INDIANAPOLIS — The New York Giants were 7-7 on Dec. 19. The Redskins had beaten them 23-10 at MetLife Stadium the day before, Washington's second win of the season against New York.
Fast-forward seven Mondays, and those same Giants — at least in name — traveled home from the state capital of Indiana with a second Lombardi Trophy in four years after beating New England 21-17 Sunday night in Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium. Quarterback Eli Manning was named Super Bowl MVP after leading the Giants on an 88-yard touchdown drive in the game's final minutes to knock off coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots for the third consecutive time in late-game fashion.
That would be the same Manning who threw three interceptions without a touchdown pass against the Redskins in Week 15.
In today's NFL, the adage about any team making the playoffs can win it all is more than just a cliche. Half of the past 10 Super Bowl champions were seeded third or lower in their conference.
"I don't know if I really can [explain it]," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Monday. "We never changed our objective. We never changed our goal. We never changed our attitude about what had to be accomplished and what we had to do. This is a great statement to our players as well as to our mental toughness."
In the 10 seasons since the NFL expanded to 32 teams with the addition of the Houston Texans and went to an eight-division alignment in 2002, a No. 1 conference seed has won the Super Bowl just twice — New England beat Carolina, the NFC's No. 3 seed, in Super Bowl XXXVIII, and New Orleans beat Indianapolis three years ago in the only Super Bowl featuring two top-seeds in this span.
Earning one of the top two seeds in a conference and a bye in the first round of the playoffs still gives a team a better chance at reaching the Super Bowl; 13 of the 20 Super Bowl contestants the past 10 seasons have been either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. It just hasn't meant much once the Super Bowl kicks off.
Indianapolis won as the AFC's third seed in 2006. The Giants' two victories have come when they were seeded fourth and fifth in the NFC. The one time they did earn the NFC's top seed, in 2008, they lost their first home playoff game. Pittsburgh in 2005 and Green Bay last season won after being their conference's sixth and final playoff team.
The Giants needed wins against the New York Jets and Dallas in their final two games to win the NFC East and earn a playoff spot. They steamrolled Atlanta 24-2 at home in a wild card gam before going on the road to beat the NFC's top two seeds; they ended defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay's season 37-20 in the divisional round and then edged No. 2 seed San Francisco 20-17 in overtime.
New York persevered through a four-game losing streak following a 6-2 start. The fact that no one else in the NFC East could take control of the division allowed the Giants to stick around and finish strong, much in the same way New England couldn't hold a 17-9 lead in the third quarter or come up with that one play in the final four minutes to stop the Giants.
"Coach Coughlin deserves all the credit in the world for getting us back on track," said defensive end Justin Tuck. "We have been in that situation all year, and we just kept telling ourselves one game at a time, one play at a time, and we finished it."
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