Top 20 Games of 2011

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Game 12: Super Bowl XLVI

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There are 267 games in an NFL season, well over 1,000 quarters, and in 2011, no less than 34,037 plays from scrimmage. To think one play would be representative of the NFL’s 82nd campaign would be a bit far-fetched, right?

Not if you saw what happened at the 12-yard line of Lucas Oil Stadium on Feb. 6 in our 12th ranked game, Super Bowl XLVI. One snap might have changed the legacy of a player, his coach, as well as earning the New York Giants their fourth Lombardi Trophy, and eighth overall NFL championship.

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Down 17-15, with 3:46 to play and 88 yards to go, Eli Manning and his offensive mates had time. They had hope, too, in that being down just two points meant a Lawrence Tynes kick would send them home winners...

... if No. 12 for the New England Patriots wasn’t hanging out on the other sideline. Tom Brady and trying to protect 1-point leads don’t exactly mix like Jack and Coke.

New York needed a touchdown. But how should offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride start the drive? The ground game had been decent up to that point, but 3:46 isn’t an eternity, and playing too conservatively would hamper the Giants best playmakers: Manning, Hakeem Nicks, and Victor Cruz. Unless, of course, the Giants were OK with punting, i.e. thinking they could stop Brady and get the ball back.

Good luck with that.

If punting wasn’t an option, then a stuffed run on first equates to an obvious passing down on second. Obvious passing downs are dangerous when backed up that close to your own end zone, as a sack or turnover can end the game. Look no further than earlier in the game, when Tom Brady got hit with an intentional grounding call out of his end zone, gift-wrapping the Giants a quick two points. So, being a bit conservative might not be the worst thing in the world.

The Patriots would likely come out in nickel, so the opportunity to get mismatches in the passing game were less likely if Gilbride chose to get aggressive. Think about it: Manning forces one into coverage, or holds the ball too long because the Pats had more players in the secondary, then at the very least the Giants will be facing second or third-and-long, if not taking a dangerous sack or the worst outcome: a pick-six.

That’s what Gilbride had on his plate. This is what he gets paid for, and the one spot in the universe where all of the experience in 22 years of coaching at the NFL level meets with opportunity ... and risk.

What to do, what to do.

Sure enough, the Patriots came out in nickel. Gilbride rolled out wideout Nicks, Cruz and Mario Manningham, with tight end Bear Pascoe and Ahmad Bradshaw in the backfield. With only six in the box on defense, the Giants could play a numbers game and run the football, especially with 3:46 left.

Gilbride said no to that business, and yes to being aggressive.

Nicks and Cruz -- the biggest playmakers -- lined up right of the formation, with Manningham alone on the left. The Giants max protected, with the tight end (Pascoe) and running back (Bradshaw) staying in to block. Nicks and Cruz had corners lined up in front of them with a safety over the top. That’s a 3-on-2 for the Patriots. Manningham had a corner (Sterling Moore) directly over him, but the safety on that side of the field, Patrick Chung, was closer to the hash in line with the tight end and couldn’t cheat too far towards Manningham.

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What did all that mean for Gilbride and Manning? It meant that a go route or out-and-up to Manningham near the sideline would be single covered, and Manning would need to make a good throw. Good enough that it didn’t sail inside, allowing Chung to get over in time to make a play on it. Good enough to get over Moore, who had the angle. Good enough that it didn’t drift so far past the coverage that it forced Manningham to catch it out of bounds.

It would be a tremendous throw. Manning looked off the safety on Nicks’ and Cruz’s side of the field, then lobbed a beautiful ball over Moore and into the outstretched hands of Manningham, who not only made a difficult over the helmet grab, but dragged his feet inbounds.

The Giants served notice they were going to win on that play, not stopping until Bradshaw fell into the end zone eight plays later. Not stopping until they took their second Super Bowl in five seasons, and both Manning and Coughlin’s cache upped a level or three.

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(Boneheaded) Play of the Game: There were plenty of mistakes to go around in Super Bowl XLVI. Brady’s intentional grounding in the end zone, or the Patriots being called for 12 men on the field after Ahmad Bradshaw fumbled. New York got to keep the ball and subsequently got a Victor Cruz touchdown to go up 9-0.

But everyone remembers Wes Welker’s drop with 4:02 left. A catch there would have meant New England was in field goal range with a two-point lead and a new set of downs. Welker’s drop might not have lost the game, but it did prevent the Patriots from winning it.

Head-scratcher: How Brady wasn’t able to beat linebacker Chase Blackburn -- a substitute teacher earlier in the season who should never have been 50 yards downfield (alone) with Rob Gronkowski -- boggles the mind. Tom Terrific destroyed everyone in 2011, throwing for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns en route to one of his best seasons. Seventeen of those went to Gronkowski. Seeing the play live, it was almost surreal to see Blackburn make the pick on the poorly thrown deep ball.

Can’t Miss Play: Ahmad Bradshaw’s touchdown represented more weirdness at Lucas Oil Stadium. Bill Belichick instructed his defense to let the Giants score from six yards out, thinking the six points was more than worth leaving some time (57 seconds) for Brady to lead the Patriots down the field. 'Ball was inside the 10-yard line, a 90 percent field goal conversion,' Belichick explained.

What it led to was the 'olé effect,' with Bradshaw receiving carte blanche to waltz in the endzone. To his credit, Bradshaw realized what was going on and tried to stop himself, but his momentum was just a bit too much for his brakes.

Best Player on the Field: There was Eli Manning, and everybody else. Manning went 30 of 40 for 296 yards a touchdown, and most importantly, no picks. He also engineered the 9-play, 88-yard drive to get the go ahead touchdown. His nine straight completions to start the game tied a Super Bowl record.

Record Breakers: Along with Manning, Tom Brady set his own completions mark, hitting 16 consecutive passes at one point, a Super Bowl record.

Despite the loss, this was the fifth Super Bowl for Belichick and Brady, tying an NFL record for head coach and quarterback held by Tom Landry and Roger Staubach. It should be noted that Staubach didn’t start the first one Super Bowl V. Craig Morton would get the nod that day.

Why this Game is No. 12: The Welker drop, the Manningham catch, late game strategy, and Eli’s special blend of calm disposition, sense of urgency, and clutch theatrics made Super Bowl XLVI worth more than four hours of our time. Tom Brady and Eli Manning squared off in a tight 24-20 contest earlier in the 2011 season, but that Week 8 matchup lacked the obvious stakes that a Super Bowl carries. Any championship game that comes down to the final drive should make the top 20 of any season.

Why not Higher? Super Bowl XLVI was a very good game, and certainly carried its share of drama. There is little question, however, that this game had some lulls in its midsection, and has often been the case in Super Bowls, lacked the homefield element that makes other playoff games so exciting. This Super Bowl also had stiff competition. Namely, these two teams, head coaches, and quarterbacks played each other four years ago in one of the most memorable title bouts of all time. Still, a solid game worthy of its spot at No. 12.

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