Difficult to love

The Baltimore Sun

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Not only are the New England Patriots probably laughing right now, they're laughing and warm.

The only obstacle left to their football immortality is the winner of the most imperfect frigid-weather overtime classic in NFL history.

No one who watched it in the comfort of home or shivered through it in person in a wind chill of minus 24 degrees will ever forget how the New York Giants made it to Super Bowl XLII. No matter how hard you might try. The Giants beat the Green Bay Packers, 23-20, on their storied home field and against their equally storied quarterback because the Packers screwed up last.

The comedy of errors reached its climax just 2:35 into the extra period at Lambeau Field, when Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes converted his third attempt at an NFC championship-clinching field goal. This one, from 47 yards, went through, allowing his teammates to jump up and down, regain the feeling in their lower extremities and beat it into their locker room to accept the George Halas Trophy and the all-expenses-paid trip to suburban Phoenix.

Actually, it was an anticlimax. Packer Nation will forever be traumatized by the play that set up the winning kick - a horrific pass by none other than Brett Favre that was intercepted by the Giants' Corey Webster on the second play of overtime.

Favre provided an epitaph to his team's Super Bowl hopes and to his own dream season, "I kept thinking, how many opportunities are we gonna let slip away? We can't keep giving them opportunities like we keep giving them. And that's what happened."

Proving that karma can survive subzero temperatures, the fateful pass that was intended for Donald Driver, who back in the second quarter had thrown a then-moribund game into a higher gear with a 90-yard touchdown catch-and-run that beat - yes - Webster.

That's how the potential No. 19 in the Patriots' quest for 19-0 was determined.

Not that anyone who played in the inhuman conditions - inhuman? This wasn't fit for a polar bear to venture into - can be blamed for not being as sharp as possible. Walking through the parking lot to the stadium entrance four hours before kickoff tested one's will, and one's love of football, so playing was a chore well beyond that.

Nevertheless, this was no gem.

Tynes' kick made up for the 36-yard try he pushed left - largely because of a high snap - on the final play of regulation. And for the 43-yard attempt he pushed left on his own with 6:49 to go.

The Giants looked like winners yet another time in the fourth, on Ahmad Bradshaw's 48-yard run for a touchdown with just over two minutes left - until guard Chris Snee was flagged for holding to call it all back.

And moments before, they looked like big losers when R.W. McQuarters fumbled on a punt that would have set them up in great field position. Yet the Giants recovered the backward-rolling ball because the Packers' Jarrett Bush tried to pick it up - and failed - instead of just diving on it.

That all happened after McQuarters picked off Favre deep in Giants territory, only to fumble on the return. The Packers recovered, picking up 12 yards along the way, and quickly tied the game at 20 on a field goal.

It went on and on and on like that, throughout the second half, when the lead changed hands three times and was tied once, before the overtime winner. Big plays negated by penalties, big plays just missed by inches, big plays created out of other big plays.

Someone had to win. The favorites were the Packers, playing at home 40 years and three weeks after the original Ice Bowl 1967 NFL title game, with Favre going for his fairy-tale ending. Instead, Favre was the goat, a role he's played more often than most would like to remember in light of his iconic status.

The unlikely hero was the player who endured as much abuse as any player in the NFL. ("If there's anybody I'm more proud of on this team," said linebacker Antonio Pierce, "it's Eli, because he's taken criticism from draft day.") Not to mention the little brother who perpetually suffered in comparison to his big brother.

Against the odds, the elements and the legend, Eli Manning follows Peyton into the big game by a year. He did it with great numbers considering the weather (21-for-40, 254 yards, no turnovers) and even more stunning poise.

Poise was in short supply on both sides last night. Manning had enough to get the Giants to Arizona.

Awaiting them there is a force more cruel and demanding than Mother Nature.


Listen to David Steele Tuesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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