GLENDALE, Ariz. – Everyone remembers how the Giants marched up and down the field during the Patriots 38-35 victory at the Meadowlands to complete their perfect regular season. Eli Manning was nearly flawless, tossing four touchdown passes while New York's running game shook off a slow start before getting in gear in the second half.
While there was nothing fluky about the way the Giants moved the football in that game, the Patriots defense certainly didn't play anywhere near its best. The 35 points allowed were the most New England surrendered in any game this season, and Manning's 118.6 passer rating and 68.8 percent completion rate were also season highs for opponents.
That didn't sit well with several members of the Patriots defense. During media day at University of Phoenix Stadium, many of them spoke about the Giants offensive success. But while none downplayed how well New York played that night, the focus was on their performance, and no one was satisfied with it.
"We didn't play particularly well that night. That's not to take anything from the Giants. We played terrible," safety Rodney Harrison said. "The good thing is I don't think we can play any worse than that. I can probably guarantee you we won't play that bad."
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees agreed with Harrison's assessment, choosing to look at his team's breakdowns and trying to correct them.
"[The Giants] did a good job. As all teams do they came in with some extra things that are different," Pees said. "Early on there were a couple of adjustments we had to make but we did a better job of making them later in the game. Really most of the time it's us. We just have to play better and coach better."
"Their ability to score touchdowns in the red zone and their ability to sustain drives on third down clearly was the game for us," linebacker Mike Vrabel added. "You look at the film and you have to be critical of it. I have to rush better, [Richard] Seymour has to rush better, Jarvis [Green] has to rush better, AD [Adalius Thomas] has to rush better and we have to cover better on third down."
The Giants have taken the momentum they started that night and rode it straight through the playoffs. Taking on three division winners on the road, New York used its tough running game coupled with the excellent decision-making of Manning and did just enough to get here.
Manning has been the key. Instead of the mistake-prone quarterback that was featured throughout the season, the Giants have been led by an efficient playmaker in the postseason. That more than anything has caught the eyes of the Patriots defense.
"I think you just have to go back and watch film," linebacker Adalius Thomas said. "I don't think you can really take a lot [out of the last game] because a lot of things have changed. Eli's playing great, their defense is playing great, they're playing great on special teams and so you just have to go in an pick your tendencies and pick your poison because they're explosive in all areas.
"He had his highest passer rating against us so we definitely have our challenge cut out for us. They've played well on the road, better than any team. Eli's playing great, hasn't turned the ball over and definitely is giving them a chance to win."
Since the disappointing performance against the Giants, the Patriots defense has picked things up. In playoff wins over Jacksonville and San Diego, New England allowed just two touchdowns in seven red zone trips – and the Jags posted those on their first two trips inside the Patriots 20. Since then, the Patriots have held opponents out of the end zone five straight times including all three in the AFC Championship against the Chargers.
"I don't think we played particularly well in the first half of the Jacksonville game either but I give Jacksonville some credit for that too," Pees said. "I just think we've gotten to the ball better. We didn't tackle as well as we should have in that Giants game. Scheme-wise it's not anything to do necessarily with scheme it's just that we've practiced and played better.
"We haven't come back and said we have to change our defense. We were successful before that and there are always going to be some games where you don't execute as well as you want and that was one of those games for us."
Pees and the Patriots obviously hope they don't endure another one on Sunday. With the power/speed combo of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw coupled with the explosiveness of Plaxico Burress, the Giants offense is hitting its stride.
But the Patriots defense has put together six quarters of strong football and judging from how they're talking, they don't intend for that to end anytime soon.