PHOENIX – One way or another, Plaxico Burress has indelibly imprinted himself upon the sacred scrolls of Super Bowl lore.
Either he is Joe Namath with corn rows, or Freddie Mitchell with a shred of legitimacy.
Thirty-nine years after Namath, another brash New York football star, stood up at the Miami Touchdown Club and guaranteed a stunning New York Jets upset over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, Burress has provided a 21st-century sequel. Asked on Monday by a New York Post reporter to give a prediction for Sunday's Super Bowl XLII matchup with the undefeated New England Patriots, the Giants' wiry wideout blurted out an exact score: 23-17, Giants.
Plaxico (and who pronounces his name "Plexico") then spent the next two days defending and expanding upon his pick, one which will be judged by sports historians only after the Giants, 12-point underdogs against an 18-0 juggernaut, succeed or fail in an attempt to shock the world. Namath's boast, after all, didn't become legend until he led the American Football League's Jets to a 16-7 triumph over the NFL's Colts in the game that likely hastened the merger that brought football into the modern era.
Broadway Joe, meet Lexington (Ave.) Plex?
Or not. If the Giants lose this game, which is not a remote possibility, Burress will be linked with the Steelers' Anthony Smith, the Colts' Mike Vanderjagt (aka "Vanderjerk," as New England safety Rodney Harrison dubbed him in response) and the Eagles' Mitchell as opponents who mouthed off before playing the Patriots and got a different part of their anatomy handed to them upon taking the field.
Fast Freddie, especially, felt the sting of harsh rebuke. In the walkup to Super Bowl XXXIX, Mitchell claimed not to know Harrison's name and took various other shots at the Patriots, then was held to a single catch for 11 yards in New England's 24-21 victory. Afterward, in the game story I wrote for Sports Illustrated, there was this quote from Pats coach Bill Belichick: "All he does is talk. He's terrible, and you can print that. I was happy when he was in the game."
Freddie Facial, meet Punk'd Plex?
There is one major difference between Burress and the aforementioned trio: He is a big-time talent with a chance to be the reason his team prevails. If the Patriots can't do a better job of covering him than Pro Bowl cornerback Al Harris and the Green Bay Packers did in the NFC championship game, when Burress had 11 catches for 151 yards in a 23-20 overtime victory, New England's path to 19-0 may not be so smooth.
Other than boxers and rappers, few public figures are given the slack to talk trash in American society. We claim humility as a bedrock value, though responding to incendiary words with additional smack-talk and yammering at perceived offenders during the course of competition – the Patriots' preferred course – is viewed in a far more forgiving light.
But if Burress has set himself up for a Godzilla-sized fall, he seems as devoid of anxiety as a man awaiting his potential comeuppance can possibly be.
The question is, why did he do it?
Was it an act of carelessness he'd like to have back? No way, given the fact that he has since repeated it as many times as he has been asked.
Was it a ploy, designed to rattle the Patriots or distract them from the task at hand? Not likely, given their highly successful record in similar scenarios.
Was it the insecure rambling of a man trying to convince himself that his team can accomplish a feat he knows deep inside it can't? If you know anything about the Giants' '07 season, you're laughing at that theory.
Was it a simple play for attention? Possibly.
But the real answer, I believe, is none of the above. I think Burress was speaking from the heart, and he felt comfortable doing so because he has his long fingers on the pulse of a team that is utterly unstressed by the challenge that awaits it.
I think he was giving the Patriots – and the world – an accurate glimpse into the consciousness of a team that, after overcoming an 0-2 start, other crisis points throughout an uneven season and three playoff tests as a road underdog, fears nobody and isn't scared to admit it.
The Giants' mentality is the same as the psyche of the brash team that destroyed them in their last Super Bowl appearance, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. Earlier in those playoffs, the Ravens talked smack before going on the road to upset the defending AFC champion Tennessee Titans. Following the game, Baltimore coach Brian Billick explained his team's thinking thusly: "When you go into a lion's den, you don't tiptoe in. You carry a spear. You go in screaming like a banshee and say, 'Where's the son of a bitch?' "
That doesn't mean Burress and the Giants will slay Belichick's Beasts. If it were easy to do, some team would have done it by now.
Then again, just one month ago, the Giants nearly pulled it off.
After New York blew a 12-point lead and lost to the Pats 38-35 in the final game of the regular season, I got an email from another one of the team's veteran players. "That was a (expletive) joke," he wrote. "We had them beat, and we let them off the hook. I'm sick right now. We all are."
Now comes the rematch none of us (except possibly the Giants themselves) saw coming.
The Patriots, as is their custom, are tighter than Kansas coach Mark Mangino in Mary-Kate Olsen's spandex shorts. They've spent this week doing what they've done all season, acting like a bunch of glass-eating eunuchs who keep their inner bravado in check until Sundays, when they rise up collectively to extend a middle finger to the world.
The Giants? They're the '78 Yankees, a bunch of brash New Yorkers who rolled into the Valley of the Sun acting like they own the place. They're coming off revenge victories over Dallas and Green Bay – consecutive road triumphs Nos. 9 and 10, the latter accomplished in subzero temperatures.
Predictably, they're looser than Paris Hilton. And their 6-foot-5, 232-pound receiver who has barely practiced all season because of his chronically sore right ankle has happily become their front man in the line of fire.
"We are a confident bunch," Burress said during his media day interview session. "Why not be? We were a 10-6 regular-season team and now we're in the Super Bowl. We got here the hard way. We had three road (playoff) games. We played against the No. (2) defense in Tampa. We played against the Dallas Cowboys, who had the whole offense and defense make the Pro Bowl. Then we played the Green Bay Packers. Look at us.
"The goal is to win the football game. It's not to come here and play second fiddle to these guys. … Why come here (and say), 'Oh, we're playing the Patriots. We've got to take a backseat to those guys, cause they're 18-0.' The goal is to win the football game."
One game, on Super Sunday – and for Burress, this is what is riding on the outcome: His legacy.
Inside the den known as the University of Phoenix stadium, a seemingly indomitable lion awaits.