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Giants D proves Pats can be stopped

Jonathan Baum
Yahoo Sports

GLENDALE, Ariz. – They can name just one Super Bowl MVP, so it's hard to argue against the guy who led the late-game winning drive and threw the biggest touchdown of his career in the waning moments of the New York Giants' championship Sunday.

But the only reason quarterback Eli Manning was in position to claim the hardware was the performance his defense put together against the high-flying New England Patriots' offense.

They did it with pressure; they did it with key stops. They forced regular-season MVP Tom Brady to rush his throws, and they hit him hard time and again.

They took the smooth Brady out of his game, sacking him five times and holding him to 5.5 yards per pass attempt (he averaged 8.3 for the season, best among all full-time starters).

Sure, Manning executed the big drive, but the Giants' defense was the story in New York's 17-14 victory in Super Bowl XLII at University of Phoenix Stadium.

"You could have given that MVP to a lot of guys," defensive lineman Justin Tuck said. "Eli did a great job, and he's very deserving of it. But you could have gone a lot of ways with that."

Tuck, recording two sacks and providing pressure throughout, admitted he could have been considered for MVP honors. Had he captured the honors, not many would have disagreed.

"Those guys (on the defensive line) should be the most valuable," Giants wideout Amani Toomer said. "They went after (Brady) with a vengeance."

And they allowed Brady – the guy who tossed a record 50 touchdowns this season as part of New England's 36.8 points per game average – and Co. only two touchdowns Sunday.

"They have some great pressure schemes, obviously some great pass rushers," Brady said. " … You score 14 points – I think that was our lowest total of the year, and that got us beat. … They just put a lot of pressure on your (offense)."

These Patriots became used to controlling the tempo and dominating the action with one seemingly effortless scoring drive after another this season, to the point where they sometimes were accused of running up the score on opponents.

But control was taken away from them Sunday by an aggressive defense that made plenty of big plays and just a couple of mistakes.

"Their front four is what really set the tone for four quarters," said New England's Randy Moss, who admitted the Patriots couldn't match the Giants' intensity.

There was linebacker Kawika Mitchell recording the Giants' first sack of the day in the second quarter. On the very next play, Tuck registered the first of his two takedowns, the second sack forcing a fumble late in the first half that stopped a Patriots drive.

There was Michael Strahan getting to Brady on a third down with the Pats driving, knocking them to the edge of field-goal range and leading New England coach Bill Belichick to go for it on fourth rather than taking a shot at tacking three more points on the board. The conversion attempt failed, putting an end to the drive that had continued because of a Giants penalty during a New England punt attempt.

And finally there was rookie Jay Alford, with just 19 seconds remaining, burying Brady at his own 16-yard line and helping to seal the victory.

"That sack with a couple seconds left, Brady just looked like he turned it down and that he didn't want any more," Toomer said.

Who cares that this defense led the league with 53 sacks during the regular season? So what if the unit had played a key role in New York's three road playoff victories to get here, including pressuring Brett Favre all day in the Giants' NFC championship game win in freezing Green Bay?

This was the Patriots offense. Heading into Super Bowl XLII, there was little talk about an irresistible force against an immovable object. There was little belief the Giants could hold New England to 17 points as New York receiver Plaxico Burress somewhat-jokingly predicted.

Brady didn't believe it. Heck, the mastermind of this Giants defense didn't even believe New England could be held to the 14 points they tallied Sunday.

"No. In all honesty, no," defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. "I believed in the guys and what they were and what they did and what they could do, but I just had so much respect for New England."

Sure, everyone thought that maybe the Giants could slow Brady a little, but nobody expected them to essentially shut down New England's offense.

Well, almost nobody.

"We felt like we could (dominate)," Strahan said. "We've done that all year. I guess everyone thought that we'd done it all year, we led the league in sacks, we do it in the playoffs and supposedly when we get against the Patriots, we're supposed to not be able to pass rush.

"We felt like we could do it from the beginning and did not listen to anyone who said we couldn't."

Pressure was the key, but this was no all-blitz, all-the-time effort. Sure, the Giants rushed Brady plenty, with Spagnuolo guessing 30 to 35 percent of his play calls were blitzes. But it went far beyond bringing extra guys into the pass rush.

"I have to give credit to the four guys up front," said Spagnuolo, who told his players going in that they had to hit Brady, even if he got his passes off.

After all, with weapons like Randy Moss and Wes Welker – not to mention the likes of Kevin Faulk and Donte' Stallworth – any time to read coverage, plant and throw is too much time to give Brady.

And while Welker (11 catches, 103 yards) had a strong game, the ever-cool Brady – who has led this team to so many dramatic comeback victories, including one against the Giants in the regular-season finale to reach 16-0 – clearly was taken out of his game plan.

"You've got to get to him," linebacker Antonio Pierce said. "Everyone said he couldn't get rattled. I don't know if he did get rattled, but he had grass stains. He was a little upset."

Said Tuck, "That offense is made to stay in rhythm and some things we showed him up front and in the secondary, you could tell it kind of threw him off rhythm. He made some errant throws and held the ball a little longer than he normally does."

It's clear Brady, joking or not, expected his offense easily to eclipse the 17 points Burress "predicted" the Pats would score. It also is clear the Pats just didn't see this one coming.

"You could sense that they were frustrated," Strahan said. "I think they were a little surprised. I mean, we are stopping the best offense in football. They were record-setters. Of course they were surprised.

"The way to win this game was to get to Tom Brady. … As Mike Tyson would say, 'Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.' And today, we wanted to punch them in the face."

On that count, the Giants certainly succeeded, as Brady spent more time trying (and often failing) to duck Giants defenders Sunday than he typically does ducking paparazzi when out with his supermodel girlfriend.

"I'm sure he hasn't got hit that many times in one game all year long," Mitchell said.

Strahan credits Spagnuolo for an effective scheme, but the coordinator deflects the praise and instead lauds his players. Either way, this unit collectively did what nobody else could all season.

It shut down the Patriots.

And in doing so, it helped the Giants score their first Super Bowl win since the 1990 season.

"I think our D-line just got after it," Pierce said. "We played at a different speed and a different level."

So with the end of this championship season, maybe Strahan's career is done. And perhaps Spagnuolo will find himself on another sideline next season as a head coach.

But for now, all these Giants want to do is focus not on tomorrow, but on what they did Sunday in the desert against a team chasing perfection.

"We just shut down the best offense in the league and made them look very mediocre," Strahan said.

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