INDIANAPOLIS — Many of the Giants' best defenders have become household names: Tuck. Umenyiora. Pierre-Paul. Phillips. Webster. They're fast, strong and playing as a unit at the most important time of the season.
But the group received a subtle addition in Week 12 that just might have saved the season. With middle linebacker a campaign-long problem to that point and the special teams missing that extra oomph, the Giants made a phone call to a familiar face.
Chase Blackburn had been with the team last season, his sixth with the Giants, the only team he has played for in the NFL, but was not brought back this season. No other team picked him up after the lockout, either, and so Blackburn was left to sit home, prepare for a season without the benefit of a training camp and hope for a phone call.
He got one: Prior to the Packers regular-season game, the Giants had been killed over the middle, most recently then by a series of crossing routes by the 49ers in Week 10 and on scrambles, draws and screens by the Eagles in Week 11, with the Giants losing both games.
"I feel like that's why they brought me in: I knew the defense, they knew what I brought to the table," Blackburn said. "I was in shape and ready to go."
With the high-flying Packers, owners of a 10-0 record at the time, rolling into town, the Giants didn't waste time. They inserted Blackburn into their regular defensive packages with few restrictions, making seven tackles and an interception of Aaron Rodgers, which was only the QB's fifth of the season at that point.
"Like he was never away," head coach Tom Coughlin said.
Blackburn has started ever since at middle linebacker. S Kenny Phillips called him "spectacular." GM Jerry Reese said Blackburn has "calmed things down" since his arrival. And head coach Tom Coughlin said Wednesday that he has been asked 972 Blackburn questions this week. From the couch to the world's biggest stage, Blackburn has become something of a folk hero the past two months.
That means questions about his ever-growing hair ("It has been eight weeks and I plan on cutting it when we win," he said) as well as ticket requests from people he hasn't heard from in months ("I appreciate the support from everyone, but there are only so many tickets you can get.").
But the best part of Blackburn's story is that he already was transitioning into the next phase of his life prior to his arrival. He had a chance run-in with a former high school teacher who thought Blackburn would make a great teacher himself, and it just so happened that a woman at his school was about to go on maternity leave for the second semester. Blackburn, fearing the worst and preparing for that call never to come, applied for the job.
In the meanwhile, just in case, he was staying in shape. During the lockout, Blackburn worked out with NFL LBs A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter in Columbus, Ohio, close to Blackburn's home. "They were great workouts, but once they left for training camp, I was by myself," he said. There was no training camp, no two-a-days and no football Sundays — at least not those on the field. "It was tough to watch football those first 11 weeks," Blackburn said.
The teaching gig became more of a reality and less of a fallback option.
"I was going through the process of applying (for the teaching job) when the Giants called me," he said. "I was pretty close to (accepting it)."
No offense to the substitute teaching, but at that point Blackburn was so excited about his chance to return to the NFL — and so sick of working out alone — he could have pushed a Prowler sled from Ohio to the Meadowlands.
The Giants were pretty glad to have him, too.
"When we got Chase, it was like, 'Okay, at least we got somebody who knows the defense who can fill in,'" Giants S Antrel Rolle said. "Once that he got in, we (had) to make sure that we embraced (changes) in the right way that it doesn't skip a beat. We're here now."
Here is the Super Bowl, but Rolle also means how the defense has improved. In the first 11 games before Blackburn's arrival, the team allowed 25.2 points per game. In the eight since, including playoffs, that number has fallen to 20.3, including 13.0 in the playoffs.
Blackburn has been a bit banged up the past few weeks with a calf injury, but otherwise he's all-systems-go for Sunday. And he'll be part of a defense that must find a way to slow down the Patriots' passing game, which can do a lot of damage between the hashes with maybe the game's best underneath slot receiver in Wes Welker and a TE pair like no other in Rob Gronkowski (assuming he's healthy) and Aaron Hernandez.
"We cannot let them get the run going because Tom Brady can be dangerous when he runs play-action pass," Blackburn said. "We need to stop that early and pursue the passing game. We know they are dangerous with the passing game as well, but that gives us a chance to get some pressure on the quarterback."
You'll see a lot of Blackburn on Sunday, filling against the run, maybe covering one of those tight ends or perhaps running down a punt. And if Coughlin needs something else in a pinch, Blackburn will be there.
"He's probably one of three of our players who has the positive supportive role on the sidelines for offense and special teams," Coughlin said. "He's really jumped right in and done more than you can ask of anybody to help in as many ways as he can. He'll volunteer to do anything; he's just that kind of guy."
At this point, he's just happy to be here. Cliché? You bet. Blackburn doesn't care what you call it. He doesn't care now how his season started. He's not thinking about what might have been. He is simply soaking up what has been a fortuitous turn of events.
"Maybe if I had been there earlier in the year, I would have had a career-ending injury, who knows? Even if I had been in training camp," Blackburn said, "it's still crazy to think I am here, playing in a Super Bowl."