Fast-forward 13 weeks and these two teams will meet again, this time with the stakes much higher. This is the second time these two teams will play for the Lombardi Trophy, just four years after the Giants pulled off arguably the greatest upset in Super Bowl history by defeating the 18-0 Patriots, 17-14.
These teams have changed since November’s nail-biter. The Patriots rolled off 10 straight wins while the Giants barely made the playoffs by going 3-5 the rest of the regular season, finding their stride in the final two regular season games and riding the momentum through the playoffs.
Very different paths were taken by these franchises to reach the same destination, but the state of these teams when their paths crossed is in focus. That week nine match-up was a critical game for both teams. They considered each other playoff-caliber teams and a quality win over a tough opponent would be a confidence booster with eight games left to play.
New England was in search of an identity. The Patriots were 5-2 but they weren’t playing well on either side of the ball. The defense was playing poorly as they allowed six of seven quarterbacks to pass for more than 300 yards. Even more troubling, the Tom Brady-led offense wasn’t clicking. After scoring 30 or more points in the first five games, the offense struggled in a 20-16 win over Dallas and was practically unrecognizable against Pittsburgh’s defense in a 25-17 loss.
The Giants were also 5-2 heading into the game, but with a different state of mind. Two wins over a pair of AFC East teams (Buffalo and Miami) boosted the G-men’s confidence, especially because they beat a team (Bills) that beat the Patriots in Week 3.
While the players follow head coach Tom Coughlin’s one-game-at-a-time mantra, they were looking ahead. The game at Gillette Stadium began New York’s toughest stretch of the season.
After the Patriots, they traveled to San Francisco to face the NFC West-leading 49ers. Division rival Philadelphia was next, followed by a trip to the best in the NFC South, New Orleans. Finally, undefeated Green Bay would pay the Giants a visit. The combined record of the three division leaders was 28-4.
An obvious difference will be health. New York’s offensive line was shuffled without C David Baas. LT Kevin Boothe and LG David Diehl both slid one spot over while Will Beatty filled in at LT.
The offense was also without key playmakers: WR Hakeem Nicks, RB Ahmad Bradshaw and FB Henry Hynoski were unavailable. On defense MLB Chase Blackburn was out.
New England started the game healthy, but didn’t finish that way. LB Brandon Spikes and S Patrick Chung were lost to injury. They will play in Super Bowl LXVI, but not DE Andre Carter and DT Albert Haynesworth. Carter is on injured reserve while Haynesworth was released.
The adjustments along the O-line worked well for the Giants, as Manning wasn’t sacked all afternoon. A healthy unit will be vital as New England’s pass rush has been more potent through the playoffs.
Nicks has been huge for the offense during the playoffs. He’s become Manning’s most dangerous weapon, with 18 receptions for 335 yards and four touchdowns. Bradshaw helps the Giants retain balance as he splits carries with bruising RB Brandon Jacobs.
On the other side of the ball, the Giants are playing their best defense of the season. They held Atlanta’s offense scoreless and contained Green Bay’s potent passing game to just 241 net yards.
And a week after San Francisco QB Alex Smith’s phenomenal 24-of-42 for 299 yards, three TD passes and a 28-yard touchdown run performance, the Big Blue defense brought Smith back to earth. They allowed just 12 completions for 196 yards and smothered the 49ers receivers, as Michael Crabtree had the sole reception for the group for three yards.
While not as dominant, New England’s defense is much improved as they’re playing consistently for four quarters instead of showing up just for the second half. They held two top-10 rushing offenses below their averages in the playoffs.
The defense is still prone to giving up lots of passing yards, but there’s a price to be paid. The pass rush has eight sacks and applied generous pressure through two games. The unit continues to create turnovers, but more importantly, they make critical plays. None were more important than safety Sterling Moore’s two passes defended on consecutive plays that set up Baltimore’s 32-yard field goal attempt that sailed wide left.
Those are the kind of plays the defense wants to be responsible for, unlike the 20-yard pass interference that set up Manning’s game-winning touchdown pass on November 6. The Patriots have played with exceptional discipline in the playoffs, as they’ve been flagged just three times as opposed to seven in the loss to the Giants.
Brady and the offense was at their best against Denver, as Brady tied an NFL playoff record with six touchdown passes. But Baltimore’s defense gave Brady problems in a two interception zero touchdown passes performance.
Brady promised to Patriots owner Robert Kraft that he will play better in the next game. He must, because 342 passing yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions wasn’t good enough against the Giants the last time.
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