Super Bowl XLVI will be remembered for many things: a failed shot at revenge, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning’s cemented legacy, and what might have been for New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick. Indeed, the game was chock full of juicy storylines and dramatic twists, earning it a spot as one of the most intriguing matchups in NFL history. But what stands out to me about Sunday’s matchup was one of the most bizarre plays I’ve ever seen on a football field. It also happened to be the most important play of the game.
Only 1:04 remained on the clock and both teams had one timeout remaining. The Giants were down17–15 but found themselves lurking on the Patriots’ six-yard line thanks to yet another masterful last-minute drive orchestrated by Manning. Giants coach Tom Coughlin’s team faced second and goal.
The Giants knew that if they ran the football in for a touchdown, they would go up by four points with a minute left to play. That would give Brady and the Pats one minute and one timeout for a potential game-winning touchdown drive. Alternatively, the Giants could have taken a knee, camped out on the six-yard line and forced the Patriots to use their last timeout. That would have left the Giants with a chip-shot field goal to go up by one, leaving the Patriots with virtually no time to respond.
Coughlin and Belichick thus each faced a career-changing decision. Coughlin was forced to choose between going for the score or taking a knee. Going for the score would put the ball back in Brady’s dangerous hands, but taking a knee bore the risk of missing a short field goal and losing the game. Belichick, meanwhile, was forced to choose between playing defense or freely allowing the Giants to score.
Manning took the snap and handed the ball off to Ahmad Bradshaw. The Patriots defenders stood up and opened a double-wide hole for the running back, parting the seas for Bradshaw to score. As reported by the New York Times, Manning screamed “Don’t score! Don’t score!” at Bradshaw, who heard the screams and squatted on the one-yard line. The running back, however, couldn’t stop his momentum, rolling backwards into the end zone as the defenders stood motionless.
We all know what happened next. With 57 seconds and one timeout remaining, Tom Brady took the ball for one last game-winning touchdown drive. The drive, however, never materialized. After two dropped passes and a narrow Hail Mary incompletion, the Giants were crowned champions of Super Bowl XLVI.
I’d be happy to leave it at that. Coughlin chose to go for the score. Belichick chose to let him. Brady simply ran out of magic with only a minute left on the clock. Eli cemented his legacy with his second ring, and a dejected Brady narrowly missed joining Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the winningest quarterbacks in Super Bowl history.
There are a few bizarre details, however, that I can’t seem to let go. There are a few burning questions that remain unanswered. For me, a disinterested Jets fan, these questions will remain the legacy of Super Bowl XLVI.
First of all, what was Coughlin thinking? He clearly chose to go for the touchdown, as Bradshaw had received no pre-play instructions to pull up before the goal line. But why? Of course, it’s possible that kicker Lawrence Tynes would have missed the game-winning 20-yard field goal as time expired. I would guess he only makes that kick 95 percent of the time. But to give Brady the ball back with one minute and one timeout was far more risky. Brady certainly scores a touchdown in that situation more than 5 percent of the time. With that in mind, how could Coughlin possibly have called for a touchdown? I understand that it’s not in a player’s DNA to avoid a score, and I agree that that is not how football was meant to be played. But this was the Super Bowl! For all the marbles, this seems like a no-brainer that Coughlin badly missed. The coach is lucky that it didn’t come back to haunt him.
Even more puzzling are Manning’s choices. When the quarterback entered the huddle, he clearly gave no instructions to pull up and avoid the score. When he handed the ball to Bradshaw, he had every hope that the running back would pick up six points. Upon seeing the Patriot defenders pull up, however, he suddenly changed his mind. Manning recalled in the Los Angeles Times, “As I’m handing the ball off I saw that their defensive line was just standing up and not rushing and I start yelling not to score.” But why did it matter what the Patriots were doing? Why was it their indifference that convinced him it was a bad idea to score? Given that Coughlin told him to go for it, he should have been thrilled at the gift-wrapped touchdown. Rather than do what Coughlin wanted, Manning tried and failed to do what Belichick didn’t want.
Third, I’m not convinced that Bradshaw really tried to pull up before the goal line. I understand that the back had a tremendous amount of momentum when he planted his bottom on the one-yard line. But having watched the replay dozens of times, it really does appear that he had successfully stopped himself, only to launch into an awkward backward twist into the end zone. According to the LA Times, Bradshaw claims he genuinely failed to arrest his motion: “I tried to go down and declare myself down, but my momentum just took me into the end zone.” I encourage you to watch the play again in slow-motion. It seems more likely to me that Bradshaw just couldn’t mentally bring himself not to score. As reported in ESPN, Manning appears to agree: “I think something almost must have been in the top of his head like, ‘This is a little bit too good to be true.’ But I’m yelling and he obviously heard me and he thought about going down but he didn’t know what to do and he thought, ‘I’ve got a touchdown, I’ll take it.’ And I’m glad he did.” At the end of the day, only Bradshaw will know for sure.
Finally, I don’t understand why more teams don’t follow Belichick’s strategy of allowing an opponent to score. It was easily the smartest and gutsiest call of the game. For that matter, I don’t understand why more coaches don’t avoid Coughlin’s strategy when the situation clearly calls for a knee and a chip-shot field goal. I understand that it’s tough to tell players not to play the game. As Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes recalled, “It definitely was tough.” But this is football. You play the game to win. Over my football-watching career, I’ve seen this same situation play out with surprising frequency. I’m shocked more coaches don’t take a page out of Belichick’s brilliant playbook.
At the end of the day, none of this matters. At the end of the day, Brady’s game-winning drive never materialized. At the end of the day, it was Manning and Bradshaw hoisting the Lombardi trophy after scoring the game-winning touchdown. Had the game ended differently, however, commentators would have been searching for answers to these bizarre questions for years to come. To me, this baffling play is the true legacy of Super Bowl XLVI.