When There is Nothing to Play For

Play to win anyhow. Peter King writes about a meaningless game from fifteen years ago.

Fifteen years ago this week, on Dec. 29, 2007, the 15-0 New England Patriots traveled to New Jersey to try to finish an undefeated season against the New York Giants, who, in a playoff sense, had nothing to play for. They were locked in as the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs, due to play at Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs, win or lose in Week 17.

It’s one of the best regular-season games I’ve covered as a football writer, which is paradoxical. Why was a game with two teams locked into their playoff positions so good? The Patriots had clinched home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs entering that night, yet played like it was a playoff game because of the potential for an undefeated season. The Giants, after beating Buffalo the previous weekend, also had nothing to play for.

Tom Coughlin doesn’t play meaningless games, however. I’m glad to see the Giants’ coach that day has written a book now, A Giant Win (written with Greg Hanlon, Grand Central Publishing) to commemorate that championship season for the franchise—with special attention paid to the Saturday night game on the final weekend of that regular season.

Coughlin on the game, and on his decision to play his full team against the Patriots:

“As soon as we won the previous week, you know how this goes because it’s scripted somewhere for the writers. ‘OK, coach, you gonna play your starters against New England?’ It started right away. I listened to that a little bit. I thought to myself, ‘We are the New York Giants. We are the flagship team of the National Football League. We are red, white and blue. I am not going to allow that future historians would look back upon this game, where the Giants would play the Patriots, the Patriots having a chance to have an undefeated season, and the New York Giants do not put their best foot forward. We are going to play our starters. We are going to play to win.’

“When I told our team that on Monday, they rallied. They wanted to play against the 15-0 New England Patriots. If you remember, we’re leading in the fourth quarter. We got the lead. It’s one of those games where, they beat us, but when we walked off, we knew we could play with them.”

In the eyes of many, it was a 35-38 Giants’ victory over New England. Coaches hate moral victories, but this was one for the Giants. It was also memorable for New England, of course, finishing a perfect 16-0 regular season by beating back a gallant bid for a big upset by a heavy underdog. I remember Tom Brady and Randy Moss in the New England locker room post-game. They couldn’t stop smiling. Brady was downright giddy.

He wouldn’t be giddy five weeks later, but that’s another story. When I spoke to Coughlin recently about the game, it was a pre-dawn memory the next day that stood out.

“I gotta tell you one more story because this is what will be most meaningful,” he said. “It was a great performance. I’m really proud of my team. That’s a team that’s 16-0, we know we can play with them. All that stuff. Next morning at 5 o’clock I come into my office and I see the red light’s on the phone. A voicemail. I pick up the phone and it’s John Madden. He’s saying, ‘Tom, I just wanted to call. Because I want you to know that is the greatest thing that’s happened to the NFL in the last 10 years.’ He said, ‘This is the National Football League—we don’t NOT play our players. We owe a responsibility to our fans to perform every day. That’s what you did. I’m just so proud to be a part of that. I’m so proud of what you’ve accomplished and what your team has accomplished.’ He said, ‘I’m very emotional right now. But I want you to know how I felt.’ I played it for my team in our next team meeting. It was moving. Very moving.”

The two teams met in the Super Bowl. The Giants beat the previously 18-0 Patriots, 17-14.

This historical anecdote is a useful reminder that excellence has its roots in effort. And success isn’t just luck combined with talent, it’s also a consequence of positive philosophy.