Giants Blew Super Opportunity

AP Photo - Bill Kostroun

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – There was the same feeling exactly a year earlier. Players talked in hushed tones about missed opportunities and reaching the offseason too early. They wondered how they could have played so poorly, rested and healthy and home.

Only now it was the Giants delivering the solemn message, not the Dallas Cowboys. Now it was the Giants feeling the torturous bite of failing to meet expectations.

And now it was Giants fans, certain of another trip to the Super Bowl, wondering how it all went wrong.

There are plenty of other accurate Cowboys-Giants analogies, Eli Manning stinking it up instead of Tony Romo, mistakes galore from the Giants sideline instead of Dallas'. But Giants fans are enduring enough pain. Last thing they need is Dallas brought into it.

No, Philadelphia is the team of the moment, the way the Giants were the team of last season, determined to travel by wild-card coach all the way to the Super Bowl.

Giants fans know every euphoric tingle that comes from beating the big dog. Now, Philly fans, suddenly a spoiled lot given the events of the baseball season, absorb a special high reserved for playoff advancement.

The hard part is trying to figure out how the Eagles beat the Giants 23-11 before 79,000 towel-waving fans screaming themselves silly at Giants Stadium. The hard part is deciding whether it was the Giants playing poorly or the Eagles playing great. Neither option is especially settling, but the Giants and their fans will feel a few extra jabs given time to analyze this game.

Because the Giants blew it.

They blew this game the way Tennessee blew its game against Baltimore a day earlier. They blew a chance to play host to Arizona for the NFC title, which means they blew a big chance at another berth in the Super Bowl.

They blew it.

One constant about blowing this kind of opportunity is that no matter how talented the team – and the Giants are immensely talented – there's no binding invitation for return trips to the playoffs. The Giants could make it back to the postseason next year, no doubt, or next decade.

Giants fans are savvy enough to realize as much, having watched their three other post-Super Bowl teams go a combined 21-26 and miss the playoffs each time. That's why this one hurts so much. The Giants lost to a lesser team.

The first culprit, of course, is Manning, who wasn't bad. He was horrible. The same guy who played almost mistake-free ball the last postseason made one blunder after another, beginning on the very first play from scrimmage when he threw wide of an open Steve Smith.

In the first half alone, Manning threw a terrible interception that was essentially a pick-six – Asante Samuel returned it to the Giants' 2 – and missed five open receivers, including two – Smith and Domenik Hixon – as they sprung open for game-changing deep balls. Manning was just as bad after halftime and finished with an unsightly 40.7 rating.

Some of it could be chalked up to top-notch defense. But Manning had people open and he simply missed them. The wind was moderate, nothing like many winter Sundays at the stadium. Manning, as the song goes, had a bad day.

Yet he had plenty of company. Two other heroes of the 2007-08 postseason, head coach Tom Coughlin and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, had similar downers. Coughlin, leading the league in successful challenges, never should have challenged a spot with the Giants down 20-11 early in the fourth quarter. Replays revealed officials gave a good spot on Derrick Ward's 2-yard run on third-and-three from the Giants' 42. Coughlin lost the challenge, leaving the Giants with only one timeout.

Then he exacerbated the blunder by going for it on fourth down with 12:39 left. Manning was stuffed on a sneak and Philly took over at the Giants' 45. The Eagles didn't score on the ensuing possession, but Coughlin's decision ruined an almost certain field-position advantage given Jeff Feagles' punting expertise.

Instead, the Giants were left in a hole, starting at their 11 with 10:22 left, following Philly's punt.

The next sequence defies explanation. The Giants opted to run on six of their next seven plays – remember, they were down two scores with one timeout – including two head-scratchers on third and fourth downs. Ward took a direct snap and went for no gain on third-and-two from the Giants' 47. Then Brandon Jacobs was sent up the middle for 1 yard. The Eagles took over and only 6:28 remained.

The Giants blew other opportunities, not least Mr. Automatic, John Carney, missing field goals from 46 yards and 47. The Giants pressured Donovan McNabb into several incompletions. But he managed a killer third-and-20 conversion in the third quarter – escaping the grasps of Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka to hit Jason Avant for 21 yards – that led to a field goal and a 13-11 lead.

There will be talk about missing Plaxico Burress and struggling to recapture momentum following a dull regular-season finish and the ensuing bye week. Those were factors as well. The Giants lacked crispness, and Lord knows Manning could have used Burress on the opening drive at Philly's 11. Instead it was Jacobs for 2, Jacobs for no gain and a 5-yard completion to Ward preceding Carney's 22-yard field goal.

But the Giants had a clear path to Super Bowl XLIII. They watched Arizona upset second-seeded Carolina. They had the goods to handle the Eagles, no matter how sweet an underdog they had become. But the Giants picked a terrible time to deliver 60 minutes of sloppy football.

They blew the game. They blew the season.

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