In the season of the quarterback, isn't it fitting that we get to enjoy two of the very finest on the planet in the final game of the season?
Shouldn't be any other way.
We'll all remember 2011 for the bevy of quarterbacks who took aim at the 5,000-yard plateau and Dan Marino's longstanding record. Drew Brees and Tom Brady broke the mark. Eli Manning came close, and was as good as anyone in the NFL in the fourth quarter. Brady and Manning met four years ago in the Super Bowl, with upstart Eli -- not yet considered elite -- connecting with David Tyree and Plaxico Burress on a game-winning touchdown drive.
After two dramatic and close championship games, we can only hope for more of the same. Brady wasn't quite Brady, but the Patriots ran the ball with gusto on a tough-nosed defense. After Ravens receiver Lee Evans couldn't hold onto a touchdown pass in the final minute and Billy Cundiff missed a field-goal attempt he normally makes, the Patriots secured their seventh Super Bowl appearance. Brady and coach Bill Belichick are on the cusp of more history together. All the talk about the last two years of first-round playoff exits has been expunged.
"This team really overcame a lot, and they fought hard all year," Belichick said. "It wasn't always perfect, just like today. We had our moments, but they hung in there and they fought hard. I'm happy for the players."
For the Giants, it was more late-game showmanship by Manning. After San Francisco punt returner Kyle Williams' first miscue, Manning converted the turnover into a touchdown. Another muffed punt from Williams in overtime put the Giants in field-goal range. Manning, who set franchise marks for completions (32) and attempts (58) in a playoff game, only had to position the ball for placekicker Lawrence Tynes' second OT winner in a conference title game.
The Patriots were a team possessed this season. They came out attacking in Week 1, and never stopped. Who can forget the Monday Night madness against Miami, with Brady hitting Wes Welker for a 99-yard touchdown pass and throwing for 517 yards? Sure, the Patriots gave up 24 points to a second-division team, but this was a bend-don't-break defense and the template for New England's season was established right from the start.
The Giants, on the other hand, took a more streaky and circuitous route to the postseason. They opened the season with a loss to the lowly Redskins. By Week 9, following a victory over the Patriots, they stood at 6-2. But a team synonymous with second-half swoons started sputtering again. Inherently, the annual questions about Tom Coughlin's job security emerged yet again.
The Giants entered the meat of their schedule with a tricky stretch against San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Green Bay -- and lost them all. Injuries to their pass rushers mounted, and they allowed 87 points in defeats to the Saints and Packers. They were 7-7 following a troubling, mistake-filled loss to the Redskins, but bounced back to crush the Jets' season the following week. In Week 17, they won what was ultimately their first playoff game, defeating Dallas at home to clinch the division. Although they won the NFC East with a mundane 9-7 record, it appeared they were really beginning to play their best football. New York lambasted Atlanta in the wild-card round, 24-2, and then shocked Super Bowl favorite Green Bay with relative ease, 37-20. Finally, the Giants outlasted the 49ers, giving Manning his NFL-record fifth road playoff win.
Which brings us to the biggest game of the season, two weeks from now in Indianapolis. It feels like 2008 all over again. The Giants restored their pass rush down the stretch, got healthy, and bring the ability to make Brady uncomfortable in this rematch. Brady's Patriots aren't seeking a perfect season like last time, and the wrinkle of their dominant tight ends is certainly new, as well. But many of the respective strengths and weaknesses are the same.
This Giants team is blessed with better depth at receiver, and Manning has used that Super Bowl as a springboard for greater things. A second ring, this time in his big brother's backyard, and suddenly he would be the standard-bearer in his star-studded family, with Peyton having to chase him. On the other hand, Brady is primed to perhaps enter that Joe Montana stratosphere, with a fourth ring putting him even with his boyhood idol.
Both defenses will be tested. And amid all of these stars, perhaps it will be another Tyree -- a special-teamer making the most of the biggest stage -- who makes the most critical play of all, and etches himself in our collective sporting consciousness forevermore.