That’s the thought that keeps spinning around my head nearly 48 hours after the Giants’ stunning victory in Super Bowl XLII. I really need to get over it. I mean, upsets happen all the time, right? But this was no ordinary upset. New York’s win shook me to my sports core. It’s forced me to reevaluate everything I thought I knew about clubs with championship potential. Why? Because teams like that just don’t win titles. At least I never thought they did until Sunday night.
Just to review: The Giants led the NFL in turnovers during the regular season. They played six games against teams with records above .500… and won once. Less than two months ago, they surrendered 44 points to the Tavaris Jackson-led Minnesota Vikings. I could go on, but you get my point. For 16 weeks, this was a mediocre team. And then, inexplicably, it became a juggernaut; successfully negotiating the most challenging playoff path any Super Bowl champion has ever faced.
Vince Verhei has a great quote on the Football Outsiders Web site which perfectly sums up my feelings: “I feel like I have learned which religion is correct, and it is not my own. I feel like aliens have been walking among us, and they have chosen to reveal themselves en masse. I feel like my life has been one great science experiment, and I am not in the control group.”
So the question becomes: What to make of this new sports universe, where regular season mediocrity can end in a World Championship? Do I just delete everything I thought I knew about true title contenders and start from scratch? That solution is probably a bit too drastic. But mere moments after watching the Rockets escape Minnesota with another less-than-convincing win beneath their belts, the answer hit me harder than an inside blitz from Justin Tuck: I can no longer count these guys out.
Oh sure, the NFL is much more underdog friendly thanks to its one-and-done playoff format. It’s one thing for the Giants to find their mojo and roll off four straight wins en route to the Lombardi trophy; yet another for an NBA afterthought to fight its way through four grueling best-of-seven series. That’s why the cream nearly always rises to the top in professional basketball.
But after Sunday’s shocker, anything seems possible—even, gulp, a Rockets title run. After all, Houston is rolling now, having won eight straight on the road and 13 of 16 overall. Who cares if most of their recent success has come against the league’s bottom feeders? The Giants feasted on a light diet during the regular season (nine of their ten wins came against opponents who missed the playoffs) and look where it got them.
Looking forward: What if T-Mac courageously fights through his injuries (stop laughing) and continues to put up big numbers, a la Plaxico Burress? What if the Rockets rookies keep contributing like Steve Smith and Kevin Boss? What if Yao and McGrady summon their inner Eli, overcome their history of first round flameouts, and spend May and June making magic together on the court?
I know, I know. I don’t really believe it, either. Remember, I’m the same guy who—just one week ago--wondered whether the window had already closed on the Yao-McGrady pairing. And of course there’s still that small matter of the Rockets actually getting into the top 8 of the Western Conference just so they can qualify for postseason play. Factor in the Lakers’ brilliant acquisition of Pau Gasol—making the brutal path through the West that much tougher—and the mere suggestion of the Rockets hoisting the O’Brien trophy this summer seems laughable.
But notice I didn’t say “impossible.”
Maybe I’m crazy. To be sure, my sports instincts are still scrambled from what I witnessed this Sunday. But perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. After all, everything I thought I knew turned out to be terribly wrong. So lesson learned, I won’t be counting out the Rockets, no matter how underwhelmed I am with their body of work to date.
That’s the beautiful thing about sports: Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, Eli Manning to David Tyree happens, forcing you to reassemble the puzzle once again. And while you’re putting the pieces in place, you inevitably realize there’s only one thing that really matters: Hope. As long as you’ve got it, there’s still a chance.
The Rockets have it. And that’s enough for now. - Jason Friedman