GIANT UPSET

GLENDALE, Ariz. -When the confetti finally flew, even the Giants looked stunned. Plaxico Burress knelt down and cried. Tom Coughlin stared at the scoreboard. Eli Manning unsnapped his chin strap and shook a football, as if they’d have to rip this feeling out of his hands. What had they done? What had they done? Had they really pulled off what the rest of the world just witnessed?

They did. Maybe the biggest upset in NFL history, at least as big as what Joe Namath’s Jets did four decades ago. Goliath slipped. The Queen burped. The perfect sunset was swallowed by a New York hurricane, a storm of red and white defenders that clouded New England’s Tom Brady, blew him off his feet, swept his passes wide or short, and finally sent his team home, soaked and depressed, their trip to football paradise gone from greatest climb to greatest fall.

Giants Killers.

“It came down to one play and we made it,” Burress told the TV cameras, moments after the 17-14 Super Bowl XLII victory that ended the Patriots’ run at history.

And indeed it came down to one key play – but only after New England had seemingly made one of its own. With 2:42 left in a game that only woke up in the fourth quarter, Brady finally threw his first touchdown of the night, hitting Randy Moss in the end zone on third-and-goal from the 6. New England took a 14-10 lead.

It was, for almost everyone here, the logical end of a tight battle, the team that had gone 18-0 this season finally thrashing to its destiny. You could stories the stories being typed.

But destiny belongs to whoever leaps highest to grab it. And with 75 seconds left to go, in a play that will be seen forever in New York, Manning, the slouching younger brother of last year’s Super Bowl king, Peyton, took a third-down snap and dropped back and got into trouble and was surely going down.

And then he didn’t. He somehow pulled away from a pack of New England tacklers, like a kid escaping in a sandlot game. And with half the stadium trying to figure out where he’d gone, Eli heaved the football down the middle of the field, and a special teams ace named David Tyree went up for it the way the greatest athletes always go up for a ball – with an absolute refusal to not come down with it.

He got one hand on it, pulled it in against his helmet, and fell to Earth holding it as if it were an explosive and if he dropped it the whole place goes kaboom. You can watch that play a million times and still marvel how the ball did not escape. Tyree, his hand, his helmet, the impact. When the official signaled catch, the Giants had just moved 32 yards in one play, had gone from dead to alive, from near-miss to maybe-win, and the stadium – heavily drenched in to New York noise – was coming unglued.

“That play alone took a few years off my life,” Giants lineman Michael Strahan said.

“That might be,” Coughlin added, “one of the greatest plays of all time in the Super Bowl.”

And perfection would not rule the night. The incredible drive

Four plays later, with 39 seconds to go, Manning found Burress on a fade in the left side of the end zone. Burress beat his defender -“Put a move on him,” he said – and he pulled the ball in like a treasure. The Giants had a lead. A few minutes later, they had the victory.

And we had another lesson in why we watch sports, instead of just predicting them.

“We shocked the world but not ourselves,” said linebacker Antonio Pierce. He and his defense have every right to pound their chest and howl at the moon. The Giants, a wildcard team in the playoffs, a team that started the season 0-2, held the mighty Patriots – who scored on (more than half of their drives this season – to just two scores all game. “Our lowest total of the year,” Brady later lamented. “That’s why we got beat. … A three-point win. We’re usually on the better side of those three-point wins.”

Brady, the former Michigan QB, was harassed all night long. He was nowhere near the quarterback that two weeks of hype celebrated him to be. The Giants brought him down five times and clearly affected even the passes that he managed to get off. Brady threw 48 times, completed 29 of them, but had just 266 yards and gave back 37 yards on sacks. The final images of him getting clobbered, or overthrowing receivers in the last desperate plays, will be a haunting reminded that there really is no such thing as a perfect player, no matter how many magazine covers you put him on.

“I don’t know if you can rattle him,” Pierce said, smiling, “but he had grass stains.” The other brother

Meanwhile, what about the other guy? Manning spent most of Super Bowl week muttering answers to questions, lowering his head full of unkempt hair and generally slouching like a teenager scolded by the school principal.

But afterward he was a whole different guy.

“Where else would you want to be?” Manning, the MVP, gushed after Sunday night’s victory, his hair wet beneath a cap. “I’ve talked about it before with Peyton. You want to be down four where you have to score a touchdown. … If you’re down three you might go for a field goal. …

“You can’t write a better script. And to go and do it is an unbelievable feeling.”

The Giants were huge underdogs. They won 10 straight on the road, including three straight playoff games, beating Tampa Bay, Dallas and Green Bay. Yet against the Patriots, they supposedly paled.

Instead, with this victory, the Giants franchise claimed its third Super Bowl, and Manning (19-for-34 for 255 and two TDs) joins his brother as back-to-back kings of the biggest sporting event in America. You could see him growing up as that last drive came together. Manning scrambled out of trouble, he threw with authority, and often threaded passes to hit receivers in stride. Neither quarterback on this night, against these defenses, was perfect. But Manning looked more in control when he had to be. And the NFL now has another bona fide quarterback star to feature in commercials.

“I always thought he was capable of this,” said Amani Toomer, one of his receivers. “I never questioned him at all.” The impossible dream

As for the Patriots? Well. It was an amazing run. The longest single-season run in history. But the higher you climb, the farther you fall. And with the 1972 Dolphins still the only perfect team from start to finish, the Pats now will be remembered more for their shortcomings Sunday than for all they did the five months before.

“We expect to win here,” Pats linebacker Teddy Bruschi said afterward. “We have had success here in the past. We expected to have it tonight. … They’re a great football team. They’re the world champions. I have to give it up for them.”

We all do now. A New York team that began with its star running back retired, its star pass rusher holding out and its head coach considered a lame duck, just upset the most perfect team in football history. It derailed a freight train. It chopped down a Sequoia. It met the impossible and did the impossible. It won through good old fashioned defense, good old fashioned coaching and a good old fashioned lack of intimidation, from an aw-shucks quarterback to a special teams player who jumped higher than anyone else.

“I told them if you win this game,” Coughlin said, “you can walk around six feet high and it would be appropriate.”

Expect to see some very large men floating in a parade very soon.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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