Sports Nut

Giant Killers

How Eli Manning and the New York defense took down the mighty Patriots.

Eli Manning

The Patriots won their first Super Bowl in 2002 thanks to the tuck rule. Six years later, they lost the greatest Super Bowl in history thanks to Justin Tuck and the Giants defense. A ferocious pass rush, spearheaded by Tuck and Michael Strahan, accomplished the seemingly impossible in Super Bowl XLII, turning the infallible Tom Brady into a merely average quarterback. It was thanks to the defense that the New York Giants pulled off a historic upset, beating Brady’s New England Patriots 17-14, denying the Pats a perfect 19-0 season, and making this book a nice collector’s item.

While the New York defense made this upset possible, it took a miracle catch to seal the deal. Move over Lynn Swann—David Tyree now owns the best catch in Super Bowl history. After Eli Manning made like Randall Cunningham (or Steve McNair at the tail end of Super Bowl XXXIV) and somehow tore himself away from Jarvis Green long enough to fling the ball up for grabs, Tyree went over Pats safety Rodney Harrison and pinned the ball against his helmet, then held on as Harrison nearly broke his spine. The little-used Tyree, who had a mere four catches this season, also caught New York’s first touchdown of the game earlier in the quarter. Not bad for a guy seemingly ticketed for the All-American Football League.

The Patriots have always found a way to render the opposition’s great plays meaningless. But on this day, New England couldn’t get that last big stop. Manning converted a crucial third-and-11 to Steve Smith and then found Plaxico Burress on a perfect slant-and-go for the game-winning score. Eli was outstanding on that final drive, in the face of a fierce pass rush and a series of low shotgun snaps. Almost as significant were the Giants’ third-down conversions on the game’s opening drive, one that consumed nearly 10 minutes and resulted in a New York field goal. Those early throws proved Eli was not too small for this stage and prevented the Patriots from putting a foot on New York’s neck early. After his MVP performance, the younger Manning will assuredly muscle in on Peyton’s endorsement gravy train—I’m betting on some brother-to-brother Priceless Pep Talks.

Even when leading through the second and third quarters, the Patriots looked more mortal than at any time this season. When Burress predicted the Giants defense would hold New England to 17 points, Tom Brady scoffed. Turns out Plaxico wasn’t giving his guys enough credit. The Giants used creative blitzes to ruin the timing of New England’s record-setting offense, getting far more pressure on Brady than any other Patriots opponent. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo brought extra rushers from all angles, including a clever play in which linebacker Kawika Mitchell faked a drop into coverage at the snap before roaring in unimpeded. Just as often, they hit Brady with just four rushers.

No matter what the Giants tried, it worked—this was the rare game that saw New England’s offensive line dominated. How did New York do it? Unlike most teams, the Giants utilize bulky run stuffers. All of the team’s linemen are speedy and agile, and even the Pats’ great line couldn’t handle all that speed. Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora repeatedly beat tackles Matt Light and Nick Kaczur on the edges, while Tuck and the blitzers worked the middle. All told, they produced five sacks and knocked Brady down at least a dozen other times. Eli Manning is taking home the hardware, but the Giants defensive line turned in an MVP performance.

The Patriots, for all their greatness in the last six years, have still never played a great Super Bowl. Despite a hard-fought game with New York a few weeks ago, the Pats seemed stunned by their inability to move the ball. They never changed up snap counts to try and slow the Giants rush, nor did they try to counter New York’s blitzes by bringing in extra tight ends, as they did to great effect against San Diego in the AFC championship game. In the end, New England’s magnificent offense was reduced to throwing to Wes Welker on practically every play.

The Patriots seemed a little off-kilter all game, starting with Brady’s oddly angry reaction to losing the opening coin toss. (Perhaps the team was baffled by Bill Belichick’s decision to switch from his trademark gray hoodie to a bright red version with history on the line.) New England’s late, go-ahead touchdown drive that ended with a pass to the otherwise silent Randy Moss had an inevitable air about it. But had the Giants failed on their last-gasp drive, the Patriots would have won despite being outplayed.

Blessed with a good matchup and a better game, Fox resisted the urge to tart up the telecast with cheap theatrics. Replays and graphics were timely and meaningful, cutaways to Peyton Manning never reached Jessica Simpson levels, and announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman avoided hyperbole and kept their focus on the field. (A minor complaint: Buck and Aikman probably should have mentioned the latest Patriots spying scandal.) Even the sideline reporting was good—Pam Oliver had a nice note about the Giants eating bananas to combat the humidity, and Chris Myers soldiered through the worst job in television history, interviewing a catatonic Belichick after his undefeated season was upended.

Rather than unfurl a bunch of bells and whistles, Fox used its cameras to let a great game speak for itself. The network’s big innovation was going with an “All-22” shot for goal-line plays, an overhead view that showed every player on the field. In previous incarnations, bird’s-eye shots have always distorted the action or made the players look like ants. On Sunday night, the shot worked wonders, showing routes and defensive schemes with clarity. The super-slow-mo cam also did its job, revealing every microscopic detail of David Tyree’s game-changing catch.

Two months ago, I wrote about the “delicious” possibility of New England going unbeaten in the regular season and losing in the playoffs. As a football fan, I’ve seen fewer sights more fulfilling than watching Tom Brady’s last desperation bomb hit the ground. The Patriots didn’t lose by some fluke or because they merely had an off-day. The Giants simply did what no other NFL team could: bully the Pats into submission.