The New York Giants have two huge advantages going into their NFC Championship showdown Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.
Momentum. And recent NFL history.
"I think they’re on a winning streak," Niners linebacker Patrick Willis said. "So, I don’t think too much has worked in other teams’ favor."
You know what else hasn’t worked in other teams’ favor? Having a high seed and a first-round playoff bye.
Of the last six Super Bowl champions, only the 2009 New Orleans Saints and 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers had first-round byes. Three of those teams won it all after just squeaking into the postseason. It was as if the near-death experience of the regular season, having come back to life, sent each on a fearless tear that ended only when they hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.
The NFL, as it approaches crowning their champion, becomes a series of battles on a high-wire act — a place where a hundred moving parts must operate in nearly perfect synchrony under dire stress and against grueling adversaries. A single mistake can cost a team a championship. And a truly unified body — a team really in sync — can best an adversary that dominated the regular season if they suddenly find themselves just a sliver off their game.
Last season, the Green Bay Packers made the playoffs only by beating the Chicago Bears in the final game of the regular season. From that moment on, they couldn’t be stopped. In 2007, the very same New York Giants turned their fifth seed and so-so season into the force that halted the Patriots’ perfect run. The Pittsburgh Steelers, in 2006, were the last team in — and the last team standing.
"We’ve been playing smart football," Giants quarterback Eli Manning said this week. "We’ve been playing great as a team, as one unit, as everybody doing their part to help out each other. We have to continue doing that."
There’s a strong chance they will. The Giants earned the right to play in this postseason by winning a final, do-or-die regular season game against the Dallas Cowboys. They’ve since manhandled Atlanta and knocked off the 15-1 Green Bay Packers.
They have that elusive momentum that’s helped crown three of the past six Super Bowl champions, all teams few saw coming.
The Giants are healthy. Their offensive and defensive units are clicking at the same time. And Manning has been classic Eli: Not the best quarterback in the league, but one of its gutsiest, one of its best under duress, one of its most underestimated.
"They were a good team in Week 10. They were a really good team," Niners tight end Vernon Davis said. "They played a really nice game. They played us hard. They played strong. They were moving fast, and it was a tough game.
"But now, when I look at them on film, they’ve gotten even better."
They have. They’re doing what they did in 2007, what the Packers did last season, what the Colts did in 2006 and the Steelers certainly did in 2005: They’re peaking at the right time and mowing through teams that had much better regular seasons.
"I think it’s just the team coming around and playing together," Manning said. "All season, we have kind of had the defense play great one game and the offense would play good the next game. It was never a combination, it seemed like. We weren’t complementing off each other. Now it’s that way."
In the AFC, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds will battle for the other Super Bowl berth. Both the Ravens and the Patriots are consistent, excellent, you-know-what-you’re-facing powers.
The Giants are something different.
They’re the momentum end of the NFL — the latest in a link of teams with talent, but drama; with question marks, criticisms and talk of job security and change; and lastly, with those things giving way to a postseason in which they suddenly click.
Can the Niners counter? Perhaps. San Francisco has its own strange force of momentum at play. The 49ers had six comeback wins this season, including last week’s stunner that ended with Davis’ "The Catch Three." They’re a franchise that, unlike the Ravens and Patriots, hasn’t won like this in a long time — and so they’re in the midst of their own process of coming together in unexpected and dangerous ways.
"It just boosts the confidence," Niners offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "That’s real, having done it. Last week was a double-dipper. We had to do it twice, back-to-back. I think it just builds on itself and guys believe in each other. They trust in the man next to them, and there’s a lot of empirical data to support that trust."
This week, a reporter asked Alex Smith a question that posited — seven times — the belief the Giants are loose, hot and have nothing to lose. Smith laughed. Most of the press joined in.
"I guess I feel like at this point in the game with four teams left, there’s no underdog, there’s no favorite," the Niners quarterback said. "We’ve all got the same amount to lose. We’re all fighting for a trip to the Super Bowl."
He’s right, of course, they all have the same thing to lose. But the key to the question should have been this: It’s not that the Giants are playing with nothing to lose, but like they can’t — with a cool detachment that’s become very familiar the past few seasons.
As if, having barely survived a tumultuous regular season, they’re now locked into doing the one thing left to do: Win it all.