There should be no doubt that the Giants were a better team and more deserving champion in Super Bowl XLVI than the Patriots. It was borne out on the playing field, the scoreboard and in the stats sheet. But grand proclamations being made that the game cemented the Hall of Fame credentials of Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning, and the awarding of the game's MVP to Manning do, in fact, deserve much closer scrutiny.
Justin Tuck was the most valuable player in Super Bowl XLVI. On the Pats' first offensive play, aided by great coverage, it was Tuck's pass rush that forced Tom Brady to throw wildly and take an intentional-grounding penalty. The result was a safety that dictated strategy throughout the game. Without those two points, the Pats would have needed only a field goal at the end to force overtime instead of a TD to win.
Tuck's second sack of the game, on 3rd-and-10 from the Patriots' 20-yard line, forced the Patriots to burn their final timeout with 36 seconds remaining. Even though Brady converted on fourth down, the loss of that timeout effectively ended any chance New England had of going the length of the field for a heart-stopping win.
But it was Tuck's first sack of Brady with 6:12 left in the third quarter that changed everything, limited the Patriot QB's ability to perform and most likely secured rings for Tuck and all his teammates. The play seemed benign enough at the time, again with coverage forcing Brady to leave the pocket and pretty much stumble into Tuck. Still, when Brady landed squarely on his tender left shoulder with the full weight of the 268-pound Tuck on top of him, the Patriots' hopes for a fourth Super Bowl title were gone.
Even though, after the game, he denied the shoulder had been a problem, you could see from Brady's body language that something was wrong immediately after the play happened. He was met by the team trainer and a doctor as soon as he got to the sideline. They accompanied him to the bench in spite of his protests, and just a moment later, backup QB Brian Hoyer was up and throwing.
Brady didn't miss a snap and did his best to hide the damage, but here are the facts:
• Prior to that play, the Pats held a 17-12 lead. Brady had just snapped a Super Bowl-record string of 16 consecutive completions on the play before. And he had completed 20-of-24 passes for 201 yards with two TDs and a passer rating of 141.9.
• After the Tuck sack, Brady completed only 7-of-17 throws for 75 yards with one interception, for a passer rating of 32.0, and New England was kept off the scoreboard the rest of the way.
If you believe Brady didn't reinjure that shoulder, the Giants have a number of bridges around Manhattan they'd love to sell you.
Might New York have won the game even if Brady hadn't been hurt? Of course, they could have. Manning did play very well, and Coughlin had an excellent plan and a very well-coached team. But I don't believe they would have won the game without Tuck, who clearly emerged in the week leading up to the game as a humble, well-spoken deep thinker who is every bit the leader Manning is on that team.
Shed no tears for the Patriots. As heroic as the New England defense was most of the night, the Giants went through it like a hot knife through butter for the winning score after the incredible Manning-to-Manningham connection on first down from their own 12 with 3:46 to play. Plus, the Patriots' receivers had more than enough key drops to ensure they didn't deserve to win. But the Pats are still young enough and more than talented enough to assume they'll get another shot before long.
As for the legacies of Manning and Coughlin, folks need to take a pill. What if Brady didn't get hurt and the Giants had lost a close one? Then, they wouldn't belong in Canton? Manning's career is only half over. Besides, where was the hue and cry for Ben Roethlisberger's induction into Canton after he won his second ring? Coughlin is even less of a sure thing. There's a guy named Bill Parcells, whom Giants fans know well, who is far more accomplished than Coughlin but is still stuck outside the door to the Hall. All we know for sure after this Super Bowl is that Coughlin is a very good coach, no one will ever try to spell "elite" without "E-L-I" again, and it just might be Tuck posing for a bronze bust of his own someday, after this game.
I thought Brady said it best when he told us, "I'd rather come to this game and lose than not get here at all. I'll keep coming to this game as often as I can. It always comes down to one play, and if you make it, you're celebrating, and if you don't, you don't sleep for a week."
The funny thing about this game is that play just isn't the one that anybody's focused on at all.