Twenty months ago, when the New York Giants shocked the football world by defeating the heavily favored, undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, it was a certain recipe that made such a stunning upset possible.
There were plenty of significant, contributing factors in that historic victory, like a key 45-yard reception by tight end Kevin Boss (setting up the Giants’ first touchdown), the Giants limiting their mistakes (committing just one turnover and only four penalties), and New York stopping the run (allowing just 45 yards on only 16 carries).
More than anything though, three specific things were primarily responsible for making the Giants champions on that February day in 2008: The Giants used a long game-opening drive, a relentless pass rush, and the continued great play of quarterback Eli Manning, the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XLII.
Prior to the game, the questions abounded of how the Giants could possibly stop the team which just concluded the most productive regular season in Super Bowl history. How could New York keep the record-setting Patriots off the scoreboard? The Giants provided the answer on the game’s first drive, by winning the opening coin toss and not letting New England’s offense touch the ball until 5:01 remained in the first quarter. Even though the game’s first drive ended with only a field goal and a modest 3-0 Giants’ lead, New York went 63 yards on 16 plays, in a Super Bowl record 9:59, setting a tone for the rest of the game that the 14-point favorite was in for a battle, and there would be no cakewalk in the Arizona desert.
Although New England answered with a touchdown on the next drive, the Giants wouldn’t allow another score until late in the fourth quarter, hitting and pressuring Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady all game, introducing him, and very often reintroducing him, to the University Of Phoenix Stadium turf. The Giants hit Brady nine times, sacked him five sacks for total losses of 37 yards, deflected four passes, and forced a fumble, and recovered another.
And, the third key ingredient to the upset of all football upsets was Manning remaining hot after a terrific four-game playoff run to help the Giants reach Super Bowl XLII. Manning making plays, and allowing his wide receivers to do the same (like the famous and incredible ball-pinned-to-the-helmet catch by wide receiver David Tyree) was the final main component of the Giants achieving the previously unthinkable.
So, why relive all of this now, as the 5-0, 2009 version of the Giants prepare to battle the 4-0 Saints on Sunday? Well, because the Superdome showdown at 1pm EST features arguably the two best teams in the NFL right now, and the winner of Sunday’s contest could be in the driver’s seat toward getting the top seed in the NFC playoffs — even though Minnesota (5-0), Atlanta (3-1), or Chicago (3-1), or even a surprise team like last year’s 9-7 Arizona Cardinals, might still have something to say about that.
A strong argument could be made that the Giants would be better served playing as a lower seed and on the road in the playoffs, given Manning’s playoff success two years ago (away from Giants Stadium for three straight playoff games plus Super Bowl XLII, when the Giants won a championship as a five seed) contrasted with Manning’s awful performance in the Giants’ playoff loss as a one seed playing in very windy conditions of The Meadowlands last January.
Still, any NFL player or coach would likely say that there are three main goals in a season: 1) Win the division, 2) Try to get the one seed, even if Manning is your quarterback and swirling winds in your home stadium wreak havoc with your playoff passing game, and 3) Try to ride the one seed to a Super Bowl title.
The second reason the Giants’ aforementioned win over the Patriots is relevant on Sunday is because as in Super Bowl XLII, the Giants have a great defense and a hot Eli Manning facing the NFL’s best offense. The Saints lead the league with 36.0 points per game, and rank third with 414.3 total yards per game, but the Giants are actually second with 417.4 ypg, and defensively, they’ve given up just 14.2 points per game (second only to Denver’s 8.6 ppg), and have easily allowed the league’s fewest total yards (210.6 per game; Denver is second with 252.8 ypg) and least passing yards (104.8 per game; Carolina is second with 165.8 ypg). If the Giants can pressure Saints’ star quarterback Drew Brees the way they got to Brady in Super Bowl XLII, it should spell success for New York.
Now, back to that long drive against New England… the Giants did the same as recently as last week, imposing their will, albeit against a far inferior opponent, going on a game-opening touchdown drive which consumed 8:03, en route to a 44-7 rout of Oakland. If the Giants’ offensive line can similarly help control the clock and keep Brees and his dangerous receiving and rushing teammates off the field, that would be a huge step to toward a victory on Sunday.
And, to finish it off, again, the play of Manning, who is playing his best football so far this season since that magical four-game run through the 2007 playoffs and Super Bowl XLII. Manning has a 111.2 passer rating, completing over 64 percent of his passes, while throwing 10 touchdown passes and just two interceptions so far this season. But, most of all, he’s winning: 5-0 so far in 2009. Continuing that success on Sunday would be the final piece toward another Giants’ win.
Though the NFC’s number one seed could be decided by what happens on Sunday, there might be additional inspiration for Manning, who holds a special fondness for the city in which he was raised during the first 18 years of his life. His father, Archie Manning, played in the Superdome for 12 seasons, from 1971-1982 (son Eli, was born just after the 1981 season), but Eli has never played a game there, though he attended many at the Superdome while growing up in New Orleans. Manning and the Giants were supposed to play in the Superdome in 2005, but the game was moved to Giants Stadium due to Hurricane Katrina, after which Manning visited shelters and the homes of his family in the area.
There’s a lot of football left in 2009, and Sunday’s tilt between the Giants and Saints might prove to mean little in the 2009 NFC playoff picture. But, if it turns out to indeed decide the NFC’s number one seed a little more than two months from now, the lessons learned from the Giants’ Super Bowl XLII victory might just pave the Giants’ road to Super Bowl XLIV.