Loose fit: Giants just fine with underdog role

Joe Namath's Jets (left) were heavy Super Bowl underdogs in 1969. So were Tom Brady's Patriots (right) in 2002. Both of those teams won -- and now Giants QB Eli Manning faces a similar challenge. Fred Roe/Jamie Squire/JEFF HAYNES/Getty Images

PHOENIX -- The New York Giants had barely started celebrating their NFC championship win at Green Bay when a startling text message brought them back to earth.

As the players, coaches and staff settled in for their return charter flight to New York, running back Reuben Droughns got the news from a friend -- the Giants had been established as 13 ½-point underdogs to the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Droughns quickly spread the word among his teammates, interrupting the fist-pumping and back-slapping of a squad that had just won its 10th straight road game.

"That really angered a lot of the guys," Droughns said of the point spread. "As soon as we saw that, we were all saying we couldn't wait to get to Arizona to play this game. We had just won the NFC championship -- and it still felt like nobody believed in us."

It's the same feeling another club from New York had 39 years ago when it played in Super Bowl III. Nobody thought a team from the upstart AFL could knock off a team from the mighty NFL, but Joe Namath's Jets -- 18-point underdogs, which ties for the largest spread in Super Bowl history -- shocked the world by beating the Baltimore Colts.

And it's the same feeling these Patriots had six years ago when Tom Brady made his first Super Bowl appearance. Those Pats went in as 14-point underdogs to the St. Louis Rams and their, ahem, unstoppable offense, but left as the 20-17 winners of Super Bowl XXXVI. It was stunning at the time, less so in hindsight.

While doubts about New York's ability to pull off the upset have lessened slightly in the past couple of weeks -- the point spread now stands at 12, although that might be just a reflection of late New York support at the betting window -- those distinctive chips on the Giants' shoulders have swelled with every minute they have spent in Arizona. As far as they are concerned, the public views them merely as a big blue prop in a storybook tale about a New England team that probably can't remember what it's like to lose.

Sunday's game (6:30 p.m. ET, FOX) is all about the coronation of Bill Belichick and his boys. The unbeatable team capping off a perfect season. And the Giants? Well, they are here simply because some poor saps had to represent the NFC, right?

The funny thing is that the Giants actually like this perception. They might talk about their lack of respect, but they know the underdog role has worked pretty well for them. It provided ample motivation when they started the season 0-2, and it helped them roll through three playoff games on the road.

Now the Giants are hoping that spurned feeling can drive them through one more game they supposedly can't win.

"Nobody thought this team would be where it is right now," Giants right tackle Kareem McKenzie said. "All the commentators. All the newspapers. Nobody. But we feel like we have nothing to lose. We've won games under all kinds of circumstances this year, and we love nothing more than proving people wrong."

Namath, of course, seemed to love it. He even guaranteed the upset, then backed it up. His bravado fueled the Jets' confidence and made him a folk hero.

But the reality is the Jets were a talented team back in the late 1960s -- and the Giants share many of their qualities. A strong running game. A staunch defense. And a player willing to guarantee a win (wide receiver Plaxico Burress, although he began to backtrack later in the week, perhaps hoping to mitigate the bulletin-board material he had produced).

And just like the Patriots of 2001, these Giants thrive on the unity, mental toughness and bone-rattling style of play that has made the Pats so dangerous.

"The overwhelming image I have of us back in 2001 is that we didn't care what the oddsmakers or anybody else said about us," Patriots inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "It was an us-against-the-world mentality. I see a little bit of the similarities between [New York's] mentality and ours back in 2001. But there's also a big difference, because that team won a world championship. That's something [the Giants] will be trying to accomplish on Sunday."

While some Patriots acknowledge they would rather avoid talking about the opportunity to become the first 19-0 team in league history -- "You don't want to jinx yourself, because none of this really means anything if we don't play well," left tackle Matt Light said -- the Giants have proved to be the looser team this week.

During their final media session Thursday morning, cornerback Sam Madison spent part of his time filming his teammates' interviews. A few tables away, a handful of younger players started a game of spades that attracted a flock of reporters. Even Burress shrugged off his controversial prediction of a 23-17 Giants win.

"Every time I say something," he said, "I seem to make news."

The Giants, by the way, say this type of joviality is nothing new. It's part of a mentality fostered by formerly pedantic coach Tom Coughlin, who has changed so much that McKenzie said, "He's right in there joking with us these days."

Added defensive end Justin Tuck: "This is our personality. We have a good bunch of guys, and we don't put a lot of emphasis on the spectacle of the Super Bowl. Part of the reason is that a lot of us are young and naïve and this is our first time here. But we also know there's a time to have a fun and a time to get serious.

"We know we have to be ready on Sunday, because the other team is going to come to play."

The Giants understand there are no mysteries about what they have to do. They must pressure Brady, who threw for 356 yards and two touchdowns against them in a 38-35 Patriots win in the regular-season finale. They must contain wide receiver Randy Moss, who killed them with six receptions for 100 yards and two big scores (including a back-breaking 65-yarder).

The Giants also can't beat themselves. The Patriots thrive on opponents' mistakes, and the turning point in that first meeting was a critical second-half interception thrown by Giants quarterback Eli Manning that helped New England erase a 12-point deficit. Manning, by the way, hasn't thrown an interception since then.

New York's mind-set is just as important. Before the club left for Phoenix, defensive end Michael Strahan spoke to his teammates about how essential focus and pacing would be in the days leading up to the Super Bowl.

Strahan said he was so anxious to play the game when the Giants made their last trip to this event -- they lost to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV -- that the entire week blew by him. Once he finally settled down, it was too late. Confetti was falling from the sky, the Ravens were hoisting the Lombardi Trophy and Strahan's Giants were devastated.

The Giants have tried to pay close attention to the insights of Strahan and wide receiver Amani Toomer, the only other Giants player left over from that 2000 Super Bowl team.

They also have continually alluded to the philosophy that Coughlin has drilled into them since this season began: Talk is Cheap/Play the Game. It's a motto that evolved out of all the divisive, in-house comments that played out in the New York media last season. The Giants believe that mantra has made all the difference in this year's chemistry.

In fact, the slogan has been so vital that Coughlin had it printed on T-shirts that he handed out to his players Wednesday. It was a subtle reminder of how simple an approach they need to have in this game.

After all, the Patriots didn't reach 18-0 by producing reams of juicy material for the press. They did it by focusing on two things that will decide Sunday's game: execution and attitude. As Coughlin said, "We want to do our talking on the field."

Well, the Giants will have their chance Sunday inside the University of Phoenix Stadium. And what they clearly understand is that this opportunity isn't about facing one of the best teams ever. It's about playing one of their best games ever.

"I thought we had a great shot to win this game seven years ago, and I feel like we have a great shot now," Strahan said. "I believe in this team. The Patriots are 18-0, and everybody talks about them being the team of destiny.

"But I also think we have our own destiny. And history can be made for us, too."

Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.