The late Junior Seau once told a story about one method Bill Belichick used to show his linebackers how he wanted them to do their jobs -- but only when they messed up, Seau said then. Belichick pulled out old film of the New York Giants, and the defenses he coached (and later coordinated) for 12 years. Never did this turn out well for the New England Patriots.
"They always did it better than us," Seau told me back in January 2008, with a laugh.
Belichick still rhapsodizes about his years with the Giants, during which Big Blue won two Super Bowls and produced Hall of Fame players like Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson, and the warmth he feels for the franchise that launched him toward his own extraordinary career. He opened his conference call with New York reporters this week by talking about the impact of Ann Mara (the widow of Wellington Mara and mother of team president John Mara), who passed away last Super Bowl Sunday, and Frank Gifford, the legendary Giant who died this summer.
When the Patriots and Giants take the field Sunday afternoon, though, it will be two more recent memories that will underscore a game that would otherwise appear to be lopsided. If you required a reminder of what those were, you need have only wandered through the Giants' cafeteria on Wednesday. On every television was an NFL Network replay of Super Bowl XLII.
In the days before that game, Belichick said with a bit of wistfulness that, in some respects, he wished the Patriots were going to play anybody except the Giants because there were a lot of other teams for which he did not have that much affection. He certainly wasn't feeling that affectionate after it was over.
In a trend that is easy to explain but will be very difficult to continue Sunday, the Giants have won three straight games over the Patriots, including, of course, Super Bowls XLII to end the 2007 Patriots' run at an undefeated season and, four years later, XLVI. Since 2008, the only team the Patriots have not beaten at least once is the Giants. The Giants' exploits against the Patriots are celebrated in the murals that line the hallways of New York's training center and can be summed up in two of the Lombardi Trophies in the lobby. So the Giants have the Patriots' number?
Well, no. The Giants did have Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck powering a pass rush that disrupted Brady -- he was sacked five times in Super Bowl XLII. But Strahan and Umenyiora are retired, Tuck is now with the Raiders, and the Giants have a paltry nine sacks this season, dead last in the NFL.
"Those games were a long time ago," Belichick said. "I don't think it really has any bearing or influence on what happens this week. I think this week is about the matchups with these two teams, and so that's what we're really focused on."
What the Giants do have is Jason Pierre-Paul and the same principles that applied in those Super Bowls: Getting pressure on Brady is perhaps the only way to slow him and limit the league's top scoring offense. The Patriots are vulnerable to pressure. Nine different players on the offensive line have played at least 40 percent of the offensive snaps. The starting left tackle, Nate Solder, is on injured reserve. The backup left tackle, Marcus Cannon, missed the last three weeks with a toe injury. Three rookies have played at least 60 percent of the offensive snaps, and they have allowed 18 sacks.
Still, Brady is playing at a 2007-like level, with 22 touchdown passes and just two interceptions, in large part because he counteracts any pressure with the league's quickest release. The challenge will then fall to Pierre-Paul, who will play his second game this season after suffering a severe hand injury in a July 4 fireworks accident, to quickly close in on Brady before he can release the ball. Pierre-Paul's first game was encouraging. He played 45 of 59 defensive snaps and the Giants had nine quarterback hits (two by Pierre-Paul) against Tampa Bay, doubling their average from the first eight weeks of the season.
"We're going to get to the quarterback," Pierre-Paul said. "I know I am, I know others guys, as well."
Perhaps they will. After all, the Giants' defenses that won the two Super Bowls against New England were not considered great until after the fact -- their victories upsets, with the first being one of the greatest in Super Bowl history. There are no trophies on the line Sunday, and the personnel is much less proven. But the Giants' defense, which once was the first piece of Belichick's legend -- his game plan from one of the Super Bowls for which he was the Giants' defensive coordinator is in the Hall of Fame -- could provide him with some more game film he would rather not see again.
Three more things to watch around the NFL in Week 10:
1) The Seahawks are in a familiar position. Arizona leads Seattle by two games in the NFC West, and it's worth noting that after eight games, they were in the same positions last year. That was before the Seahawks surged ahead to win the division and come one ridiculous play call away from successfully defending their Super Bowl title. The critical difference this year: Carson Palmer is healthy. The Seahawks trounced the Cardinals by a combined score of 54-9 in 2014, but Palmer didn't play in either game. With him, the Cardinals have the league's second-highest scoring offense to match up against Seattle's second-ranked scoring defense. If they cancel each other out, can Russell Wilson rebound from an inconsistent first half (nine touchdowns, six interceptions) in which he has particularly struggled with the blitz against Arizona's seventh-ranked scoring defense? History suggests so. The Seahawks are 20-4 in the second half of seasons since 2012, tied with the Broncos for the best record in that span. The conventional wisdom around the league is that Arizona is the better, more well-rounded team. But Wilson will have one big edge Sunday night: Seattle hasn't lost a home game in prime time since 2007.
2) Was the Broncos' Week 9 loss to the Colts just a momentary setback or a return to a familiar, more problematic form? There were many positive signs of progress from the Denver offense -- protecting Peyton Manning and running the ball effectively -- that seemed to disappear, but we might find out more this weekend against the Chiefs, who are tied for ninth in sacks and have the 11th-ranked rushing defense. The Chiefs have allowed just 14.3 points per game over their last four games and have eight takeaways in that stretch, which is worth watching because Manning has thrown an interception in eight straight games and leads the league with 13 total picks. Still even without the injured Demarcus Ware and the suspended Aqib Talib, the Broncos will terrorize Alex Smith, who was sacked five times in the teams' first meeting this season.
3) Having survived the teeth of their schedule as the NFC's only undefeated team, the Panthers embark on the fifth-easiest remaining strength of schedule with a Sunday game against the Titans. Tennessee finally has the young quarterback it has sought for years in Marcus Mariota, but this is a difficult matchup for a young, mistake-prone team. The Titans have 17 giveaways, tied for 29th in the league, while the Panthers have 18 takeaways, which is fourth in the league. Expect a heavy dose of the Panthers' top-ranked running offense. When Cam Newton struggles, it has been against the blitz (48.9 percent completion rate against the blitz), and Tennessee has the fourth-highest blitz rate (39 percent).