It was eight years ago today, Friday, that the Giants pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history and knocked off the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Then, four years and two days later in Super Bowl XLVI, the Giants did it to the Patriots again.
The Patriots are now in their seventh Super Bowl in the 16 seasons of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady Era of dominance. They've won four of their first six. Their only two losses have come to the Giants. And while those two Giants teams were very different, despite having the same coach (Tom Coughlin) and quarterback (Eli Manning) the gameplan they used each time was largely the same.
Equally important was this: Both times the Giants went in completely unafraid.
"We didn't look at them in awe and say 'It's the Patriots. It's Bill Belichick and Tom Brady,'" Manning told reporters at the Super Bowl Media Center in Houston on Friday. "We just kind of had our game plan and went out there and could execute it."
Those game plans were simple, beautiful and effective. And in many ways, they laid out the blueprint for how the Atlanta Falcons can beat the Brady-Belichick Pats on Sunday in Super Bowl LI:
HIT TOM BRADY EARLY AND OFTEN
This, as the Giants have said over and over through the years, is the most important job when it comes to beating the Patriots. Brady is one of the best quarterbacks of all time. He's impossible to stop, regardless of what weapons he has at his disposal. The only way to truly slow him down is to disrupt him.
The Giants put on a clinic in that regard in Super Bowl XLII. Brady completed only 29 of 48 passes for 266 yards -- good, but not great numbers -- and he was sacked five times and hit officially nine times. The Giants collapsed his pocket, rushed his throws, and Michael Strahan even batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage. Four years later, Brady's numbers were similar (27 of 41, 276 yards) though he was only sacked twice. But he was hit eight times, rushed constantly, and Jason Pierre-Paul batted two of his passes away.
What that did was throw off his timing and disrupt what is generally a quick-and-short passing attack. Brady had no time to look down field, which he doesn't often do anyway. In two Super Bowls against the Giants he had just two completions of 20 yards or longer (and none longer than 21). And with limited time to actually get open, his top two receivers in each game averaged less than 10 yards per catch.
The most dominant defensive player in each Super Bowl was Justin Tuck, who had two sacks in each game. In hindsight maybe that's not surprising, but remember he was a defensive end playing mostly inside. And in 2007 the Giants had Hall of Fame DE Michael Strahan, and in 2011 they had DE Jason Pierre-Paul, who at the time was a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
It was more than Tuck, though. The Giants purposely mixed up their defense, blitzing corners and linebackers who had rarely blitzed all season long. And both times they went back and looked at their regular-season game against the Pats that year so they could purposely devise different schemes.
In fact, remember when the Giants supposedly went all-out to try to win their regular-season finale against the undefeated Patriots in 2007? The truth is they didn't. A few years later, Steve Spagnuolo, the defensive coordinator of that team (and the current team) told me they purposely held back on their scheme, just in case they reached the Super Bowl and faced the Pats again.
"I felt a little bit bad about not throwing a little bit more at them in an attempt to win the thing," Spagnuolo said. "But we did some things different in the Super Bowl that we didn't do at all in the 16th game. I don't know if that helped or not, but we'd like to think it did."
ESTABLISH THE RUN AND STICK TO IT
It's a basic tenet of winning football, especially in the playoffs, but it's incredibly important against Brady and the Pats. You know when the world knew the Giants were going to put up a fight in Super Bowl XLII? When their opening drive lasted 9:59, leaving the Patriots time for only one first-quarter possession.
The Giants ran eight times for only 26 yards on that drive, but the fact that eight of their 16 plays were runs helped set a tone. They ran on 25 of their 62 offensive plays (not counting the game-ending kneel-down) and though they only gained 90 yards, they never gave up. They were more effective in Super Bowl XLVI, gaining 114 yards on 28 carries.
Most importantly, it allowed them to win the time of possession battle in both games. In XLII the Patriots held the ball for only 29:33. In XLVI they had it for only 22:55. That severely limited the damage Brady and the Pats' offense could do.
Remember the famous NFL Films scene from the sidelines in Super Bowl XLVI when, just before the Giants' game-winning drive, Belichick is caught on camera telling his defense "Make them throw it to Manningham!" That advice, which turned out to be ill-advised, laid out the basics of Belichick's defensive strategy. He will often take away a team's top options and make them go farther down their list.
The Giants embraced that both times and were successful beyond their stars. In 2007, their best receiver was Plaxico Burress, yet -- in large part due a knee injury he suffered when he supposedly slipped in his hotel room shower a few days before the game -- he had just two catches for 27 yards (though one was the game-winning touchdown). Then-rookie Steve Smith, the Giants' third receiver, had five catches for 50 yards, including a huge third-down catch on the final drive. David Tyree figured prominently in a pretty important catch too.
Then in 2011, Victor Cruz was one of the Giants' most dangerous weapons but he had just four catches for 25 yards. Yes, Hakeem Nicks had a big game (10 catches, 109 yards), but Manningham was 5-73 and even tight end Bear Pascoe (filling in after Jake Ballard tore his ACL) caught four passes for 33 yards.
The point is, Belichick's defense tries to make teams use Options C and D in their offense assuming they're farther down the list for a reason. Deep teams or teams that can find unsung heroes have a chance to win.