SAN FRANCISCO – When Justin Tuck finally arrived on the second-floor dining area of the New York Giants' team hotel near the San Francisco Airport late Saturday afternoon, the standout defensive end was greeted by a large group of well-wishers that included his wife, Lauren, his agent, Doug Hendrickson – and a bunch of people wondering why he and his teammates hadn't made the long flight west for Sunday's NFC championship game earlier that morning, or even the previous day.
"I have no answer, and neither does anyone else on our plane, because everyone is asking us the same thing," Tuck said, smiling broadly. "It's all up to one man, and he has a very definite idea of how he wants things done."
The man to whom Tuck was referring, of course, was The Man – a.k.a. Giants coach Tom Coughlin – whose very specific plan for the team's most important road trip of the season included a relatively late arrival on the West Coast (made later by mechanical troubles that delayed the Giants' flight) and a highly unpopular 9 p.m. curfew ("His excuse," Tuck says, "is that it's midnight Eastern time").
Given the way Coughlin's Giants are playing right now, the exacting coach can probably propose keeping his team on lockdown for all of Super Bowl week in Indianapolis – and get away with it.
Yes, Taskmaster Tom is going back to the Ultimate Game for the second time in five seasons, once again with a Giants team that got there the hard way and are underdogs to the AFC champion New England Patriots. By beating the San Francisco 49ers 20-17 on Lawrence Tynes' 31-yard field goal nearly eight minutes into overtime, the Giants dampened the moods of 69,732 rain-drenched fans at Candlestick Park and flashed the same rugged resilience they did in winning an unlikely world championship four years ago.
With the Patriots having pulled out a 23-20 AFC championship game victory over the Baltimore Ravens earlier Sunday, it ensured that we'll be spending the two weeks leading up to the Feb. 5 game at Lucas Oil Stadium pondering where New England's Bill Belichick ranks among the greatest coaches of all time.
Coughlin, 65, surely won't get that kind of love – but in his own, quirky way, he is distinguishing himself as one of the stars of his profession.
"I think what you've seen is a coach who's truly enjoying the way we're playing – because we've earned this," veteran tackle David Diehl said after Sunday's victory. "The way we've prepared, the way we've kept our focus and stayed resilient … that's all traceable to his leadership."
As with four years ago, when the Giants won three road playoff games before stunning the then-undefeated Pats in Super Bowl XLII, Coughlin's leadership has provoked calm, confident play in pressure-packed situations.
The 2011 Giants endured a four-game losing streak in the second half of the season, a seemingly ruinous defeat to the Washington Redskins that dropped them to 7-7 with two games remaining and a pair of what were essentially elimination games (against the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys) to close the regular season. Then they rolled to a home playoff victory over the Atlanta Falcons before heading to Lambeau Field and punking the top-seeded Green Bay Packers 37-20.
On Sunday, Coughlin's crew followed a remarkably similar script, coming through with the decisive takeaway after a four-and-a-half-quarter stalemate with an equally physical and potent foe.
The Niners, who rode a league best plus-28 turnover margin to a 13-3 regular season record, were minus-two on Sunday. With each offense struggling to move the ball – and quarterbacks Eli Manning and Alex Smith getting harassed by ferocious pass rushers – those two special-teams mistakes were the difference in crowning a conference champion.
"I really didn't know what to think, or how it would end," Coughlin said afterward as he stood in the cramped coaches' dressing area of the visitors' locker room. "The fact is that the 49ers have really had a good formula for winning – they run the ball, they play great defense, and they (force you to) turn it over. It's interesting that we were kind of able to win the game as a result of that same formula."
San Francisco seemed to be in good shape after taking a 14-10, third-quarter lead on the second Smith-to-Vernon Davis touchdown pass, a 28-yard strike which followed their 73-yard first-quarter connection. But with punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. sidelined by a knee injury, his replacement, Kyle Williams, made the first of two season-turning errors, failing to elude a bouncing ball that skipped off his knee.
The Giants got possession after a successful Coughlin challenge of the on-field ruling that Williams had avoided the ball, and Manning's phenomenally thrown 17-yard touchdown pass (on third-and-15) to Mario Manningham with 8:34 remaining in regulation gave New York a 17-14 lead.
The Niners tied it up on their next possession, which ended with David Akers' 25-yard field goal, and then both defenses locked things down like Coughlin on an early curfew rampage. There were four consecutive three-and-outs, and six failed drives, to end regulation.
In overtime, the teams kept trading punts (they combined for 22 on the day) before a pair of relatively unknown Williamses moved to the forefront.
A little more than five minutes into the (not-so) sudden-death period, Kyle Williams fielded Steve Weatherford's punt at his own 24-yard line, raced forward five yards and was met by Giants rookie Jacquian Williams, who reached out and popped the ball free. It was the second and final turnover of a game between two otherwise perfectly matched opponents.
"I just knew it was gonna be a long game, a fight to the finish, and somebody had to step up and make a play," the latter Williams said after the game. "I figured, it might as well be me."
[ Carpenter: Carpenter: Williams the loneliest 49er after two turnovers ]
Redskins castoff Devin Thomas, who'd recovered Williams' earlier muff, got the ball this time, too, diving onto it at the Niners' 24. Three runs by Ahmad Bradshaw and a Manning kneel-down set things up for Tynes, whose successful kick set off a celebration that turned even the Giants' famously humorless coach into an ebullient, grinning hug machine.
The best embrace came in the sardine-like hallway between the locker rooms as Coughlin was being escorted to his postgame press conference. Coughlin's son, Tim – whose escape from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 served as his father's scariest moment – absorbed a heartfelt smack on the lips from a red-faced man who whispered, "How ya doin', kid?"
A few seconds later, Tim Coughlin, a bond trader for a Manhattan brokerage firm, became emotional while talking about his father's 2011 season, which included rumors that Tom could be coaching for his job.
Whereas the elder Coughlin claims he shrugs off that kind of talk – "In New York, if you worried about what people said about you? Forget it; you'd have no chance" – his son absolutely felt the heat.
"Of course you get caught up in that stuff, absolutely," Tim said. "It's my father. I live in New York; I breathe it every day. I can't get away from it.
"It doesn't faze him, though. Nobody flinches less than my father. He takes on challenges and he grows this team – he has the pulse of these players every single day."
Let's face it: As Tim would be the first to attest, Tom not only takes the team's pulse, he sets it, down to the smallest detail.
Ever since the Giants' previous Super Bowl run four years ago, there has been talk that Coughlin has adapted his coaching style to fit the era, becoming less stringent and more player friendly.
Don't believe the hype.
"I can't say he's changed," veteran defensive end Osi Umenyiora said. "But at the end of the day, what he's doing, it's working."
Said defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, laughing, as he dressed next to Coughlin: "He chews our butt every day."
"I don't think he's mellowed," Diehl said. "He's still a stickler for rules. He's still a stickler for details."
When I asked Coughlin if he'd truly changed, he furrowed his forehead and said, "Oh, I'm not sure about that. I haven't done a whole lot of that."
In other words, the Giants can expect to fly late and be sent to bed early for as long as Coughlin is their coach – which, at this point, seems like a reign that will last as long as he'd like to continue.
Oh, and about that early curfew on Saturday night: It wasn't totally effective. While it might have appeared as though Tuck (1 ½ sacks, one tackle for loss, two quarterback hurries) was well-rested, this was simply an optical illusion.
"I didn't sleep at all," Tuck said as he walked to the team bus. "Not even a wink. I didn't think about football at all, either. I was just looking out the window of my hotel room, and the lights were coming in off the highway. Just sitting there counting sheep, basically.
"I'm running on adrenaline. I've got nothing left."
Two weeks from Sunday, Tuck and his teammates will likely be recharged enough to summon one, final spirited effort for what should be a hotly contested Super Bowl.
Tom the Taskmaster will see to that, and why not? At this point, no one in the Giants' universe would consider questioning the man's methodology.
Back in December, as he prepared to face the Broncos at the height of Tebowmania, I wrote about Tom Brady's penchant for pulling off remarkable feats which seem as though they're facilitated by a higher power. On Sunday, once again, Brady proved he is lucky and good. On a day when, by his own unduly harsh estimation, he "sucked pretty bad," Brady had a split-second's worth of stomach-dropping horror when Joe Flacco threw what seemed to be a 14-yard touchdown pass to Lee Evans with 22 seconds remaining. Evans, however, failed to secure possession – which shouldn't have been that hard to do, given that the veteran had both hands on the ball near his chest as he was about to land – before rookie cornerback Sterling Moore dislodged it to preserve the Pats' 23-20 lead. Two plays later, Cundiff, who had made 16 consecutive fourth-quarter field goals, pushed one wide left, and Brady had tied Joe Montana's record for playoff victories (16) and advanced to his fifth Super Bowl. "It was [tense]," Brady conveyed Sunday night via email. "But it was a great team win!! We needed it!" … If you're one of the believers who boldly attributed Tim Tebow's improbable success this season to God's will, perhaps you're open to the possibility that someone up above is looking after Pats owner Robert Kraft, who lost his wife, Myra, last summer. My personal belief is that divine intervention as explanation for a football game's outcome is a tad heavy-handed, but I am happy for Kraft – a great owner, and one of my favorite people in football – and I know how emotionally charged this season has been for him in the wake of Myra's passing. … Two years ago, when the Ravens visited Gillette Stadium for an AFC wild-card playoff game against the Pats, Baltimore halfback Ray Rice took the first play from scrimmage 83 yards to the house, and the visitors ran all over the Patriots in a 33-14 upset. On that play, Rice ran through an alarmingly enormous hole as Vince Wilfork, New England's massive nose tackle, was strangely nowhere in the vicinity, having been blocked out of the way. On Sunday, Wilfork offered reparations in a big way – he was arguably the best player on the field. His stat line included six tackles (three for loss), a sack and four quarterback pressures, including one which forced a massive fourth-and-3 incompletion on the Ravens' penultimate drive. "He was huge," said injured Pro Bowl defensive end Andre Carter. Literally and figuratively, yes. … Like David Tyree four years ago, Jacquian Williams was an unlikely hero for the Giants, having emerged from collegiate obscurity (at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas, and later at South Florida) to get selected in the sixth round of last April's NFL draft and stick on the roster as a rookie. He said that going into Sunday's game, he'd dreamed of making the play that would get the Giants to the Super Bowl. After the dream came true, Williams vowed not to let it warp his perspective. "It definitely was a long journey to get here," he said in the locker room after the game. "I'm glad I did all that scratching and fighting to get here. I did have to be patient. And I'll continue to be humble." … Niners coach Jim Harbaugh blew off an attempted Fox interview on the field after the defeat – it's too bad the network hadn't enlisted Lions coach Jim Schwartz as a guest sideline reporter – but eventually he'll become less bitter about the Giants' victory and focus on all that the 49ers did well in his rookie season as an NFL coach. I expect Harbaugh to be named coach of the year, and it will be highly deserved. In fact, given the challenges posed by the lockout, I'd argue that he did one of the better coaching jobs I've ever seen in pro football. His team, as presently constructed, could be very, very good for the next several seasons, and he and his players should be proud, despite their understandable disappointment.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The premature and erroneous reports by Onward State, a student-run website at Penn State – immediately proliferated by other media outlets and journalists via social media – that legendary coach Joe Paterno had died Saturday night. Paterno, who was gravely ill, passed away Sunday morning, so this may not seem like a big deal. It is. Journalism has changed in the 21st century with the advent of real-time technology, but it's still a very serious endeavor, especially when it comes to reporting something as heavy and sensitive as a person's death. Before you report that someone has died, you have to be extremely confident in your information, and you can't be in such a rush to break a story that you bend the rules that would normally be applied – for example, confirming the information you receive, even if it means risking being beaten on the story. You can't be wrong about whether someone is dead or alive; it's better not to report anything. Yes, I know, this isn't the first time something like this has happened: A year ago there were incorrect reports that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died after she was shot during a public appearance in Arizona (thankfully, she's still very much alive), and White House Press Secretary James Brady was inaccurately said to have died by all three networks after being shot in the head during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan (Brady, too, remains with us). Then there was Black Nationalism activist Marcus Garvey, whose death in 1940 may have been the result of a stroke caused by his reading of a premature obituary in the Chicago Defender depicting him as having died "broke, alone, unpopular." No, Saturday night's mistake wasn't on that level. However, it still made my entire profession look bad, and probably brought a lot of undue stress to Paterno's loved ones at a really painful time.
2. Why the replay assistant in the upstairs booth at Gillette Stadium didn't instruct referee Alberto Riveron to review the play with 27 seconds remaining on which Evans seemed to have momentary possession of the ball before Moore stripped it away in the end zone – a call that, if reversed, would likely have sent the Ravens to the Super Bowl. While all indications suggest that the incompletion ruling would likely have been upheld because Evans didn't seem to get his second foot down while retaining possession of the ball, I'd personally have felt a lot better knowing the officials cared enough to stop the game and take a look. I made this point three years after a similar situation in the final seconds of Super Bowl XLIII, and I'll reiterate it now: All season long, we're subjected to repeated replay delays to decide things like whether a ball should be spotted at the 30- or 31-yard-line, or if an obvious scoring play (as all scoring plays are reviewed) was, in fact, a touchdown. In Sunday's second game alone, fans wasted a collective six minutes of their lives listening to spotlight-loving referee Ed Hochuli provide lengthy explanations of various calls. And yet, at a pivotal point of the AFC championship game that literally would have decided a season for two teams – when captive football fans had nothing but time – the replay assistant's attitude was, Nah, he probably didn't catch it, let's hurry up and get to third down. I don't get it. What's the hurry? It makes zero sense at all.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
I understand that kickers miss kicks – even 32-yard field goals in reasonably good weather that can extend a team's season and put it on the brink of a Super Bowl trip. So I'm not going to pummel Cundiff for brutally shanking his game-tying attempt wide left, even though it's a kick he absolutely has to make in that situation. However, I am calling out Cundiff for jogging out late onto the field, rushing through his pre-kick routine and allowing the ball to be snapped just before the play clock expired, all with the Ravens in possession of a final timeout with 15 seconds remaining (and one which they'll now carry into an offseason of torment). Let's review from the 22-second mark, which began with the Ravens facing a third-and-1 from the Pats' 14: Flacco was flushed right and threw an incompletion to Dennis Pitta, bringing up fourth-and-1. In theory, coach John Harbaugh could have gone for it and set up a potential all-or-nothing scenario, but that would have been a tad radical. Realistically, an incompletion meant a field-goal attempt. Cundiff, as one Ravens player later told me, is supposed to be ready to roll – that's his job. So, what was the holdup? Was he locked in conversation with a teammate? Was he checking out an attractive woman in the stands? Was he sneaking a look at his iPhone to see if his agent texted him? For the life of me, I can't figure out what would have made him late. DUDE – BILLY CUNDIFF – HOW CAN YOU NOT BE READY??? And still, with that having gone down, the situation was easy to remedy. Harbaugh certainly could have noticed the rush job and called timeout to allow Cundiff and the other players to prepare for the kick in a deliberate manner. Or, failing that, Cundiff (or holder Sam Koch, for that matter) could have made the executive decision to call timeout himself. Or, if he (or Koch) felt trepidation about such a move, he could have simply allowed the play clock to expire, taken the five-yard delay of game penalty and been left with a seemingly manageable 37-yard attempt. Instead, Cundiff did it his way. And he missed. And, though they may be too polite to say otherwise, you know proud veterans like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Matt Birk who may never get another shot at a championship felt like stuffing Cundiff in the cargo hold on the flight home.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Ya. My fault."
– Text Sunday night from honorary Patriots captain Drew Bledsoe, jokingly accepting blame for Cundiff's miss.
"All good bro we played better just lost it last two plays"
– Text Sunday evening from Ravens linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo.
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