Just like they did four years ago, the New York Giants and New England Patriots will battle for the coveted crown of NFL champion when the two storied franchises descend upon the city of Indianapolis for this year's title game. It will be the fifth renewal of a Super Bowl matchup in league history, and first since Dallas and Buffalo squared off for a second straight year in Super Bowl XXVIII back in January of 1994.
The first winner-take-all bout between the teams produced one of the most notable upsets in NFL lore, when the Giants stunned the 18-0 Patriots in a 17-14 nail-biter in Super Bowl XLII, held at Arizona's University of Phoenix Stadium on Feb. 3, 2008. New York quarterback Eli Manning directed a 12-play, 83-yard drive in the final minutes, capped by a 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with just 35 seconds left, for the deciding points as the Giants thwarted New England's attempt to become only the second undefeated team since the 1970 merger.
New York also get the better of the Patriots in a regular-season clash in Foxborough during Week 9 of this 2011 campaign, with Manning again orchestrating a late rally to pull the game out. The standout triggerman led the Giants on an eight-play, 80-yard march in that one, and gave his club a 24-20 decision by finding tight end Jake Ballard from a yard out with only 15 seconds remaining. That defeat was only the third in New England's last 28 tussles with NFC foes, with two of those setbacks during that stellar stretch coming to the Giants. The Patriots haven't lost since that last meeting, however, ripping off eight consecutive victories to secure the AFC's top playoff seed and tacking on two more in the postseason to reach the Super Bowl for the fifth time in 11 seasons under the terrific tandem of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the most ever by a head coach/quarterback combination. The last such appearance for New England took place in its unforgettable showdown with the Giants four years back. Brady is one of only four quarterbacks to win three Super Bowls, joining Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Troy Aikman in that select company, and will tie another Canton enshrinee in John Elway when he makes his fifth career start in the Big Game on Sunday.
The two-time league MVP is coming off a mediocre performance by his lofty standards, however, throwing a pair of interceptions and having a string of 18 consecutive outings with a touchdown pass end in New England's 23-20 triumph over Baltimore in the AFC Championship. His 57.5 quarterback rating was the battle-tested veteran's second-lowest figure in 21 all-time postseason tests. Brady, who tied an NFL record with six scoring strikes in the Pats' 45-10 dismantling of Denver in the Divisional Round, was also picked off twice in addition to losing a fumble in this past November's tilt against the Giants, a game in which New England turned the ball over a total of four times.
"They're a good team, that's why they're here," said Brady of the Giants. "They force you into a lot of mistakes. But we can't go out there and make mistakes and expect to win. We have to go out there and play a very clean game."
New York, meanwhile, has been able to keep its errors to a minimum in posting five straight wins to make it to Indianapolis, a run that's conjured up memories of the team's 2007 surge to earn a Super Bowl berth as the NFC's fifth playoff seed. The Giants have compiled an outstanding plus-nine turnover margin during the tear, with Manning having delivered 11 touchdown passes against just one interception over the last four games.
The Giants captured their second NFC title in five seasons by outlasting No. 2 seed San Francisco in a 20-17 overtime thriller in the conference championship, one week after knocking off favored Green Bay on the road in the Divisional Playoffs. The 2007 squad also bested the NFC's top two seeds as the visitor to set up a date with the Patriots, though the remaining members aren't buying any of the surrounding destiny talk.
"As a player, it's not our job to compare these two seasons," noted Manning. "The fact that we're playing the Patriots in the Super Bowl, that's the similarity. That's the only thing that I want to think about. We know that they're a very talented team. We're going to have to play great football."
This year's contest will also be the first-ever head-to-head bout between quarterbacks that are former Super Bowl Most Valuable Players, with Manning claiming the honor with his previous heroics against the Patriots and Brady garnering the award in Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII to conclude the 2001 and 2003 seasons, respectively. The fact that it will be taking place at Lucas Oil Stadium, the home venue of Manning's older brother and Brady's longtime rival, Peyton, has added an additional juicy subplot to the game.
Another big storyline pertains to New England tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose status for Super Bowl XLVI is in some limbo after he suffered a high ankle sprain in the AFC Championship. Though the NFL's 2011 leader in touchdown catches hasn't divulged much information about his playing prospects in typical Patriots fashion, he did acknowledge the injury had improved during Tuesday's Media Day session.
"I feel better every day," Gronkowski stated. "That's the goal. That's the positive direction you want to be going. The rehab is going well. Everything is moving forward and we're on pace of just feeling better every day."