GREEN BAY, Wis. – The ball popped free and fell softly at his feet, and for a split second, time stood still. It was as if some higher power had pushed the pause button at Lambeau Field Sunday evening, with 72,080 fans gasping in unison and the defending Super Bowl champions' season hanging in the balance.
What happened next, with seven minutes remaining and the New York Giants up by 10 points in a divisional playoff game, caused football fans everywhere to do what Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers might call a discount double-take. Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn reached down, scooped up Ryan Grant's fumble and started charging down the sideline, with the end zone, a trip to San Francisco and a stunning Super Bowl run in his sights.
He didn't score because, the seventh-year middle linebacker would say later, "I'm too slow!" Yet Blackburn, perhaps the least likely person to administer a symbolic choke-out to the top-seeded Packers, got close enough, rambling 40 yards before being taken down inside the 5-yard line by Rodgers, the league's best player during the 2011 regular season.
When Eli Manning threw a dart to wideout Mario Manningham in the back of the end zone on the next play, the Giants had taken a massive step on the road to a fourth Super Bowl title, and they strutted out of Titletown with a familiar swagger. Yes, football fans, 2012 is starting to feel a lot like 2008, when coach Tom Coughlin's brash and defiant underdogs shocked the football world and won a championship few outside their locker room saw coming.
[ Dan Wetzel: Eli Manning does it all, even 'pancake' blocks ]
After Sunday's 37-20 beat-down of the Packers, on the heels of last weekend's 24-2 pummeling of the Atlanta Falcons, the Giants are halfway there. If they can defeat the second-seeded San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park in next Sunday's NFC championship game, they'll be headed to Indianapolis for a Super Bowl XLVI matchup with the Baltimore Ravens or New England Patriots – and a possible sequel to their stunning upset of the then-undefeated Pats four years ago.
The two Giants teams aren't identical, but there are enough similarities to stir a lot of pleasant memories in the Big Apple: The punishing pass rush; the postseason brilliance of quarterback Eli Manning; Coughlin's purple face at frigid Lambeau; and, most of all, the pugnacious, we-don't-give-a-damn attitude of the guys in the blue helmets.
"That's a good way to put it," veteran defensive end Justin Tuck said after Sunday's game in a spirited visitors' locker room. "We don't care at all. We're going to be hard to beat. We know what we have in this room. We believe in ourselves, and we really don't care what other people say. This team is oozing with confidence. We don't really get rattled by anything."
Against a Packers team that had flirted with an undefeated regular season before finishing with a league-best 15-1 mark, and against a quarterback who produced one of the most impressive statistical campaigns the sport has known, the Giants were the aggressors on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, Manning (21 for 33, 330 yards, three touchdowns, one interception) got a ton of time from his offensive line and ripped apart Green Bay's shaky secondary. Wideout Hakeem Nicks (seven receptions, 165 yards, two TDs) was a flat-out beast, turning a first-quarter crossing route into a 66-yard score after bulling past overmatched safety Charlie Peprah at midfield, yanking Manning's first half-ending Hail Mary out of the air – and trapping it against his helmet, David Tyree-style – as Peprah (who was too deep) and Charles Woodson (too late) flailed unsuccessfully at the ball.
Defensively, the Giants were the latest team to follow the 21st century blueprint for subduing a prolific passing offense with a transcendent quarterback in the postseason: Find a way to apply constant pressure to get the offense out of rhythm, and dare the opponent to produce a Plan B. So much for the Year of the Quarterback: On a weekend in which three such seemingly unstoppable passers were on display, only the Patriots' Tom Brady advanced to the final four, while the Saints' Drew Brees (whose team lost a thriller to the 49ers on Saturday) and Rodgers – winners of the past two Super Bowls – were terminated.
The Giants were all over Rodgers (26 for 46, 264 yards, two TDs, one interception), sacking him four times, including defensive end Osi Umenyiora's third-quarter strip that ended a Green Bay drive in Giants territory and produced one of three fumble recoveries.
The third of those – by Blackburn, after safety Kenny Phillips forced Grant's fumble – sucked the life out of Titletown and spoke to the improbability of the Giants' ascent to the title game.
After having spent the previous six seasons with the Giants, Blackburn was one of those lockout casualties who got lost in the post-settlement frenzy. An unrestricted free agent, Blackburn remained unsigned and stayed unemployed for much of the season, despite workouts with the Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions and St. Louis Rams.
In late November, Blackburn was pondering a new life as a middle-school math teacher in his hometown of Dublin, Ohio and helping his wife, Megan, take care of their sons, 17-month-old Landyn and 10-week-old Bentley.
"I was helping as much as I could," Blackburn said Sunday. "Diapers, middle-of-the-night, everything – I mean, I wasn't working. I'm not just a football player. I'm still Dad first."
Blackburn stayed in shape, working out four days a week – or at night, "if my sons didn't nap when they were supposed to." He made several post-sundown trips to Dublin's Avery Park, doing drills by himself on a darkened field.
On Nov. 28, Blackburn sat home and watched Brees shred the Giants' defense in a 49-24 "Monday Night Football" victory. The next day, he was in his basement, playing with Landyn, when his cell phone rang.
"The phone was sitting on the couch, and my wife went to pick it up," Blackburn recalled. "I said to Megan, 'Don't worry about it – it's just the Giants calling.' I was totally joking, but when I picked it up, I recognized the number. I said, 'It's from Giants Stadium!' and I'm not sure if she really believed me."
Blackburn answered, and Kevin Abrams, the Giants' assistant general manager, got right to the point: "Pack your bags. Let's go."
With linebackers Michael Boley and Mark Herzlich hurt, Blackburn had a job, along with a new uniform number (93, instead of 57) and a new lease on NFL life. His first game was a 38-35 defeat to the Packers at MetLife Stadium, and he intercepted a Rodgers pass. Even as New York lost its fourth straight game to fall to 6-6, Blackburn's teammates remained upbeat and confident.
"I honestly think the Green Bay game changed our season," Tuck said. "We gave up 38 points, but when we went back and watched the film, we made so many mistakes. We said, 'We gave one away. And if we can be this close against this team with all those mistakes, we've got a great chance if we play them again, and we can beat anybody.' "
The Giants' trip to San Francisco will offer another chance for role-reversal, as New York suffered a 27-20 defeat to the Niners at Candlestick in mid-November. They'll be in for a stern test against a similarly physical and sound foe, but suffice it to say they're not overly stressed about the showdown.
"Nobody gave us an opportunity to be where we are right now," veteran left tackle David Diehl said. "People, if you asked them six weeks ago, they'd have said, 'You're crazy, there's no way, Coach Coughlin's getting fired,' all that stuff. We banded together, we rallied, and we said, 'This is us against the world. If we want to continue this season and achieve our ultimate goal, we've got to stick together.' The focus and determination of the guys in here is just phenomenal."
Umenyiora, who shook off a summertime contract dispute ("I'm not gonna whine or cry about it," he said Sunday. "I went to war and I lost. Here I am.") and an injury-plagued campaign (he says he's still bothered by the high-ankle sprain that sidelined him for four late-season games, though you can't tell by watching him), is another holdover from the '07 season who senses the chance for an encore.
"Honestly, and I'm not just talking here, we came into this game thinking we were really gonna beat them down," he said after his two-sack performance. "I really don't know why. But we thought we were gonna beat them down. There's just a certain feeling you have sometimes going into a game, and we had that feeling. We're a confident team."
Any guesses as to how the Giants are feeling about Sunday's trip to San Francisco?
"Do we feel like we're gonna win in San Francisco?" Tuck asked. "Yes, we feel like we're gonna win in San Francisco. Am I guaranteeing a win? No. But yes, I feel we have an opportunity to win if we play the way I think we will. Otherwise, I wouldn't board that plane.
"If it comes out like we're arrogant, I'm sorry. We feel confident in any sort of game – a shootout, a last-second nailbiter, whatever. We respect every opponent. We know San Francisco is gonna pose a lot of problems for us. But we feel as though we'll figure it out."
Last Thursday at the Niners' training facility in Santa Clara, I approached tight end Vernon Davis at his locker and began our interview by asking if he felt his team, on a national level, had been "a quiet 13-3." Davis nodded. "We're not getting a ton of attention, but it's time we all accept that," he said. "But at the end of the day, once we finish, everybody will be praising us. They don't have to praise us now. In the end, they will." Thanks to the sixth-year tight end, the 49ers are about to spend a week in the national spotlight – and possibly two more after that, if they can qualify for their sixth Super Bowl with a victory next Sunday. In one of the more thrilling playoff games in NFL history, Davis caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith with nine seconds to go to give San Francisco a 36-32 victory over the Saints and send Candlestick Park into hysterics. Davis, who left the field in tears, did more than grab the football as he absorbed a hit from safety Roman Harper and fell into the end zone – he took this moment and seized it like few others have before him. He caught seven passes for 180 yards (an NFL postseason record for a tight end, surpassing Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow's classic effort in the Chargers' triumph over the Dolphins 30 years ago) and two touchdowns. His 47-yard catch-and-run on a crossing route with 31 seconds remaining set up the winning score. And his emotional halftime speech helped prod the Niners to victory in a thriller that featured four tremendous touchdowns in the final 4:11, two by each team. A little more than three years ago at The 'Stick, I saw Mike Singletary, in his first game as the Niners' head coach, banish Davis to the locker room after the tight end talked back to him following a third-quarter penalty. My, how Davis has grown up – and the same can be said for Smith, his much-maligned quarterback, and for a 49ers team that has flourished under rookie coach Jim Harbaugh. For all the credit that Harbaugh has deservedly received for the Niners' dramatic turnaround, his assistants have also played a key role. In fact, a conversation early last week between offensive coordinator Greg Roman and quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst lay the foundation for Davis' dramatic catch. "I've got to give our quarterbacks coach a lot of credit," Roman said Sunday night while taking a break from studying film on the Giants. "He called me into his office and said he had an idea for a red-zone play against them, and he was just so emphatic about it. He previously worked for the Panthers and was very familiar with their defense, and he came up with something he thought would work. And when I saw it, I got excited, too. We don't put brand-new plays in very often at this stage of the season, but this was just a slam dunk." The play, "Vernon Post," is predicated on the theory that the Saints are adept at covering the whole end zone in that situation, rather than leaving the back exposed. "They do a better job than most teams of defending the entire depth," Roman explained. "Their safeties sit right inside the goal line and are really flat-footed – and if you go vertical on [Harper], he starts to pedal softly backwards. So there's a hole for the tight end, and it's got to be thrown with perfect timing and rhythm." Smith did his part, just as he had on the 28-yard quarterback crack sweep around left end that had given the 49ers a 29-24 lead with 2:18 remaining. Roman, who was upstairs in the coaches' box, discussed that third-and-8 quarterback wack call with Harbaugh and Smith during a timeout preceding the play. "Jim liked the idea a lot," Roman said. "He threw out that and another play, and I said, 'I want the wack,' and Alex was all for it. He got outside, and [left tackle] Joe Staley [who threw the key block] was moving so fast, he looked like a defensive back. It was high drama. Truth is stranger than fiction sometimes."
[ Related: Alex Smith comes up big in closing minutes ]
Before the playoffs began, there was talk in Baltimore that veteran defensive stalwarts and future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis and Ed Reed had become liabilities, and respected Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston suggested that coach John Harbaugh should consider taking them off the field during the playoffs. I had a feeling these two proud players would find a way to make such an argument obsolete, and they delivered on Sunday, leading the Ravens to a 20-13 victory over the Texans and a spot in next Sunday's AFC championship game against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass. If there was a lasting image from this game, it was that of Lewis – who had a team-high seven unassisted tackles – and Reed (six tackles) embracing in the end zone after the latter player's interception of a T.J. Yates pass with 1:51 remaining. It was Reed's eighth interception in 10 postseason games, the most of any active player, and he wasn't through: When Yates threw a last-gasp Hail Mary to the right corner of the end zone with 11 seconds to go, Reed – in a move that Peprah and the Packers' other defensive backs should spend an offseason studying – proactively launched himself into a crowd and knocked away the ball, spraining his ankle in the process. The Ravens desperately hope that Reed can recover to face Tom Brady and the Patriots on Sunday – Baltimore will also need a much better offensive performance than the one Joe Flacco (14 for 27, 176 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) and company put forth against the Texans. "We feel it's gonna take the whole team from here on out," linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo wrote via text on Sunday. Oh, and about those Patriots, 45-10 victors over the Broncos on Saturday night …
Hi, I'm Tom Brady. You know that stuff you've been saying about my recent playoff failures, the fact that I haven't won a Super Bowl since Spygate, or that Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees have surpassed me as the best quarterback in the game? Here's my answer: Five touchdown passes – in the first half – against the Broncos and Tim Tebow, who had three completions in the first two quarters. Six TD passes overall, tying the NFL postseason record. Twenty-six completions in 34 attempts, for 363 yards. Oh, and I quick-kicked a ball 48 yards down to the 10-yard line on our final drive in the fourth quarter, setting off a brawl that I was far too cool to be part of and rekindling memories of a snowy day in Foxborough eight years ago. Then I strutted off into the New England night with my supermodel wife. Any questions? Didn't think so …
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The alleged "Colorado state law" – according to the doorman at a downtown Denver pub I visited last week – that one cannot enter a drinking establishment without a valid ID, regardless of age. I've heard this refrain from various employees at various bars in various states over the years, and each time I immediately dismiss it as crazy talk. Because I turned 21 during the Reagan Administration (the first one), I feel fairly secure that there's no legitimate debate about whether I am of legal drinking age. And when I'm subsequently told, "It's not about whether you're 21; it's about having the proper identification to enter this bar," I'm highly dubious, given that we're not in East Germany in 1963. This is America, right? As far as I know, we don't need to show our papers to the authorities upon demand – but there are laws requiring us to carry identification to gain entrance into pubs? Seriously? So if, say, Jack Nicholson leaves his wallet in his room and wants to throw one back at the lodge in Aspen – or drink water while his friends throw some back – he'll be turned away by some law-abiding doorman? Ridiculous. And, um, good luck with that.
2. What's up with Bill Leavy, bad calls and big games – and why an apparent Greg Jennings fumble wasn't ruled as such via a replay overturn on a Coughlin challenge late in the first quarter. After Jennings caught a short Aaron Rodgers pass, he was hit by safety Deon Grant at the Giants' 32 and lost the football while falling backward. New York's Phillips recovered and raced down the sidelines for a 10-yard return, but referee Leavy announced after huddling with crew members that the receiver had been ruled down by contact. Coughlin – who, as pretty much everyone knows, is very good at challenges – threw the red flag. A reversal seemed like a no-brainer, as Jennings appeared to have lost possession before his knee or shin hit the grass. Alas, Leavy upheld the call, and Coughlin's face turned an even darker shade of purple. The Giants lost a timeout, and four plays later Rodgers hit fullback John Kuhn with an eight-yard touchdown pass to tie the score at 10-10. And all over the Seattle area, fans watching the game on television shook their heads in disgust. Leavy, of course, was the ref who made a series of shockingly dubious calls against the Seahawks in their Super Bowl XL loss to the Steelers, two of which he admitted having blown in the summer of 2010.
[ Dan Wetzel: Layoff could be blame for Packers' flop ]
Look, I know Leavy's job is a difficult one, and no official is perfect, and calls get blown – even with replay as a safeguard. In this case, thankfully, his massive mistake didn't potentially cost a team a championship. Two thoughts, however: First, maybe it's time to eliminate the "peep show" element of replay review and let a designated replay official in an upstairs booth make the call – which was the way the system worked during replay's initial incarnation in the '80s and early '90s. Secondly, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's acknowledgment during a question and answer session with fans before Sunday's Texans-Ravens game that the league will consider hiring some officials on a full-time basis is a very welcome idea. It's the NFL, it's the 21st century and it's crazy that the dudes in the striped shirts – or, at the very least, the referees – aren't asked to treat officiating as their primary gigs.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Over the past five months, I have given you some revved-up rants in this space, railing on offenders ranging from an "accidental" jaw breaker, to an over-eager "geranium", to a pair of hell-raising handshakers, to brainlocked halfback. Now, here's a new target for my spiteful contempt, and this guy really deserves it: Michael Silver. Yes, misguided Yahoo! sports prognosticator, I'm talking to you (me), because I can't imagine what possessed you to pick the Broncos to beat the Patriots.
Dude – you thought Tebow would defeat Brady in a playoff game? Seriously? Weren't you the guy who tried to stomp on Tebowmania from the start, who glowed about Brady's knack for magical performances on the grand stage, and who gave you an up-close-and-personal look at Brady's greatness during the Pats' 41-23 road victory over the Broncos four weeks ago? Um … yeah. I guess you were. So what the hell were you thinking? Well, in an exclusive interview, Silver offered up some excuses: His history of "overreacting emotionally to events he witnesses in person," namely Tebow's terrific performance in the previous Sunday's playoff victory over the Steelers (eye roll); his lack of faith in the Patriots' shaky defense, which had given up 167 rushing yards to the Broncos in the first quarter of last month's game (fair point); and his desire to rile Brady and prod him to a brilliant effort which would set up a great AFC championship game matchup and silence the John 3:16 crowd until next season (child, please – how arrogant can a sports columnist be?). The bottom line is that, at least on this day, this dude was trippin', and his spelling-challenged critics were right: Michael Silver, your an idiot.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Howdya like that?"
– Text Saturday night from the 49ers' Roman.
"R u watching the nephew of God?"
– Text Saturday night from my wife (she's Catholic, in case you're wondering – and a fan of the Tebow "Saturday Night Live" skit).
"I taught him everything he knows"
– Text Sunday morning from Tom Brady Sr.
"Everybody was locked in. We gotta continue to play that way until the train stops"
– Text Sunday afternoon from Patriots receiver Deion Branch.
"[Expletive] pissed away"
– Text Sunday afternoon from Texans tackle Eric Winston.
"Can you believe this [expletive]?????"
– Text Sunday night from former 49ers wideout Dwight Clark, who 30 years ago made an even more unbelievable Catch at Candlestick than Davis' game-winner.
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- Tom Coughlin