By Bill Burt
It was Sunday, Dec. 30, about 10 hours after the New England Patriots officially made history.
The Patriots defeated the New York Giants, 38-35, in one of the most entertaining regular-season games of the year, thus being the first team ever to go unbeaten 16-0.
The Patriots were given the day off with their impending bye week ahead of them.
With a wild card game at Tampa Bay just seven days away, Giants coaches had a little bounce to their step as they were gathered in the conference room at the Meadowlands.
But before they talked about Tampa Bay, the coaches discussed the Patriots.
"We always do that the morning after a game," said Giants defensive backs coach Peter Giunta, a Salem, Mass., native. "Tom (Coughlin) likes to talk about the team we just played and what we would do differently if we played them again.
"And to be honest, we didn't even think about playing the Patriots again (in the Super Bowl) at that point," said Giunta. "But first, we critiqued the Patriots game and then it was on to Tampa."
On the defensive side of the ball, four things had to change.
"One, we had to find ways to get more pressure on Brady. That was No. 1," recalled Giunta (pronounced JUN-ta). "Two, we couldn't give up the big plays, especially to (Randy) Moss. He killed us. Three, we did an OK job on their screen passes, but we would have to be more disciplined in defending it because that is as vital to their offense as the long passes to Moss are. And four, limit the gap running plays, where the Patriots pull their offensive linemen. (Laurence) Maroney didn't have a big game against, but a few of his runs hurt us."
After that short — and from what we've now learned productive — meeting, "The Greatest Show on Turf" wasn't anywhere to be found the Giants' radar. Who were? Tampa Bay, Dallas and then Green Bay, all on the road.
Bills game is key
While there was momentum from the season finale against the Patriots, Giunta says it started the week before against the Bills.
"We were losing (21-17) heading into the fourth quarter," said Giunta, whose Giants team was still, technically, fighting for a playoff berth. "And then we came back. We had two defensive touchdowns (in the fourth quarter). It was a great feeling after that game."
The morning after beating the Packers in overtime to earn a Super Bowl berth, the Giants went back to their notes from the New England game on Dec. 30.
"We played the Packers again a second time, but the problem back then was we played them on Week 2 and by the time the NFC championship came around, they were a different team," said Giunta. "The Patriots were different. We had just played them. And they were the same team. They were still the best team in the league. Trust me, we always looked at them that way."
But the one difference, said Giunta, was the fact that Coughlin went out of his way to break down the job at hand.
"He said, 'We have to win one game, that's it,' " said Giunta. "He didn't want us to get caught up in the 18-and-0 thing. He did a great job at getting everyone thinking that way."
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and rest of the defensive coaches went into overdrive.
They went through all of the other tapes from 2007 and realized one method of defending the Patriots didn't work.
"The Jaguars basically rushed three guys the entire game and put the extra defenders in coverage," said Giunta. "As I think everyone saw, it didn't work. Tom Brady had all the time in the world. And every pass he threw was almost perfect. We realized that was not going to be us."
Eagles', Ravens' blueprint
One game that particularly caught the interest of the Giants coaches was not the game everyone probably would have predicted, like Philadelphia or Baltimore.
It was the Patriots game against the Cleveland Browns, on Oct. 7.
The Patriots won, 34-17, which seemed to fit in with all their previous blowout wins the first two months.
But the win was a lot tougher than the stat sheet revealed.
Two of the Patriots touchdowns followed interceptions in Browns territory (34- and 25-yard lines) and another came on a fourth quarter interception return (Randall Gay) for a touchdown.
And while Brady had a very good quarterback rating, 105.7, he completed only 22 of 38 passes for 57.5 percent, his lowest until the Ravens game eight weeks later.
"We learned the most from watching this game. Romeo knew the (Patriots) group," he said of Cleveland head coach Romeo Crennel, the former Patriots defensive coordinator. "The Browns played a two-deep (safety) scheme, mixing them up on third down, especially. Their players always put their hands on receivers at the line of scrimmage, especially on third down. It was the best we saw.
"Romeo didn't want to get beat giving up the deep pass. It was similar to what you saw the Eagles and Ravens do," said Giunta. "But the Browns did it better."
The Browns were the first team that decided Moss, who had averaged 7.8 receptions for 126.3 yards and 1.8 TDs the first four games, was not going to beat them.
Moss finished the Cleveland game with three catches for 46 yards and no scores.
"They also got a little pressure on Brady," said Giunta. "It was really the game that showed us the most."
He really means the second most, because the Giants-Pats game to end the regular season was their barometer, and specifically those notes.
And the defensive game plan was born.
Essential to pressure Brady
"We said No. 1 was Brady had to be kept off-balance," said Giunta. "He is the best quarterback I've ever seen in terms of the total package. He is so patient. He will hold the ball until the last moment. If you give him time to throw, he will make the completion. That was one conclusion we came to. To have a chance we had to pressure Brady."
Another conclusion, courtesy of the Browns, was mugging the Patriots wideouts at all costs.
"Even if we were playing a zone, which we did a lot, we wanted to hit them at the line of scrimmage," said Giunta. "We didn't want any easy throws. Even if they were completed, we were going to hit them."
The other key ingredient to slowing down the most explosive offensive in NFL history (36.8 points a game in the regular season) was winning the line of scrimmage.
"Their offensive line is very, very good," said Giunta. "They not only protected Brady better than anything we had seen, but they were very good at run blocking, too."
Giunta said Media Day on Tuesday was sort of an epiphany for the Giants defensive linemen. They realized something when they walked across the University of Phoenix Stadium field, which was natural grass, for the team picture.
"We realized how fast a track the field was," said Giunta. "I know the Patriots probably thought the same thing, with their team speed on offense, but we felt that the strength of our defensive line was speed and quickness. We were thrilled when we saw the field. We thought it would benefit our rushers on Brady."
Last but not least was the Patriots' running game, which had been on a roll entering the Super Bowl, with Maroney rushing for 550 yards and six touchdowns in the last five games.
The one glitch in those stats was the 19 rushes for 46 yards against the Giants.
"This was on our linebackers," said Giunta. "And Antonio Pierce is the key man here. He takes a lot of pride on run defense. He is also very good at recognizing formations."
Giunta said he wasn't privy to all the details of the offensive game plan other than the basics were ball control (running and short to intermediate passes), no turnovers and move the clock.
"We were going to be conservative on offense," said Giunta. "Tom (Coughlin) and the offensive coaches figured the key was not turning the ball over. But they also figured they could move the ball on the Patriots defense. That meant the clock would be moving, too. ... The bottom line was we didn't want to get into a high-scoring game with them. Their offense is too good."
The plan was to defend the Patriots, on most plays, with four down linemen, five underneath defenders (three linebackers and two cornerbacks) and two deep safeties.
All eyes on Brady
It was the same defense the Ravens used against the Patriots. But the Giants were going to make one adjustment.
"The five underneath guys can't all play with their backs to Brady, which is what the Ravens did," said Giunta. "Because there were a couple of times, one I believe was a fourth-and-6, and Brady took off for a first down because nobody was looking. I realize he's not a runner, but he will run if nobody is paying attention to him."
The game could not have worked out any better, particularly on defense.
The Giants offense did their part to start the game, taking 9:59 off the clock. While they didn't score a touchdown, a field goal and 10 minutes was almost better than seven points.
The Patriots scored a touchdown on their first drive, but it took one play into the second quarter and Brady was knocked down four times on the drive.
"They took the lead but we realized we could get pressure on Brady," said Giunta. "It gave us confidence."
The confidence picked up a notch through halftime. Brady had been sacked three times and knocked down eight times. And Maroney had only 10 yards in eight rushes.
"We thought if we could keep Maroney in check, and our line could pressure Brady, we could make the Patriots one-dimensional," said Giunta. "That's where Antonio (Pierce) came in. The Patriots run the ball, most of the time, when Brady is under center. Well, Antonio makes those calls. I think he was right on every single run."
The pressure continued in the third quarter. Again, there was no scoring as the Giants and Patriots were in the midst of the lowest scoring Super Bowl ever through three quarters, a total of 10 points.
The highlight for the Giants defense was the first drive of the second half. The Patriots ate up 8:17, only to be stopped on a strange 4th-and-13 play.
"They have so much confidence in Brady that that didn't surprise me," said Giunta of the controversial decision to eschew a 48-yard field goal try. "We called a fake, weak corner blitz and spun the deep coverage to that side. Brady saw the hot read and thought he was blitzing and went that way. But we rolled over our safeties on that side and dropped the safety back. There was nobody open."
The first play of the fourth quarter was when the Giants' "survival" tactics turned into going for the jugular. Eli Manning hit tight end Kevin Boss for 45 yards to the Patriots' 35. Five plays later, Manning to David Tyree on a 5-yard pass, gave the Giants the lead, again, at 10-7.
Two drives later, the Patriots answered as only these Patriots could.
With 7:54 remaining in the game and the Pats on their own 20, Brady got some blocking and the Patriots were back.
"That's why they are so great. They made some adjustments, got Brady a little time, and he went back to picking his spots and waiting patiently," said Giunta.
The Patriots finally scored with 2:42 left with Brady hitting Moss for the go-ahead score.
"We were planning on doubling Moss but (Wes) Welker came across in motion and got the double team instead. It was a great call by the Patriots," said Giunta. "Moss is impossible to cover one on one."
The Giants went back to their miraculous ways with Manning working his magic like never before. The eventual game-winner, to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left, gave New York a 17-14 lead.
The play of the game, other than the Manning-to-Tyree miracle pass and catch, was the second-to-last play of the game.
On third down, after Brady had been sacked by rookie lineman Jay Alford, the Patriots quarterback rolled to his right, waiting a few seconds, before throwing a bomb to Moss.
Webster an unsung hero
"It was a great call by the Patriots," said Giunta. "He moved over to his right and had to throw the ball 70 yards in the air. Moss just took off. If Corey Webster doesn't run with Moss, stride-for-stride, then Moss probably catches it, scores a touchdown and the Patriots win.
"But Corey got a hand on the ball. People thought the game was over before that play, but if Corey doesn't make that play, the Patriots probably win. I have seen that play many times now and it was incredible."
The last play of the game was another failed bomb, this one hitting the ground in front of where Giunta was on the sidelines.
"I can honestly say it was the greatest sporting event I was ever a part of ," said Giunta. "My view of the Patriots has not changed. They really are one of the greatest teams, and definitely one of the greatest offenses ever in the NFL. And Tom Brady is the best. He really is the best.
"But for one game, we beat them."
You can e-mail Bill Burt at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his blog, "Burt Talks Sports," at www.eagletribune.com.
Peter Giunta's coaching resume
1981-1983%Penn State%tight ends
1984-1985%Brown%tight ends/wide receivers
1988-1990%Lehigh%tight ends/wide receivers
1991-1994%Philadelphia Eagles%defensive backs
1995-1996%N.Y. Jets%defensive backs
1997%St. Louis Rams%defensive backs
1998-2000%St. Louis Rams%assistant head coach/defensive coordinator
2001-2005%Kansas City Chiefs%defensive backs
2006-present%N.Y. Giants%defensive backs
The Giunta file
Born: Aug. 11, 1956
High school: St. John's Prep ('74)
College: Northeastern University ('78)
Super Bowl rings: 2 (Giants XLII, St. Louis XXXIV)
Family: Wife, Cindy; children, Christina, John and D.J.
Giunta (before the game) on slowing down Randy Moss
"Wow. That's quite a task, isn't it? I don't think you can go into a game thinking you will shut him down. He's the best in the league. But we can try to make him earn every catch and every yard he gets. I know Randy. When I was with the Chiefs we practiced with the Vikings at training camp every year. I've seen him a lot. You have to double him by rolling over the safety. We just have to remain patient because Tom Brady is looking for that one mistake you make and then, gone, to Moss. We have to be perfect in the defensive backfield. It's that simple."