Ronde and Tiki Barber had all the permutations figured out last week. The talented twins knew it was a long shot, but they each had a feeling that somehow, some way, Tiki's New York Giants would find a way to win their first two games in the postseason, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Ronde's team, would then win this weekend and play host to the Giants in the NFC title game.
The Roanoke, Va., natives have played against each other before, but never in a game of such magnitude. "We'd have burned the phone lines up all week talking about it with each other," Ronde said. "I guess it just wasn't meant to be."
The dream died a little bit last Saturday night when the Atlanta Falcons upset Green Bay, meaning the brothers could only meet in the conference semifinals. It imploded for the University of Virginia graduates last Sunday afternoon in San Francisco. The Giants, in control for three quarters, botched a 24-point lead, a result of their conservative play, a meltdown on defense, a dropped touchdown pass and a horribly blown officiating call at the end of the game.
Tiki, the Giants' brilliant running back, experienced the pain up close and personal. Ronde, the Buccaneers' peerless cornerback, watched on TV in his Tampa, Fla., home, and said this week: "It took a while for my system to calm down. It was like torture. My wife didn't talk to me for an hour afterward because I was so infuriated. It's always hard to watch Tiki lose. I know he feels the same way when we lose."
"I called him [after the Giants lost] and told him he had a great year," Ronde said. "It's all you can worry about now. It's all over and done with. San Francisco was the one team we didn't think we'd play, to tell you the truth."
Tiki and Ronde had another bad day on Dec. 20. That's when the Pro Bowl teams were announced. In a vote of players, coaches and fans, neither made the team, even if both had remarkable seasons. Tiki's combined rushing and receiving yardage (1,984) led the NFL, and his 203-yard performance after losing three fumbles in the season finale against the Eagles lifted the Giants to their fourth consecutive victory and a postseason berth.
Living in New York and playing for the Giants, Tiki Barber has always attracted more media attention than Ronde. And even on his defensive unit, Ronde may be overshadowed by trash-talking defensive tackle Warren Sapp, and strong, silent outside linebacker Derrick Brooks, the NFL's defensive player of the year. But in his own locker room and all around the league, Ronde has emerged as arguably the best cover corner since Deion Sanders in his prime.
"Him not making the Pro Bowl was ridiculous," Tampa Bay General Manager Rich McKay said. "It's the flash factor. He didn't have as many interceptions [only two] as he did last year or plays that get you on 'SportsCenter.' But he played as well as anyone in the league. The first eight games, he was extremely productive. And then teams simply stopped throwing to his side because they knew what would happen if they did. I'm sure when the Pro Bowl came out, he and his brother consoled each other. And to both their credit, neither one of them missed a beat."
Said defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin: "Ronde played at a Pro Bowl level all season long, but I didn't have a vote. If missing the team is something that fuels him, so be it. I just know that every time Ronde hits the football field, he seeks perfection. I wouldn't trade him for any other cornerback in the league."
Ronde also played three games despite surgery to fix a broken wrist. He said playing after the operation "was never a pain issue."
"Usually, when I hit people," Ronde said, "I like to grab them, but this became a one-hand deal, and then I'd throw my body into them. I guess I did all right."
His coaches know exactly what he did this year. Veteran defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said: "He just goes out and plays so hard on every down. He's a [5-foot-10, 184-pound] cornerback who plays like he's a 250-pound linebacker. And he's so smart, never out of position, just a real bright, tough guy.
"Ronde and Derrick Brooks are the real keys to our defense because our middle linebacker runs down the middle of the field in pass coverage. That leaves those two in a position where they have to come up and make the tackle if someone takes off out of the pocket. They've played that defense exactly the way it's supposed to be played, and they don't miss."
Added Coach Jon Gruden: "If he's not the premier corner in the league, then someone else has a guy who must be unbelievably extraordinary. Since I've been here, he's been blue chip, an iceman in coverage. We blitz him a lot, and he hits like a linebacker. He's a leader, and he's even an impact player in our kicking game. A consummate pro."