"The only reason I went to New England was to have one last shot at a championship," says Brady, now 40 and attending law school in Jacksonville. "From the first day up there I was incredibly impressed with the fact that, in spite of having won championships very recently, the guys were the hungriest group, the hardest-working group I had been around my entire career. Winning championships had not affected their desire to get another. But I don't think any of those championships could have been as taxing as that one, because of the circumstances of the undefeated season."
In the week leading to the Super Bowl, the Patriots prepared at Arizona State's Sun Devil Stadium, an aging facility that sits beneath a slender needle of rock at the edge of the campus. The first intense practice of the week went badly. "I don't remember that offense having a bad practice all year," says Kyle Brady. "But that day, it just wasn't there. We had dropped passes, guys missing blocks. There was no crispness. We restarted the whole practice at least once, which is something coaches only do when things are going really badly. It was one of our critical preparation days and it just was not good. At the end of the practice, Belichick brought us all up, as a team, and he said, 'Guys, [the Giants] got ahead of you today.' And he wasn't saying it to scare us. He was saying it because it was true. At the time I'm sure we were all in denial, but in retrospect the fatigue was really setting in. And we knew the Giants were good."
The Giants knew it, too. Following the NFC title game victory over the Packers, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo formulated a game plan that has since become legend. New York would play often with three natural ends—Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck—among the front four, attacking the Patriots with speed. "As soon as Spags put in the game plan, we knew [New England Pro Bowl guard Logan] Mankins was going to have a really tough time with Tuck," says Antonio Piece, then a New York linebacker and now an analyst for ESPN. "Mankins plays in a phone booth. Tuck can move. We liked that matchup a lot." Mankins and Tuck will be starters on Sunday.
Additionally, the Giants made plans to blitz out of formations from which they had been passive in the Week 17 meeting, and to sit back out of formations from which they'd blitzed. Seven minutes into the second quarter, Mitchell lined up over center Dan Koppen's nose in one of the A gaps, with Pierce in the other A gap, a look Spagnuolo learned from his mentor, Jim Johnson, the late Eagles defensive coordinator. At the snap Mitchell took two steps back as if to bail—which he had done in Week 17—and then sprinted at Brady for a sack. "Nobody even touched me," says Mitchell.
The Patriots weren't surprised that New York brought pressure. Their response? "We wanted to run the ball," says Heath Evans, the Pats fullback who retired in 2011 and now works for the NFL Network. "I called my father the week of the game and said, 'I'm going to get 40 snaps, because we're going to run it down their throats. We didn't do that because one guy couldn't do his job." Evans would not name the one guy. (Pierce has a guess: "Mankins. Tuck was tough on him.")
Stephen Neal, who started the game at right guard for New England, says, "We had a really balanced game plan based on running the ball and staying out of third-and-long, because they had some really good blitzes." The Patriots had averaged 28.4 runs in 2007 and had only two games in which they ran the ball fewer than 22 times. But despite the low score in Super Bowl XLII, they rushed just 16 times, matching their second-lowest total of the year. (Neal left the game in the second quarter with a torn right MCL.)
Brady would throw 48 passes, his second-highest total of the year. He would complete 29 for 5.54 yards per attempt, his second-lowest average of the year. And he would be under siege nearly every time he dropped back. "The level of execution the Giants brought that night was almost unmatched in my experience," says Kyle Brady. "The speed with which they moved in their stunts and pressures—just a tremendous pace."
Russ Hochstein, 34, the veteran offensive lineman who came in for Neal in Super Bowl XLII and who has played the last three seasons with the Broncos, says, "We wanted to run the ball and we didn't have success. And they had a phenomenal pass rush. Tuck, Osi, Strahan. They were fast and they confused us, absolutely. The speed and intensity of the game, like all Super Bowls, was phenomenal. That game is played at another level. Guys who have never played in a Super Bowl, they don't know that. But it just is."
The Giants sacked Brady five times, hit him nine more times and almost never let him relax on his reads. "Brady stayed in there," says Mitchell. "I remember that. He's a great quarterback. Tough guy. But it really doesn't matter how great a guy is when the pressure just keeps coming like that."
YET WHILE the Giants' defense would be the lasting story, the Patriots held New York to 10 points through 59 minutes and lost because of a missed interception by Asante Samuel on New York's final drive and the most ridiculous pass reception in Super Bowl history: David Tyree's 32-yard grab on his helmet on third-and-five with 59 seconds left. The game would end with Brady under fire yet again, throwing desperate deep balls to Moss that fell to the ground. A nearly perfect season was logged as a failure, a transcendent team physically beaten down one step short of the finish.