Super Bowl: A tale of two catches

A taut, novelistic game turns in the space of three plays

Published February 6, 2012 1:27PM (EST)

New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker drops a pass during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl XLVI football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012, in Indianapolis.       (AP/Matt Slocum)
New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker drops a pass during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl XLVI football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012, in Indianapolis. (AP/Matt Slocum)

Super Bowl 46 was a tale of two catches – one made, one dropped – that took place within the space of three plays. The catch he dropped will haunt New England Patriots flanker Wes Welker to the end of his days. The one that New York Giants’ wide receiver Mario Manningham caught led to the Giants’ fourth Vince Lombardi Trophy, and will be almost too painful for Patriots’ fans to ever watch. Four years after Giants’ receiver David Tyree’s legendary ball-on-helmet grab led to the Giants’ scintillating victory in Super Bowl 42, the Patriots just got fatally struck by Eli Manning lightning. Again.

It was a taut game, this 21-17 affair, airless and strange and beautiful to watch for purists, a game that lacked surface melodrama but in which the outcome hung on every snap. A baseball-type football game. A novelistic game, inexorable and fatalistic, the football equivalent of Edith Wharton’s "The House of Mirth," in which any change in the late narrative would have meant a different ending – Lily Bart not dying in despair, Tom Brady riding off into the sunset with four rings. But the fates – it felt like that, anyway, but it was just players making plays – decreed otherwise. Manningham’s gorgeous snag of Manning’s perfectly thrown 38-yard pass on the left sideline, with only a nanosecond to get his feet down and secure possession of the ball as he was slammed out of bounds, will go down as one of the most memorable catches in Super Bowl history, up there with Steeler Lynn Swann’s balletic leap in 1979 and John Taylor’s winning grab in the 49ers’ last-second victory over the Bengals. For Giants’ fans, it will forever be Catch 2.

This was one of the hardest Super Bowls to predict that I can remember (I called it for the Patriots in a close one, but with consummate lack of confidence in my pick) and the actual game revealed why. These two teams are equal in a very odd way. Odd, because for anyone who watched these two teams play at the end of the regular season and then in the playoffs – I admit I saw the Giants play more than the Patriots -- it was obvious that the Giants were a more well-rounded team and, just as important, were peaking at the right time. They had a better defense on every level, especially in the secondary and on the defensive line, and their offense was hot, with Manning – an elite quarterback in every way, and now with the two rings to prove it – throwing to a devastating trio of wideouts. Their running game was just OK, but good enough to keep the defense honest. And the Giants were both battle-tested and on a roll, having faced what were almost elimination games since week 12 of the season.

Facing this explosive offense was a flawed Patriots’ defense, its Achilles' heel its secondary. That should have tipped the odds to the Giants. As announcer Al Michaels pointed out, although the line favored the Pats, most fans around the country seemed to think the Giants would win.

But the Patriots had an X-factor: Tom Brady. Manning is a great quarterback, but Brady is on a different level – he’s one of the greatest of all time. And this killer was running The Machine – an offensive juggernaut featuring an unguardable flanker, first-rate wide receivers and – the trump card – two tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who had just completed the greatest season two teammates ever had. Plus, there was the Patriot mystique -- their three Super Bowl victories and their brilliant coach Bill Belichick. For me, that made the game a coin toss, maybe slightly tipping to the Pats. But they would be hanging on for dear life all game long and have to win on a last-minute drive.

That’s pretty much how it played out. If the Pats had had a healthy Gronkowski, they'd probably have won this game. But they didn’t. And when the chips were down, Brady and the Patriots couldn’t get the job done – and Manning and the Giants did. It wasn’t the Patriots’ last drive – that never had more than about a 10 percent chance of success, Brady needing to go 80 yards to score a touchdown with only 57 seconds left and one timeout, a situation close to Hail Mary land. It was on the drive before that Brady and Welker could have put the Giants away, and didn’t.

At the start of the game, it looked like the Giants could move the ball almost at will. The Giants received, New England deferring, and they immediately smashed the ball down the Patriots’ throats. They had crisply moved almost 50 yards and were in field goal range when Manning was sacked – a premonition of things to come for the Giants, whose inability to score when on the Patriots’ side of the field almost killed them. But a great punt by Steve Weatherford – who had a superb day, repeatedly pinning the Patriots’ deep – forced Brady to start from his own six-yard-line.

Then something extremely unusual happened. Under heavy pressure in his end zone, but not early pressure – meaning his receivers were well downfield – Brady threw it away deep down the middle. It was pretty obviously a throw-away, but the refs almost never call grounding on deep balls over the middle, because it’s usually vaguely plausible that the quarterback and his receiver are not on the same page. I think maybe I’ve seen it called once, if that. But the refs put their hands over their heads – safety. 2-0 Giants. It was the worst possible start for Brady. And when the Giants immediately marched down the field and scored, Victor Cruz gathering in a 2-yard pass from Manning, the Pats looked a little overmatched. The Giants had run 14 plays to the Patriots’ one. It felt like Brady had to generate at least a field goal on this drive to keep the 9-0 game from getting out of hand.

Brady went to work, a surgeon, methodically carving up the Giants, hitting the quicksilver Welker and wideout Deion Branch and mixing in some effective runs by BenJarvus Green-Ellis. A tipped pass by Giants’ defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul stopped the drive at the 11 but Stephen Gostowski kicked a 28-yard field goal to make it 9-3.

Turning point 1 of what would be a tense succession of turning points, climaxes and pivotal struggles. New England had weathered the storm and was trailing only by six, despite having been physically mauled and having made a crucial error on their very first offensive play. From here to the end of the game, every possession, every down, was critical.

When linebacker-size Giants’ running back  Brandon Jacobs ripped off an 11-yard gain through the center of the Pats’ defensive line, Big Blue appeared to be on the verge of bludgeoning the Patriots into early submission, as analyst Chris Collinsworth pointed out. (Collinsworth was good, as usual, although his flat assertion that Giants’ wideout Mario Manningham was to blame for an incomplete sideline bomb because he ran too close to the sideline was dubious – Manningham could have been reacting to an off-target Manning pass.) But a key holding penalty snuffed out a promising drive, and the Giants had to punt.

The next series was when Brady demonstrated his mastery. Starting at his own 4-yard line, he mixed passes to Welker, Hernandez and Gronkowski, along with some potent runs by tough, undersize back Danny Woodhead, and moved the Patriots all the way down the field, culminating in a sweet TD pass to Woodhead, whose quick right-left juke on a route of the backfield left a Giants linebacker looking for his jock.  At the end of the first half, disconcertingly, the Patriots had the lead, 10-9.

There was one ominous sign for the Pats. Their all-world tight end Rob Gronkowski, playing on a severe ankle sprain, was running like a tight end from 1960 – very, very slowly. Brady’s most potent weapon, the guy with the hands like oven mitts, was little more than a decoy. This was huge. Still, the Giants could have been excused for feeling like they might have made a fatal error in not putting away the Pats when they had the chance.

And when Brady opened the second half by moving his team 79 yards down the field, finishing with a 12-yard strike  to Hernandez, the momentum had completely reversed. Now it was Brady who looked like he was going to score on every drive, and the Giants, trailing 17-9, who absolutely needed to score.

And Manning delivered, leading them to a field goal for 17-12.

The Giants had weathered the storm. They forced Brady and the Pats to punt. And when they stormed back down the field and kicked another field goal for 17-15, it was anyone’s game.

Brady made a rare mistake: flushed from the pocket, he underthrew a long interception intended for Gronkowski. But it was as good as a punt, and the Giants were stymied when defensive back Moore made a great, perfectly timed hit on Manningham, forcing the Giants to punt again.

The two teams had traded punches. Now came the key drive. New England got the ball back with 9:24 left on their own 8-yard line. If Brady could lead them to a touchdown, the Giants would be down two scores with not a lot of time. Mixing runs and passes, he moved them beautifully down the field, burning huge clock.

Then came the key play in the game – at least the one before Manningham’s heroics. There were less than five minutes left, secondand 11, ball on the Giants’ 44 yard line. Welker ran a 20-yardish pattern in the middle of the field, moving left to right. Brady threw it toward Welker’s right, meaning the everyman-size slot man had to leap slightly backward for the ball. It wasn’t an easy catch, but it’s one that’s almost automatic for Welker, who has some of the best hands in football. If he had caught it, deep in Giants’ territory and with the Giants having burned two timeouts, the game would probably be over. It would certainly be over if the Patriots could score a touchdown.

But he didn’t catch it. There was a shot of the Patriot players on the sideline screaming in disbelief after the ball went through Welker’s hands.

For the Patriots, it was 2008 all over again. Just before Tyree made his famous catch, Manning threw a sideline pattern that Patriots’ cornerback Asante Samuel timed perfectly. He leaped for the interception that would have ended the game – and the ball went through his fingers. Safety Rodney Harrison later said that Asante had the best hands of any defensive back in football, and when he didn’t make the catch, he knew this might not be the Patriots’ day. It felt exactly like that when Welker dropped the pass.

The Giants got the ball back at their  own 12, 3:46 to go. And on the very first play, Manning threw an absolutely perfect pass to Manningham on a sideline go route. There were only inches to spare, but Manningham seized the ball out of midair, got possession instantly and got his feet down inbounds at midfield a fraction of a second before the free safety smashed him out of bounds. The 38-yard pass was the longest play of the game. Belichick was forced to challenge the ruling, which cost him a timeout that cost the Pats 45 seconds. That play was the backbreaker, but the Pats could still win if they could stop Manning and his playmakers. They couldn’t. Manning hit Hakeem Nicks, and the Giants quickly moved into field goal range and picked up a critical first down.

The Patriots, facing death by clock, allowed Ahmad Bradshaw to score. They got a break when Bradshaw failed to kneel down before crossing the goal line, but they were now facing extremely long odds with less than a minute left. Brady managed to move them to midfield, close enough to throw a Hail Mary on the last play of the game. Breathtakingly, Gronkowski almost gathered in the deflected pass – a fitting end to a great, well-played game between two evenly matched teams.

For the deserving, never-say-die Giants, their excellent coach Tom Coughlin and their cool quarterback Manning, who outplayed one of the game’s masters in the clutch and now owns one more ring than his more celebrated older brother, this victory moves them into elite company: the Giants are now tied with the Green Bay Packers with four Super Bowl wins, behind only Pittsburgh (six), San Francisco and Dallas (five each). For the Patriots, still stuck on three victories, it is the bitterest of defeats, not least because it is a déjà vu all over again. For fans, it was one of the better Super Bowls, one with its own unique, unrelenting, frustrating tension.

In cultural matters, i.e., the broadcast’s insanely expensive ads, a highly optimistic, genteely Dionysian and extremely sexualized view of reality prevailed. Viewers learned that Chevrolet Silverado trucks can make the Apocalypse go away, which is really cool! Also, if you buy one of those upgraded Fiat “Little Mice” whose tiny predecessors introduced thousands of postwar Italian men to impossible Kama Sutra positions, an outrageous babe will sexually torture you. Come to think of it, a similar babe, actually a whole bikini lineup of augmented babes, comes with every Kia. Also, the end of Prohibition was a really, really rockin’ national party, attended by the most clean-cut people in the most anodyne town imaginable, who at ad’s end are about to get shitfaced, but really politely and without any alteration of their consciousness.

Plus, the ads made it clear that all Americans must accept living “happily” in a David Foster Wallace dystopia in which everything, including the years, is sponsored. Detroit the city is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Chrysler. The automaker ran a deeply creepy “Motor City is firing again” ad that featured, among other sentimental and offensive inanities, an absurd attack on “partisans” waving generic signs. The whole weird spot, which never mentioned cars until the very end and seemed to go on forever, was narrated by Clint Eastwood, who should be profoundly ashamed.  There was also a bizarre ad in which Budweiser and GE merged into a scary, mutually self-congratulating double-headed monstrosity for no apparent reason.

Enjoy tomorrow’s BudweiserTM Monday, everyone!

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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