I can’t remember a team that could turn it on and off like these Eli-Coughlin Giants can. At least not many.
I’m not talking about the schlock clubs you see whipping around from week to week, up and down and erratic and any-way-the-wind-blows. The plebian NFL.
I mean championship-grade teams, but ones that for some reason don’t mind la-di-da-ing around the neighborhood for a while before they decide to get down to hard business.
I suppose the old Steelers of 1979 were like that. But that group had an honorable excuse for using the snooze button on occasion. They were old. It was self-preservation. They just couldn’t rev it all the way up anymore without pieces breaking or rattling apart. So they picked their spots.
In ‘79 I saw them turn it over nine times and get whipped by a nothing Cincinnati team. And I watched them go catatonic out in San Diego, sloppy and disinterested and eight more turnovers. 35-7 losers. Good grief, what’s wrong with the Steelers?
Then, click! Lock in the seatbelt. Time to play, boys. And the Steelers got very serious and launched into their annual playoff surge then bombed the Rams out of the Super Bowl.
“We didn’t always have it,” Terry Bradshaw said about that year, the last Super run for the Steel Curtain, “but we knew where it was when we needed it.”
The Barry Switzer Cowboys were like that, too, but in a dysfunctional manner. Switzer replacing the steel-fisted Jimmy Johnson, throwing open the schoolyard gates and playing it loose and spending chunks of time in the teacher’s lounge.
The Cowboys turned sloppy after Jimmy left. But there was still enough urgency and sheer will on the roster (Aikman, Emmitt, Irvin, etc.), enough guys who wanted to win more than screw around, and Switzer’s team reached the conference championship game in ’94 and won it all in ‘95.
This is how the Tom Coughlin Giants seem to handle their business, ever since they jettisoned ego types like Jeremy Shockey and Tiki Barber and it became Eli Manning’s team. They can float with the competition and look flat and disinterested at times. But when they’re in the mood they can press the button and fire up the jets and, brother, look out.
In 2007 they got murdered by Green Bay and Minnesota and played .500 ball over the last half of the year and ended up as a wild card. Click! Stomp Tampa Bay, beat the Cowboys, beat the Packers, beat the unbeaten Patriots, win the Super Bowl.
Last season looked a lot like ’07, except the Giants were a flat 7-7 around Christmastime before they got it in gear. Click! Beat the Jets and Dallas, then a playoff romp through Atlanta, Green Bay, the 49ers and Patriots. Ho-hum, another ring for Eli and Tom.
This September, they messed around and let slouchy Tampa Bay put 34 on the scoreboard before closing them out late.
But they were ready to go last Sunday in San Francisco, the rematch of last year’s mud-and-bloodbath NFC title clash. This time they made everything look easy and they knocked the Niners out of the building, 26-3. Afterward, the Giants' quotes reinforced the idea that, Yeah, we can really turn it on around here when we want to.
“We were just waiting for them to play like we know they can play,” Manning said about his defense. “Stopping the run, getting after the quarterback, getting some turnovers. … When you see them play like that … then we can be more patient offensively. We didn’t have to force things. We didn’t have to try to make plays. We could just buy our time, dink and dunk.”
The Giants' plan was to get after 49ers QB Alex Smith with their base rush, giving him all the little crosses and shorties he could eat and waiting for him to kill his own drive with screw-ups. It worked.
One early drive ended when Smith couldn’t get enough heat on a slant pass to an open Michael Crabtree. Three others died on interceptions, which New York swiftly turned into 13 points. By the middle of the third quarter it was 23-3 and you like your chances against Alex Smith with that kind of scoreboard.
“I could tell at times we had him a little rattled,” said Giants FS Antrel Rolle, who snagged two of the New York interceptions.
A lot of commentators raved about the six Giants sacks on the day, but the majority of those were just extra cheese on the pizza. Their second sack didn’t come until midway through the third quarter, with the Niners gasping and behind 20-3. Three of them came in the fourth quarter, when the Niners had no choice but to chuck it on every down.
DE Osi Umenyiora gave a strange postgame wrap-up when he said the key to victory was mashing up the 49ers' ground game … that “Anytime you stop the run that is going to put us in position to stop the passer.”
But the Niners' running backs gained more than five yards per carry on the day. Trouble is, they barely ran it. Only 12 attempts combined between Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. The flim-flammery they pulled with backup QB Colin Kaepernick (two rushes, six yards) doesn’t count. The 49ers stopped their own ground game Sunday. They simply shelved it.
No, New York’s plot was to see if Alex Smith could beat them with the pass and he couldn’t do it. That dreaded “game manager” tattoo can’t be lasered off his arm. Same was true in last year’s NFC championship game between these clubs. Call it a double dose of bad timing.
He caught the Giants when their switch was on.
- Alex Smith