Giants Among Men: 1990 Giants Defense Stifled Top Offenses
By Matt Rybaltowski
When Scott Norwood’s 47 yard game-winning field goal sailed wide right to clinch Super Bowl XXV for the New York Giants, cornerback Everson Walls raised his arms over his head in jubilation.
Walls had reason to celebrate. With a ball-control offense that set a Super Bowl record for time of possession and a bone-crushing defense that slowed the Buffalo Bills’ high-octane attack, the Giants prevailed 20-19. In its two previous games, the Bills’ vaunted, no-huddle offense lit up the scoreboard for a combined 95 points.
The 1990-91 New York Giants embodied the hard-hitting, no-nonsense brand of football that coach Bill Parcells believed was the only way to play. For the season, the defense surrendered just 211 points, (roughly 13 points per game) the lowest of any team in the National Football League. Three Giants defenders, linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Pepper Johnson and defensive tackle Erik Howard were named to the Pro Bowl for their efforts. All three were ferocious hitters.
“No other team ever hit me this hard," Bills receiver Andre Reed told Sports Illustrated after the Super Bowl. "You can't even compare this to anything I've ever been through. They bruised up my whole body."
Before the Giants took on the Bills in a Super Bowl many consider the best of all-time, Parcells’ team ended the San Francisco 49ers’ bid for a third consecutive Vince Lombardi trophy. The 49ers boasted an offense led by 1990 Associated Press NFL Most Valuable Player Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, the league’s all-time leader in receptions. On the season, San Francisco led the NFC with 353 points. Still, the Giants held the 49ers to less than two touchdowns on their home field in a 15-13 victory.
The defense maintained an upper-hand for most of the contest. With nine minutes and 42 seconds remaining and the Giants trailing 13-9, defensive end Leonard Marshall knocked Montana out of the game with a shot between his shoulder pads. The impact of the sack sidelined the quarterback for the majority of the next two seasons. As the two-time defending champions attempted to run out the clock, Erik Howard forced a Roger Craig fumble with a jarring hit from the crown of his helmet. Taylor recovered the ball and silenced the San Franciscofaithful with a Matt Bahr field goal as the final gun sounded.
Against the Bills, a similar effort would be needed. Buffalo dominated the Los Angeles Raiders 51-3 in the AFC Championship and handed the Giants one of its three losses during the regular season. Parcells, along with defensive coordinator Bill Belichick, developed a game plan to keep the ball out of the hands of Bills quarterback Jim Kelly and smother his backs with a bruising corps of linebackers. It worked. With four drives of 10 plays or more in the Super Bowl, the Giants held the ball for more than two-thirds of the game.
Their longest possession came on a 14-play drive to open the second half that lasted 9:29. On 3rd and 13 from the Buffalo32, wide receiver Mark Ingram caught a pass from Jeff Hostetler and eluded four Bills defenders on the way to a first down. By the time O.J. Anderson scored on a 1-yard run to give the Giants a 17-12 lead, the Bills defense held on for dear life.
"I've never been so tired in a football game in my life," Buffalolinebacker Shane Conlan told Sports Illustrated after the game. "I was even tired in the first quarter. They keep pounding with guys like Anderson, and that wears you out. Then they [would] run a play-fake off that, and Hostetler bootlegs and throws that drag pattern to a tight end coming across. You should be on to it, but you're not.”
The Bills regained the lead with a Thurman Thomas touchdown in the fourth quarter, before a 21 yard field goal by Bahr put the Giants ahead for the final time. But Buffalo drove to the Giants 29-yard line in the final seconds and were poised to capture their first Super Bowl in team history. Just like the NFC Championship, the game would be decided on the final play by a field goal. As they did in San Francisco, Giants players held each other hand-in-hand on the sidelines with their fate hanging on a kick. Norwood said afterwards he knew the kick would sail wide as soon as it left his foot.
The Giants defense showered Parcells with their customary Gatorade dump. Belichick, meanwhile, has captured three Super Bowls with the New England Patriots using the defense as a blueprint. The foundation, though, was established with the Giants and his mentor Parcells. In his final game with the team, Parcells had coached his best. More importantly, the victory vindicated the coach’s smash-mouth, power football philosophy.
“Buffalo had the offense and a couple of marquee guys on defense, but overall I think our defense was better,” Parcells told the Bergen Record more than 18 years later. “In the end, I just thought we had more guys than they had.” ######
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