It's easy to look at the last few months of the New York Giants' season as some sort of flashback to 2007. There’s the dismal expectations, the near-victory in a late-season shootout against an undefeated team, the big underdog playoff road win, the huge catch here, the New England Patriots hurtling toward the Super Bowl over there.
But for all the similar stats or the new spins on old narratives, this year feels markedly different. 2007 had the feel of one of those nights where you don't plan on leaving your couch and then somehow end up on a wild 18-hour bender. This year things seem a little more high-stakes, a little more real, the kind of season that's liable to make you wind up in rehab.
The 2007 postseason was a genuinely pleasant surprise. Beating Tampa Bay in the first round seemed doable, but I felt New York had no chance to beat Dallas. Then it did. Up next: the Packers. I figured losing to Green Bay was be fine, that might even be nice to see quarterback Brett Favre win a title. After all, it would probably be his last season. (Man, that was a long time ago.) Then the Giants won again.
I went through a brief euphoric state in which I thought maybe New York could beat New England. It quickly ended when the Giants ran their mouths in the week leading up to the Super Bowl. By the time the game started, I was just hoping that they wouldn't get blown out in the first quarter.
By now, we all know how that one ended.
Confession: I didn’t have high hopes this year. In a frenzied offseason that was truncated by the NFL lockout, the Giants had remained frustratingly serene amidst the free agent chaos, like Largeman on E, and sometimes it seemed like the only personnel announcements coming out of East Rutherford were about injured guys being done for the season. A friend and I often discussed how it smelled like it was going to be one of those Giants seasons.
Instead, somehow, here we are.
While these past few weeks have carried that familiar “we-won't-win” vibe of 2007, I bristle when I hear things like "Win or lose, I'm really proud of this team" or "They've beaten Green Bay, good for them." It's not that I don't appreciate the way the Giants rescued their season, or that I haven't found their playoff victories wondrous. It just that the 2007 season -- rather than serving as an example of how any team can win it all -- instead just reminds me of how difficult, how improbable, how lucky and how rare it actually is for all the stars to align. And the plays to be right. And the catches to be made. And the wind to be favorable. And the feet to remain inbounds and the spots to be generous and -- while we're at it -- for the long snaps to be seamless and the officials to have something approaching a clue.
Those last two items, of course, are the bitter remnants of New York's meltdown at Candlestick Park in the 2002 playoffs, a year that has rivaled 2007 recently as the Giants' vintage du jour. Trey Junkin, 41, signed out of retirement just a couple weeks earlier, botched two snaps on field goal attempts -- the second of which led to a chaotic scramble and a blown call that ended the game. (The league later officially apologized to the Giants, which made everything feel even worse.) If the 2007 Super Bowl showed what happens when everything clicks, the 2003 Wild Card game was illustrative of the exact opposite.
What's more, it also shows just how finite any given team's opportunity set is. That game came only two seasons after New York went to what was, at the time, one of those serendipitous Super Bowls. (Who would have thought the Giants would beat Minnesota in the NFC Championships, let alone 41-0?) Still, it was essentially the end of the Kerry Collins and Jim Fassel era: the Giants went 4-12 the next year and then traded up for Eli Manning in the draft.
Manning, as much as anyone, certainly knows how everything can change in one ridiculous instant. He's thrown the Helmet Catch, seen a promising season derailed by a gunshot to the leg, and watched DeSean Jackson scorch the Giants with a walk-off punt return. He is just 31 years old, and is arguably having the best year of his career. This is not a do-or-die season, not by any stretch. But he also must have some sense of his own closing window.
Consider this: Eli’s brother, Peyton -- for all his awards and assured place in the Hall of Fame -- only has one championship to his name. He may never obtain another. He probably won’t get as close as he did in Super Bowl XLIV, and that dream died with an interception in the game’s waning moments. Suddenly, the Giants’ playoff push seems a little bit less like some whimsical romp by a plucky left-for-dead team and a little bit more like an opportunity they can't really afford to let pass them by.
Winning the Super Bowl in 2007 brought a rush of validation and vindication. But trying to replicate that sort of heady experience can both bring on and become a headache. The Giants seem to grasp this -- their win over Green Bay was methodical and decisive, the exact opposite of the frigid slopfest that went down the last time the two teams met in the playoffs. It looks like rain will sweep over the Bay area advance of Sunday's game, so who knows, the conditions at Candlestick may well cause another fumble-filled NFC Championship game.
Just like 2007? Sorry. This time, it’ll be totally different.