No Talk, Just a Walk to San Francisco

Eli Manning has the Giants a game away from the Super Bowl, but will face a tough test in San Francisco

They didn’t enter the season with much fanfare. They didn’t make any superstar free agent signings, no high round draft picks destined to carry a team, no “Super Bowl or bust” dreams. But the New York Giants are one win away from going to their second Super Bowl in four years. When they play the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday evening, the NFC Championship will be played by two unlikely Super Bowl contenders.

This was supposed to be Aaron Rodger’s year, with a march to perfection that lasted until mid-December. The Packers were the overwhelming favorites to repeat as Super Bowl champions, but they literally dropped the football all day long against the Giants in yesterday’s Divisional Round playoff game, and then dropped right out of the playoffs. 15-1 corresponded to one and done in the playoffs.

This was supposed to be the Philadelphia Eagles, with the best defensive backs unit in the game, a playmaker at quarterback, and lethal threats for the quarterback to use. But the only dream that the Eagles had ended up being a Groundhog Day nightmare of struggling to win close games week after week. The Eagles gelled too late in the season to qualify for the postseason, and their inability to hold onto fourth quarter leads nearly eliminated them  from contention while we were still in the first half of the season.

This was supposed to be the other New York team that became the toast of the town. The Jets were supposed to be playing on Championship weekend as this was the year that Mark Sanchez finally took the next step into becoming an elite quarterback. This was supposed to be the year that the Jets finally broke through the AFC Championship barrier. But instead, the Jets broke down. Inconsistencies poked holes in the Jets’ wings all season long until it at last came crashing down in Miami. And in Miami, a certain team captain did not go down with his vessel, leaving the Jets with a ton of questions entering a playoff-less off-season.

This was supposed to be the San Diego Chargers year, if you asked Sports Illustrated, to finally get over their playoff hurdles and have Phillip Rivers lead them into the Super Bowl.  A strong defense, a weak AFC West, would only make Rivers’ path to glory easier. It was supposed to be Rivers’ time to join Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger as member of the 2004 Draft class to quarterback a Super Bowl Champion. The only team that could beat the Chargers were the Chargers. And that’s exactly what happened – week, after week, after week, after week.

Instead, the biggest storyline heading into Championship weekend is how a team led by a quarterback formerly known as a first round bust is hosting a game that was a walking M*A*S*H* unit during the pre-season. How could Alex Smith and Jim Harbaugh resurrect an entire franchise in four months time? How has Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin made the DeSean Jackson walk-off punt return from December 2010 look like it happened a thousand years ago? How has Vernon Davis become a player that can’t be “coached with… played with… [won] with,” transformed into a player with his very own Dwight Clark moment? How has Osi Umenyiora gone from holdout to strip-sacking Aaron Rodgers as he was about to deliver a no-doubt touchdown pass? How did we get to this point!?

If there has been anything that the NFL regular season and first two weeks of the playoffs have taught us, it is that the only thing that matters is how you prepare for games and what you do on the field on gameday. The Giants and Niners both have overcome doubts from outside their own organization with a little help from their own personal confidence.

It’s not loud or brash, or Ryan-esq, but it is confidence. Confidence in Perry Fewell, who had a less than stellar 2010 season as the Giants defensive coordinator. But instead of listening to the pulse of the fans who wanted him out then and during the Giants mid-season four game slide, the Giants defense has been outstanding since their Week 16 victory over the Jets.

When the Niners selected Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick in the 2011 NFL Draft, many saw him as the man to succeed Alex Smith (and a revolving door of other quarterbacks) as the man to lead the Niners offense. But rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh had enough confidence in Smith to give him a shot as the starter. The offense was tailored around Smith’s strengths and was kept at a low-risk level so that the offense avoided being dependent on Smith. He responded by throwing just five interceptions all season long. When the offense needed to depend on him, in a Divisional Round shoot-out with New Orleans, Smith answered with two go-ahead touchdowns, the last of which coming with nine seconds left to seal a spot in the Championship game.

No, Rex Ryan, it does not matter at all what you say to the media, or what the media says about your team. It doesn’t matter if you have a dream team, or if you’re having the greatest season that any quarterback has had. The only thing that matters is winning on Sunday. And for one team’s remarkable season, through hard work, determination and class, the journey will continue to Indianapolis.

Follow me on Twitter @Justin Cirillo

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