The New York Giants begin to celebrate as they realize they won the game when the New England Patriots failed to complete a Hail Mary pass into the end zone in the final seconds of Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012, in Indianapolis. The Giants won the game 21-17. Elise Amendola/AP
INDIANAPOLIS – The temptation is to get caught up in the moment and label the “David Tyree Miracle” just a dry run for Sunday’s down-to-the-final-second, down-to-the-final-bounce-of-the-ball “Thriller in Indy.”
But that would be more hyperbole than truth, so let’s just call it a dead heat for best Super Bowl finish ever.
While Mario Manningham’s 38-yard outstretched catch down the sideline that set up the New York Giants’ winning touchdown might not have been as unbelievable as Tyree’s pinned-to-the-helmet grab, it might deserve more style points.
And while Tom Brady’s final 51-yard Hail Mary heave was just a fingertip or two away from resulting in the most spectacular game-winning touchdown in the 46-year history of the Super Bowl, it still provided the most suspenseful finish ever.
Then there couldn’t have been a more fitting person to present the Vince Lombardi Trophy than Raymond Berry. A Hall of Fame wide receiver, Berry was one of the stars of what will forever be remembered as the “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the 1958 sudden death championship between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts.
That the Giants and New England Patriots have given us two of the best Super Bowls ever in a span of four years shouldn’t come as a big surprise. This was the 19th Super Bowl in the age of free agency, and they’re the perfect models for the two formulas that have won all but two of those championships.
One is to have an elite quarterback, and there has been no better quarterback in the game than Brady for almost a decade now.
Since the start of unfettered free agency in 1993, 10 of the previous 18 Super Bowl winners were won by teams that entered their triumphant season with a quarterback regarded as one of the top two or three in the game.
Two years ago, the New Orleans Saints won with Drew Brees. Three years before that, the Indianapolis Colts were winners with Peyton Manning. New England won twice with Brady in 2003 and 2004. The first six Super Bowls in the free-agency era were won by quarterbacks named Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Brett Favre and John Elway.
Lately, however, the more successful formula has been a one-two punch: A quarterback on the verge of achieving elite status paired with an outstanding pass rusher. That combination has won four of the last five Super Bowls.
The streak started when Eli Manning in concert with a defensive line that featured Osi Umenyiora stunned Brady and the Patriots four years ago. It continued Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium as the Giants won the rematch, again with Manning at the controls and with a pass rush that now features Jason Pierre-Paul.
Perhaps it’s still debatable whether Manning is as good as any quarterback in the game, but he clearly played as well if not better than Brady for maybe the second time in a Super Bowl. The Giants might have sacked Brady only twice, but their defensive line prevented him from getting into his usual game-long rhythm.
On New England’s first possession, Justin Tuck’s late pressure resulted in a safety when Brady was penalized for intentional grounding in the end zone. Pierre-Paul batted down consecutive Brady passes later in the half, the first extinguishing a drive at the Giants’ 11-yard line and forcing a field goal.
And as Brady tried to rally the Patriots at the end, the Giants harassed him just enough to preserve their victory.
Cliff Christl is a former Packers writer and sports editor for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.