- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Giants and Patriots keep stressing so much has changed in the three years since they last met, in arguably the greatest Super Bowl ever played, that it won't have much resonance when they play again on Sunday.
But that's not totally true. There is one part of the equation that is not much different. Tom Brady is still considered one of the top two quarterbacks in the league. And the Giants' defense -- then and now -- still has the only counter that's ever reliably made Brady seem mortal.
The Giants still have the sort of pass-rushers who make even Bill Belichick, the Patriots' Sphinx-like coach, abandon his usual three-word answers and sing like a songbird when asked about the threat they pose.
Though the names have changed a little -- second-year man Jason Pierre-Paul is running alongside Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka now instead of Michael Strahan -- the formula for beating the Pats is the same as when the Giants upset an 18-0 New England team in Super Bowl XLII: Get to Brady. Rattle Brady. Hit him and hurry him and make his life miserable.
Brady knows it. And Belichick does, too.
"They're a huge challenge -- a huge challenge," Belichick said Wednesday when asked about the Giants' defensive linemen in his conference call with New York reporters. "Most times you play a team and the team might have one player that's the caliber of rusher that you really have to game plan for, and really feel like the guy can ruin a game. I mean, the Giants got about, like, five of them. They're all very good. They've got great speed, athleticism, and pass-rush technique. They get off on the ball well. They're a hard group to block."
Given that this is Belichick talking, a sort of internal alarm clock goes off in your head right about here; after years of listening to him in these settings, you think: Surely he's done talking, right? But Wednesday? No. Belichick just kept talking about the Giants' defensive line in what was easily the most effusive answer he gave all day. It was as if Belichick's two warring natures were squaring off -- the defensive coordinator in him versus the hyperbole-hating head coach who throws around compliments like manhole lids -- and the defensive coordinator won.
The Patriots and Giants are both 5-2 and looking to stay on top of their respective divisions by winning this week. But while Belichick had to spend the last offseason trying to beef up his defensive line by bringing in Albert Haynesworth and ex-Jet Shaun Ellis, he's still answering questions about why his defense is giving up so many yards and points. Meanwhile, the Giants have just tweaked their defensive line since the Super Bowl. But look: This year's line, which also rotates in Chris Canty and Dave Tollefson, is deeper and potentially better than the 2007 edition was, if it can stay healthy.
"Perry [Fewell, the Giants defensive coordinator] does a good job with his scheme," Belichick continued, "and he puts them in different positions, so you don't know where Pierre-Paul is going to be. You don't know where Tuck's going to be. You don't know where Kiwanuka's going to be. Sometimes it's hard to find them. And then it's hard to block them.
"They're as good a group as I've seen in a long time."
And the Patriots' offensive line? It is not. The Patriots gave up only two sacks in their first four games this year, but in their last three games they've allowed Brady to be sacked 11 times and hurried another 17 times, according to stats compiled by Pro Football Focus.
But unlike, say, Pittsburgh, which defeated the Patriots on Sunday on the strength of some blitzes that led to big plays (two of them by linebacker LaMarr Woodley), the Giants are able to generate pressure on quarterbacks with just their four defensive linemen, which helps the other seven players in their pass defense, too.
Pierre-Paul is fifth in the NFL with a very Strahan-like total of 8.5 sacks though he doesn't even play every down, and Umenyiora is forcing turnovers and getting to quarterbacks again, same as he did last year. Tuck is finally healthy enough to play again after missing three games.
None of this is welcome news for Brady. Three years ago, he started walking off the field in disgust before the final seconds had even drained off the clock in Super Bowl XLII rather than stick around to shake hands with the Giants team that had just destroyed the Patriots' perfect season and belted him around throughout the game. The stakes were considerably lower Sunday, but Brady was irritable on Wednesday, too -- this time just because the Patriots are coming off that loss to the Steelers.
"We're all pretty much in a bad mood -- there is a mourning process," Brady told reporters in Foxborough, Mass. "We hate losing. It sucks. The whole week sucks, actually."
The Giants know the Patriots will try to counter their pass rush in the usual ways. They'll have Brady take shorter drops. They'll try to run the ball well. They'll have Wes Welker and their tight ends work underneath patterns, and then try to spring a long route here or there. And the Giants say they'll be happy to hurry Brady and disrupt his timing, even if they don't ring up four or five more sacks.
"He's a rhythm quarterback," Giants linebacker Michael Boley said.
And if all of it sounds familiar, it should.
The names have changed. Time has rolled on. But one thing about football never changes, and it doesn't matter if the occasion is Super Bowl XLII or a Sunday afternoon game in the usual mist and fog that rolls in this time of year at Foxborough Stadium, where the Pats haven't lost in their past 20 games.
Defensive pressure can make even the greatest quarterbacks look ordinary.
"I think we're as good at that as anybody."
Told now that Belichick had just said the same thing, Tuck rolled his eyes and laughed and said, "Oh Lord, he did? Another Belichick mind game?"
Nah. It seemed sincere.
This week, anyway, the Giants' pass rush is just back in Belichick's head. Again.