GIANTS DOOMED BY COLLINS, BUT RAVENS SURVIVE WITH DILFER

TAMPA– By the time it was over — and it was over way before it was over — the kid was useless. He couldn’t hit a receiver in a pillow fight. Mark this date. Put it in your football scrapbook. This was the night when a theory was disproved: You don’t need a good quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

But a bad one can lose it for you.

It happened Sunday night. Never mind the Ravens’ stunning defense that left the Giants dizzier than Sarah Jessica Parker. Never mind the back-to-back Giants/Ravens kickoff returns for touchdowns — the only excitement in a game that gave new meaning to the word “Survivor.”

Never mind all that. This Super Bowl was lost more than it was won. And it was lost by New York Giants quarterback Kerry Collins, whose only accomplishment all night was making Trent Dilfer look good by comparison.

And that’s saying something.

Now, in a team game, I don’t usually like to point to one player. Especially in a loss. But considering that quarterbacks and Super Bowls are like cars and drivers, and considering men like Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw, Phil Simms, Joe Montana, Brett Favre, John Elway and Kurt Warner were all disproportionately responsible for their team’s Super Bowl wins, well….

Four interceptions? In six possessions?

And the last was returned for a touchdown?

What would you call that? Helpful?

“This was the most disappointing loss I’ve ever been involved in,” Collins said after the Giants were blown out of Super Bowl XXXV, 34-7, without scoring a point on offense. “Bad reads on my part. I missed guys when I had them open. There wasn’t a whole lot of good about what I did today.”

And believe it or not, he’s understating the case.

Collins’ four deadly sins

Now, OK, before we continue on quarterback — the most important position in football — a nod to the most important element of a team: defense. Baltimore’s was scary good. Never out of position. Never taking dumb chances. Playing with attitude.

It was a thing to behold. Ray Lewis was deservedly voted the MVP remember, his off-field behavior is not what’s being voted on — because he was the heart of a defense that went “Boo!” and watched the Giants flinch.

Having said that, the Ravens weren’t exactly …challenged.

Collins was, in a word, awful. It wasn’t just the interceptions, it was the way he played his position. When he wasn’t having passes picked off, he was having them tipped. When they weren’t being tipped, he was throwing them into the ground. When he wasn’t throwing them into the ground, he was scrambling, then dropping into the fetal position faster than you could say, “How about a little contact to inspire your teammates?”

And then came the four interceptions, tying the Super Bowl record.

For a quarterback trying to lead a team to victory, each was an unforgivable sin.

The first was the sin of bad decision. Collins, with plenty of time, threw the ball into the teeth of the defense and saw it snagged by Jamie Sharper. End of drive.

The second was the sin of missed opportunity. The Giants were actually threatening, on Baltimore’s 29. Collins threw into two defenders, and Chris McAlister intercepted at the goal line. The Giants went into the half with no points.

The third was the sin of killing hope. It came on the Giants’ fifth play of the third quarter, and ruined any dreams they had of Collins’ bad first half being a temporary thing.

And the fourth interception? That was the sin of points. Just a few minutes after his third pick, Collins came out and threw the ball smack into the hands of Baltimore’s Duane Starks, who ran it back 49 yards for a touchdown and a 17-0 lead.

Game over.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: How could Collins rack up 381 yards against the Vikings in the NFC championship game and be so bad Sunday night? Answer: Minnesota’s defense couldn’t even dress in the Baltimore locker room.

“What did you think of Collins’ performance?” someone asked Ravens coach Brian Billick, after Collins finished with just 112 yards on 39 attempts.

“I think we got a lot of pressure on him, and . . .” Billick said. He paused.

“We got a lot of pressure on him.”

Lesser of two evils

Now, Collins is not the first quarterback to have a bad game in the Super Bowl. But there is usually a quarterback on the other side who is grabbing the victory as surely as his opposite is giving it away.

You can’t say that about Sunday. Trent Dilfer, the Baltimore quarterback, actually may have pulled off his prediction: “The Ravens can win a championship despite me.”

I’m not sure I’d brag about that.

Don’t take this the wrong way, because he’s a nice story and it’s great that he returned to Tampa to win in front of all those people who booed him, but the simple fact is — Baltimore fans, cover your ears — Dilfer was the worst quarterback on the field not named “Collins.”

He missed chances. He missed open men. He overthrew his receivers so regularly, I thought he took the phrase “taking it to another level” literally.

Once in a while, he got his timing straight — a nice pass to Brandon Stokley for a 38-yard touchdown — and that was all the Ravens really needed.

“Once we got up 7-0, it was over,” Shannon Sharpe, the tight end, said.

Only Baltimore can say that. And only a team this good on defense could survive a quarterback like that. Dilfer’s biggest accomplishment was not turning the ball over. Hey. Sometimes that’s all you need.

“Trent, can I speak for you?” Tony Siragusa, the loudmouthed Baltimore lineman, yelled over from an interview podium. “OK? I’m gonna say it….

“All you guys who thought Trent Dilfer couldn’t lead us to a championship can KISS MY A–.”

How nice. You hardly know where to begin with a quote like that. Maybe, “Tony, given your size, there wouldn’t be enough reporters in the world to pull that off.”

But why sink to that level? Siragusa is sadly typical of several Baltimore players who ruin any desire you have to root for them. With an attitude, a penchant for trash talk, and a coach who thinks it’s cute, fans outside of Baltimore found it hard to get behind Lewis, Sharpe or Siragusa.

You know what? At this moment, they don’t care.

But that doesn’t make Siragusa right. Dilfer didn’t lead, he simply didn’t mess up. This was a Super Bowl where defense dominated, and where the most important position on the field was, on one side, mediocre, and the other, embarrassing.

And thus ends a Super Bowl that barely raised a pulse during the week and put people to sleep during the game. Twenty-one punts? Four interceptions?

As the players were heading off to their parties, someone asked Ray Lewis if he took any souvenirs.

“I grabbed some of the grass,” he said. “This was our turf.”

Somewhere at the other end of the stadium Collins was washing away the same souvenir. One can only hope he had a lot of soap.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast 3-5 on MSNBC.

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