Giants leave Brady dazed and confused

Patriots QB Tom Brady spent a good amount of Sunday's game trying to avoid the Giants' relentless pressure. The league MVP was sacked five times and struggled to find a rhythm. Rob Tringalli for ESPN.com

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- No quarterback has ever been a bigger target before the Super Bowl than Tom Brady. He was targeted by 75 photographers outside his girlfriend's Greenwich Village apartment, a fraction of whom targeted him at 4 a.m. outside the New York club Butter.

He was targeted by stalkers, which led to police guarding his Back Bay townhouse in Boston. He was targeted by a faux bride on media day, and most importantly, he was targeted during breakfast on Super Bowl Sunday, when Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora walked up to Michael Strahan and said, "Do you realize if we don't hit Brady, we don't win the game?"

Strahan realized that. Heck, everybody did. But in developing the game plan that would win Super Bowl XLII, New York did more than target Brady. It confused him, the first defense to do so successfully during New England's 18-1 season. In the Patriots' 17-14 loss, Brady's head was down, his hands on his hips, and between whistles, he was on his back more than in any New England game in recent history.

Everyone realized the Giants had to pressure Brady, including Bill Belichick. Now, had the Patriots won Super Bowl XLII, the following would have been viewed as another genius move by arguably the greatest coach of all time: All week, Belichick tried to simulate the speed of New York's blindingly fast front four in practice by lining up reserve cornerbacks opposite offensive tackles Matt Light and Nick Kaczur.

But although the Patriots seemed prepared for the Giants' speed, New England was caught off guard by New York's power and unpredictability. Running back Kevin Faulk said his team was "out-physicalled." Kaczur said that the Giants, "just outplayed us. They're just better than us." Receiver Donte' Stallworth said, "S---, I don't know what they did."

In the locker room after the game, the Patriots seemed lost rather than distraught. Which meant that Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo -- who might have guaranteed himself the Washington Redskins' head coaching job with Sunday's win -- got exactly what he wanted.

"No matter what we called, the players were going to will themselves to be successful," he said. "Even when we didn't blitz, and even when we didn't outfool them or outnumber them, our players just made up their minds to get it done."

It worked. Brady was sacked five times. Laurence Maroney, a hero for the Patriots the past two months, rushed 14 times for only 36 yards. Despite an offensive line full of Pro Bowlers, it seemed as though the Patriots couldn't go more than five plays without a false start penalty. New England's longest completion was 19 yards, its yards-per-attempt average only 4.3, and its 14 points a season low. A few times Sunday, Brady pleaded with New York defensive end Justin Tuck to slow down. Tuck's response: "Just hold the ball a little longer."

Brady did so on occasion, which meant that the game's best quarterback, coming off the greatest season a passer has ever had, was confused. Sometimes, Tuck (five tackles, two sacks) rushed from a two-point stance. Sometimes, it was from a three-point. Sometimes, he was a decoy. Sometimes, the Giants sent free safety Gibril Wilson and linebacker Kawika Mitchell. The Giants, by Spagnuolo's estimation, blitzed only 30-35 percent Sunday. But they were so unpredictable that no Patriot knew what was coming. In other words, they out-New Englanded New England.

"They did a few things that were different," Brady said. "They mixed it up. Because of our inconsistency, it hurt us."

The league MVP resembled his three-time Super Bowl champion self in spurts Sunday, most noticeably while throwing on 11 of 12 plays in a fourth-quarter drive that ended with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss. But he never looked comfortable. On the Patriots' first offensive play, he threw incomplete with three Giants in his face. Brady was hit on half of his first 18 pass attempts.

His famously injured right ankle wasn't the factor, but it was a factor. On Saturday night, a Patriots source said that Brady's ankle was bothering him more than anyone let on, especially when throwing deep. His usually deadly accurate passes were woefully off, including a badly overthrown pass to a wide-open Moss with 9:36 in the fourth quarter.

No wonder the Patriots switched almost exclusively to the shotgun, even using tight end Ben Watson as a blocker, on the drive that gave New England a 14-10 lead. While a variety of schemes kept Brady off guard, the one constant was New York's intensity. No wonder the team's Saturday night speaker, Hall of Famer Mike Singletary, lauded the Giants on how they "hit people in the mouth."

"All week long, we talked about even if Brady gets the ball out, we have to hit him to disrupt his rhythm," Spagnuolo said. "The more we do it, the more it'll pay off in the end."

Consider it a target hit.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. Senior writer David Fleming contributed to this story.