I HAD a logical angle to Super Bowl XLII all worked out, and I was going to develop it by cruising the Giants' locker room after they upset the Packers on Sunday, asking a bunch of people the same question. It began with, "How do you stop..." and then all I had to do was fill in the blank with: Tom Brady, who worked over the Giants for 356 yards in the last game of the regular season; Wes Welker, who caught 11 balls against New York in that 38--35 victory; KevinFaulk, who added eight receptions that night and was the best player on the field against the Chargers on Sunday; Laurence Maroney, who ran for a surprising 122 yards against San Diego; Randy Moss, who beat the Giants for two TDs, including a 65-yarder.... Wait a minute. No need for a response to that one, because Moss seems to have gone into hibernation during the playoffs.
When the exercise was over, I'd have had my own analysis—Well, the thing about Brady is to keep him guessing, never give him the same look and mix things up, but you have to keep pressuring him, and you've got to attack Welker at the line, and maybe double-cover him ... and with Maroney you've got to make sure to control your gaps, and Moss? Gee, you know how dangerous he is, etc., etc.
But that approach wouldn't have made much sense. If the Giants truly are going to control that gang of high scorers, it will be because of something far more elemental—a mentality that has elevated them from early-season mediocrity to the highest arena of the game.
No NFL team had ever won 10 straight road games before New York did this season. The Giants were underdogs in five of those. They trailed in each of those five games and in eight of the 10. New York, with only one player selected to the Pro Bowl,and that as a reserve (New England has seven Pro Bowl starters), has shown qualities that are impossible to handicap. Courage, resilience, remarkable mental toughness.
There were many ways the Giants could have been beaten down against the Packers. Brett Favre kept escaping their clutches, and the missed opportunities kept mounting. But each incident just seemed to further anger a Giants defense that held Favre to three-and-out on his last two series in the fourth quarter. There is a fighting heart at work here.
Of course, you don't get this far without some serious weapons. Plaxico Burress is an acrobatic, 6'5", 232-pound receiver who kept snatching passes away from the coverage—11 of them—on Sunday. The big guy--little guy pair of runners, Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, had Green Bay's defenders on their heels at the end of the game. The defense didn't blitz Favre much, but the coverage people were active enough to intercept him twice.
And with the rise in the Giants' status comes, well, not exactly arrogance, but a feeling that they've worked hard and deserve what they've gotten. I asked Jacobs about his buddy, Packers running back Ryan Grant, who hit the Seahawks for 201 yards in the divisional round. "He wasn't going to do to us what he did to Seattle," Jacobs said, after Grant was held to 29 yards on 13 carries."This is the NFC East, man."
The Patriots team that the Giants will face is not the same machine that scored on seven of its 11 possessions against New York in December. When Brady had a rare three-interception day against the Chargers, the defense won by growing teeth when its territory was threatened and limiting San Diego to four field goals.
I can't handicap this game by conventional means—rush schemes and offensive planning and the like. I can only go back to Super Bowl III, when I was the New York Post's beatman covering the Jets, and I had a hunch that they were primed for a major upset over the Colts even though it didn't seem logical. So I chickened out and picked the Colts by less than the huge spread. After watching the way the Giants handled themselves on Sunday, I have the same hunch. The mental toughness is unmistakable. I'm playing the hunch this time. GIANTS 24, PATRIOTS20
SUCCESSOR Eli will be the next Manning to reign supreme.