for a while, but then the Giants romped away at the end to secure an impressive 17-point victory.
The next game for the Patriots was an absolute shocker. Tom Brady didn't manage a single touchdown pass for the entire game against the Baltimore Ravens - he even admitted "I sucked pretty bad today" - but redeemed himself at the end by personally scoring the match-winning touchdown with a 1-yard rush from the line. In doing this, he vaulted over the backs of his teammates in what can only be described as a 'Super Grover' posture. It was a potentially hazardous move because Ray Lewis, defending for the Ravens, hit him like a runaway truck, with a headbutt straight to the abdomen.
The contest between the Giants and San Francisco was also really close, with the game going into extra time and being decided by a Lawrence Tynes field goal from 33 yards, securing the team another guaranteed entry into the Super Bowl.
Whereas it seemed in that penultimate game that Brady was showing signs of slipping, Manning seemed to be getting stronger and more confident with each appearance. But even when things don't go exactly according to plan, Brady is always professional and, come game day, both quarterbacks took to the field and gave us a lesson in how this game is supposed to be played.
It was the Giants who got the game started, when Brady for some reason decided to hand them a safety totally for free, and then following up with a touchdown from Victor Cruz, opening up a nine-point lead by the end of the first quarter.
The Patriots fought back hard in the second quarter, with a field goal from Stephen Gostkowski and a very late touchdown from Danny Woodhead giving them a one point advantage just in time for the half-time break.
The start of the third quarter saw things get even worse for the Giants as another New England touchdown (courtesy of Aaron Hernandez) pushed the lead out to eight points. But if there's one thing Eli Manning totally excels at, it's staying cool under pressure. So cool in fact that he sometimes looks positively cold. I swear there were times when, with precious time ticking away, Manning would go back for a pass and look for all the world like a man waiting for a bus. Then just nanoseconds before getting sacked, he'd somehow manage to miraculously fling the ball away, most of the time connecting with his target.
But even with some great pass plays and good running, the team was finding it really tough to find a way through the Patriots defensive line. Lawrence Tynes helped keep the dream alive for the Giants with his two field goals at the end of the third quarter bringing the margin back to just two points.
When the Patriots were on offense, however, things rarely seemed to be going right for them. Brady was throwing some excellent passes, but the New England players seemed to be having a lot of difficulty grabbing the ball out of the air. Early in the game he'd been connecting so well that he even set a Super Bowl record for successive pass completions (it's now 16 straight), but in the latter part of the game they were dropping him left, right and center.
It was mainly thanks to the exceptionally good work from the Patriots defense players that they managed to hang on to their narrow lead for such a long time.
Manning never allowed the pressure of this to rattle him, and just kept playing that cool, calm and collected style of football that has helped his team so often in recent times to reverse a deficit. Sometimes even a positive attitude is not enough, but a combination of good passing and clever moves eventually allowed them to threaten the New England goal line, with only about a minute of playing time left.
Now, I don't know if Ahmad Bradshaw had made a bet with somebody before the game that he could win a Super Bowl while sitting on his ass, but that's exactly what he attempted to do. Finding the Patriots players parting like the Red Sea for him, Bradshaw was able to causally wade through the middle, turn around and sit down on the line. Well, that was his intention but he was maybe a little too enthusiastic in executing the move because once his butt hit the ground, inertia kept him going so he finished lying on his back clutching the ball to his chest. Update (+1 day): It has been suggested that Bradshaw was actually trying to not score a touchdown, resulting from a command by Manning. Not only that, the same source alleges that the Patriots wanted the Giants to score, a theory I have a lot of trouble understanding, since we all know what the result was. Granted, Brady's massive pass right at the end could have made a difference, but there was a very high chance of it failing and so Bradshaw scoring was the right move. See the article where all this is alleged.
Another update (+3 days): Further research reveals that this kind of thing is pretty rare but it's not unique. Here is another example where a player was deliberately trying not to score. Strategically it makes some sense to do this, but I wonder how it plays out in accordance with betting rules, since in the majority of sports teams are expected to score as high as they possibly can and to ensure the margin between the scores is as great as possible, regardless of whether scoring by a lower margin would allow them some future advantage. The problem I can foresee with this, from a legal perspective anyway, is that by deliberately conceding the points you remove any possible probability of the other team not scoring (unless they don't take the bait). It's clear that the team is trying to give themselves the best chance to win by conceding the points, because it was almost certain that Tynes would have kicked a field goal on the 4th down if this strategy hadn't been employed. But that word "almost" couldn't be more significant in the context of this situation.
It may have seemed a little crazy to try for two extra points rather than just going for a nice, simple conversion, but strategically the move did make some sense despite the risk of failure. Trailing by 4, the Patriots couldn't win off a field goal anyway, they had to go for a touchdown. So for the Giants this meant that if by some miracle the Patriots did get the required touchdown, leading by only five points would have hurt them. If they managed to extend the lead to six points, however, it would mean the Patriots would have to also successfully convert any touchdown in order to not tie the game and force extra time.
For the Giants there were three possibilities before this play. They'd either win by between one and four points, they'd lose by one point, or the game would go into overtime and they'd still be in with a chance of winning. That's all academic anyway, since the gamble didn't pay off.
Brady gave it one last desperate try, but in the end the Patriots simply hadn't done enough. They lost this game mainly due to occasional tactical mistakes and fumbled passes. The Giants won by being able to maintain focus, digging in and fighting all the way to the end. And, yeah, maybe just a little luck, too. But that's the game.