Patriots Stay Perfect; Giants Shock Packers In NFC Championship

While the New England Patriots’ pursuit of perfection remains intact after finishing off the San Diego Chargers, their final hurdle is an unlikely one. Apparently, the clock has not quite struck midnight for the New York Giants, who ended the Green Bay Packers’ run at a Super Bowl appearance. Before we preview the Super Bowl in next week’s issue, here are our recaps of the conference championships.

AFC Championship: Patriots beat Chargers, 21-12

The name of the game was red-zone efficiency, and the Patriots were far superior to the Chargers in the American Football Conference Championship. The Patriots clawed their way to three touchdowns; the Chargers were forced to settle for four field goals.

In a game where quarterback Tom Brady’s passing was uncharacteristically sloppy to the tune of a 66.4 QB rating, the Patriots once again found alternate ways to win. The Chargers effectively took wide receiver Randy Moss out of the game and neutralized Brady on a gusty night, but running backs Kevin Faulk and Laurence Maroney stepped up to keep moving the chains.

This was a marked change from previous Patriots victories that relied on churning out passing yards. In many ways, it harkened back to Brady games in years past: the offense was not perfect, but it produced scores when it mattered. And, of course, the defense didn’t allow any touchdowns.

Though Brady tossed three interceptions — remember, turnovers were supposed to key any potential Chargers victory — the San Diego offense could not capitalize. Quarterback Philip Rivers was hampered by his two bad knees, and the right one required surgery the Monday before the game. Though his movement was better than anticipated, Rivers was still unable to complete throws he probably would have made at full strength.

Star running back LaDainian Tomlinson was a non-factor, providing only five yards on two carries before riding the bench for the rest of the game. Tight end Antonio Gates was similarly ineffective, catching only two passes for 17 yards.

The way the Patriots won may have been uglier than usual, but the end result was the same — and when it comes down to it, that’s really all that coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots care about.

Giants defeat Packers, 23-20 (OT)

This wasn’t how the story was supposed to go. The Packers were supposed to be on a plane to Arizona, Tom Coughlin and the Giants were supposed to be on a flight back east, and we were supposed to be here writing about quarterback Brett Favre’s ageless greatness. We’re not sure we can even bring words to our level of disappointment. This week was supposed to be a debate over which MVP is the better playoff quarterback: Brady or Favre?

Instead, we get the Giants, a team that has continued to find a way to win despite being heavy underdogs. A team led by Eli Manning, who has defined these playoffs not by the plays he’s made but by the interceptions he hasn’t thrown. A team that managed to survive the conference championships, despite kicker Laurence Tynes missing two potential game-winning field goals of 43 yards with 6:49 remaining and 36 yards as time expired.

While we won’t argue over the merits of the younger Manning, let’s instead concentrate on the real story of this team: the defense. The story of this game wasn’t the elevated play of wide receiver Plaxico Burress, or the energized runs of rookie Ahmad Bradshaw. It was the Giants’ defense, reborn this year under the guidance of Steve Spagnuolo.

Despite its banged-up secondary, the defense neutralized Green Bay’s passing attack, making Favre look pedestrian. Instead of sitting back and playing conservatively, the Giants were opportunistic, and that aggressiveness led to the final interception in overtime by cornerback Corey Webster.

The Packers run game was held to under 30 yards, which made ball control a serious issue for the Packers. The Giants ended up with almost a 2-to-1 advantage in time of possession, while the Packers failed to pick up a first down after the third quarter.

If this really is the last of Favre, in 10 years, will you really remember his interception in overtime against the Giants? You shouldn’t. The first thing you’ll remember is the image of him running across the field, helmet raised high, smiling like a kid. The next thing you’ll remember is Favre defeating the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI to cap his second MVP season.

Had the Packers won, the upcoming game would have looked all too familiar. Ten years ago, the legendary John Elway led the Denver Broncos — amid rumors of Elway’s imminent retirement — to a Super Bowl victory over the Packers, despite being double-digit underdogs. Ah, if only Favre could return the favor to Brady’s Patriots this year.

Legends are created by their careers and defined by their successes, but fondly remembered by their farewells. Elway left us carrying away his second Lombardi Trophy. Jordan left us with a smooth fadeaway that capped his sixth championship. Sampras left us with one last U.S. Open victory. For Favre, toppling the 18-0 Patriots would have surpassed them all.

Maybe next year.

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