Giants running back Brandon Jacobs had been mulling the similarities for a while. Or to be more precise, he says, "Every damn day!"
For the second time in five seasons the Giants and the Patriots will face off in the Super Bowl, reenforcing Jacobs's feeling that he has stepped through an imaginary portal and traveled back to the 2007 season. Then as now the Giants struggled late in the year before slipping into the playoffs; winning three in a row on the road, the final two against the NFC's No. 1 and No. 2 seeds; and advancing to the title game by converting an overtime takeaway into a decisive field goal in the conference final.
In both years the Giants suffered a 38--35 December loss to an undefeated team—the Patriots were 15--0 in 2007 and the Packers were 11--0 this season—and they're again matched against top-seeded New England and its lethal passing game. Yet Jacobs stresses one major difference between Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Ariz., and Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis. "Last time we didn't know we could do it," he says. "This time we know we can win."
That's not only because of their 17--14 victory in February '08. New York also beat the Pats 24--20 in New England on Nov. 6, when Eli Manning led an 80-yard drive in the final two minutes, delivering the decisive one-yard score to tight end Jake Ballard. Another reason: These Patriots are not as complete as their last Super Bowl team, particularly on defense.
New England, which has only one defensive starter remaining from four years ago—tackle Vince Wilfork—allowed 122.8 more yards and 4.3 more points per game this season than they did in 2007. This Super Bowl will turn on how deeply Manning can exploit that D. The No. 1 pick of the 2004 draft has won six straight playoff starts away from home, including Super Bowl XLII. He has 11 scores and only two picks in those games, and has consistently demonstrated a knack for making key plays in big moments.
But 49ers safety Donte Whitner, who split two games with the Giants this season and was 0--9 against the Patriots in five seasons with the Bills, believes Manning will not find the going so easy. "I'm not going to say that they will completely stop the Giants, but they'll get off the field sometimes on third down and get the ball back for the offense," Whitner says. "The Giants' defensive coordinator is Perry Fewell, who was in Buffalo for so many years [2006 to '09]; the Patriots know what's going to come. I look for them to put up a lot of points."
Although the Patriots still rely on Tom Brady's passing, the blueprint is dramatically different from 2007, when they stretched defenses vertically with the speed of wideout Randy Moss, who led the league with 23 touchdowns. Now the Pats seek to exploit mismatches created by athletic tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, while still getting production from slot receiver Wes Welker.
The Giants' passing game has also changed. Their top four receivers from Super Bowl XLII—Plaxico Burress, Steve Smith, Amani Toomer and David Tyree—have been replaced by Victor Cruz (10 catches for 142 yards on Sunday), Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham. All three are deep threats. Manning's average of 8.4 yards per attempt this year was a staggering 2.1 more than in 2007. Against the Packers two weeks ago he gained 10.0 yards per attempt. His ability to raise his game in the playoffs comes as little surprise to New York general manager Jerry Reese.
"You could see that in him going all the way back to college," he says. "At Ole Miss he didn't have an abundance of talent around him, yet he made the guys around him better. He's taken it to a different level every year."
Therein lies another difference from four years ago. Before January 2008, Manning was 0--2 in the postseason, with twice as many interceptions (four) as touchdowns (two). Since then he has won seven of eight postseason starts. In four of those games he had a passer rating of 114.5 or higher. In the Super Bowl win over the Pats, he threw for two scores in the fourth quarter.