MIAMI, JAN 23 - By Simon Evans
MIAMI An NFL season which almost did not happen is set for a thundering finale with the New York Giants and the New England Patriots heading to the Super Bowl for what should be a pulsating battle.
The rivalry between New York and Boston is unrivaled in North American professional sports, whether it be the Yankees and the Red Sox in baseball or the two gridiron teams who will come face to face in Indianapolis on February 5.
The league, sponsors, television companies and fans will be licking their lips at the prospect.
The NFL season was threatened by a four-month long lockout as the players' union and team owners argued over a new collective bargaining agreement and it was not until late July that a deal was struck that allowed August's pre-season to hastily get underway.
The prospect of walking away from $9 billion of annual revenue was too much even for disputing parties who had traded bitter public threats and the Super Bowl, a de facto national holiday in the United States, lies at the core of that money-making machine.
Nothing gets the cash registers ringing more than a New York-New England game for the Vince Lombardi Trophy - a repeat of the 2007/08 season's Super Bowl, won by the Giants.
The Patriots beat the Baltimore Ravens 23-20 in a dramatic AFC title game Sunday to reach the Super Bowl after Billy Cundiff hooked a potential game-tying field goal left of the upright in the final seconds of the game.
For quarterback Tom Brady, the clash with the Giants will be his fifth Super Bowl in 10 seasons as a starter in the league after he tied Joe Montana for a record 16th post-season win.
Brady was well below his best against the Ravens, throwing two interceptions and no touchdowns and saying himself that he "sucked pretty bad."
But the 34-year-old knows what is in store for him in two weeks' time - he has three Super Bowl winners' rings already and twice was awarded the Most Valuable Player title for the big game.
His opposite number, Eli Manning, also knows what it takes to win in the most-watched event in U.S. sports - he threw a last-gasp touchdown pass to win against the Pats four years ago.
Manning showed with his brave display in California on Sunday that he has the necessary guts as well as the guile.
A 20-17 overtime victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game was secured by 31-yard field goal by Scottish-born Lawrence Tynes at a rainy Candlestick Park.
The Super Bowl coaches, the Patriots' Bill Belichick and the Giants' Tom Coughlin, are two of the most experienced and astute in the game and will relish the chance to pit their wits against each other once again.
The Giants won in New England during the regular season but it is their Super Bowl victory in 2008 that still hurts the Patriots, Brady told Boston station WEEI Monday.
"I still can't watch highlights from that game," he said. "I think that's just the way it is. You get to the end and we had a great opportunity there and really squandered it because we didn't play our very best."
(Editing by Mark Meadows)