Underdogs, Nothing

011408 manning web Underdogs, NothingThe theme of this season, and yesterday’s 21-17 victory in Dallas, is role reversal.

Ask the typical NFL fan in September of 2007 which Manning they thought would be in a conference championship game. The answer, inevitably, would be Peyton. But the older brother came up short Sunday against San Diego, and the kid brother is in the NFC finale.
It was the Cowboys, not the Giants, who leaned on their bruising running back, as six-foot, 221-pound Marion Barber physically overpowered a Giants defense built more for speed in the pass rush than run-stopping attrition. The entire Dallas game plan sounded a lot like New York’s game-winning strategy against Tampa Bay last week: overpower the Giants with their toughness running the ball and keep their passes safe. The result was a game completely controlled by the Cowboys, who chewed up 36:30 of possession time, including a touchdown drive that lasted over ten minutes in the second quarter.

The Giants, in turn, had a plan that looked an awful lot like Dallas’ vaunted passing offense. With Dallas’ linebackers swarming Brandon Jacobs as he attempted to go to the outside, the Giants were forced to abandon the run for the most part and rely once again on Eli Manning to win with his arm. Of course Manning had only18 pass attempts. But he made just enough of his 12 completions on crucial plays. A 19-yard pass down the right sideline to Kevin Boss came on a third and ten with just seven seconds left in the first half and led to the game-tying touchdown. Steve Smith made a beautiful 11-yard catch on third-and-six to open up the third quarter. And both of Amani Toomer’s touchdown receptions came from Manning’s patience, as he checked down on his receivers and waited for the right moment. He may not be as flashy as his Super Bowl-winning brother, but the younger Manning has really come into his own during the Giants’ last three games. Over his last six starts, Manning has thrown only three interceptions and has a streak of three straight games with a quarterback rating above 100.

As for the rest of the Giants, while New York fans are used to a team prone to making mistakes, they saw a surprisingly clean game. The Giants were more disciplined and more patient. They didn’t commit stupid penalties and dropped only one potential game-changing pass (a probable interception for a touchdown by Corey Webster on a ball that hit him right in the numbers). Dallas had 11 infractions for 84 yards, including four that set the Cowboys back for 10 yards or more. And despite a lack of success with their league-leading sack machine, the Giants finally broke through early in the fourth at exactly the right time as they got to Romo twice for huge momentum-sapping losses. That unexpected patience also allowed the Giants to adjust to Barber’s attack in the second half, when they were able to hold the back to just 28 yards rushing.

Now attention shifts to Green Bay, where they’ll face another high-octane offense. But unlike Romo, Brett Favre knows how to win playoff games, especially in the cold confines of Lambeau Field. Time for the Giants to learn another new role.