And here they come again, that familiar glint in their eye, that same old swagger to their step.
The New York Giants are back in the Super Bowl, as improbable as it sounds. Once again, they have come from nowhere. Once again, the Patriots are the opponent. Once again, no one should suggest as much to the Giants, a team that does not know when a season is over.
The Giants, team turnaround, slopped around in the muck Sunday night in the NFC title game, hanging around until the 49ers self-destructed. More than anything, that is what the Giants do. They hang around, and they bide their time, and before you know it, they have both hands around the season.
This time, New York knocked stubborn San Francisco out of the playoffs, winning 20-17 in overtime. For the second time in five years, a Giants team that no one saw coming has found its way to the Super Bowl.
How do you figure this? The Giants spent the first 13 weeks of this season demonstrating that, really, they weren't anything special. They were 7-7 in December, which often means a team is as close to firing a coach as it is to embracing one on the sideline following the NFC Championship Game.
At that point, who saw anything hopeful about the Giants' season? They had a four-game losing streak, and they gave up 117 points over a three-game span, and they were swept by the Redskins, and of the seven games they won, five were by four points or less. They were dazed, and they were one blow from being counted out.
Somehow, however, the Giants managed to turn their season around in the middle of their free fall. After beating the Jets in Game 15, the Giants seemed to regain their rhythm, and overnight, they became a real team again.
"We've faced five straight elimination games, and somehow, we've scratched and found a way," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said.
Does that sound familiar? It should. In 2007, the Giants wobbled into the playoffs as nobody special, just a team filling out the bracket, just another bunch of guys with a question mark for a quarterback. And then the Giants got hot, and they ended up knocking perfection out of the reach of the Patriots.
This might be Coughlin's finest quality. Somehow, he has been able to convince his team that it can ride out the turbulence, that the bad times will not last forever.
Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, this team can win another one.,
It would help, of course, if the Patriots could act as if they had never seen a punt up close before, the way the 49ers did. For a very long time, the name "Kyle Williams" will be considered swear words around San Francisco, not to be spoken out loud, especially by children.
It was early in the fourth quarter, for instance, and the 49ers led 14-10 when the Giants punted to Williams, who was only returning punts because of the absence of Ted Ginn. Williams not only failed to field the ball, he allowed it to carom off of his knee, like a soccer player trying to redirect a teammate's kick. The Giants recovered, and quarterback Eli Manning hit Mario Manningham for the go-ahead touchdown.
Then, in overtime, it was Williams again, completing a perfectly lousy evening. This time, he caught the punt, but he lost it when the Giants' Jacquian Williams tugged on his right arm. That set up the winning field goal and ended a fairly magical run by the 49ers, too.
For much of the night, it looked as if San Francisco might be taking one more step and have a chance to become the fourth team in NFL history to go from a losing season to a Super Bowl champion. The first three of those had quarterbacks named Joe Montana, Tom Brady and Kurt Warner. This one had the beleaguered Alex Smith, and it had no offseason for him to learn from a brand-new coach.
Except for two touchdown passes to Vernon Davis, however, Smith didn't accomplish a lot. Maybe that was the rain, and maybe that was the pressure of the Giants. But the 49ers converted only one of their 13 third downs and never had the look of an offense that was dangerous enough.
The Giants, too, struggled on offense. But Manning kept throwing, and he kept taking hits, and once again, he found a way. No one should question Manning any longer. Consider this: Of the Giants' first seven wins this season, five featured fourth-quarter comebacks by Manning.
This will go down as one of those, too. With the weather screaming run, Manning threw. With the pass rush daring Manning to keep getting up, he threw. He passed 58 times, and he was knocked down 20, and still, he kept getting up.
Now, Manning gets another shot at the Patriots, at Belichick, at Brady.
This time, perfection is not the question.