Wild Cards

20070108giants.jpg
The Eagles' Juqua Thomas sacks Eli Manning. Photo: Getty Images


Both New York football teams courteously did the right thing yesterday — for themselves, the city, the game of football, the moral order of the universe, and children around the world — and promptly got themselves knocked out of the playoffs. Neither game was particularly dramatic (surely anyone who suffered through the Eagles' last-second victory over the Giants will agree that it was the least-exciting last-second victory of all time). But both were loaded with fascinating soap-opera subplots, and the teams lost in very different ways and taught us opposite lessons.

Jets versus Patriots was billed as the greatest super-genius death match since Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty tumbled arm-in-arm into Reichenbach Falls. The game pitted Bill Belichick, the Patriots' frumpy mastermind coach, against his old protégé Eric Mangini, whose defection to New York last year turned the Jets around instantly but whipped his old master into such a frenzy he allegedly changed all the office locks before Mangini could even collect his things. Miraculously, the battle of wits turned out to be as sharp as advertised: The Patriots used all their usual tricks (no huddle, quick snaps, unpredictably repetitive play-calling), and the Jets managed somehow to be even trickier, jumping around, stopping and starting, spinning in circles, and completely realigning about four times before every snap. The Jets brought the punt team onto the field, then acted like they weren't going to punt, then (after New England wasted a timeout) innocently punted after all; they asked the referees to bring out the measuring chain when they were clearly two and a half yards short of a first down. By the end, the Jets had smarty-pantsed their way to an unembarrassing, even borderline inspiring, loss. They played to perfection one of the classic New York City archetypes — the scrappy, irritating, street-smart hustler who puts the bigwig in his place — and it was a performance that seemed to promise that, with any luck, they'll be very good in the very near future.

The Giants, on the other hand, capped a disgusting season — early dominance supplanted quickly by injury, infighting, and collective self-loathing — with an impeccably disgusting game. (Even the field was ugly, a big Battle of the Somme–style pigpen, muddy and chewed up.) Eli Manning, the great hope of the franchise, sprayed the ball awkwardly all over the place, mainly off defenders' fingertips, and — judging from the frequency of his offensive line's false starts — seemed to be experimenting with calling his snap counts in Swahili. Late in the game the Giants were penalized on three consecutive plays and faced a first down and 30. It wasn't exactly the master class in discipline that embattled coach Tom Coughlin would have liked to show, either in his final game of the season or the final game of his career as a Giant (we'll find out at a news conference very soon). The team looked characteristically schizophrenic: Manning stood on the sideline like a guy waiting for a bus while his quarterback coach screamed in his face; his receivers walked around practicing emoting drills from some kind of acting workshop. And so we had yet another New York archetype: De Niro's antisocial, maladjusted, hypersensitive taxi driver. The team deeply needs some kind of spiritual feng shui. It seemed a little insensitive of the Eagles to let things come down to the final play instead of just blowing them out. And after the game, just to ice the turd cake, Tiki Barber, the team's single consistent source of human warmth and stability and football excellence, left forever to pursue his dream of turning himself into Matt Lauer.

Good morning, Giants. This is today. — Sam Anderson