INDIANAPOLIS -- In case you were wondering, no, the New York Giants' first choice was not linebacker Chase Blackburn covering Rob Gronkowski all alone 50 yards down the field. But as he'd done for so much of the night, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady checked to a different play when he saw the coverage on the second play of the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVI, and Blackburn was stuck.
"I had to carry Gronkowski," Blackburn said after the Giants had secured a 21-17 Super Bowl victory. "I heard the crowd go wild a little bit, and I thought we had a sack. But I continued to see Gronk go up the field, and I just tried to stay with him. When I saw him look back, I looked back for the ball, and when I spotted it, I tried to just block out and go up for a rebound like in basketball."
Sure. Basketball. In case you're wondering, Gronkowski's University of Arizona media guide bio says he averaged 18 rebounds per game during the 2006 season at Pittsburgh's Woodland Hills High School. He has three inches and 20 pounds on Blackburn, who as recently as Thanksgiving weekend was hoping to land a gig as a substitute high school math teacher before the Giants called and said hey, how about middle linebacker instead? But Gronkowski also was playing the Super Bowl on a bad ankle, which Blackburn and the rest of the Giants knew. It's why they were, at that point in the game, using their better coverage linebacker, Jacquian Williams, on the Patriots' other tight end, Aaron Hernandez. After the check, Blackburn knew he had the big guy by himself.
"I knew it was a long way," Blackburn said. "He stopped for a second and I stopped with him. I was thinking it was a sack, but then as soon as I saw him go vertical, I knew I had to run and catch up with him."
They both jumped for the ball, but Blackburn came down with it for an interception that was the only turnover of the game. The Patriots led 17-15 at the time, and had Gronkowski caught the ball the momentum might never have swung back the Giants' way. Instead, the Giants secured the kind of big stop they knew they needed to make all fourth quarter to put Eli Manning and the offense in position to win.
"We're confident in our defense," linebacker Michael Boley said. "No matter who the quarterback is, we know our front four is going to get pressure and so we need to give coverage on the back end."
For much of this game, though, they weren't. Brady led easy-peasy touchdown drives at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second to turn a 9-3 Giants lead into a 17-9 New England lead. The Giants, whose game plan had been a man-coverage defense because they believed (correctly) that Brady would try to beat them with "dink and dunk" short passes instead of deep shots, had strayed from the plan. They'd been so focused, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said, on lining up quickly that they weren't lining up in the right spots. So they pulled back a little on the man-to-man and switched to more zone, only to have Brady find holes in the zone. At one point, Brady completed a Super Bowl-record 16 straight passes.
"We just couldn't get the right people in the right coverage situations," Fewell said. "They created some mismatches, so we had to get our guys together on the sideline and get them to lock in a little bit and get back to the plan, which was man."
In a lot of ways, the defense is the Giants' 2011-12 story in a microcosm. This Giants team was about patience, perseverance and a belief that everything would get better if they just kept working at it. The defense finished 27th in the league in the regular season. Their coverage units were being ridiculed on national television. But they got healthy at the end of the season. They talked their coaches into letting them play man-to-man, and they did it well. Led by that front four and the pass rush, they allowed an average of 14 points per game during their four-game postseason run.
If someone had told you that the touchdown the Patriots scored to open the second half would be their final score of the Super Bowl, you wouldn't have believed them. Not the way the game was going at that point. But the Giants are water torture. They drip and drip and drip until they finally break you. They won the NFC Championship Game by playing smart, sound, physically tough, mistake-free football and waiting for the other team to make a mistake. They won the Super Bowl the same way. Blackburn picked off Brady. Wes Welker dropped a ball he catches every time. The Giants' defense looked lost for long stretches, but bottom line, theirs was a Super Bowl-winning effort. And they were justifiably proud of it.
"At the end of the day, we knew it was going to come down to our defense," Osi Umenyiora said. "We pressured them. We sacked them. We came through victorious."
Doesn't matter what happened along the way. Doesn't matter that a substitute high school math teacher who wasn't on the team until almost December was making plays in coverage against the best tight end in the league. Doesn't matter how it looked or what came before, and it doesn't matter that this was, two months ago, one of the least likely sentences anyone would have been expecting to type on the night of Feb. 5: The Giants' defense helped win them the Super Bowl.