Within a 20-second span, the New England Patriots season was doomed to end with heartache and the New York Giants were on their way to planning a parade — and both plays had everything to do with the rotational analog of Isaac Newton's second law of motion. No, seriously.
Four minutes left in the game and up 17-15, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw a second-and-11 pass to wide receiver Wes Welker that was slightly behind the player. While in midair, Welker had to adjust and try to make the catch, but he was unable to come down with the ball. NBC's Cris Collinsworth said that Welker "makes that catch 100 times out of 100 - stunning to see him miss that one."
It wasn't a surprise to Dr. Eric Goff, Associate Professor of Physics and Chair of the Physics Department at Lynchburg College. He's also the author of Gold Medal Physics: The Science of Sports and blogged about the science behind Brady's last-second heave at the game's end.
"Though not perfect, Brady's pass found Welker between three Giants defenders. Welker was rotating clockwise in an attempt to make the catch. Newton's laws tell us that initiating rotation takes a torque, which is a force multiplied by a lever arm distance," Dr. Goff said.
And we were told there would be no math involved in watching the Super Bowl. Undeterred, Dr. Goff continues on.
"In Welker's case, the force came from friction between his shoes and the turf; the lever-arm distance was the distance from his shoes in contact with the turf and the vertical rotation axis passing through his head and torso. Catching a ball while rotating is tough, but Welker had made tougher catches in his career."
The Patriots were forced to punt after the Giants defense and some physics bailed New York out of what should have been a big gain for New England. Twenty seconds after Welker failed to come down with the ball, the Giants would change the game. Quarterback Eli Manning stepped up in the pocket on first-and-10 from his own 12-yard line and threw a 35-yard pass to wide receiver Mario Manningham along the sideline. Somehow Manningham managed to keep his feet in bounds and hold on to the ball, a play which ignited a Giants drive that ended three minutes later with Ahmad Bradshaw rushing 6 yards for a 21-17 lead.
"What's great about Manningham's catch is the rotation involved. Patrick Chung, who got credit for the tackle, and Sterling Moore closed in fast as Manningham made contact with the ball. Watch the replay and you'll see that Manningham left his feet as he caught the ball. He twisted off the turf, which initiated a counter-clockwise turn. Unlike Welker, Manningham was able to haul the pass in while rotating," Dr. Goff said.
It was this control and agility that is a major reason why the Giants are going through the Canyon of Heroes on Tuesday morning.
"Once Manningham made contact with the turf, his shoes — both of them — were not under his center of gravity. That meant that his weight created a torque that caused him to rotate toward the sideline. Chung and Moore were also making contact with Manningham in ways that caused him to rotate out of bounds, too. Had Manningham not made use of Newton's laws in an optimal way, he would not have been rotating toward the sideline as he caught the ball, a maneuver that helped him make a game-changing catch."
Follow Kristian R. Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer
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