It began in sections, like the disjointed parts of a cubist painting: angled, rounded and unusually colored. We were ushered into the NFC Championship with a rousing anthem and then drawn closer through a clouded lens. The darkened sky rapidly descended upon Candlestick and the event became challenging, beyond its fundamental action, that is. The ball, soaked and looking more like a stone, suddenly slipped on passes and bobbled on carries. And with the game tied at seven early in the second stanza, who might have predicted the outcome of this title bout with any certainty?
The Giants’ white jerseys spoiled fast, bright at a distance but muddied and paint-stained on every close up. Some might say, much like New York City itself. Nonetheless, they defended well the New Yorkers, superbly rushing the passer in the pocket, but equally closing the space behind the line whenever Alex Smith moved beyond it. By second-quarter’s end, the fans were drenched and the Giants, somehow, seemed unaffected by the elements, nor their opponents.Eli Manning also threw first downs – that makes a difference – short and sharp routes on consecutive plays. These advanced the Giant momentum as their running game seemed broken. Even the Niners’ Alex Smith, though not strictly employed for his running ability, carried the ball more effectively than the Giants back field, mostly because his nimble steps are conducive to wet conditions. So Eli kept throwing, sending wobbly spirals to Victor Cruz who has better hands than Spiderman. Cruz’s eight first-half receptions for 125 yards seemed to be wholly accumulated in the final minute of second. Either way, his significant contribution aided New York’s ten first-half points.
And then the Niners opened the third like bulls let loose in Pamplona. They stunted the Giants first drive and won back possession. A dash by Smith and a crafty run by Kendall Hunter and suddenly San Francisco looked the better team. Soon after, Alex Smith, who had tossed just a few accurate balls this game, heaved a brilliant spinning loop to Vernon Davis in the end zone. It appears as though any time these two connect it results in a big play. He must be the fastest tight end in the game today. But again, the Giants weren’t fazed.
The game trudged towards the end of the third. Foggy camera lenses gave the illusion that we were watching a dream – one where you can smell the surrounds so distinctly, but can’t influence the action. Maybe it was indeed a dream, because the 49ers – a club we’d all but forgotten this last decade – were beating down the mighty Giants of New York. One more quarter of Jason Pierre-Paul to withstand; just a few of Eli’s chance long balls yet to zip by; and only several more charges from New York’s tough rushers to endure. But the Niners are masters of lingering, not so much finishing. And at some point, one of those Eli passes was going to travel the necessary distance without interruption. As some point blue helmets would dominate the landscape.
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Sure enough, Manning to Manningham – long overdue in this game – and the Giants took the lead again. They seemed ready for bigger things now. The defenses dictated the dwindling minutes of regulation, sending their best rushers through holes and over human barriers with the desperation of cavalries making one last stand. Both quarterbacks took their licks but it was Eli who stood out. He played the part of Phil Simms in this one: tough, resilient, and able to sling those wild, impossible passes. It was the sort of performance that defenders appreciate, where broken plays are extended into new sets of downs, and the battered can heal until their next clash.
Finally, in overtime, the whole thing had run its course, like a boxing match on its last legs, winded and woozy. It was just a matter of who could survive the last gasp blows. The Niners had done so much right, especially on the defensive end, where they affected the New York ground game by holding it under 90 yards. But in the end, the G-Men showed a durability that will serve them well in the Super Bowl. They kept coming on defense with that D-line that doesn’t stop. It held the Niners to less than 30 minutes of possession, but perhaps more significantly, forced them into errors on more third downs than any team should endure. San Francisco converted just one of thirteen third downs, clearly an indictment of their offensive execution amid the elements.
Now the Giants return to the big one to face a Patriot team hell-bent on Super Bowl revenge. Revenge will undoubtedly be enough to inspire Brady. But don’t be so sure his teammates will have all the answers for New York, especially for Eli, who can hang with the best of defenses and make them look foolish. The Giants have proven time and time again, and especially in this most recent title game, the effort doesn’t need to be pretty, it just needs results.