INDIANAPOLIS – In this new NFL age of throw first and throw again, it’s easy to forget the first rule of football: Defense wins championships.
Sorry Eli. Sorry Tom. There’s no doubt you’re both among the league’s elite quarterbacks.
The Super Bowl, however, is going to be decided by defense, and the Giants are better than the Patriots right now. The proof is in the performance.
Take a look at the five-game winning streak that’s carried the Giants (12-7) from a .500 team to a second Super Bowl in four years. The defense has given up only 67 points during the streak, hasn’t allowed more than 251 yards passing in any game, and has 20 sacks and 11 forced turnovers.
And that’s against some very good offenses, including the high-powered one in Green Bay.
To say the defense is confident heading into the Super Bowl would be an understatement.
“I feel like we’re going to play our best game, so whoever is facing us better play theirs,” defensive captain Justin Tuck.
There is no secret to the Giants’ game plan: Stop the run, put the Patriots in passing situations and knock Tom Brady on his you-know-what.
Then do it again.
It’s the game plan the Giants used four years ago in Phoenix in embarrassing the Patriots’ offensive line, and the same one they used with a little less effectiveness in Foxborough, Mass., early in November during a 24-20 win.
In that more recent game, the Giants sacked Brady twice and had two interceptions. One sack led to a fumble recovery that set up a score.
Get to Brady and good things happen.
“We did some things that disrupted his timing,” defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. “We caused him to stay jittery in the pocket. Hopefully we can do that again.”
Brady and the Patriots will be facing an even better defense in the rematch. The Giants’ front four is healthy and peaking.
Tuck has overcome the shoulder and groin injuries that bothered him in November. Osi Umenyiora is as healthy as he’s been all season, and the defense has suddenly found itself after needing a rescue party for the first 14 games.
Not only is the front four playing well, the linebackers are stopping the run and the secondary is covering so well that quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Alex Smith rarely were able to hit their primary targets in the playoffs.
“To be honest, I think our confidence is very high,” said second-year defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who led the Giants with 16½ sacks in the regular season. “We know what we have to do and what’s at stake.”
If Brady meets the same fate as those other recent quarterbacks and he’s ducking the pass rush, the Patriots are going to have big problems.
“That’s where our energy comes from,” Fewell said of his front four. “That’s where our confidence comes from. That’s where our swagger comes from, because those guys — unlike most teams you are associated with — they set the tone for us. They are the catalyst for what we do and how we do it.”
Umenyiora has no doubt the Giants will get to Brady and put their imprint on the game.
“They’re going to definitely do some things to keep us off of him, max protections, short throws, quick throws, but they can only do that for so long,” Umenyiora said. “Whenever we have opportunities where he does hold the ball, we’re going to have to get to the quarterback.”
The Giants also have gotten a little lucky heading into this one. Patriots All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered a high sprain to his left ankle in the AFC title game. It probably will reduce his effectiveness.
Offensively, Eli Manning has had a career year, and the Giants can match the Patriots point for point. With New York’s running game struggling much of the season, the key will be keeping Manning upright. San Francisco sacked him six times and hit him 20 times overall in the NFC title game.
However, the Patriots’ defense isn’t in the same category as the 49ers.
Vince Wilfolk will stuff the middle, but Manning should have a field day against a shaky New England secondary. There’s no way Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington and nickel back/receiver Julian Edelman can stop Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham and tight end Jake Ballard.
Championships often are decided by a big play, and Cruz and Nicks have been turning little plays into touchdowns all season.
With both offenses so formidable, former Bills coach Marv Levy thinks the game is going to be decided by a special teams play, a blocked punt or field goal, or some other play.
“Both teams are here because of special teams plays,” Levy said. “When you get two very closely matched teams, look for the kicking game to determine the outcome.”
Not likely. Not with the Giants’ defense.
FINAL SCORE: Giants 31, Patriots 17.