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Perfection punched in the face

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 5, 2008

PHOENIX.

Ever since the New York Giants began playing football in 1925, their defense has been about as subtle as a punch in the face. It's a defense that has always embodied its city — rough, tough, get-out-of-the-way. It's also the only kind of defense that could have done to the New England Patriots what the Giants did Sunday night, a defense that got Tom Brady out of his comfort zone and held the Patriots' scoring machine to just two touchdowns in a 17-14 Super Bowl shocker.

Just as any team can be beaten, any offense can be stopped, no matter how many Pro Bowl selections or future Hall of Fame players it has. It's great to have Randy Moss, Wes Welker and all those other weapons but only if you can give your quarterback enough time to get the ball to them. Too often, the fancy passing Patriots couldn't. Three cheers for the pass rush — football's great equalizer.

Offense sells tickets, but defense, when it's played the way it's supposed to, has its charms as well. It was nice of the Giants to remind everybody of that, remind everybody in a season that saw the Patriots ring up a record 589 points that defense still wins championships.

"There is a way to get anybody," said Michael Strahan, longtime creamer of quarterbacks, whose never-ending exertions earned him his first ring. "And for us [Sunday], the way to win this game was to get to Brady. As Mike Tyson would say, 'Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.' And today we wanted to punch them in the face and make them scramble a little bit. This is a team that the last time we played them may have put up 38 points, but you could tell they were uncomfortable. We brought a level of physicality they had not seen."

The Giants have bringing "a level of physicality" forever — since Cal Hubbard, the massive Hall of Fame tackle, was policing gridirons in the '20s. Hubbard didn't look at the earholes on a helmet as, well, earholes; he looked at them as places to grab an opponent and hold his head down "so you could bring your knee up."

Later on, the Giants had a lineman named Butch Gibson. He didn't wear a conventional headgear; he wore boxing headgear. (He also was featured in Ripley's "Believe It Or Not!" because of his unique ability to "tear a deck of cards into sixteenths with his bare hands.")

The original "Fearsome Foursome" defensive line wasn't the Rams' in the '60s, it was the Giants' in the '50s — Andy Robustelli, Rosey Grier, Dick Modzelewski and Jim Katcavage. And of course, we're all familiar with "The Violent World of Sam Huff" and the just as nasty neighborhood of Lawrence Taylor and now Strahan.

Bruise-inflicting defense is a tradition with the Giants, one ingrained in the franchise by Steve Owen, one of their earliest coaches, and nurtured by its founding family, the old-fashioned Maras. Indeed, the Giants' bursting of the 18-0 Patriots' bubble wasn't much different from their bursting of the 13-0 Bears' bubble in the '34 championship game, except that the field wasn't icy and they didn't need sneakers. Those Bears were very similar to these Patriots — a high-scoring team that, on a given Sunday, ran into a defense (and, OK, a lousy field) that got the better of them.

Super Bowl XLII also wasn't much different from the Giants' dethroning of the 49ers in 1990, which kept San Francisco from winning its record-tying third straight title. On that day Taylor and Co. got after Joe Montana, and Leonard Marshall finally knocked him out of the game with a brutal blind-side takedown.

Brady withstood the punishment the Giants dished out, but it still had an effect. With New York blitzing, in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's estimation, "30 or 35 percent" of the time, it seemed like somebody was always in Tom's face — Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Jay Alford. (Heck, on one play, Arlen Specter even got a "hurry," I think). And they were going against a line, let's not forget, that has three Pro Bowlers.

"That offense is made to stay in rhythm," Tuck said, "and some things we showed [Brady] ... you could tell it kind of threw him off. He made some errant throws and held the ball a little longer than he normally does.

Ex-Redskins player Antonio Pierce, the Giants' feisty middle linebacker, noticed something else. "I don't know if [Brady] did get rattled," he said, "but he had grass stains. He was a little upset. He was yelling at the linemen, and I think that worked in our favor."

It can be so pretty to watch, football can, with passes flying hither and yon. But even in new millennium it's still, as Owen always insisted, "a game played down in the dirt." The Giants and their pass rushers got down and dirty Sunday night and rushed Tom Brady dizzy. Anything less and they wouldn't have pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NFL history.