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Friday, January 27, 2012
Updated: January 28, 3:07 PM ET
Meet the NFL's most dangerous duo

By Johnette Howard
ESPNNewYork.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- He could have disappeared into some game-film bunker and already have raccoon-like dark circles under his eyes. He could be thinking of the crushing pressure and more-heralded opponent he'll have to beat in Super Bowl XLVI two Sundays from now. But Giants coach Tom Coughlin bounced up to the news conference podium Thursday looking as apple-cheeked and happy as someone who just won a new Cadillac. "Here we go. … What can I do for you?" Coughlin said.

To look at Coughlin or quarterback Eli Manning now, you'd have no idea that the Super Bowl -- and perhaps the chance to play themselves into the NFL Hall of Fame if they win their second title in four years together -- lies just days ahead.

But maybe that's because of something Manning and Coughlin would never admit to the rest of us: They are the most dangerous big-game duo the NFL has right now.

New England's Bill Belichick and his quarterback, Tom Brady, used to have a hammerlock on that distinction. But that was before the Giants turned the 2007 Patriots' quest for a perfect 19-0 season into 18 and "Oh no," and then woke up the echoes this season with a similarly unlikely late-season run that's put them back in the title game opposite the Patriots.

When veteran Giants safety Deon Grant was asked Thursday if he was concerned the Patriots would have revenge on their minds now and not just winning the title, Grant shrugged and said, "I'm trying to knock off the other guy before he knocks off me. I could care less what they're thinking."

Coughlin would like that.

Longtime Coughlin watchers know there are times during the regular season when the 65-year-old coach often seems wound tighter than a guitar string when he meets with the press. He fusses. He's curt. He gets red in the face if there's a question he dislikes.

But put him into preparations for a big game like this and the mood change in Coughlin is palpable. It happened before each of the Giants' four must-win games to get to this point, and it was true of Coughlin during the Giants' magical run four years ago, too.

It's as if the man goes into a phone booth and comes out Superman. His teams pull off shockers against supposedly superior opposition. And it's been a career-long pattern for him. It was true when he was a coach at Boston College knocking off then-No. 1 Notre Dame way back in 1993. It happened when he got his wild-card Jacksonville team to the 1997 AFC title game in only the franchise's second year by knocking off Jim Kelly and Buffalo, then John Elway and Denver. And it's been true again twice in the past five seasons.

Eli Manning
Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin are one win away from hoisting their second Lombardi trophy.

All of a sudden, the same coach whose confounding Giants teams go into late-season funks somehow conjures up giant-killing game plans that spark winning streaks that make NFL history. And Manning, who sounds more like Coughlin every year, executes it all to near-perfection.

But how Coughlin and Manning do it is the question. Trent Dilfer, the former NFL quarterback-turned-ESPN analyst, says he's asked many current and former Giants about that, and the answer is always the same: Coughlin prepares his teams to the nth detail and has a sharp-eyed ability to tease out opponents' tendencies and set up favorable matchups. "And when you get to this level, that's what wins -- tactics are what win these kind of games, not just talent," Dilfer says.

What does Manning bring to the table on top of that? "There are games that are won within the X's and O's," Dilfer answers, "and games that are won by players playing beyond the X's and O's. I would say Eli has probably played beyond the X's and O's the best out of the last four quarterbacks who were left in the playoffs. … I'm not knocking Brady. But Brady is at his best when he's playing within the system. Tom is great at pre-snap reads. But he's not a guy that plays beyond the X's and O's after the snap."

Manning's escape and miracle completion to David Tyree in the 2008 Super Bowl is perhaps the best example. Giants defensive end Justin Tuck says the effect Manning and Coughlin have on the rest of the team is contagious.

"If it comes out like we're arrogant, I'm sorry, but we feel confident in any sort of game -- a shootout, a last-second nail-biter, whatever," Tuck said before the Giants beat San Francisco. "We respect that every opponent is gonna pose a lot of problems for us. But we feel as though we'll figure it out."

A few other teams in NFL history have beaten the top two seeds in their conference on the way to the Super Bowl. But Coughlin and Manning's Giants have now done it twice.

Four years ago, they hit the road and slapped aside the Cowboys and Brett Favre's Packers in the second coming of the Ice Bowl at Lambeau Field. This season, the Giants knocked off the 15-1 Packers and then the 14-3 49ers in the playoffs.

Four years ago, then-Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce joked about how the Giants went into every playoff game looking like "the Average Joes vs. the All-Pros." But every time Pierce said it, it was with the sort of cake-eating grin that some Giants have now when asked about how confident they are going into this year's Super Bowl in Indianapolis.

Since a dreadful loss to Washington that dropped them to 7-7, the Giants have beaten the big-talking Jets and then won four consecutive win-or-go-home games in which Manning's stats have been outrageously good. He's completed 64.1 percent of his passes for 1,269 yards, 11 touchdowns and just one interception. In those four wins, he's had a passer rating of 100.2. Overall, Manning led the injury-racked Giants to five come-from-behind wins this season and set the NFL single-season record for fourth-quarter touchdown passes with 15.

Along the way, Manning also supplanted Brady as the NFL's ultimate closer.

Just look at the denouement the last two times they've met head-to-head. On Nov. 24 in Foxborough, Brady needed only 90 seconds to take the Patriots on a 64-yard scoring drive to give them a 20-17 lead. But Manning took over with 1:36 left and finished off an 80-yard drive by hitting Kevin Boss with a 1-yard TD pass to win the game with 15 seconds left.

In Super Bowl XLII, Manning took the Giants on a 12-play, 83-yard drive in the last 2:39 of the game to win them their first Super Bowl in 17 years, 17-14, again right after Brady had pushed New England ahead. People still call it the best Super Bowl game ever played.

Now here come Coughlin and Belichick, Manning and Brady once again, matched up in a Super Bowl sequel that has the potential to be just as exciting as the original. And the Giants are underdogs once again.

It's the kind of situation Coughlin and Manning love. It's just harder to tell with Manning. He's so outwardly phlegmatic it obscures the deep competitive streak that drove him to keep lifting himself off the turf and going back at the 49ers last week, though he was knocked down 19 times.

But Coughlin -- who shocked Michael Strahan before the Giants' last Super Bowl trip by going to him and saying he was concerned the players "weren't having enough fun" -- was at his upbeat, big-game best Thursday.

He told a few Belichick stories, cracked a few jokes. He protested when told these Giants players called him "superstitious," saying, "Me? Superstitious? Just because I haven't changed my so-and-sos in three or four weeks?"

They'll be calling both Coughlin and Manning so-and-sos all across New England if they can upset the Patriots again in the Super Bowl.