INDIANAPOLIS – The Jets, of all teams, could forever hold a special place in the hearts of the New York Giants and New England Patriots.
Beating Rex Ryan's ornery bunch proved to be a key turning point in an otherwise up-and-down season for the two Super Bowl teams.
Since coach Bill Belichick's squad routed the Jets in the Meadowlands in mid-November, the Patriots haven't lost. And since a Christmas Eve victory over their stadium co-tenants, the Giants haven't, either.
Although neither side will call those wins singularly pivotal, they clearly were the benchmarks for when things started to get a whole lot better.
"I don't think you can point to one thing," Giants cornerback Corey Webster said, "but I do know when you develop good chemistry, when you don't have anyone pointing fingers, it does not matter what happened the week before. We reached that point, we kept fighting and fighting to win on the field, and we are here today."
By "here," he means Lucas Oil Stadium, a place the Giants (12-7) couldn't see for all the losses they experienced after starting 6-2. They dropped four in a row — three to eventual division winners — and were 7-7 before that "road" game against the local rival Jets.
By then, the Giants knew each week brought an elimination game. They've won all of those to reach their second Super Bowl in four years, against the team whose unbeaten season they wrecked in the 2008 title game.
"When we came out of the Dallas game, I thought that would be it," Giants owner John Mara said, referring to a 37-34 victory that broke the slide. "Then we come out so flat " against Washington, he said. "So that wasn't it."
The Giants manhandled the Jets with a fierce defense. That victory coincided with important players such as DE Justin Tuck and LB Michael Boley getting healthy enough to play up to their usual high standards. Defensive end Osi Umenyiora also was close to returning from an ankle injury.
"We came together against the Jets and we started playing very well as a defense," Umenyiora said, "but definitely health had something to do with that. Obviously, we had a lot of guys who are key components who missed a lot of games. The minute we were able to get everyone together, we all took off."
Health also was a major factor for the Patriots (15-3), who took off following a home loss to the Giants. They went to the Meadowlands and routed the Jets in a much-hyped game — just as the "Battle of New York" would be ballyhooed later — and kept right on going, straight to Indy and their fifth Super Bowl with coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
New England took particular joy in that victory, but found even more satisfaction in piling up the wins while undermanned.
"Not sure there's a turning point as far as one game or anything," linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "I think that it's just having the same group of guys out there as the past couple of weeks. We're finally coming together and getting guys healthy."
Still, there must be a hallmark moment. A Brady touchdown pass, perhaps. A Rob Gronkowski catch-and-plow-over-a-defender score.
Not even Sterling Moore's stripping of the ball from Baltimore receiver Lee Evans in the end zone, a play that, if completed, would have lifted the Ravens into the Super Bowl.
"I don't think about it," Moore said when asked about a turning point. "I think there's a lot of plays that helped us get here. (Brandon) Spikes' interception and the way Vince (Wilfork) played that game; I'm just glad I had an opportunity to make a play."
So, for all the spectacular plays, crucial wins and memorable moments in their seasons, nothing truly qualified as a trendsetter?
"That's not the way a season goes," Giants left guard Kevin Boothe said. "There's lots of twists and turns, sure, but even with the streak of losses we had, we still had all our goals in front of us. That's all you can really ask for."
At least the teams don't cite fate or destiny for getting into the Super Bowl. They might not offer simple reasons, but at least what they mention as catalysts toward Giants-Patriots II aren't providential.
"The one thing about the group is that there are a lot of guys who came from free agency or a lot of guys who were cut and had a lot to prove," said Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who has been both. "I think when you go through that route of getting cut, not having a roster spot, wanted to only be a special teams guy and trying to break into the roster on that aspect, it's kind of tough. Coming here, it's really been a blessing for a lot of guys. You take every moment and every opportunity you have and you make the best of it."