It was perhaps the perfect game plan at the absolute perfect time.
While the New York Giants' ability to pull off what's considered one of greatest upsets in sports history, a 17-14 ousting of New England in Super Bowl XLII that thwarted the Patriots' quest for an unbeaten 2007 season, didn't come about because of just one single factor, there's no question that unexpected outcome wouldn't have transpired without the stellar performance of a defense that was at its bone-jarring best on the grand stage of Arizona's University of Phoenix Stadium that fateful night.
New York stopped a Patriots offense that had set an NFL season scoring record that year dead in its tracks, limiting Tom Brady and a dangerous band of pass- catchers to its lowest point total of the campaign as well as an underwhelming 274 total yards. The Giants baffled and frustrated Brady with a relentless wave of pressure that resulted in five sacks, several hurried and off-target throws, and 45 bruised egos from an opponent seemingly on the verge of a landmark achievement.
"We had a lot of hits on [Brady]," recalled Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, who amassed two sacks and a forced fumble to lead the aggressive onslaught. "Even when we didn't hit him, he didn't have the time to sit back there and allow some of the routes to develop."
Fast forward four years, and the backdrop of Super Bowl XLVI will be remarkably similar to that memorable matchup. The Patriots bring a high-powered and pass- heavy offense expertly directed by the incredibly-precise Brady into Indianapolis for a revenge opportunity with an underdog New York squad that will once again possess one of the best pass rushes in the business.
At first glance, this edition of the Giants' defense doesn't appear quite as formidable as the one that accumulated a league-best 53 sacks prior to the team's successful run in the 2007 playoffs. The 2011 G-Men finished the regular season just 27th in total defense and a troubling 29th against the pass, having surrendered an average of 255.1 yards per game through the air.
The unit, now in its second year under the command of coordinator Perry Fewell, still created plenty of uncomfortable moments for enemy quarterbacks, however, tying for third in the NFL with a total of 48 sacks.
Both defenses featured a trio of high-impact players on the front line, with the outstanding combo of Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and perennial Pro Bowler Michael Strahan serving as the catalyst for the 2007 incarnation. Strahan retired following the Super Bowl win, but ultra-athletic young end Jason Pierre-Paul has emerged as a force in his second season alongside the two established holdovers.
Umenyiora, Tuck and Strahan combined for 32 sacks during the 2007 regular season, with this year's "Big Three" of Pierre-Paul, Umenyiora and Tuck compiling 30 1/2 quarterback takedowns prior to the playoffs. Umenyiora missed seven games with injuries to both his knee and ankle, however, and Tuck was sidelined for four contests earlier in the year because of a neck problem.
The crew finally got back to full strength for the season's stretch run, and their presence has certainly been felt. The Giants have piled up 20 sacks over the course of the five-game winning streak they'll carry into Super Bowl XLVI, while yielding a scant 13.4 points per outing over that span.
Umenyiora has in particular made a difference, with the disruptive end having recorded 5 1/2 sacks in four games since returning from a month-long absence for the pivotal Week 17 finale against Dallas.
"We have some good pass rushers. But Osi, he's a game changer," said Tuck, who came through with 1 1/2 sacks in the Giants' narrow overtime triumph over San Francisco in the NFC Championship. "He takes a lot of pressure off myself, the whole D-line, the whole defense, knowing that any play he can make one of those game changing plays."
New York's resurgent defense could be facing its toughest challenge to date, however, in the potent Patriots. When the teams squared off at New England's Gillette Stadium back in Week 9 of the regular season (a 24-20 Giants win), Brady threw for 342 yards and two scores while the Pats' top two receivers -- slot specialist Wes Welker and All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski -- had 237 yards and 17 catches between them.
The Giants only managed two sacks of Brady that day, though they did intercept the two-time league MVP twice. With this latest clash set to take place in the offensively-conducive conditions of the domed Lucas Oil Stadium, Tuck knows his team must bring the heat more consistently this time if it's to repeat its previous Super Bowl exploits.
"The way to kill the snake is to take off his head," said Tuck. "The way to kill an offense as potent as that one is making sure you take care of Brady. Our defensive front will put a lot of pressure on itself to make sure that we do our best to get after him."
Below is a capsule look at the defense of the New York Giants, with regular season stats in parentheses:
Defensive Ends: Fewell is blessed with an embarrassment of riches at this position, with Tuck (37 tackles, 5 sacks) and Umenyiora (25 tackles, 9 sacks) each having posted three double-digit sack seasons in their careers and rising star Pierre Paul (86 tackles, 16.5 sacks) actually outplaying both veterans in a banner sophomore campaign that earned the 2010 first-round pick first team All-Pro honors. The 23-year-old's 16 1/2 sacks were the most by a Giant since Strahan produced 18 1/2 in 2003, and he also had a safety and blocked a field goal in addition to being one of the team's best run defenders.
Defensive Tackles: The headliner of New York's interior players is seventh-year vet Chris Canty (47 tackles, 4 sacks), a high-priced free-agent addition from the rival Cowboys in 2009 who helped justify his lofty salary by setting career bests for both tackles and sacks. Youngster Linval Joseph (34 tackles, 2 sacks), a second-round choice in the 2010 draft, started 15 games at the other tackle spot and was predictably inconsistent, though the 323-pound space-eater did display flashes in his first extended action as a pro. With the Patriots certainly to air it out often on Super Bowl Sunday, look for Tuck and energetic reserve Dave Tollefson (21 tackles, 5 sacks) to kick inside on passing downs in order to get the Giants' best rushers on the field together.
Linebackers: The Giants received solid years from the outside tandem of Michael Boley (93 tackles, 1 sack) and converted end Mathias Kiwanuka (84 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT), an Indianapolis native who can also pressure the passer as well as provide sound run support, but lacked a reliable starter in the middle for much of the season. That spot has since been bolstered by the re-signing of Chase Blackburn (26 tackles, 1 INT), a member of New York's Super Bowl XLII outfit who was out of football prior to being brought back in late November. Boley and rookie Jacquian Williams (78 tackles, 1 sack), a seventh-round find in this past draft, are the club's fastest linebackers who both play vital roles in coverage, meaning each may draw the important assignments of shadowing New England's terrific tight end duo of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Cornerbacks: The experience of regulars Corey Webster (51 tackles, 6 INT, 16 PD) and Aaron Ross (60 tackles, 4 INT, 12 PD) should come in handy for this game, as both were starters on the 2007 defense that successfully slowed down Brady and his arsenal of weapons in Super Bowl XLII. The combo also accounted for half of the Giants' 20 interceptions in 2011, with Webster -- New York's top cover man who held big-play receiver Randy Moss mostly in check in the last championship showdown against New England -- establishing a new career high in that category.
Safeties: New York is quite battle-tested on the back end as well. Nickel defender Deon Grant (64 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) is in his 12th NFL season and faced the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII while with Carolina in 2003, while free safety Antrel Rolle (96 tackles, 2 INT) competed on Arizona's Super Bowl XLIII team in 2008. Fourth-year pro Kenny Phillips (82 tackles, 4 INT, 11 PD) is the youngest member of the group but also the steadiest, and the hard- hitting former first-round pick has developed a reputation as an enforcer with good ball skills to boot. Fewell will often deploy all three together in passing situations, and Grant had an interception and two passes defensed in November's win over New England.