Tom Brady chuckled at the preposterous prediction, but Plaxico Burress got the last laugh.
After scoring a then-NFL-record 589 points with an average margin of victory exceeding three touchdowns during an undefeated regular season, the New England Patriots were going to manage just 17 points against the Giants in Super Bowl XLII?
An overconfident Brady couldn’t hide his disbelief after hearing Burress’ 23-17 upset pick to The Post in the days leading up to the game: “We’re only going to score 17 points? OK.”
Indeed, Burress was wrong. The Patriots did not score 17. He gave them too much credit.
Burress’ touchdown catch with 35 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter lifted the 12-point-underdog Giants to a stunning 17-14 victory and halted the bid for the NFL’s first-ever 19-0 season.
“It’s the greatest victory in the history of this franchise,” owner John Mara said during the wee hours of Feb. 3, 2008 in Glendale, Ariz. “Without question.”
Brady owned three Super Bowl rings by then and he later won three more before leaving New England this offseason, but this game was supposed to be the crowning moment for arguably the best team of the Super Bowl Era.
Instead Burress fooled Ellis Hobbs with a slant-and-go route and backpedaled to the corner of the end zone to settle under Eli Manning’s floating 13-yard pass. Only a handful of times by then had the winning points been scored in the final minute of a Super Bowl, and yet the touchdown is overshadowed upon reflection.
Leave it to one of the great plays in NFL history.
On third-and-5 earlier in the 12-play, 83-yard winning drive, the pocket collapsed around Manning. Three linemen tugged on Manning’s jersey, but the quarterback ducked under a sack, rolled to his right and launched a prayer down the middle of the field to tightly-covered David Tyree.
“Nobody brought me down,” Manning said. “I just tried to stay small.”
By doing so, Manning came up big.
Tyree did his part, out-jumping Rodney Harrison and pinning the ball to the top of his helmet. Tyree landed horizontal on his back to finish the 35-yard completion with Harrison’s arm wrapped around his shoulder trying to jar the ball loose.
“Until I saw it on TV with my own eyes,” Tyree said, “I didn’t realize the magnitude of the catch and how great it was.”
Manning won the first of his two Super Bowl MVP awards, but a young Justin Tuck – not yet a starter in his Ring of Honor-cemented career – could have staked a fair claim. Tuck registered two sacks and a forced fumble for a defense that did Big Blue tradition proud by rattling Brady with nine quarterback hits and five sacks.
“I guess when I opened my mouth,” Burress said, “it put a little pressure on them.”
Defensive co-captain Antonio Pierce beat the drum all season against the doubters, creating an us-against-them mentality after the Giants started 0-2.
The rallying cry got louder with each successive playoff win – at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at the Dallas Cowboys and at the Green Bay Packers – as the Giants became the first team to win 11 straight games away from home in a single season.
The Giants led 10-7 from early in the third quarter until Brady’s go-ahead touchdown pass with 2:42 to go.
Michael Strahan, in his final game before retirement, stalked the sideline, screaming “17-14!” and asking teammates to repeat it.
“One touchdown and we are world champions,” Strahan told the offense before they took the field. “Believe it and it will happen.”
The unflappable Manning reinforced confidence in the huddle: “We’re going to go down and score.”
One gift – Asante Samuel dropped a would-be game-sealing interception on the play before “The Helmet Catch” – was the only mistake in a near-perfect Patriots’ season.
And was the only opening the Giants needed.
“We shocked the world,” Pierce said, “but not ourselves.”