How lucky were the Giants?

Luck undoubtedly plays a large role in sports. And before I look at a few good breaks that put the Giants in position to win the Super Bowl, I should note that, in terms of injuries, Big Blue was actually quite unlucky this year.

This is a team that lost a starting corner (Terrell Thomas) and starting middle linebacker (Jonathan Goff) before the season started. They also saw top draft pick Prince Amukamara go down for significant time, and second-round pick Marvin Austin never played a game. Goff’s backup, Clint Sintim, also missed the entire season, while they had to endure the midseason loss of starting left tackle Will Beatty. Oh, and receiver Domenik Hixon, who was expected to play a big role in the passing game, missed all but two games.

Call it karma, but the team’s bad fortune with injuries was balanced by some big breaks during the regular season.

This was, after all, a team that surrendered more points than it scored — the only 9-7 team to make the playoffs. But because their division was so weak, they got to host the Falcons on wild-card weekend, gaining a significant amount of momentum in a home victory over a team that is much better in the Georgia Dome than it is away.

The NFC East was terrible. The Eagles were a tremendous disappointment — if they had their stuff together and established chemistry earlier (in other words, if not for the lockout) they probably would have won the division easily. The Cowboys botched three games they had no business losing. The Redskins plummeted after a fast start — but even they were able to beat the Giants twice during the regular season. New York finished with a 3-3 record within a bad division, but still snuck into the playoffs…and actually got a home game to set the tone.

That’s break no. 1 (although you could argue that there were multiple breaks within that singular break).

For another one, let’s go back to Week 4, when the Giants barely survived against the Arizona Cardinals. Arizona had a 10-point lead with less than four minutes to play. Against a quasi-competent team, New York loses. But I won’t call playing a bad team a complete break. Where the break came is when a terrible ruling led to the game-winning score. Here’s how I explained it at the time:

Victor Cruz made a catch, fell to the turf, got up and dropped the ball. He was never touched. The “fumble” was recovered by the Cardinals, but the officials didn’t see it as a fumble, claiming instead that Cruz had “given himself up.” A play in which a player “gives himself up” isn’t subject to review (because it’s clearly a judgment call) and thus Ken Whisenhunt wasn’t able to challenge.

Manning hit Hakeem Nicks for six points on the next play and the Giants shut down Arizona on its final drive, moving to 3-1 and remaining in a first-place tie in the NFC East.

Watching the play, it’s hard to imagine that Cruz was giving himself up. Instead, it looked as though he stumbled and then tried to get up, assuming he’d been touched. I understand why referee Jerome Boger couldn’t review the call, but I can’t comprehend the call itself. Neither can former NFL officiating czar Mike Pereira, who thought the play should have been ruled a fumble. He noted on the game broadcast that the officials were essentially protecting Cruz “from his own stupidity.”

“We got a break on that one I think,” admitted Manning after the game. “I thought it was going to get ruled a fumble and I saw it pretty clear. I don’t know what the call was or why.”

Some said the victory deserved an asterisk. Without that play, the Giants might not have won. And without that win, they don’t make the playoffs.

OK, I’ve got another one for you. This time, the Giants trail the Cowboys 34-22 with less than four minutes remaining. And Dallas, at home, completely chokes. The Cowboys commit three penalties, go three-and-out with an inexplicable incomplete pass with the clock a factor, and have a game-tying field goal blocked. That block came after Dan Bailey had connected successfully, but that play had been blown dead due to a New York timeout. The freeze was successful.

I know, the Giants found a way to win, and you can’t blame them for the incompetency of their opponents, but they were extremely lucky to win both of those games.

And then there were the breaks the Giants got within the Super Bowl itself. If Tom Brady and Wes Welker don’t fail to connect on a wide-open pass in the final minutes (I’m refusing to call it a drop), the Giants probably lose. If Rob Gronkowski is healthy and able to box out Chase Blackburn on the game’s only interception, the Giants probably lose. And if the ball on that final Hail Mary bounces 24 inches to the right, the Giants lose.

It’s a game of inches, of being in the right place at the right time. That’s part of the Super Bowl equation on nearly an annual basis. The Giants deserved this title, of course. They got hot at the right time, and they found a way not to be the chokers like the Cardinals and the Cowboys. Brady and Welker failed to connect on that pass, but Manning and Mario Manningham found a way to make it happen on their big completion.

That’s what it is — a combination of good play, especially in clutch moments, and good fortune.