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Physically and mentally, our team was worn down by the time we got to the Super Bowl. The level of performance we had to sustain in the undefeated season was tremendous. The body physically wears down. The constant talk of it mentally wears you down. There's a reason nobody has gone undefeated in the [16-game] era.
—KYLE BRADY, former Patriots tight end, on Super Bowl XLII, Feb. 3, 2008
Far from the Arizona desert where they met four years ago, far from New England or New York, the Giants and Patriots come together again on Sunday for Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis. Just 23 of the current players dressed for that first meeting, a 17--14 Giants victory that will be remembered as one of the most stunning and significant of all NFL championship games. That one has nothing to do with this one—and everything to do with it. For the Patriots, Super Bowl XLII is a ghostly reminder of a job not quite finished; for the Giants a sweet memory held close and familiar, worth repeating. For both teams, an eerily similar strategic match.
Again there will be Tom Brady, now 34, trying to win his fourth Lombardi Trophy. Again there will be many of the same Patriots offensive linemen trying to block many of the same New York defenders who made them look so overmatched. Eli Manning will again be asked to prove himself. Lessons learned will be tested again. The Patriots again in blue, the Giants again in white. Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin on opposing sidelines again. Much different, yet much the same.
Back then the story lines were clearly drawn. The Patriots had won 18 consecutive games and stood on the brink of the first perfect season in the NFL's 16-game era. A championship would be their fourth in seven seasons, cementing the franchise as a dynasty alongside the Steelers of the 1970s and 49ers of the '80s. Tom Brady had thrown a record 50 touchdown passes (23 of them to Randy Moss, another NFL mark) and to further ensure bully status, New England had spent much of the season under the shadow of the Spygate scandal, in which they'd been caught videotaping an opponent's in-game signals in violation of league rules.
The Giants, meanwhile, had rallied from a 0--2 start to make the playoffs as a wild card, reached the Super Bowl by winning three straight games on the road and were led by a coach (Coughlin) and quarterback (Manning) who had yet to win over Big Blue's rapacious fans and the New York media. The game was straight from Sports Drama Central Casting: Big Favorite versus Big Upstart. But the reality was far different.
It's part of the nature of supersized games in any sport that assigned roles take root and are seldom reassessed in the aftermath, because doing so would mess with mythology. Four years ago the Patriots earned their rock-star celebrity and their 12-point Vegas spread. But by the time they took the field that night in Glendale, it's likely they were no longer the better team, and certainly not an offense that could dominate New York's fast-improving D. It's possible they knew it. The Giants surely did.
The role reversal might have begun anytime in the last month of the regular season, but it materialized in New York's season-ending 38--35 loss to New England at the since-razed Giants Stadium. The game took on an odd aura, because Coughlin and the Giants were praised simply for playing their starters when the outcome meant nothing in the standings. But it was decided only late in the fourth quarter. "We walked away from that game feeling like we were the better team," says Kawika Mitchell, a linebacker on that Giants team who last played for the Saints in 2010. "By the time we got to the Super Bowl, yeah, we didn't want to be that team, the one that lost to an undefeated team. But we also felt like we were just better, physically."
Fred Robbins, who started at defensive tackle for New York in the Super Bowl and played the last two years for the Rams, says, "[Tom] Brady made a few big plays on us in that last [regular-season] game. We blew a couple of coverages, missed a couple of assignments. But they didn't really drive the ball down the field consistently. And we got pressure on Brady. We felt like if we tightened things up, we could beat them."
The notoriously reticent Patriots' locker room betrayed no loss of confidence. But the oldest regular on the roster sensed something different. Kyle Brady, then 35, had nearly been drafted out of Penn State in 1995 by the Browns and their coach at the time, Bill Belichick. Now he joined Belichick for the last year of his 13-year NFL career.