(c) , The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The images from that memorable Super Bowl on Feb. 3, 2008, remain vivid. The scenes are of the New York Giants' pass rushers relentlessly pursuing New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, of Eli Manning somehow eluding a sack to enable David Tyree to make his miraculous catch with the ball pinned against his helmet, of Plaxico Burress hauling in Manning's pass for the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.
The next-to-unthinkable final tally on the scoreboard that night — Giants 17, Patriots 14 — will forever have its place in NFL lore. The Giants denied Brady, Coach Bill Belichick and the rest of the Patriots what would have been the first 19-0 season in league history.
Now, four years later, comes the Super Bowl rematch. The Patriots and Giants endured stomach-churning finishes Sunday in the two captivating conference championship games to secure their spots on football's biggest stage in Indianapolis 12 days from now.
“Obviously they are a great team and they have been a great team for years,” Manning said of the Patriots after the Giants' 20-17 overtime triumph in Sunday's NFC title game against the San Francisco 49ers. “They have had an unbelievable season and they have terrific players all over. . . . We'll start preparing and go to Indianapolis and get a game plan. Hopefully we can continue to play our best football.”
The Patriots again will be regarded as the favorite, after a 13-3 regular season record gave them the top seed in the AFC playoffs. Brady was one of three quarterbacks to top 5,000 passing yards this season.
Brady wasn't at his best Sunday in the 23-20 AFC championship game win over the Baltimore Ravens. He threw two interceptions and failed to record a touchdown pass.
“As a quarterback, you never want to turn the ball over,” Brady said afterward. “You want to hit the open guys. . . . Hopefully I can go out there and do better in a few weeks. I think offensively we can do better, and that's what it's going to take.”
The Patriots aren't unbeaten this time. But they again are trying to cement their place in history. Belichick and Brady will be playing in their fifth Super Bowl as a coach-and-quarterback tandem, and seeking their fourth title.
The Giants, too, are following a path similar to their 2008 route. Then they won three playoff games on the road to qualify for the Super Bowl; this year they barely made it to the postseason, won their first game at home and defeated the top two seeds in the NFC on the road to reach Indianapolis.
Place kicker Lawrence Tynes put them into this Super Bowl with an overtime field goal, just as he did four years ago in Green Bay.
“Osi (Umenyiora), 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?' ” Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said during his postgame news conference Sunday. “That's a little deep for me, I guess.”
Manning is pursuing his second Super Bowl title as the Giants' quarterback. For much of his career, he has been overshadowed by his brother Peyton, the league's only four-time most valuable player. But Peyton Manning was sidelined all season by a neck injury and his football future is uncertain. Eli, meanwhile, pronounced himself an elite quarterback during a preseason radio interview, then went out and made a convincing case with a superb regular season in which he led the Giants to five wins on fourth-quarter comebacks.
He is on another playoff hot streak and will try to add to his resume in the city where his brother became an NFL standout for the Colts.
“I'm just excited to be playing in a Super Bowl,” Manning said late Sunday. “It doesn't matter to me where you're playing or that it's in Indianapolis. I'm just excited about being in one and looking forward to it.”
For much of the season, the Giants had Manning, his two 1,000-yard receivers, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, and little else. They lost twice to the Washington Redskins and were 7-7 with two games left in the regular season.
They haven't lost since, capturing their final two regular season games to win the NFC East and beating the fifth-seeded Atlanta Falcons, top-seeded Packers and second-seeded 49ers in the playoffs.
“We've had five straight single-elimination games,” Coughlin said. “Somehow, some way, we've found a way to scratch our way to a win.”
The Patriots had the league's 31st-ranked defense during the regular season. But that unit has played better during the postseason, and New England takes a 10-game winning streak into the Super Bowl. Brady is vowing to rebound from his uncharacteristic performance against the Ravens.
“He said to me, 'I promise you I'm going to play a lot better in two weeks,' ” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said Sunday evening in the home locker room at Gillette Stadium. “He's still pretty good in my book. I'll take him over any quarterback.”
The Giants won in New England, 24-20, in November on Manning's touchdown pass to tight end Jake Ballard with 15 seconds left. But that's not the game that will be on everyone's minds during the Super Bowl buildup. The rosters have changed, with Tyree and Burress long gone from the Giants. But the memories remain.
“I'm sure there're going to be comparisons and that's fine,” Manning said. “But that doesn't mean that's going to make anything guaranteed.”