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A Farewell to Pats-Giants, the Most Inexplicable NFL Rivalry of the 21st Century

After two classic Super Bowls and some white-knuckle regular-season matchups, Tom Brady plays his greatest foil for almost certainly the last time on Thursday. But on the other sideline, the matchup will have a different feel.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The New England Patriots have cast a cloud upon pro football for the entire 21st century, and only one team has penetrated their darkness with a ray of light on the game’s biggest stage twice. The New York Giants’ Super Bowl XLII victory over the 18-0 Patriots is one of the greatest upsets in U.S. sports history. Four years later, they beat New England in the Super Bowl again, and the sports world realized we did not have the vocabulary to describe their relationship. Buster Douglas never got a rematch with Mike Tyson. Appalachian State football lost their rematch with Michigan. So did the U.S. men’s hockey team in their next Olympic game against the USSR. The only real precedent for an invincible foe like Tom Brady losing to an awkward guy like Eli Manning and then losing the rematch years later is Voldemort’s blowing a seven-Horcrux lead to Harry Potter.

That’s what makes Brady’s Patriots vs. Manning’s Giants the NFL’s most surprising and inexplicable rivalry. On Thursday night the Giants will visit the Patriots in Foxborough, and that rivalry will likely—but not definitely—come to an end. Eli Manning turns 39 in January. It’s almost certainly the last time he will suit up against the Patriots, though he’ll be watching from the sideline this time after being benched for rookie Daniel Jones before Week 3. This is also likely the last time the 42-year-old Brady will play the Giants. The next Giants-Patriots regular-season game is scheduled to take place in 2023. Unless Brady leaves the Patriots, or plays until he is 46 (he’s trying to make it till only 45, by his own admission), or, uh, meets the Giants again in the Super Bowl, Thursday is the last time the six-time Super Bowl champ will stare into his personal abyss. The abyss will relish staring back, and so will we. Manning may not take the field on Thursday, but that can’t stop us from revisiting the strangest on-field sporting events of the 21st century.

If the 18-0 Patriots losing to the 2007 Giants in Super Bowl XLII was pitched as a movie script, even Netflix would think it was too cheesy (though it would probably still green-light it). Eli Manning, whose famous quarterback father orchestrated a draft-day trade to the Giants so Eli could contend, lifted the Super Bowl MVP trophy one year after his brother Peyton did (and vanquished Peyton’s nemesis in the process). Tom Coughlin, the hardened but out-of-touch head coach with a military background who was nearly fired the season prior, connected to his players by getting in touch with his feelings. David Tyree, a special teams player who sobered up after finding God, caught a touchdown and made arguably the greatest catch in football history (which doubled as the last catch of his career). This came after he had one of the worst practices of his life two days before the game. The New York defense that gave up a league-leading 80 points in the first two weeks of the year shut down what was then the highest-scoring offense in NFL history in the Super Bowl.

If the Giants were the underdog, the 2007 New England Patriots were the perfect villain. They were awe-inspiring, three-time Super Bowl champions seemingly at the peak of their powers. They were also hateable. Their season began with the Spygate cheating scandal for filming Jets defensive signals in Week 1. In October, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell docked the Patriots a first-round draft pick and fined head coach Bill Belichick $500,000, the maximum amount he could. But this didn’t make them mortal. New England created modern football with its own blend of using shotgun formation with a slot receiver in an uptempo offense. Adding Randy Moss and Wes Welker in the offseason helped. By the end of the season, they led the league in points, yards, yards per play, and first downs while going 16-0 and becoming the only team in NFL history to score 300 more points than it allowed. Their average margin of victory (19.7 points) was greater than the average points per game for 11 teams.

Before they met in the Super Bowl, the Pats and Giants met in the regular-season finale. The Giants had secured the no. 5 seed in Week 16, while the Patriots had the no. 1 seed locked up for weeks at that point. The Week 17 matchup meant nothing for the playoffs, but there was plenty of history on the line. Then–Patriots backup quarterback Matt Cassel said last month that the game plan was for him to enter after the first quarter, but when it came time, none of New England’s starters came out. The Giants hoped to shock the world and were succeeding. They entered halftime up five. Ditto for the fourth quarter. But Brady’s second touchdown to Moss with just over 11 minutes left produced three things: Brady’s record 50th passing touchdown on the season (broken by Peyton Manning in 2013), Moss’s record 23rd receiving touchdown, and a New England lead.

New England also broke the single-season record for points as it held on for a 38-35 victory, becoming the first team to go 16-0 in NFL history and notching the first undefeated regular season since the 1972 Miami Dolphins.

Three weeks later, the Giants, who started the season 0-2 and who nobody had considered a serious contender, beat the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game at Lambeau Field. With windchill the temperature was minus-23 degrees. The offensive line played the game sleeveless. Cornerback Corey Webster clinched the win by intercepting Brett Favre’s last pass as a Packer. While the Giants were celebrating, word got around that they were 13.5-point underdogs for their Super Bowl matchup against New England.

“We had just won the NFC championship,” Giants running back Reuben Droughns told ESPN at the time, “and it still felt like nobody believed in us.”

Receiver Plaxico Burress predicted the week of the game that the Giants would win 23-17.

“We’re only going to score 17 points?” Brady said with a laugh when asked about Burress’s prediction.

Turns out Burress was being generous. The Patriots lost 17-14. Bill Belichick, the defensive coordinator for Bill Parcells’s two-time Super Bowl–winning New York Giants, was foiled against his old team, thanks to a ferocious pass rush and a few timely once-in-a-lifetime plays. Most remember the Helmet Catch, which can be explained by only Angels in the End Zone. Few remember that one play earlier, a Tyree-Manning miscommunication led to Eli Manning’s throwing the ball directly at Patriots All-Pro cornerback Asante Samuel, who whiffed on the interception. Two plays after Tyree’s miracle, Manning tossed a 13-yard touchdown pass to Burress on a slant-and-go route to take the lead with 35 seconds remaining. Or as Joe Buck put it, Manning, lobs it, Burress, alone, TOUCHDOWN.

Manning was named the Super Bowl MVP (though if it could be doled out to a position group, the defensive line that sacked Brady five times deserved it). The Giants’ win was one of the most shocking upsets in U.S. sports history. What separates it from other upsets is that they ran it back.

NFC divisions play each AFC division in the regular season once every four years, so four years after the Giants played the Patriots in 2007, they met again. The 2011 Patriots were not as celebrated as the 2007 edition, but their offense was nearly as good, scoring 32 points per game and leading the team to a 13-3 record. The 2011 Giants were also a slightly lesser version of themselves, finishing with an even worse record than their wild-card 2007 season. But in their first meeting since Super Bowl XLII, the Giants beat New England 24-20 in the regular season with a touchdown to tight end Jake Ballard with 15 seconds left in the game.

Even more inexplicably than the Giants’ following up their late-game heroics for a second time was the Giants’ again matching up with the Patriots in the Super Bowl after playing them in the regular season. Again, Coughlin outcoached Belichick, this time for a 21-17 Giants victory that was even stranger than their first matchup. On New England’s first play of the game, Tom Brady was flagged for intentional grounding in the end zone that gave the Giants a safety. It got weirder from there. New York linebacker Chase Blackburn, who had been signed as a street free agent midseason, outleaped a hobbled Rob Gronkowski for an interception. Brady threw a pass behind receiver Wes Welker, who got his hands on it but failed to reel it in. (Brady’s wife, Gisele Bundchen, criticized the Pats receivers after the game.) There was another remarkable catch involving Eli Manning, this time a frozen rope to Mario Manningham for 38 yards with less than four minutes to go. Most importantly, running back Ahmad Bradshaw accidentally fell butt-first into the end zone when he realized a full second too late that the Patriots were intentionally letting him score and giving away the lead to get the ball back late in the fourth quarter.

Once they got the ball, they couldn’t do anything with it. Manning and the Giants had bested Brady and the Patriots again, this time by an even bigger margin of victory. New York’s beating the Patriots again in Super Bowl XLVI transformed the Giants—and Eli Manning—from aberration to New England’s primary consternation.

These teams did not have much in common either time they met, and they have even less in common now. New England has not missed an AFC championship game since the 2010 season and has won the Super Bowl three times. The Giants have made the wild-card round of the playoffs once (they lost). Since 2012, the Patriots lead the league in points, point differential, first downs, and touchdowns. The Giants do not rank in the top 20 in any of those categories. Yet they still managed to make their one meeting in the years since that last Super Bowl matchup entertaining. When that four-year divisional cycle came back around in 2015, Manning once again engineered a late drive to take the lead: this time with a field goal to go up 26-24 with less than two minutes to play. The Patriots responded (took them long enough) and drove down the field before Stephen Gostkowski kicked the game-winning field goal with one second remaining. That kick prevented the Giants from becoming the only team to beat Belichick’s Patriots four times in a row. It also made the combined score of the past three regular-season Pats-Giants games an even 85-85.

After ’07, ’11, and ’15, we are once again on that four-year divisional cycle. Plenty has changed. Rob Gronkowski, who had 113 yards and a touchdown against the Giants in 2015, will be part of Fox’s studio show before the game on Thursday night. An entire mini-era of the Giants—Odell Beckham Jr., Landon Collins, Ben McAdoo’s head-coaching tenure—has come and gone since their Super Bowl matchup. The only players still on the Giants roster since their last regular-season meeting in 2015 are Manning and long snapper Zak DeOssie.

Yet for all that has changed since their last meeting, everything is still the same. On Thursday the Giants will be the biggest underdogs in franchise history with the Pats favored by as much as 17.5 points. Like in 2007, the Giants started out this year as an 0-2 laughing stock before flipping their season around in weeks 3 and 4. Manning may not be playing, but his replacement is 2019 no. 6 pick Daniel Jones, who is more clone than successor. Jones played for the same college head coach, is Manning’s same height and weight, and also gives off the same air of being endearingly in over his head. Most importantly, Jones has come up clutch in the biggest moments of his short career, including a game-winning scramble in his first start.

The Patriots he’ll face are an undefeated juggernaut. Their defense is considered Belichick’s best since the Patriots took down the St. Louis Rams in 2001. While the rest of the league is in flux, the Patriots remain the one constant, and at the center of it is Brady. The dark cloud is still hanging over the league. The Giants have already poked two holes in it, but, like the Deathly Hallows, great things come in threes.