On this date, four years ago, the New England Patriots were enjoying their bye-week after having defeated the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship Game to improve to 18-0, and advance to Super Bowl XLII. Their opponent was the New York Giants, a team that barely made the playoffs and won three straight road games for the right to represent the National Football Conference in the Super Bowl.
The Giants were just supposed to be a footnote in history; the team that lost the Super Bowl to the NFL’s first 19-0 team. Odds-makers in Las Vegas set the Patriots and their record-setting offense as favorites by two touchdowns. The Patriot Dynasty created by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady was about to have it’s crown jewel – a fourth Super Bowl Championship and a flawless record.
But the Giants had other plans, led by a ferocious, relentless pass rush that kept Tom Brady from lighting up the scoreboard. In a defensive battle that came down to the final minute, the Giants won, 17-14, on a touchdown reception by Plaxico Burress. This capped off a thrilling last minute drive by the Giants, in which Eli Manning was almost sacked, but escaped three defenders and threw a miracle pass to David Tyree, who caught it up against his helmet to prolong the final drive.
Four years later, not much has changed. The Giants still have the best defensive line in the league, the Patriots are still led by Brady’s prolific passing numbers. Instead of Michael Strahan, it is Jason Pierre-Paul. Instead of Randy Moss, it is the Boston TE Party of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
The coaches remain the same – Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin. Coughlin’s Giants were the number one seed in the NFC the year after they won the Super Bowl, before missing the playoffs the following two seasons. The Patriots were the odd-man out of the playoffs despite an 11-5 record with Matt Cassel subbing for the injured Brady. They had disappointing seasons since then, both seasons ending in one and done appearances in the playoffs, despite playing both games at home.
Skepticism of both of these teams were out in the open coming into the 2011 season. The Patriots were coming off a season where their defense finished in the bottom third of the league, and the New York Jets had thoughts of finally capturing a division title. But that didn’t happen, as the Patriots easily took both games from the Jets and the division was never in doubt following their November 13th meeting.
The Giants had multiple injuries on the defensive side of the ball in the pre-season, and were overlooked as Dallas and the Eagles were expected to be contenders for the division. A four game slide in the middle of the season – to some of the NFL’s elite teams – made the thought of the playoffs something of a fantasy. But Eli Manning and emerging star, Victor Cruz powered the offense, and a defense that was finally healthy helped give the Giants three wins in the final four weeks of the regular season and the NFC East championship.
Now, after both teams are very fortunate to still be alive following nail-bitingly close Conference Championship games, they will face off against each other in Indianapolis. It’s a very fitting location. Consider that Eli Manning spent most of his career in his brother’s shadow. As Peyton Manning led the Colts to a Super Bowl win in 2007, Eli was still trying to win his first playoff game. Now, it’s a complete turn-around. Peyton’s health cost him from playing in the 2011 season and his future with the Colts is in jeopardy while Eli is looking for a second ring, or, one more than his big brother has.
Consider the storied rivalry with the Patriots and Colts. How a playoff meeting in 2004 where the Colts complained of being illegally held by Patriot defenders led to rule changes limiting contact on receivers. Consider the fact that the Patriots knocked off the Colts on the way to Super Bowl Championships in back-to-back seasons. Consider that the Patriots were well on their way to winning the 2007 AFC Championship game after Asante Samuel’s pick six put them up 21-3 shortly before halftime, only to have the Colts storm back in the second half and win that game and their Super Bowl meeting with the Bears a week later.
In a city that is strongly connected to both teams, the Patriots and Giants will battle again. Not much has changed. Either Eli Manning will cement his place as one of the best quarterbacks in the game, or Brady and Belichick will have yet another jewel in their crown, and a fourth championship.
There is still two weeks before the game, so there will be plenty of time to analyze, dissect, and theorize over which team will be crowned champions of the NFL, so there is still time to pick a side. Perhaps we will see a game as incredible as that game in Glendale, Arizona from four years ago. Even if perfection is not at stake, legacies will be made and a rivalry will be renewed. Much like playoff teams put the Patriots and “Eli’s Brother’s Team”at the top of the game’s best rivalry list just a few years ago, perhaps this is the game that puts the Patriots-Giants rivalry at the top of the list.