Super Bowl sequel isn't the same game

BY Alex Marvez • January 23, 2012

New York Giants players were getting sick of media questions about the 2007 season weeks ago.

Too bad.

A torrent of nostalgia is about to gush forth with New York facing New England in Super Bowl XLVI. There will be incessant comparisons between this Giants squad and the one from four years ago. That team also got hot in December and rode the momentum through a Super Bowl XLII upset of the previously unbeaten Patriots.

Both Giants squads needed overtime road victories in the NFC Championship Game to reach the Super Bowl. Both contests ended with game-winning field goals by Lawrence Tynes.

Coughlin was reminded of the eerie similarities by defensive end Osi Umenyiora after Sunday’s 20-17 win over San Francisco.

“Osi sat next to me and just looked at me with a smile on his face and said, ‘Have you thought about how this is coming down? Do you realize that this is scary because of the way it’s coming about?’” Coughlin said during his postgame news conference. “That’s a little deep for me, I guess.”

Coughlin, though, won’t let the Giants live in the past for long. While New York is once again a feel-good story, there is a new script that both the Giants and Patriots have followed to reach Indianapolis. There are at least nine major differences from the last time both franchises played for the Lombardi Trophy.

1. Different faces: While icons like Tom Brady and Eli Manning remain, a majority of Patriots and Giants players weren’t with those teams during the 2007 campaign. There are just seven returning Patriots, with defensive lineman Vince Wilfork the lone remaining defensive starter. The Giants have 12 of 53 players making a second trip, but many of the Super Bowl XLII heroes like Plaxico Burress, David Tyree and current FOX NFL Sunday analyst Michael Strahan are long gone.

2. Eli Manning wasn’t elite: Before stepping out of his older brother Peyton’s shadow with his own Super Bowl victory, Eli was being engulfed by it. Manning had three of four interceptions returned for touchdowns in a late November 2007 loss at Minnesota that dropped New York to 7-4. Following a home defeat against Dallas earlier that month when he was outplayed by Tony Romo, the New York Daily News surveyed four NFL personnel executives asking for their Top 10 ranking of current quarterbacks. Manning made only one list — and that was at No. 10.

If the same polling were done today, Manning’s inclusion would be a no-brainer. He carried New York’s offense during the regular season with a 4,933-yard, 29-touchdown campaign. Manning has continued to shine in the playoffs with eight touchdowns, one interception and a 103.1 quarterback rating that is just a shade below that of Brady’s (105.8).

3. The Giants are no longer a run-first team: In 2007, the Giants passed on 53.7 percent of their offensive snaps. That number rose to 58.9 percent in 2011. Manning’s career-high 589 attempts represent 60 more than he threw four seasons ago. Some of the shift stems from Manning’s blossoming but the Giants also have slumped in overall rushing yards (2,148 to 1,427) and per-carry average (4.6 to 3.5). While the ground game did improve in December, Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs are more complementary players rather than the main part of the offensive focus like in Super Bowl XLII.

4. The heat is off the Patriots: Although crowned an early 3.5-point favorite by oddsmakers, the Patriots won’t be facing anything close to the scrutiny like when they were on the cusp of the first 19-0 season in NFL history. New England will never be footloose and fancy-free under taskmaster Bill Belichick, but this should be a less pressure-packed Super Bowl trip with the Patriots able to avoid the kind of major media distraction that their head coach abhors.

5. Spygate is dead and buried: Speaking of distractions, the Patriots had to deal with a major one on the eve of Super Bowl XLII. Quoting an anonymous source, the Boston Herald claimed that New England illegally videotaped a St. Louis Rams practice before their Super Bowl XXXVI matchup. While the newspaper later apologized for what was proven an erroneous report, the damage was done.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft — who had to deal with the fallout from one of the NFL’s biggest scandals — will be back in the spotlight for this Super Bowl but for a far different reason. The Patriots have dedicated this season to Kraft’s late wife Myra, who died last summer from cancer-related complications. Kraft claimed that “forces at work beyond anything we can understand” helped push Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff’s 32-yard field goal attempt wide left in the final moments of last Sunday’s 23-20 AFC Championship Game victory. Patriots players also believe something spiritual is afoot, which will provide further inspiration heading into this Super Bowl matchup.

6. The Boston TE Party: When the Pats and Giants last played in Super Bowl XLII, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were college freshmen and New England was starting two tight ends (Kyle Brady and Ben Watson) used primarily as blockers or intermediate receiving targets. Brady was the only Patriots tight end with a reception — a measly three-yard catch at that — in that contest.

The position is now the focal point of New England’s passing offense with wide receiver Randy Moss having departed the club following a 2010 trade. The 2011 Patriots set a single-season record for tight end catches with Gronkowski and Hernandez combining for 169 grabs. Twelve of them that produced 136 yards and two touchdowns came in New England’s 20-16 loss to the Giants in Week 9.

7. A lack of Patriots defensive star power: The 2007 Patriots had three Pro Bowl selections and Hall of Fame-caliber veterans like Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison. The 2011 Patriots field one Pro Bowler in Wilfork (defensive end Andre Carter is on injured reserve). New England also is chock with more castoffs and young players than household names. But to its credit, the defense played well in New England’s postseason victories against Denver and Baltimore.

8. New England can now play the revenge card: The Patriots defeated New York in the 2007 regular season finale to complete a 16-0 season. This time, New England will be seeking to avenge a regular-season loss to the Giants.

9. Tom Brady is healthier: He’s not completely healthy, as Brady was forced to miss a day of practice last week because of an ongoing problem with his left (non-throwing) shoulder. Brady, though, will be entering this game in far better shape than when forced to wear a protective walking boot for his right ankle during the Super Bowl XLII bye week. Brady has never used that injury as an excuse but it did seem his mobility and overall play was slightly off with the Giants sacking him five times in a 29-of-48 passing performance.

That being said, there are some things that remain the same since Super Bowl XLII. New York’s fierce pass rush from its front four is one of them. So is Brady’s strong connection with wide receiver Wes Welker, who had nine catches for 136 yards in the October game against New York. Coughlin and Belichick also have proven their coaching acumen when winning NFL titles previously.

“I’m sure there’re going to be comparisons and that’s fine,” Manning said after Sunday night’s game. “But that doesn’t mean that’s going to make anything guaranteed.”

Especially the outcome.

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