Just four years ago, the New York Giants spoiled what could have been the greatest season for an NFL team in history, when they defeated the undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
When the two teams meet at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Sunday, it will be another example of the underdog Giants trying to play spoiler to the Patriots.
Overall, it's been a typical stellar season for the Patriots. New England breezed into the playoffs with a 13-3 regular-season record, and their presence in the Super Bowl feels somewhat over-due and expected.
The Giants, on the other hand, surprised many critics by winning the NFC title, proving that a November losing streak may not mean much when you play your best football in the winter. By Dec. 4, the Giants had lost four straight games and had just a 6-6 record, but fought back the rest of the way off an improved defense and offensive line.
New York finished with a 9-7 record and squeaked into the playoffs in a competitive NFC East division. Tom Coughlin came under heavy media scrutiny as the Giants appeared confused and uninspired during stretches of the season, but then the veteran head coach silenced critics as New York rebounded with some extremely effective performances.
With the playoffs on the line, quarterback Eli Manning flourished against the Dallas Cowboys, as the Giants somehow found a way to extend their season when the chances appeared so slim just a few prior. Manning's improved play carried over into the playoffs, as he threw for two or more touchdowns in each game, and while passing for more than 300 yards in each game.
In his last four games, Manning has thrown just one interception, and has looked extremely comfortable in the passing scheme. Though the veteran has impressed with his pass selection, a great deal of credit belongs to an offensive line that has given him time to throw, and has created holes for the running game to be more of a threat.
Manning also has a pair of wide receivers who have played above their heads this season, and thrived in recent weeks. Hakeem Nicks has been exceptional in the last four games, with five or more receptions in each game to go along with two games of more than 100 receiving yards. Victor Cruz has put together a Pro Bowl season, and had 10 receptions for 142 yards in the NFC Championship game against a formidable San Francisco 49ers defense.
The ground game is not quite as effective as the passing game, but New York has two capable rushers in Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. The duo has over-achieved in the playoffs, having combined for an average of 109 rushing yards a game.
The Giants defense is led by a strong line that includes Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. The 23-year-old finished fourth in the league in sacks with 16.5, and has been imposing against the run, as well. Former Pro Bowl safety Antrel Rolle led the team in tackles with 96 in 2011, and also had a pair of interceptions.
The line backing unit is rather obscure, but has had some bright spots this season. The cornerbacks excelled in the postseason, particularly against the Atlanta Falcons, who failed to do much damage despite a pair of big-play wide receivers.
In the regular season, the Giants' defense had some forgettable games, like giving up 424 total yards at home to a rather feeble Seattle Seahawks offense. New York's fortunes steadily improved as the defense regained its confidence and its ability to pressure the quarterback, as they did against Aaron Rodgers and the unflinching Green Bay Packers offense in the divisional playoffs.
The Giants' defense will probably have to be at their best against New England. The Patriots have had one of the most efficient offenses in the NFL over the past decade, and a future Hall of Fame quarterback to lead the passing game.
Tom Brady is coming off one of his best seasons of his illustrious career. Not only did the 34-year-old pass for over 5,000 yards on the regular season, but he absolutely dismantled a tough Denver Broncos defense by throwing for six touchdowns and 363 yards in the divisional playoffs.
Brady will be playing with a chip on his shoulder on Sunday. Not only is he coming off a rather lackluster performance in the AFC Championship game when he threw two interceptions without a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens, but he still has the 2008 Super Bowl on his mind.
This isn't just a revenge game for Brady. It's also another opportunity for him to ensure his place among the all-time greats by winning four Super Bowl rings. Raised in Northern California, Brady grew up a fan of Joe Montana of the 49ers. Another Super Bowl victory will mean Brady will have four on his resume, like his idol.
Though head coach Bill Belichick and Brady have formed a successful partnership over the years, this recent run has a lot to do with perhaps the best pair of tight ends in recent memory. Aaron Hernandez is coming off a 2011 regular season where he caught 79 passes for 910 receiving yards.
Rob Gronkowski had a Pro Bowl season where he caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards. The 22-year-old has been the subject of intense media inquiries about his foot, which had previously been in a boot due to a high-ankle sprain. Gronkowski is expected to play, but only because it's such an important game.
Fortunately for Brady, he also has Wes Welker. The diminutive Pro Bowl wide out runs his routes to near perfection. Welker had been listed as questionable for the game with a knee injury, but he is also expected to play.
Like the Giants, the New England ground game is not as prolific as the passing game. However, the Patriots have a serviceable running back in BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The 26-year-old saw a significant production drop off in 2011 from his 1,008-yard rushing season in 2010, but he is still an important part of the Patriots' offense and is coming off a solid game against a tough Ravens defense.
While the Patriots are certainly aware of the Giants' strong front four, the Patriots have two effective weapons on their offensive line to protect Brady. Pro Bowl guards Logan Mankins and Brian Waters are potential Hall of Famers, and the Patriots have other excellent players on the offensive line. Tackle Matt Light is a three-time Pro Bowl selection and 2011 first round pick Nate Solder filled in admirably for 2010 All-Pro Sebastian Vollmer, who is expected to be back in action after missing several weeks following a back injury.
The New England defense will be tested against New York's potent offense. The Patriots were second-worst in opposing passing yards in 2011, but the unit still has some intimidating weapons on defense.
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork had another outstanding season, and defensive end Andre Carter also received a Pro Bowl selection, after leading the team in sacks. However, it may be up to 24-year-old cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington to slow down the Giants' offense by limiting big plays from Cruz and Nicks.
New England proceeded to annihilate the Broncos in the divisional playoff game. It was the type of game that left no doubt that Belichick's squad was taking the playoffs perhaps a little more seriously than the past few.
But the Patriots got a scare against Baltimore when a Ravens' dropped pass in the end zone, and a subsequent errant field goal attempt nearly ruined their Super Bowl hopes after going seven straight seasons without a title.
Perhaps it scared them into thinking that they themselves are the underdog, and that may force an already proficient team into playing with even more focus.
LINE: The Patriots are favored by 2.5 points
OVER/UNDER: 55 points.
PREDICTION: The Giants have been somewhat of a Cinderella story this season, and probably have the momentum going into the game with their gut-wrenching win over the 49ers. On both sides of the ball, the Giants have over-achieved so they will be the looser team on Sunday. But New England goes into this game with an offense that is more complete and has been more desperate to succeed. Expect Brady to be particularly sharp, and spread the offense to multiple targets, while leading a steady charge throughout the game. This will be a tight game, but New England should edge the Giants with a stronger fourth-quarter effort. In the end, the Patriots want this game a little more, and they appear less likely to commit mistakes.
PREDICTED SCORE: Patriots over Giants, 28-24