Out of nowhere, the 2007 New York Giants became a lovable underdog.
Even to the team's own fans, this seemed impossible at the beginning of the season. Picked to finish near the bottom half of their conference, the Giants quickly confirmed the low expectations by stumbling to an ugly 0-2 start.
It was true: the Giants were bad. Worse yet, they were distinctly unlikable.
Their best offensive player in recent years, Tiki Barber, seemed intent on making his bones as an "objective" broadcaster by bashing his former team at every turn.
Their best defensive player, Michael Strahan, always a hard-nosed (if eccentric) player, took a disappointing prima donna turn by skipping training camp, somewhat implausibly claiming that he was contemplating retirement.
Their quarterback, Eli Manning, was on his way to fulfilling the wish of all those who had rooted against him. Whether it was because of his royal NFL last name, his status as a number one draft pick and the King's ransom the Giants gave up to obtain him, or his bewildered, whipped dog facial expression, many people have always had it out for Eli. There was no shortage of fodder for these Eli bashers as he settled into mediocrity.
Worst of all was their coach, Tom Coughlin, whose old-school, taskmaster style was being proven each week to be ill-suited to the temperament of modern athletes. As the Giants underachieved, Coughlin's irately scrunched-up red face and beady eyes became more and more comical to his ever-piling-on legion of critics.
The bad vibes at the beginning of the 2007 season were a continuation of those surrounding the team at the end of 2006. That year, the talented Giants raced off to a 6-2 start but folded amid injuries and self-destruction during the last half of the year. They were an underachieving New York team with big, unlikable personalities. They were a disgrace.
With an 0-2 record, down 17-3 at halftime to Washington in their third game of 2007, things literally couldn't have been worse.
But then something clicked, as the embattled Eli led his troops back to a 24-17 lead. The defense held the lead with an improbable goal line stand by holding the Redskins out of the endzone on three consecutive plays inside the 1-yard line to end the game. Finally, the Giants had something to build on.
The G-Men rattled off five straight wins after that, mostly feasting on the league's weakest teams, to accumulate a 6-2 record. But the record was cause more for caution than optimism among Giants fans: They had begun both 2005 and 2006 at 6-2, only to sputter in the second half of both seasons before ingloriously dying in the first round of the playoffs two years in a row.
When the 2007 version of the Giants dropped their next game to Dallas, the pattern seemed on its way to repeating itself. Over the next few weeks, they played poorly. And although they were lucky enough to eek out some ugly, uninspiring wins to make the playoffs as a wild card in the weak NFC, there was very little to get excited about.
Until the New England game, the last of the regular season.
The Coughlin-era Giants, who have long had an antagonistic relationship with the press, suddenly became media darlings when contrasted with the villainous, undefeated behemoth in New England.
Going into the game, they had already sewn up a playoff berth; they there playing for nothing but pride. But the G-Men turned in their grittiest performance of the year and took the Patriots to the brink before finally succumbing. There was no shame in the loss. For the first time in two years, the Giants were going into the playoffs on a high note.
Riding the wave of good feeling from the New England game, the Giants went into Tampa Bay and crisply dispatched the favored Buccaneers in the first round.
The win set up another rematch with the hated Cowboys. It turned into a classic affair that the underdog Giants took in heartstopping fashion to avenge two regular season losses. It was one of the sweetest wins in franchise history.
Suddenly, the long-maligned Giants, known throughout the Coughlin years for their bickering, underachieving play, were playing inspired football with house money: Having already surpassed expectations, they would play for a trip to the Super Bowl in Green Bay's storied Lambeau Field.
The sub-zero Wisconsin temperatures made the NFC Championship game the third coldest in league history. The Giants, long derided for their fragile constitution, fought the elements and thoroughly outplayed the Packers, who were favored by seven and a half points coming into the game.
But because of an untimely re-emergence of their maddening penchant for undermining their talent with miscues, the Giants could not pull away. Boneheaded penalties, flukish fumbles, and, most excruciatingly, two missed field goals by placekicker Lawrence Tynes - one of which would have sent the Giants to the Super Bowl Super Bowl as time expired -- left the score at 20-20 at the end of regulation.
When the Packers won the overtime coin-toss to get possession, it seemed to confirm that the football gods had decided put the kibosh on the Giants unexpected run. It was nice while it lasted, but the Big Prize wasn't meant to be.
But then cornerback Corey Webster intercepted a Brett Favre pass, and a few plays later, Tynes came in for another field goal attempt. After badly botching his previous two attempts, Tynes split the uprights with his third.
The Giants -- who, in a span of one month went from sourpuss underachievers to plucky underdogs -- were going to the Super Bowl.