The New England Patriots’ pursuit of perfection began at Giants Stadium, where they also completed their 16-0 regular season by beating the New York Giants. Perhaps it’s only fitting that the final step towards a true perfect season for the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick, a former Giants assistant, goes through the Giants again in the Super Bowl.
The Patriots look to put an emphatic stamp on their historic season in Super Bowl XLII and win their fourth title in seven years in a rematch against the Giants in Glendale, Ariz.
New England can become the first team in NFL history to go 19-0 and the second unbeaten team. The Patriots would join the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who went 14-0 in the regular season and won three postseason games including Super Bowl VII.
With the ultra-focused Belichick in charge, however, any talk of New England’s place among the greatest teams in NFL history has been absent from its preparations.
“I think there’s always a time to reflect back on the season; this isn’t it,” said Belichick, who was Bill Parcells’ defensive coordinator with New York during its only two Super Bowl championship seasons in 1986 and 1990. “Right now the time is to focus on the Giants and prepare for this game, so that’s what we’re doing. Later on after the season or whenever, some other point in history, looking back is fine, but we’re not anywhere close to that right now.”
If there was a time when the Patriots did reflect, it was Dec. 29, after they concluded the regular season with a 38-35 road win over the Giants. Although New York had nothing tangible to play for with its position in the playoffs secure, the Giants built a 28-16 lead in the third quarter before Tom Brady guided the Patriots back, throwing a go-ahead, 65-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss in the fourth quarter as part of the rally.
“Hats off to us,” Moss said after that game. “I know a lot of people didn’t think we were going to do it. A lot of people didn’t want us to do it.
“In this game of football, it’s hard to go 16-and-0. As a football player and a fan of the game, my hat’s off to this organization.”
The Patriots’ record-setting season began with another trip to Giants Stadium, a 38-14 win over the Jets in the season opener on Sept. 9. After that game, the NFL determined New England used a video camera to spy on opposing coaches and steal signals. Commissioner Roger Goodell fined Belichick $500,000 and docked the team $250,000 and a first-round draft pick in 2008.
“We had just won a great game and that was not my first choice of what would happen,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. “I think we covered that pretty well. I am not sure all of the facts are out on that. We all know that it had no impact on any game this season. We have moved on from it.”
Brady, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, spearheaded an offense that set numerous league records. The Patriots scored 589 points and 79 touchdowns, while Brady’s 50 touchdown passes and Moss’ 23 TD receptions were also the best in NFL history.
“He’s one of the most intelligent quarterbacks I think we’ve played against,” Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora said of Brady. “He’s also very nimble in the pocket. He’s good at avoiding pressure.”
One thing that could slow down the Patriots is if Brady is limited. He was seen in New York walking with a boot on his right foot in the days after the Patriots’ 21-12 win over San Diego in the AFC championship, but has indicated that his ankle is fine and that he’ll be ready.
“Being 18-0 I am incredibly proud of what we have accomplished thus far and I think we have talked as a team that for the rest of our lives we’ll all remember this week, win or lose,” Brady said. “We are all going to do our best to hopefully make that one of the weeks that we remember for all of the great reasons and not a week we would like to forget.”
Brady probably hasn’t forgotten his performance in Week 17 against the Giants. With New England facing its largest deficit of the season, he calmly led the team to three straight touchdown drives and finished 32-for-42 for 356 yards and two touchdowns.
While that game was typical of Brady’s season, the strong effort turned in that night by his counterpart - the Giants’ Eli Manning - was not. Manning threw for 251 yards and four touchdowns in almost leading New York to the upset.
Manning had been criticized heavily in New York for a regular season in which he tied for the league lead with 20 interceptions - Brady had only eight. But the game against New England seemed to give the fourth-year quarterback confidence, and he’s responded with three efficient performances in the playoffs with four touchdowns and, perhaps more importantly, no interceptions.
“He’s been able, as I’ve said before, to stay away from the real highs and the real lows,” said Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who was on Parcells’ staff as receivers coach with New York from 1988-90. “No peaks, no valleys. In the bad times he’s stayed that way, and in the good times he’s been that way.”
Manning has a chance to earn his first title one year after brother Peyton won in his first Super Bowl appearance with Indianapolis.
“When I saw Peyton go through it last year, I was proud of him and I was happy for him,” Eli Manning said. “Seeing it up close and what he was going through, it definitely makes you want one yourself and want to be here.”
Although the Giants’ 10-6 season was nothing like the Patriots’ campaign, the teams share the common trait of having won in every stadium they’ve played in this season.
New York has set an NFL single-season record with 10 straight road victories since a season-opening loss at Dallas. The Giants won three road playoff games, winning 21-17 in Dallas in the divisional round before a 23-20 overtime win at Green Bay clinched the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl berth.
Only two players - defensive end Michael Strahan and receiver Amani Toomer - remain from New York’s 34-7 loss to Baltimore in its last appearance in the Super Bowl seven years ago. Strahan nearly retired before this season, but returned for a 15th year with New York.
Strahan and Umenyiora - the Giants’ only Pro Bowler - will have to try and find a way to pressure Brady if New York is to have any success. The Giants led the league with 53 sacks - six more than New England’s AFC-best total - in the regular season, but got to Brady only once in the December meeting.
“That’s the best team in the league,” Strahan said. “Now we have a better understanding of them and we had never played anybody like that. Obviously, no one has since they are an undefeated team. So now we have that opportunity and if you want it, you ask for it and you better make the most of it.”
To complement their vaunted passing game, the Patriots have also run the ball effectively in the playoffs. Laurence Maroney, limited to 46 yards on the ground against the Giants, turned in back-to-back 122-yard efforts in the postseason.
The normally outspoken Moss has just two catches in the playoffs, and has been relatively quiet during Super Bowl week for New England. Instead, it’s Giants receiver Plaxico Burress who has drawn headlines for his prediction that New York will win 23-17.
“All this is entertainment,” Burress said. “It’s sports and sports are entertainment. So 23-17 is the prediction I made, but the game still has to be played.”
The Giants are counting on more heady play from Manning to complement a bruising running game that features 1,000-yard rusher Brandon Jacobs and rookie Ahmad Bradshaw. Defensively, New York has been able to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks in the playoffs and has recorded six takeaways, including five interceptions by its much-maligned secondary.
That defense will likely have to perform better than it did in the regular-season finale for New York to avoid becoming a footnote to Brady and company.
“We knew when we played the Giants down there they had a very physical football team,” Belichick said. “We felt they were as good as any team we had played and they have gone on to play even better than that in the playoffs and I clearly feel now they are the best team we have played all year. That’s a huge challenge.”