Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Happily Ever After

It’s taken me a full day to come down from what happened on Sunday. While it’s no secret I’ve been rooting against the Patriots since it became clear that they could do what they had set out to do from the moment they had been caught cheating, even I had quietly begun to settle into an acceptance. Then the Giants snuck out of the first quarter ahead 3-0, and everyone watching the game that hasn’t been pulling for the Patriots to insert their collective bad will into the annals of history had the same look on their face. It’s the look that everyone in the Blind Pig on 14th and 2nd in Manhattan passed to one another: Wait…the Giants can do this, can’t they? They did it, and it was beautiful, and that’s half of what made this game the perfect ending to what has gone from being a sports-altering awful season to one of the greatest stories in sports history.

Of course, this was bliss for anyone who hated what the Patriots did this year (or if you’re just someone who likes minorities). For every game where they almost lost, where they inexplicably escaped with the terrible chance to rape the League’s history, this was the perfect redress. This was better than an 18-1 Patriots team that wins the Super Bowl; that team is discussed as potentially being one of the greatest teams ever. This, on the other hand, is the perfect demise for what everyone, even those who despised the Pats, must admit was a perfect villain. After a season’s worth of entitlement and the indignant pursuit of a legacy that would last as long as sports, the 2007 Patriots become a footnote in an almanac listing who won what Superbowl; NYG def. NWE 17-14. Beautiful. Now, as everything begins to unravel in the Patriots’ world (the defense is old beyond repair, Moss is saying all those Randy Moss things that indicate he’s turning back into the money-focused superstar he was before trying to be someone else for a season, and Bill Belichick and “fired” are finding themselves in the same sentence), the rest of us get to watch and feel nothing but joy in their failure without the slightest hint of guilt. If that seems a little harsh, it shouldn’t; we were there for Spygate, we were there for 52-7, we were there when Brady and Moss broke records. This team burnt up any chance at redemption this year a long time ago.

But this is a perfect ending not only because of how the bad guy dies. That would be sweet, but not complete. This is a perfect ending because just as sweet as the defeat of evil is the victory of that which is good in sports, and, in some small way, in humanity.

The Giants are as human a team as you could find in the playoffs. They weren’t great, but they had the talent to do great things. They didn’t have amazing expectations placed on them, something that anyone with real talent will tell you is equal parts liberating and frustrating; there’s a thin line between the relief of freedom and the disrespect of disregard. They were, more often than not, brought down by their own personal flaws rather than the fact that they lacked the ability to succeed. I remember talking to my friend (pictured above), a Giants fan, after week 2, and he explained that the worst part about being a Giants fan was knowing, and he emphasized that it was a KNOWING and not a feeling, that despite all the glaring character flaws that reared their ugly heads time and time again, this team had everything it took to be great. If they ever pulled it all together, he insisted, it would be beautiful. As the celebration on the field erupted, my friend put his head in his hands and emerged with a smile and eyes on the verge of tears, saying just one simple phrase: “I knew it.”

We’ll hear a lot about the Patriots losing this game; don’t buy the hype. The Giants won this, plain and simple, and they did it by becoming the very things that nobody thought they could be. The joking, laughing relationship between the defense that never stopped harassing the Patriots backfield? That was the antithesis of the selfish, infighting squad of last season that everyone believed would return this year. Plaxico Burress crying under the weight of the moment in his post-game interviews forever erased images of a wildly talented yet ultimately unmotivated superstar receiver. Tom Coughlin became a sympathetic, even somewhat beloved figure, a transformation that was sealed when he faced off against the least likable figure in football.

And Eli? Eli is the best part about this ending, at least for anyone who believes, as we’ve tried to believe here, in the idea of dynamic literary characters. What could be better than Eli’s rising to the challenge of his birthright, and doing it in a face off with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time (and make no mistake, Tom Brady, who may have a few more Super Bowls in him, deserves to be in that conversation). Facing a team that had spent its entire season flaunting its “perfection”, Eli, the quiet, decidedly awkward leader who had always disappointed to the point of his longtime supporters losing faith, simply plodded along the way he has all postseason, and nobody could stop him. Alex, the cofounder of this site, wrote that anyone who has ever been 25 understands that the line between wunderkind and screw-up is razor thin. On Sunday, Eli proved that you’re never so far gone on the wrong side of the line that you can’t turn it around with one great effort. That’s the memory with which I’ll walk away from this game and this season; Eli grinning like an idiot, still not quite looking like he knows what’s going on, as he hoists the Lombardi Trophy above his head, having won one for everyone who isn’t supposed to be great, but can still manage when the situation calls for it. On a team filled with people proving they could change, nobody had more to prove than him, and nobody proved all us doubters wrong in more stunning fashion.

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