By: Bob George/
January 27, 2008

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Rob Gronkowski says he'll be back with Patriots

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- You seen one cactus, you seen 'em all.

They say the same thing about forests in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The good people of Flagstaff, a city north of Phoenix which is in the neighborhood of the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert, might ask you "What's a cactus?" and then tell you to head for either the canyon or Sedona for some real natural beauty. It was Flagstaff that old Route 66 went through, not Phoenix, and if you do head for Flagstaff some day, bring an oxygen tank as the thin air will make you think you're at Vail or Aspen, Colorado.

Northern and southern Arizonas are markedly different, but both combine to make Arizona one of the more beautiful states in the nation. For this next week, the eyes and ears of the nation will be on the southern half, wondering if it will take a grove of cactuses to slow down the Patriot offensive attack instead of New York Giant defensive backs.

Phoenix and Boston don't have much history, but what little they do have is most significant. In 1976, the basketball teams of these two cities put on one of the most compelling NBA Finals series in history, maybe the best ever to not go the full seven games. After splitting the first four games with the home team winning two each, the teams came to Boston Garden for Game 5, still considered the greatest game in NBA history. On Friday, June 4, 1976, the teams played a triple-overtime game where Paul Westphal, traded for Charlie Scott at the beginning of the season, had the game of his life and Garfield Heard hit the most famous buzzer beater pre-Michael Jordan to get the game to the third extra session. Guys named Glenn McDonald and Jim Ard helped the Celtics to finally win, 128-126, and the Celtics closed out the Suns that Sunday in Phoenix, 87-80 to win the title in six games.

This is the second time the Super Bowl has come to this region. Twelve years ago, the NFL celebrated its thirtieth anniversary of this great American game at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, home of the Arizona State Sun Devils. Dallas beat Pittsburgh, 21-17, the game which featured Larry Brown's fifteen minutes of fame, as two lucky interceptions begat a Super Bowl MVP and a fat contract he so did not deserve.

No one remembers that Super Bowl except diehard Cowboy fans who have not seen their team get a whiff of playoff glory since. That won't be the case for this one. Super Bowl XLII promises to be perhaps the most significant Super Bowl in the history of the series, irrespective of which team wins the game. It will be played in the magnificent two-year-old University of Phoenix Stadium, which will be even better than the very photogenic Reliant Stadium in Houston four years ago.

It is odd that both stadia in this region are named for colleges. You have all heard of Arizona State, we're sure. But the University of Phoenix? You will find no Arizona State campuses in Boston, but you will find three places in Massachusetts to attend the University of Phoenix. This institution is one of those places where you go if you are a teacher and want to become a principal. Or if you are a single parent and want to earn a degree in the evening. Or if you need more advanced placement on your corporate salary schedule. There are two campuses in greater Boston, one in Burlington (the Burlington Learning Center) and one in Braintree, and there is also a campus in Westborough (people in western New England would have to either go to Westborough or head down to Norwalk, Connecticut).

So, if the Patriots do win Super Bowl XLII, go celebrate at one of these campuses and do something to make yourself better scholastically. Think about it, is there no team in the NFL more scholastic than the Patriots? Instead of subjecting your brains to evil alcoholic spirits, go hit the books.

Which is what Tom Coughlin and the Giants will have to do to try and prevent the Patriots from becoming the first 19-0 team in NFL history. The Giants pushed the Patriots to the limit at home the Saturday after Christmas before finally falling, 38-35, making a powerful statement to all those teams who like to rest players if their playoff seed is locked in. Coughlin, who is making a nice comeback after being continually condemned for his dictatorial approach to coaching, will have his hands full as he tries to match wits with his former Giant assistant coaching colleague under the Bill Parcells regime in Gotham.

The Giants have not been on this stage since Super Bowl XXXV, when the Baltimore Ravens crushed the Giants 34-7 with one of the greatest defensive efforts in Super Bowl history. Jim Fassel was the Giant head coach back then, and the game helped launch the head coaching career of then-defensive coordinator John Fox. That has been the only Super Bowl loss in Giant history, with Parcells winning the other two (XXI, XXV). It is always pointed out that in those two Giant wins, Bill Belichick was Parcells' defensive coordinator and his defensive game plan which defeated Buffalo in Super Bowl XXV is in the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

To get to this point, the Giants have won three straight road games against the top three seeds in the NFC (Tampa Bay, Dallas, and Green Bay). They are being touted as the latest version of the 1985 Patriots, who also won three road games to get to the Super Bowl. However, those Patriots were cremated by the Bears in Super Bowl XX once they got there, and the Patriots remain double-digit favorites to win this game.

The Giants are on a long road win streak, currently at ten games. Being on the road is one thing, but Glendale will be a neutral venue. This really isn't a road game in the truest sense since a lot of Giant fans will presumably make the pilgrimage to this game.

If you are concerned about how "hot" the Giants are, two things to consider. One, so are the Patriots, as they have not lost all season. Second, so were the Colorado Rockies heading into the World Series. We say this only because once you get to the big show, and especially when it's only one game, it's the team which plays better that day, not who has played best the previous ten or so weeks. Once these teams get on the field, it's all about the present and nothing about the past.

If you get sick and tired of all the Super Bowl hype this week, there are other ways to enjoy the anticipation. Go out and subscribe to Arizona Highways, a photo-oriented magazine which is a visual treat and a great postcard for the Grand Canyon State. Listen to Glen Campbell for the first time since his "Goodtime Hour" some thirty years ago. Go find out why the Eagles would include Winslow in their iconic song Take It Easy. Research old Route 66 and learn more about little ghost towns like Seligman, and the tiny little general store Yours Truly once went into some years back.

If the Patriots do pull this off, they're certainly in a beautiful place to do it in. As the roadside signs say, "Enjoy Arizona".