When the New England Patriots lost to the New York Giants 17-14 in Super Bowl XLII, defense was the real story. Eli Manning was the game's Most Valuable Player, but many would argue that the award should have done to defensive lineman Justin Tuck, who got in Tom Brady's face all day and made consistent passing impossible for a usually near-perfect quarterback.
Fast-forward four years, and the issues facing the Patriots are different this time, though New York's front four is every bit the beast it was then. Eli Manning is no longer that young but inconsistent quarterback who benefitted from a David Tyree miracle catch — he's now one of the most reliable quarterbacks in the game. The trio of Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham, and Victor Cruz is one of the best receiver corps in the NFL, and surely the most underrated. When the two teams faced off in Week 9, the result was a 24-20 Giants win, and Nicks didn't even play in that game.
A Patriots defense that has been one of the worst against the pass all season went with an interesting set of strategies in that game. They rarely blitzed — in fact, New England registered no sacks in the contest — but there were enough zone blitzes and other intermediate coverage concepts to affect Manning's ability to get things moving to his favorite formation — the three-receiver set.
Of his 39 total attempts, Manning threw 22 passes with three receivers on the field, and he completed just eight for 109 yards. Safety Patrick Chung was often tasked to hood any slot and slant coverage, and beat the daylights out of whoever came over the middle. The Pats played more nickel and dime sets as opposed to bringing the house.
It was a great strategy, but the Giants have now seen it, and the Patriots know that they're facing an offense that's more efficient now. Second-year defensive back Devin McCourty, who struggled at cornerback in 2011 after a strong rookie campaign and has alternated at safety at times, said on Thursday that with Nicks back in the fold, it's a whole new ballgame.
"It kind of changed how they played compared to how they're playing now," McCourty said of Nicks' addition. "They have a great quarterback. Eli has been doing a great job. They have three phenomenal receivers. They made plays all throughout the playoffs, whether Cruz, Manningham or Nicks. I think if you put those guys together with a quarterback like that, they create so many different matchup problems that throughout any playoff game they're taking advantage. That's why you see so many different guys have big games each of the different games. I think just to prepare for all those guys is the toughest thing."
McCourty and his defense will also have to worry about a Giants' running game that has shown some improvement in the postseason after a lifeless turn at times before. The Patriots didn't just avoid Nicks; they also didn't face Ahmad Bradshaw, and New England has had issues with running backs who can bounce outside and force pursuing linebackers to break contain. That balance could play havoc with a Patriots' offense that will likely be playing against a higher-scoring opponent than it did four years ago.
"Yeah, probably," McCourty said, when asked if the Giants had the most balanced offense they've faced all season. "Looking at their offense, with [Ahmad] Bradshaw, [Brandon] Jacobs and [D.J.] Ware in the backfield … just when you think about especially Jacobs' and Ware's ability to catch balls out of the backfield and you put that together with the receivers they have, everybody can make a catch. The biggest thing is [with] all those guys -- after they get the ball in their hands they're dangerous."
Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork has enjoyed a dominant postseason, and it's possible that against Manning, he'll have to have a similar effect to the one Tuck had on Brady in that last Super Bowl if the Pats want to exact revenge.
"It was a game that went down to the last minute so you can always go back and look to see what you could have done differently," Wilfork said of that Week 9 game. "But I'll tell you what, it was 0-0 at the half. You had two sides that were basically not giving one another [anything]. Everything we got we had to earn and that's what it's going to be. You have two football teams that are coached very, very well. [Tom] Coughlin's done a great job with those guys and it shows. Their defense turned it around and they're making plays and it's just a tough bunch so we're going to have to make more plays."
Wilfork was equally complimentary of Manning's present abilities. "You've seen him grow. You've seen a guy not making the bonehead mistakes. He's protecting the football and that's first and foremost. When you can protect the football offensively, you have a good shot. And I think with the guys surrounding him that can make plays - that's all they have to do is protect the ball and they'll find themselves in pretty good shape. So it's just a team that's going to grind it out for 60 minutes … if we make a mistake or anyone that faces them made a mistake, it's going to cost them."
Understanding the challenge is the first step. The Patriots have another week to prepare for a Super Bowl that could end a lot of four-year nightmares.