Tom Woolford 9 February 2008

A million Brits joined 140 million Americans to tune in to this year’s Superbowl. This was the most scintillating sporting spectacle I have witnessed, bar none. I don’t say that lightly: I vividly remember Manchester United scoring twice in injury time to lift the Champions’ League trophy in ’99. I recall Wilkinson’s glory-ensuring drop goal in the 2003 Rugby world cup final. I also remember the thrilling Trent Bridge test match in 2005, a knife-edge result responsible for taking the Ashes from the Aussies. But on Monday morning at 3:20am, I ran out of superlatives.

The New England Patriots were going for “19 and O”, a perfect unbeaten season. A victory in Arizona would have made history: a perfect season, like that of the Miami Dolphins in ‘72. They are the dominant side in the NFL with this a potential fourth Superbowl victory in the last seven attempts. Their defensive line has been highly regarded for years, but this year their offensive line has received the plaudits with a massively talented and varied arsenal at the disposal of one of the game’s greatest ever quarterbacks, Tom Brady. The NY Giants were the underdogs.

A dodgy home record in early season alongside narrow victories in games that were expected to be walkovers meant that they were outsiders for the playoffs, let alone beat the Patriots in the season’s denouement.

The game was brilliantly set up to engage the neutral: he would witness either a seminal moment in NFL history or David conquering Goliath. The first quarter set the pattern for the next two. Giants’ Offense couldn’t convert prolonged possession into touchdowns, their only score a field goal in their opening attack. Patriots responded with a touchdown by running back Maloney. It seemed to some at that stage that the rest of the script was written. But excellent Giants’ defence in the second and third quarter prevented further scores. Tom Brady, the biggest star in the NFL, was humbled to an unprecedented degree – he was sacked multiple times and the passes he did manage were regularly rushed and misdirected. The tension and expectation was palpable.

But the final quarter took the spectacle to a whole new level. Giants’ Quarterback Eli Manning at last found the pass that sent the game into overdrive, finding Kevin Boss for 45 yards. Two plays later, and Manning sent the ball for receiver David Tyree on a risk-reward pass with inches separating touchdown and interception. Tyree reached furthest. But Brady responded to the gravity of the situation and found successive great passes to Welker and Moss. Moss touched down on the left after Giants’ Webster slipped to leave the receiver wide open. 14-10 to Patriots with 160 seconds to go. Giants had to touch down in their next attack. Somehow they came through a four and one before Manning somehow pulled himself clear of three tacklers that looked for all the world like they were going to sack him, to send long to Tyree who beat Harrison in the air for a 32-yarder which – replays revealed – he caught between his hand and his helmet. A sacking and a fumbled pass preceded Manning’s pass to Steve Smith to leave the Giants just 13 yards away. And, in one of those defining moments of sport, Manning found Burress in the left corner of the end zone for the touchdown that won the Giants the Superbowl.

It was the 4th American Football game I’ve watched, and the first time I’ve stayed up for the Superbowl, but it certainly won’t be the last. When one first watches the sport, it seems enigmatic, confused, and inelegant – a poor relation of rugby league. But the basic game is actually remarkably simple; much simpler than the convoluted rules of rugby union. And what looks to the untrained eye like a brawl with aimless running around is in fact a brilliant combination of physicality and tactics. It is a game of chess played by brilliant strategist grand masters (the coaches) and with America’s strongest, biggest, fastest, athletes as the pawns. Chuck in the enormous pressure of the world’s biggest TV audience, and a measure of luck – it is a unique sporting spectacle. Next year, book Monday the 2nd of February off work – watch the Superbowl.

Tom Woolford