Haven’t We Seen This Before?

I can still remember it: The heavily favored home team found itself tied at the end of regulation in the NFC Championship Game. Though they had clearly lost momentum, the fact that they won the coin toss and would have the ball first in overtime seemed to signify that they would still find a way to pull the game out and advance to the Super Bowl. But to the disgust of the home crowd, they were unable to move the ball nor stop the other team, who eventually won the game in overtime on a dramatic field goal.

Cheers you up, doesn’t it? Remembering the 1999 NFC Championship Game that the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings lost at home to the Atlanta Falcons? Oh, you thought I was referring to this year’s NFC Championship Game between the Packers and the Giants? Why would I do that? Wouldn’t it be best for us all to forget that game as quickly as possible?

Actually, the 23-20 overtime defeat will be hard for most Packer fans to forget for a long time. While a trip to the NFC Championship Game seemed a ridiculously lofty goal at the beginning of the season, the Packers’ 13-3 romp through the regular season and their 42-20 manhandling of the Seahawks in the divisional playoff round made most fans think that the impossible — a Super Bowl berth — was very possible indeed. And then when number one seed Dallas went down last weekend, meaning the Packers would host the NFC Championship game against the fifth-seeded Giants, a trip to the Super Bowl became almost a given, to the point where local fans and national pundits alike were wondering out loud if the Packers could be the team to spoil the Patriots’ bid for an undefeated season.

But now the Giants will be the ones to attempt to derail the Patriots’ plans of going 19-0. And judging by Sunday’s game, they will have a much better shot at pulling the upset than this Packer team would.

Let’s be honest: Although the final score indicates a close game, Mike McCarthy’s Packers were badly outplayed and outcoached by Tom Coughlin’s Giants. Take away the sole highlight of the night, the 19-yard Favre-to-Driver throw that Driver turned into a 90-yard touchdown (the longest pass play in Green Bay’s storied playoff history), and you have a game in which very little went right for the heavily favored Packers.

Without the Driver play, the Packers had 174 measly yards of offense. They couldn’t run the ball at all, as Ryan Grant posted a ghastly 29 yards on 13 carries. Because they couldn’t run the ball, the Packers were continually in third and long situations, which translated into an awful one-for-ten third-down conversion rate. Because they could not convert on third downs, the Packers couldn’t keep their defense off the field, and the Giants held the ball for an astounding 40:01 in what turned out to be a 62:35 game.

Despite the statistical dominance, the Giants, thanks to several miscues, kept the Packers in the game. The Giants saw two decent early drives sputter and end in field goals. Wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who absolutely torched Packer cornerback Al Harris all night for 11 catches and 154 yards, dropped a ball inside the Packer 10 late in the second quarter that would have led to at least three more points. R.W. McQuarters intercepted Favre in the fourth quarter only to fumble the ball away, a blunder that resulted in a Packers field goal. And, most famously, Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes missed two field goals, either one of which would have won the game for the Giants in regulation.

Sorry, but the Giants won because they deserved to win.

Last week, I gave five reasons that the Giants might pull off the upset (though I did believe that Favre and the Packers would win in a close game). I thought that Tom Coughlin’s experience would win out over Mike McCarthy. That it did. Coughlin had his team much better prepared and McCarthy was too quick to give up on the run game that had been such a huge part of the Packers’ late-season dominance and McCarthy was too slow to acknowledge that Al Harris could not contain Plaxico Burress. Both were big mistakes. Also I believed that in a close game in frigid conditions that the Giants’ tandem of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw would prevail over the Packers’ single running back set with Ryan Grant. That was clearly the case as both Jacobs and Bradshaw individually more than doubled Grant’s output.

What I didn’t see? That Eli Manning would outplay Brett Favre. Thanks for nothing, WLUK, but apparently your trick of pulling Seinfeld off the air on Saturday didn’t have much of an impact. I guess the Seinfeld curse only holds true for Michael Richards and Jason Alexander, and not NFL quarterbacks. I also didn’t foresee that the Giants’ linebackers would do a better job of disrupting the Packers’ pass patterns than the Packers’ secondary would on the Giants. I didn’t see that the Giants would dominate both lines of scrimmage. I didn’t see Favre throwing two of his worst interceptions of the season. And I didn’t see Curt Menafee refusing to wear a hat. Come on, Curt. The wind chill was 23 below!

So what’s next for the Packers? Assuming Favre comes back — and I don’t think he wants to go out having had his last career pass be intercepted in overtime of the NFC Championship Game — there isn’t much that needs to be done to “fix” this team. Given their youth and talent, the Packers should be a force in the NFC for quite a while. I believe that now that they’ve found Grant, they need to get him a partner in the backfield. The Vikings have Peterson and Taylor, the Chargers have Tomlinson and Turner, the Giants have Jacobs and Bradshaw — two solid starting running backs is the trend in the NFL, and while this direction might be bad for fantasy football players, it’s not going to change.

And which streak will end on Super Bowl Sunday? The Giants’ streak of ten road victories (if you can count the Super Bowl as a road game) or the Patriots’ 18-0 streak? Both are amazing accomplishments, but I would guess — surprise, surprise — that the Patriots will prevail. But if the Giants play as well as they played on Sunday, and if the Patriots play as poorly as they did on Sunday, we could be looking at another Manning lofting high the Vince Lombardi Trophy on February 3. Almost as unbelieveable as the fact that the Packers made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game in what was originally thought to be a building year. But they will be back.

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