Sunday, January 20, 2008
Cold reality: Burress couldn't be stopped
By John Clayton ESPN.com
Giants receiver Plaxico Burress makes a catch over Al Harris. Burress had 11 catches for 154 yards.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- As a Pittsburgh Steeler, Plaxico Burress lost two AFC title games. For years, he has been kicking himself, realizing those opportunities are precious.
Early last week as the Giants began preparations for Sunday's improbable 23-20 overtime win over Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, Burress made a bold statement to his receivers coach, Jimmy Robinson:
"I told him to forget about getting to the doorstep. 'Let's kick the door open.'"
Burress, Eli Manning and the New York Giants blew through the door at Lambeau Field like the arctic blast that blew through Wisconsin and lowered the temperature to minus-4 degrees late in the game.
Burress (11 catches for 154 yards) was unstoppable; Manning was Peyton Manning efficient; and Giants players who appeared to be on the verge of mutiny a year ago fought through adversity to beat the Packers.
Now, behind Door No. 2 is New England, the Giants' opponent in the Super Bowl. New York lost to the Patriots in Week 17, 38-35.
"It's been about the whole team," Manning said of the Giants' effort. "We've been through a lot together, and it's from coaches, players, ownership, everybody. Every sort of thing has been thrown at us, and we've handled it, I think, very well. We've made mistakes in the past, but we've learned how to deal with the media and learned how to deal when you're playing poorly or bad things happen."
Watching Burress was an illustration of how determination and talent can get you to the Super Bowl. In Pittsburgh, he was considered an underachiever. Although he made a young Ben Roethlisberger a successful quarterback by catching most high passes thrown toward him, Burress was allowed to leave Pittsburgh in free agency and signed with the Giants.
"I said to myself, 'If I ever get back to this opportunity again, I would take full advantage of it,'" Burress said.
Burress spent more time studying Packers tape this week and less time talking to the media. He was focused. On the field, he blocked out the cold weather, which was made easier because of the Green Bay defensive scheme. Packers Pro Bowl cornerback Al Harris lined up in bump-and-run man coverage throughout the game.
Thanks to Burress, Harris was the warmest person in the second-coldest game ever played at Lambeau. Why? Because Burress burned Harris enough times to heat half the stadium. Against Harris, he caught nine passes for 135 yards and caused two defensive penalties.
"I was loving it," Burress said. "You've got to love when you get bump-and-run coverage like this. I was getting doubled a lot in the playoff games against Dallas and Tampa Bay. I was a little disappointed last week against Dallas not to make many plays. To play a guy like Al Harris -- a Pro Bowl guy -- matched up one-on-one and just see who is the better guy "
Winning the one-on-one battle is one thing, but the quarterback must be in tune with his receiver to take advantage of it. Manning won the battle, too.
"We knew coming into the game they liked to play a lot of man-to-man coverage," Manning said. "There was a lot of single high man-to-man coverage, and we had some big plays. A couple of times, we threw it down the field on them and they didn't know what to do."
Burress is 6-5, 232 pounds and has a 4-inch height advantage and 44-pound weight advantage on Harris. The battles were classics. Harris would jam Burress hard, occasionally getting hands in his face. Each step was contested. If Burress was going to take advantage of this opportunity, he was going to have to earn it.
"He did a wonderful job against a physical corner that a lot of people have trouble with," Manning said.
With Burress as his go-to receiver, Manning was able to control most of the game. The Giants ran 81 offensive plays to the Packers' 49. Manning, who completed 21 of 40 passes for 254 yards, directed drives of 14, 12 and 10 plays. New York dominated the action but couldn't dominate the scoreboard.
Twice in the first half, the Giants settled for Lawrence Tynes field goals to take a 6-0 lead. New York cornerback Corey Webster, playing bump-and-run man coverage against Donald Driver, lost a line-of-scrimmage wrestling match as Driver got behind him for a 90-yard touchdown reception to give Green Bay a 7-6 edge.
Manning took back the lead in the second half with a 69-yard drive capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Brandon Jacobs, but Donald Lee put the Packers ahead 17-13 with a 12-yard TD reception in the third quarter.
"It was a battle,"' Burress said. "We were out there competing to go to the Super Bowl. You couldn't expect nothing less going into this game."
Down the stretch, though, Manning appeared to be ready to do enough to clinch the game. The Giants took a 20-17 lead late in the third quarter on a 4-yard run by Ahmad Bradshaw. The Packers tied the score on a Mason Crosby field goal. Manning worked two fourth-quarter drives that resulted in nothing because Tynes missed 43- and 36-yard field goals.
"I think the thing I'm most proud of about this team is the way they hang together, the way they played hard," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "They never say die. It doesn't matter what the odds are. They just keep scrapping and believing and working to find a way to win."
Faith played a big part in the Giants' victory. Coughlin remained confident in Webster, who intercepted Brett Favre in overtime to set up the 47-yard winning kick by Tynes. Coughlin thought about going for it on fourth down, but he caught a glimpse of Tynes, who appeared confident, and sent him out to attempt the kick.
"I looked for a sign, and they were anxious to do that," Coughlin said of the field goal unit. "They were anxious to kick that. And that was a good sign that Lawrence felt like he could make it."
That's the Giants this season. They stumble, but in the end, they make the right play. They've recovered from an 0-2 start to win an NFL-record 10 road games. Manning has turned from a franchise disappointment into a Super Bowl quarterback.
And Burress kicked down the door to get to the Super Bowl.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.