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ANATOMY OF A TURNAROUND

The Giants looked like a nondescript wild-card team until they played with abandon in the regular-season finale - despite having nothing to play for - on Dec.20 against New England. On that night, they started their unlikely path toward a championship:

1. Challenging perfection

The Patriots came into Giants Stadium 15-0, but the Giants led much of the game. Eli Manning led an 85-yard drive, capped by a 3-yard TD to Kevin Boss with 13 seconds left in the second quarter to give New York a 21-16 lead, New England's only halftime deficit this season. Manning's 19-yard score to Plaxico Burress in the third gave New York a 28-16 lead before the Pats rallied. "We didn't win the game, but if you saw everybody in the locker room, everybody was excited," Manning said.

2. Sinking the pirate ship

The Giants came into Tampa on Jan.7 for an NFC wild-card game against the Bucs, who had the league's No.2 defense. After falling behind 7-0 and being dominated in the first quarter, the Giants scored two touchdowns in the second. The key drive was late in the quarter when Eli Manning was 4-for-4 and Brandon Jacobs scored on an 8-yard run. The Giants won 24-14. "He made little, annoying third-down conversions when he needed to," Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud said of Manning. "If it is third and 8, he gets 81/2 yards. That was frustrating."

3. Eliminatingthe archrival

The Giants won their ninth straight road game, and none were as sweet. New York had lost to NFC East archrival Dallas twice in the regular season, giving up 45 and 31 points. But Jan.13 at Texas Stadium, New York's defense held the Cowboys to 17 points, and backup cornerback R.W. McQuarters picked off Tony Romo in the final seconds to end Dallas' last threat. Eli Manning (12-for-18, 163 yards) was not spectacular but didn't make any mistakes either as the Giants knocked off the No. 1 seed.

4. The overtime kick and a Super trip

Lawrence Tynes, above, made sure that another solid defensive effort didn't go to waste as the Giants earned their 10th straight road win, a league single-season record, in the NFC title game Jan. 21 in Green Bay. Tynes missed two field goals in the fourth quarter, including one on the final play of regulation to make everyone at Lambeau Field endure the subzero temperature longer. But after Corey Webster picked off Brett Favre on the Packers' first drive of overtime, Tynes nailed his third chance, a 47-yarder, to send the Giants to the Super Bowl.

5. Super upset derails Patriots' perfection

The Giants did something few teams were able to do all season - keep pressure on league MVP Tom Brady - on their way to doing something nobody could do in the 2007 season, defeat the Patriots. New York had five sacks, including two by tackle Justin Tuck, and held the 18-0 Patriots to a season-low 14 points. Then Eli Manning and the offense won it when needed, with a 13-yard touchdown to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left.

Jim Tomlin, Times staff writer

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