First came the spike to stop the clock. Then the incomplete pass. Then runs on third and fourth down, each stuffed inches from that proverbial line, which on this September afternoon separated the New York Giants’ season from certain failure to possible hope.
Then fans such as Harvey Cherches, who has held season tickets since 1961 when the Giants still played at Yankees Stadium, went from wanting to burn coach Tom Coughlin in effigy to at least waiting another week before striking the match.
“I’m not going to lie and say I thought that at 1-2, they were going to the Super Bowl,” said Cherches, 59. “But had they gone to 0-3, that would have been it. I was sitting there at halftime wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my tickets all season. I probably would have still gone to the Jets game because, well, it’s the Jets. But then, something happened that final drive.”
Teams and their fans search for this kind of moment, this type of goal-line stand, to justify the unexplainable, to hold as some significant reason why their fortunes turn in a blink. It’s often gibberish, more of a cliché than players whining about a lack of respect. But it seems reasonable, valid, this time.
The Giants, who arrived here Monday as the final obstacle blocking the New England Patriots’ path to perfection, insist their place in Super Bowl XLII dates to those four plays against the Redskins in Week Three. Not even the absence of Tiki Barber’s mouth all season or Jeremy Shockey’s self-centered ways for the last month played a bigger role during this implausible run than that 24-17 win.
You can see why.
New York allowed 80 points its first two games in losses to Dallas and Green Bay. It couldn’t stop anyone, appearing to fit new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme as Yao Ming might a Fiat. It trailed the Redskins 17-3 at halftime while people such as Cherches began researching spring training dates. The Giants were down, beaten, on the road, left for dead, destined for last place in the NFC East.
“But we just kept playing,” Coughlin said. “The support the players gave one another when down 17-3, the locker room at halftime was very good and very positive. And that was the thing that sustained everybody. What a victory like that meant is a statement about confidence. Confidence is earned through difficulty, overcoming adversity through perseverance. It was time for us to win.”
No journey to the Super Bowl — and certainly none that now includes an NFL-record 10 consecutive road wins — can be entirely defined by one snapshot. The Giants over 16 weeks suffered bizarre defeats and rallied for memorable wins. They were injured, up, down, great, unsightly, resilient.
But they weren’t going anywhere until they denied someone, until with 58 seconds remaining and Washington having advanced to the Giants’ 1-yard line, a group of defensive players refused to accept their fate in the basement.
So they didn’t. Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell spiked the ball on first down and then his pass to Mike Sellers fell short. The next play was a run left by Ladell Betts, who was stopped by linebacker Kawika Mitchell. Then Betts again ran left, where Aaron Ross waited to refuse him the end zone and turn certain failure into possible hope.
The Giants are here for countless reasons. Jerry Reese proved the team’s decision to promote a general manager from within brilliant. He drafted well. Coughlin went from being an ogre only half of each day. The defense that read and reacted under former coordinator Tim Lewis became more aggressive and took more chances.
But every unforgettable voyage needs a defining moment, and New York’s came over four plays one September afternoon.
“If you asked me a month ago if they could win the Super Bowl, I would have said there wasn’t a chance,” said Cherches, the longtime season-ticket holder from Staten Island who hopes to somehow purchase a ticket to Sunday’s game without having to sacrifice his first born. “But I truly believe they can win, and that’s not just as a fan. I’m going to Arizona thinking only that we’re going to come out with the greatest upset in Super Bowl history.
“But I guess if you held a gun to my head, I’d have to take the Patriots.”
Which means not even the most precise defining moment can trump the obvious.
Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 at firstname.lastname@example.org.