By Clarence E. Hill Jr., McClatchy Newspapers –
The Giants and Eli Manning are one game away from a second trip to the Super Bowl in a span of five seasons.
Let that sink in for a minute, Cowboys fans, considering it is downright criminal that the Giants are even in the playoffs.
Remember, it was the Cowboys who had control of the NFC East heading to December with a 7-4 record and riding a five-game winning streak before choking away the division title by losing four of their last five games.
But I digress by bringing up that redundant and still mind-boggling fact.
Let’s get on to the time-tested NFL truths we were reminded of during the past two exciting days of playoff football.
Defense still matters.
Yes, even in the age of the wide-open NFL where quarterbacks are seemingly at the control of their Xbox game while piling up yards and touchdowns at a record pace.
Defense still matters.
Leave it to the old-fashioned NFC to drive that point home in exclamatory fashion with two shocking upsets in the divisional playoffs.
The upstart San Francisco 49ers took us back to reality on Saturday with a 36-32 victory against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
Don’t let the final score fool you.
The 49ers won their first playoff game in nine years and are one win away from their first Super Bowl since the 1994 season because of a bludgeoning defense.
San Francisco recorded three sacks and forced five turnovers — three fumbles and two interceptions.
That was only a precursor to the 37-20 beat-down the Giants put on the defending Super Bowl champion Packers, who were considered by many to be a shoo-in to repeat.
Of course, that was before the Giants took a page out of their 2007 Super Bowl title run by going to Green Bay and taking the life away from a favored opponent and glamour quarterback.
Certainly, the Cowboys have no one but themselves to blame for the Giants being in the playoffs while they are sitting at home still with just one playoff victory since the end of the 1996 season.
But there is no question that the Giants are the better team and deserve to be where they are.
The Giants have the league’s best defensive line and are simply a different team when they are healthy, which they 8weren’t for most of the season.
They are now. And that pass rush made quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ seemingly unstoppable offense do a “discount double check” all game long.
Rodgers was sacked four times and the Packers turned the ball over four times. It should have been five, but they were saved by a horrible non-fumble call by the officials.
Add the Ravens-Texans matchup to the list of examples that show defense matters.
The defensive-minded Ravens have been almost perennial contenders since Ed Reed joined forces with Ray Lewis almost a decade ago.
After taking advantage of rookie quarterback T.J. Yates in a 20-13 victory against the Texans, the Ravens meet Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the ultimate offense-defense battle in the AFC title game.
Clearly, momentum also matters.
The Packers, who rested their starters in the final regular-season game because they had locked up home-field advantage, looked like a team that hadn’t played in three weeks.
They are now at home, just like the Cowboys, with a 15-2 record.
When the Packers made their Super Bowl run last year, they did so as a wild-card team.
That was also the path the Giants took to the title in 2007 and played again in the wild-card round this year as a No. 4 seed. What we also learned was that real quarterback play matters as well.
Sorry, Cowboys, but Eli Manning is elite. He proved it first when he took down Brett Favre and Brady en route to his 2007 season title. He outplayed the new standard bearer in Rodgers on Sunday.
The most telling numbers in the Patriots’ 45-10 massacre of the Denver Broncos were those of the two quarterbacks. Brady completed 26 of 34 passes for 363 yards and an NFL-record six touchdowns.
Denver’s Tim Tebow, who has suddenly become the most popular player in the NFL despite his obvious shortcomings, was 9 of 26 for 136 yards.
The Tebow hype might be good for ratings but it was not good for football.
Playing like a stud for five minutes should not offset playing like a donkey for three and a half quarters.
Brady certainly didn’t take kindly to being overshadowed by a quarterback with no rings, no records and no passing technique.
He also holds grudges and plays with a chip, a.la Michael Jordan.
Unlike some of the wins Tebow pulled out of the hat this season that fueled the mania, Brady’s performance was no accident.