David Tyree’s miraculous catch with 1:05 left in Super Bowl XLII will always be the quintessential moment of that thrilling championship game.
But if there was one play that was acts as a microcosm of how that game played out in 2008, it was Jay Alford’s crucial sack of Tom Brady with 25 seconds left.
In a game that included five New York Giants sacks against the heavily-favored New England Patriots, Alford, an unknown rookie from Northwestern, broke through the New England line and took down the superstar, Brady, to help clinch the New York win.
Alford no longer plays for New York, but pass rushers Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka still do. These three, along with the young sack master Jason Pierre-Paul, propelled the Giants to another Super Bowl.
And just like four years ago, New York’s defensive line will be the most important unit during the Super Bowl on Sunday.
Tight ends and Slot receivers
New England’s receiving trio of Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez is unmatched by any other team in the league. The playmakers combined for an incredible 291 receptions, 3,806 yards and 33 touchdowns. Fifty-five of those receptions gained more than 20 yards.
Simple fact: they are playmakers.
Pierre-Paul, Tuck, Umenyiora and crew have to limit the time this trio has to get open. It will be tough for Corey Webster, Aaron Ross and everyone in the defensive backfield to maintain quality coverage for lengthy periods of time.
The Giants must make the Patriots quarterback throw quick outs. Then it will be up to the linebackers and defensive backs to converge on ball carriers and tackle well. That is certainly easier said than done, but getting pressure will prevent Gronkowski and Welker from running free on every pass play.
Pierre-Paul and crew got pressure on Brady in their first match-up this season but only accumulated two sacks. Yet they put enough pressure to cause a fumble and to force Brady into two interceptions.
Those kinds of plays would bring another Super Bowl trophy back to New York.
Consistent pass rush versus reliable offensive line
New England’s offensive line looks to prevent that game-changing pressure. The unit has been a stalwart against opposing defenses all season. It did not neutralize the New York pass rush in the first meeting back in October, but New England’s line fared better than all other teams against New York’s frightening pass rush.
The Patriots’ offensive line includes three Pro Bowlers, a veteran center and quality rookie tackle. They allowed 32 sacks this season.
Frankly, Brady should treat the offensive linemen to a filet mignon dinner every week: they keep the quarterback safe and unharmed.
New England’s offensive line is one of the reason the Patriots have made it so far, but the Giants fared well against this unit earlier this season, and the Pierre-Paul who will show up Sunday is more refined and dominant than the one who tallied a sack against the Patriots in their previous meeting.
Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell brought more blitzes than usual during the first game. He plans on doing the same this time around. It is a risk-and-reward proposition, as bringing extra defenders could open up the field for New England’s receivers to pile up big numbers.
Getting pressure against a stout offensive line without bringing extra men would alleviate a lot of those problems.
Brady’s comfort level
Thanks to New England’s offensive line, Tom Brady felt safe while throwing this season. This led to a lot of New England touchdowns.
Brady is masterful when he has enough time to comb his hair before throwing the ball. His stellar numbers this season are a testament to that fact. He rarely makes mistakes when defenders fail to get into the backfield.
He is vulnerable during pressure, though. Brady struggled when he was chased and tormented by defenders this season.
It did not happen often, but teams like the Giants made Brady feel uncomfortable. Those teams forced the interceptions and fumbles Brady produced.
This game will be more about limiting the yards after catch of New England’s receivers, but it only takes one turnover to change the game. New York can get that important catalyst if it limits Brady’s time to sit and ponder options unharmed.
These are the situations that explain general manager Jerry Reese’s philosophy. He counteracts a league full of superstar quarterbacks with a line of fast and strong defensive linemen. The NASCAR package, an alignment that puts four speedy defensive ends on the line of scrimmage, panicked those quarterbacks all season.
The defensive line needs only one more dominant performance to help New York recapture Alford's magic and clinch its fourth Super Bowl win.