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How could this possibly have happened? How could a Giants team that barely squeaked past a feeble bunch of Bears in a December regular-season game possibly have pulled it all together and capped off one of the great playoff runs of all time with yesterday's 17-14 victory? So many things had to go right for the underdogs. The Giants had to make so many plays and their favored, previously undefeated counterparts had to botch so many opportunities.

Any fan who watched the team from New York stumble and bumble through three-and-a-half quarters of futility against the Bears at the start of the season's final stretch would have acknowledged that Sunday's triumph seemed well beyond the pale of possibility. Quarterback Eli Manning finally put together a couple late touchdown drives to give the Giants a 21-16 comeback victory over the Bears back on December 2, but it looked like this team would no doubt peak by simply squeaking into the playoffs.

Then the Giants won at Tampa Bay, and at Dallas, and at Green Bay to advance to Super Bowl XLII.

And on Sunday . . .

* When the Giants were struggling, dropped passes were a big factor (they led the league). Sure enough, an early drop put them in a bad spot (actually it wasn't a drop - a drop would've been fine - instead receiver Steve Smith popped the ball up into the air and into the waiting arms of Patriot defensive back Ellis Hobbs). But the favorites couldn't turn that miscue into points and couldn't secure two other first-half fumbles that could have been killers. In particular, Patriot backup linebacker Pierre Woods was lying right on top of a fumbled handoff in the second quarter before back-up Giant running back Ahmad Bradshaw somehow dug in and pulled the ball out.

* In general, the first half was full of all sorts of sound and fury, signifying very little. There were plenty of almost-big plays, but at the intermission the teams had combined for all of 10 points.

* The Patriots busted out a bizarre opening play (they prepared two weeks for this?) and their offensive line quickly fell back on its heels. The offense never did develop the easy rhythm that made the team seem so unbeatable for so much of the season. And they were still one big, defensive play away from a championship throughout the Giants' final drive.

Right off the bat, Tom Brady simulated a reverse hand-off before turning into a heavy rush and trying to throw a screen pass. The slow-developing fake seemed like exactly the wrong way to start a play in which the Patriot offensive linemen briefly held up defenders before releasing them to try to get in position to block for the screen. Brady managed to avoid disaster with an incompletion, but that play and a few other early pratfalls set the tone.

* How was it that on both of the late touchdowns - the Randy Moss and Plaxico Burress receptions - both star receivers were wide open against single coverage? They both ran great routes, but after the defenses had spent virtually the entire games using their safeties to provide help against the opposing teams' biggest weapons, why in the world would they just leave cornerbacks out there alone when it mattered most?

* Burress, of course, was the guy who had predicted the Giants would win 21-17, and had been taken to task by many for his having provided "bulletin board material" for the Patriots. Except this was the Super Bowl! How could Burress' comments have added fuel to what was already a raging inferno of motivation (for instance, there was that little matter of capping off an undefeated season and establishing themselves as the greatest team of all time).

And oh by the way, let's all vow to support big-time athletes stepping out and making bold statements. We should be finding ways to celebrate these guys - and saying thanks for their taking a pass on spewing the sort of scripted, cliche-drenched drivel that so often fills sports pages these days.

And now for a little bit of local news:

* Bulls general manager John Paxson last week hired former player Mike Brown as an assistant coach focusing on the development of the Bulls' big men. Paxson apparently initially spoke with Brown about the job back in December. In other words, it took him more than a month to decide whether to hire an assistant. No wonder this guy can't pull the trigger on an in-season trade.

And sure enough, the Lakers then go and make an unbelievable trade on Friday for exactly the low-post guy the Bulls needed. It would have been enough if Los Angeles had simply found a way to pry Pau Gasol away from the Grizzlies. The seven-foot Gasol hasn't been having his best season, but he was averaging almost 19 points and nine rebounds a game.

But in the process, the Lakers also divested themselves of big-time bust Kwame Brown (a former No. 1, first-round, straight-out-of-high-school draft pick of the Wizards when Michael Jordan was in charge). Memphis gets some salary cap relief after this year, but even the draft picks going back don't necessarily favor the Grizzlies. Los Angeles gives up first-rounders in 2008 and 2010, but they almost certainly won't be very valuable (the Lakers are and will be good and therefore will draft late). The Grizzlies give up a sure-to-be-high second rounder. And oh by the way, first-round picks receive guaranteed contracts while second-rounders do not, giving the teams that draft them more financial flexibility.

When does spring training start again?


Jim Coffman brings you SportsMonday every . . . Monday.

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