Giants Versus Patriots II: Better Lucky Than Good?

20:44 Sun 05 Feb 2012
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Since moving back to the US, I’ve only missed one Super Bowl: XLII in 2008. I was quite down at the time, didn’t have much faith in the Giants, and couldn’t stand the thought of witnessing a Patriots win and their subsequent enshrinement as the best team in history[1].

Oops. I missed one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history, and one of the most dramatic game-winning drives.

In both that win and today’s, the Giants seemed inordinately lucky, albeit in different ways. In 2008, much of the luck was concentrated in a single play on that last Giants drive, the famous Tyree catch. On that play, Eli Manning miraculously escapes a sack (even now when I watch the replays part of me thinks he’s going to go down) and unloads a pass to David Tyree, who makes an outrageous catch, partly by using one hand and his helmet.

It’s hard to call that luck, given the amazing athleticism displayed by the Giants players in it. It’s hard not to call it luck, given how small the margins were and how a number of improbable events had to turn the Giants’ way not just to make it a successful play, but to avoid total disaster.

In today’s rematch, I thought the Giants had a much better chance at victory, but that the Patriots were slight favorites. That’s more or less how it worked out; the Giants won, but rode a significant amount of luck to do so, and just barely, 21–17. Two huge pieces of luck: twice the Giants fumbled the ball, and twice they recovered the fumbles. Fumble recoveries are coin flips, and had the Giants lost either of those fumbles I’m pretty sure they would have lost the game. Furthermore, while I may be doing Manning a disservice, I kept thinking that he was flirting with interceptions[2]. His receivers kept coming down with the ball, however, and eventually, late in the fourth quarter, he led the Giants down the field with time running out to set up the most interesting situation in the game.

Trailing 15–17, the Giants have the ball inside the Patriots’ 10-yard line. The Patriots have one timeout remaining. A field goal gives the Giants a 1-point lead, a touchdown gives them at best a 6-point lead. On the Patriots’ sideline, waiting for the ball, is one of the best quarterbacks of the modern era.

What to do? Going completely all-out for the touchdown is unwise, because throwing the ball is inherently riskier than running, and any incompletion stops the clock. Running the ball is the obvious play. But if you can run it freely, do you score at the first opportunity?

Bill Belichick, the Patriots’ “evil genius” coach, apparently decided to force the Giants to take the points or the time, but not both, and Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw tried to avoid scoring but couldn’t. That was one of the strangest football plays I’ve ever seen, a player heading full steam towards the end zone and then trying to come to an abrupt halt but failing, with the only nearby defender apparently pursuing in order to, if necessary, knock the running back into the end zone.

In the Saints–49ers game three weeks ago, both teams had similar opportunities, but the circumstances were less clear, and in those cases the plays came on sudden deep strikes. This was different; the Giants had time to talk it over, and it’s highly possible that the coaching staff told Bradshaw not to score quickly. I doubt any of them talked over the possibility of what would happen if the Patriots let them score on purpose. It’s not clear that this is what Belichick did, but it makes quite a lot of sense for him to have done so. Otherwise, the Giants can take too much time off the clock, go for a short-yardage touchdown attempt on third down, and then kick the field goal for the win with almost no time left.

Belichick’s call, if it was deliberate, was the right one, and Bradshaw would have served the Giants better by kneeling at the one-yard line. Instead, the Patriots got the ball with 57 seconds remaining, and the Giants had to endure the stress of defending a couple of Hail Mary attempts before their defense prevailed and won them the game.

It was an extremely dramatic game, and had that interesting piece of game theory in it, but I’m not sure I’d call it a great game. Much of it felt bogged down and somewhat fractured, which may be a hallmark of Super Bowl games featuring the Belichick-era Patriots.

While it’s a difficult thing to pin down, I suspect that the Patriots were the better team this year. Maybe not by a significant margin, but play that game a hundred times and they’d win more than half. That’s not how it works, of course, and perhaps the best adjective for the Giants isn’t “lucky” but “opportunistic”. They took their chances to turn their season around and make it into the playoffs, partly by getting healthy at the right time. They pounced on the league’s best team, the Packers, when the Packers were a little rusty. They hung tough with the 49ers before turning utterly improbable special teams mistakes (not to mention non-interception good fortune and a ludicrous non-fumble call) into a trip to the Super Bowl. Finally, they pressured the Patriots into coughing up two points on offense before the Patriots settled down—two points that would prove crucial at the end of the game—and then weathered the Patriots’ long drives bracketing the half, and hung around, just barely, to get and then seize their chance at victory in the closing moments.

The Giants now have four titles (1986/1990/2007/2011), while the Patriots remain at three (2001/2003/2004). Given that the Patriots won those three by rather small margins, it seems just for them to lose some close ones—although the Giants have won all three of the close Super Bowls they’ve played in, including the closest Super Bowl ever.

The MVP award went to Eli Manning, which seems fair as he did, yet again, drive for the winning score in the fourth quarter.

[1] It was mainly dread of a Patriots win—while I was born in New York and am a hardcore Yankees fan, I didn’t form any football allegiance until much later in life, and I became a staunch 49ers fan in Ireland.

[2] Although not as much as he did against the 49ers, where he was unbelievably lucky twice to see interceptions instead turn into instances of 49er defenders injuring each other.

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