By Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –
When the Green Bay Packers left MetLife Stadium on Dec. 4, they had just handed the New York Giants a devastating 38-35 defeat and dropped their record to 6-6.
Two weeks from now, the won’t-take-no-for-an-answer Giants will be meeting the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
It will be a rematch of the greatest Super Bowl of all, at least as ranked in “The Ultimate Super Bowl Book.” Four years ago, the Giants were a 12-point underdog when they ambushed the Patriots, 17-14, in Glendale, Ariz.
That was judged the second biggest upset in Super Bowl history, behind only the New York Jets’ stunner over Baltimore in Super Bowl III.
This time, the Giants (12-7) have been established as merely a 31/2-point underdog against New England (15-3).
The Patriots will enter the Super Bowl having won 10 games in a row since losing Nov. 6 to the Giants, 24-20, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots were favored by 91/2 in that game.
In a back-and-forth struggle, the Patriots drove 64 yards in nine plays to take the lead with 1:31 left on Tom Brady’s 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski on fourth and 9.
Starting from the 20, Eli Manning then drove the Giants to the winning touchdown. The key plays were a 28-yard pass to tight end Jake Ballard and a 20-yard penalty against safety Sergio Brown for pass interference to the 1.
Ballard’s 1-yard touchdown catch with 15 seconds remaining broke the Patriots’ 20-game home winning streak in the regular season.
Manning finished 20 of 39 for 250 yards, two touchdowns and one interception for a passer rating of 77.9. Brady was 28 of 49 for 342, two touchdowns and two interceptions for a passer rating of 75.4.
New York didn’t have running back Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) in that game. Since his return against the Packers, the Giants have become a far more balanced offense.
Conversely, the Patriots have made significant changes in their defensive personnel and become more competitive on that side of the ball.
New England gained more yards, 438 to 361, but turned the ball over four times compared to two for New York.
Many of the same principals remain as from that night in the desert in February 2008 when the Patriots, seeking to become the first team in history to finish 19-0, came up agonizingly short.
The quarterbacks, Manning and Brady, are the same, as are the coaches, Bill Belichick for New England and Tom Coughlin for New York.
Belichick’s 53-man roster for the 23-20 victory over Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game included seven players who were on his 53 for the Super Bowl. Besides Brady, the holdover starters are wide receiver Wes Welker, left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.
The Giants had 16 players on their 53 for their 20-17 overtime victory over San Francisco in the NFC title game. Besides Manning, five others remain starters, including left tackle David Diehl, right guard Chris Snee, right tackle Kareem McKenzie and cornerbacks Corey Webster and Aaron Ross.
Missing for New York will be such luminaries as Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, Michael Strahan, Antonio Pierce and David Tyree, whose reception for 32 yards late in the 42nd Super Bowl is considered the most momentous in Super Bowl history.
Meanwhile, New England has said goodbye to Randy Moss, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison.
Clearly, the star power will point toward the Patriots, who had eight players selected for the Pro Bowl (seven starters) compared to only two (both backups) for the Giants.
Brady, 34, will be attempting to tie Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana for most victories by a starting quarterback. Under Brady, the Patriots won it all after the 2001, ’03 and ’04 seasons.
Belichick, 59, is 3-1 as a head coach in the Super Bowl and 2-1 as an assistant for both the Giants and Patriots. Only Dan Reeves, with nine, has coached in more Super Bowls.
Coughlin, 65, was on Bill Parcells’ staff along with Belichick when the Giants won the 25th Super Bowl. Having upended the Patriots four years ago, Coughlin probably can clinch a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with another victory.
Neither team will have a former Packer in its starting lineup. The Giants’ roster Sunday included defensive end Dave Tollefson, cornerback-punt returner Will Blackmon and safety Derrick Martin, whereas the Patriots had center Nick McDonald and linebacker Tracy White.
The Patriots’ defense ranked 31st, just 8 yards better than the Packers’. The saving grace for New England on defense was the fact it tied for third in takeaways with 34. However, the Giants were opportunistic as well with 31.
In all, New England finished third in turnover differential at plus-17 and the Giants tied for seventh at plus-7.
The Patriots ranked second in yards, 20th rushing and second passing, and were third in points. Conversely, the Giants ranked eighth in yards, 32nd rushing and fifth passing, and were ninth in points.
On defense, the 31st-ranked Patriots ranked 17th against the run, 31st against the pass and 15th in points. New York finished 27th overall, 19th against the run and 29th against the pass, and were 25th in points.
In a 10-category comparison of special-teams performance, New England was 13th and the Giants tied for 21st.
New England is the ninth No. 1 seed in the AFC to reach the Super Bowl during the 22-year history of playoff seeding. The Giants were seeded No. 4, one notch higher than in 2007 when they had to win three playoff games on the road.
The Giants played the eighth-toughest schedule this season and the Patriots played the 26th-toughest.
The New England players wear a patch on their jerseys in memory of Myra Kraft, the wife of team owner Robert Kraft. She died in July.
SUPER BOWL XLVI
Teams: New York Giants (12-7) vs. New England Patriots (15-3)
When: 6:20 p.m. EST Feb. 5