Physically and mentally, our team was worn down by the time we got to the Super Bowl. The level of performance we had to sustain in the undefeated season was tremendous. The body physically wears down. The constant talk of it mentally wears you down. There's a reason nobody has gone undefeated in the [16-game] era.
—KYLE BRADY, former Patriots tight end, on Super Bowl XLII, Feb. 3, 2008
Far from the Arizona desert where they met four years ago, far from New England or New York, the Giants and Patriots come together again on Sunday for Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis. Just 23 of the current players dressed for that first meeting, a 17--14 Giants victory that will be remembered as one of the most stunning and significant of all NFL championship games. That one has nothing to do with this one—and everything to do with it. For the Patriots, Super Bowl XLII is a ghostly reminder of a job not quite finished; for the Giants a sweet memory held close and familiar, worth repeating. For both teams, an eerily similar strategic match.
Again there will be Tom Brady, now 34, trying to win his fourth Lombardi Trophy. Again there will be many of the same Patriots offensive linemen trying to block many of the same New York defenders who made them look so overmatched. Eli Manning will again be asked to prove himself. Lessons learned will be tested again. The Patriots again in blue, the Giants again in white. Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin on opposing sidelines again. Much different, yet much the same.
February 6, 2012
Back then the story lines were clearly drawn. The Patriots had won 18 consecutive games and stood on the brink of the first perfect season in the NFL's 16-game era. A championship would be their fourth in seven seasons, cementing the franchise as a dynasty alongside the Steelers of the 1970s and 49ers of the '80s. Tom Brady had thrown a record 50 touchdown passes (23 of them to Randy Moss, another NFL mark) and to further ensure bully status, New England had spent much of the season under the shadow of the Spygate scandal, in which they'd been caught videotaping an opponent's in-game signals in violation of league rules.
The Giants, meanwhile, had rallied from a 0--2 start to make the playoffs as a wild card, reached the Super Bowl by winning three straight games on the road and were led by a coach (Coughlin) and quarterback (Manning) who had yet to win over Big Blue's rapacious fans and the New York media. The game was straight from Sports Drama Central Casting: Big Favorite versus Big Upstart. But the reality was far different.
It's part of the nature of supersized games in any sport that assigned roles take root and are seldom reassessed in the aftermath, because doing so would mess with mythology. Four years ago the Patriots earned their rock-star celebrity and their 12-point Vegas spread. But by the time they took the field that night in Glendale, it's likely they were no longer the better team, and certainly not an offense that could dominate New York's fast-improving D. It's possible they knew it. The Giants surely did.
The role reversal might have begun anytime in the last month of the regular season, but it materialized in New York's season-ending 38--35 loss to New England at the since-razed Giants Stadium. The game took on an odd aura, because Coughlin and the Giants were praised simply for playing their starters when the outcome meant nothing in the standings. But it was decided only late in the fourth quarter. "We walked away from that game feeling like we were the better team," says Kawika Mitchell, a linebacker on that Giants team who last played for the Saints in 2010. "By the time we got to the Super Bowl, yeah, we didn't want to be that team, the one that lost to an undefeated team. But we also felt like we were just better, physically."
Fred Robbins, who started at defensive tackle for New York in the Super Bowl and played the last two years for the Rams, says, "[Tom] Brady made a few big plays on us in that last [regular-season] game. We blew a couple of coverages, missed a couple of assignments. But they didn't really drive the ball down the field consistently. And we got pressure on Brady. We felt like if we tightened things up, we could beat them."
The notoriously reticent Patriots' locker room betrayed no loss of confidence. But the oldest regular on the roster sensed something different. Kyle Brady, then 35, had nearly been drafted out of Penn State in 1995 by the Browns and their coach at the time, Bill Belichick. Now he joined Belichick for the last year of his 13-year NFL career.
"The only reason I went to New England was to have one last shot at a championship," says Brady, now 40 and attending law school in Jacksonville. "From the first day up there I was incredibly impressed with the fact that, in spite of having won championships very recently, the guys were the hungriest group, the hardest-working group I had been around my entire career. Winning championships had not affected their desire to get another. But I don't think any of those championships could have been as taxing as that one, because of the circumstances of the undefeated season."
In the week leading to the Super Bowl, the Patriots prepared at Arizona State's Sun Devil Stadium, an aging facility that sits beneath a slender needle of rock at the edge of the campus. The first intense practice of the week went badly. "I don't remember that offense having a bad practice all year," says Kyle Brady. "But that day, it just wasn't there. We had dropped passes, guys missing blocks. There was no crispness. We restarted the whole practice at least once, which is something coaches only do when things are going really badly. It was one of our critical preparation days and it just was not good. At the end of the practice, Belichick brought us all up, as a team, and he said, 'Guys, [the Giants] got ahead of you today.' And he wasn't saying it to scare us. He was saying it because it was true. At the time I'm sure we were all in denial, but in retrospect the fatigue was really setting in. And we knew the Giants were good."
The Giants knew it, too. Following the NFC title game victory over the Packers, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo formulated a game plan that has since become legend. New York would play often with three natural ends—Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck—among the front four, attacking the Patriots with speed. "As soon as Spags put in the game plan, we knew [New England Pro Bowl guard Logan] Mankins was going to have a really tough time with Tuck," says Antonio Piece, then a New York linebacker and now an analyst for ESPN. "Mankins plays in a phone booth. Tuck can move. We liked that matchup a lot." Mankins and Tuck will be starters on Sunday.
Additionally, the Giants made plans to blitz out of formations from which they had been passive in the Week 17 meeting, and to sit back out of formations from which they'd blitzed. Seven minutes into the second quarter, Mitchell lined up over center Dan Koppen's nose in one of the A gaps, with Pierce in the other A gap, a look Spagnuolo learned from his mentor, Jim Johnson, the late Eagles defensive coordinator. At the snap Mitchell took two steps back as if to bail—which he had done in Week 17—and then sprinted at Brady for a sack. "Nobody even touched me," says Mitchell.
The Patriots weren't surprised that New York brought pressure. Their response? "We wanted to run the ball," says Heath Evans, the Pats fullback who retired in 2011 and now works for the NFL Network. "I called my father the week of the game and said, 'I'm going to get 40 snaps, because we're going to run it down their throats. We didn't do that because one guy couldn't do his job." Evans would not name the one guy. (Pierce has a guess: "Mankins. Tuck was tough on him.")
Stephen Neal, who started the game at right guard for New England, says, "We had a really balanced game plan based on running the ball and staying out of third-and-long, because they had some really good blitzes." The Patriots had averaged 28.4 runs in 2007 and had only two games in which they ran the ball fewer than 22 times. But despite the low score in Super Bowl XLII, they rushed just 16 times, matching their second-lowest total of the year. (Neal left the game in the second quarter with a torn right MCL.)
Brady would throw 48 passes, his second-highest total of the year. He would complete 29 for 5.54 yards per attempt, his second-lowest average of the year. And he would be under siege nearly every time he dropped back. "The level of execution the Giants brought that night was almost unmatched in my experience," says Kyle Brady. "The speed with which they moved in their stunts and pressures—just a tremendous pace."
Russ Hochstein, 34, the veteran offensive lineman who came in for Neal in Super Bowl XLII and who has played the last three seasons with the Broncos, says, "We wanted to run the ball and we didn't have success. And they had a phenomenal pass rush. Tuck, Osi, Strahan. They were fast and they confused us, absolutely. The speed and intensity of the game, like all Super Bowls, was phenomenal. That game is played at another level. Guys who have never played in a Super Bowl, they don't know that. But it just is."
The Giants sacked Brady five times, hit him nine more times and almost never let him relax on his reads. "Brady stayed in there," says Mitchell. "I remember that. He's a great quarterback. Tough guy. But it really doesn't matter how great a guy is when the pressure just keeps coming like that."
YET WHILE the Giants' defense would be the lasting story, the Patriots held New York to 10 points through 59 minutes and lost because of a missed interception by Asante Samuel on New York's final drive and the most ridiculous pass reception in Super Bowl history: David Tyree's 32-yard grab on his helmet on third-and-five with 59 seconds left. The game would end with Brady under fire yet again, throwing desperate deep balls to Moss that fell to the ground. A nearly perfect season was logged as a failure, a transcendent team physically beaten down one step short of the finish.
"Four years removed from that game," says Hochstein, "and it still haunts me. That was a hard, hard loss. And after winning every game up to that point. That game was for perfection, and we didn't get it. We're all still proud of what we did that season, but that game dulled it. Losing that Super Bowl dulled what we accomplished."
Kyle Brady remembers dead silence in the last NFL postgame locker room he would ever dress in as a player. "Just kind of a shocked feeling," he said. "People overuse the term team of destiny. We knew we had to go out and earn it. All year you never let it cross your mind that you might lose a game, and then it happens. Yeah, it's a shock."
Outside, on the floor of the stadium, Mitchell found his family and then wandered, splendidly exhausted among teammates. He is all but retired now, after being cut by New Orleans last summer, and breaks out his Super Bowl ring for official NFL functions or when his kids ask him to wear it. It helps him remember. "A lot of hitting in that game," he says. "Hard hitting. It was fun. Back and forth to the end. Watching David Tyree up on the screen. And then afterward, just walking around on the field. Amazing feeling."
So this is what awaits: silence inside or jubilation out. Familiar teams, familiar tactics. Act Two.
BY THE TIME THEY TOOK THE FIELD, THE PATRIOTS WERE LIKELY NO LONGER THE BETTER TEAM.