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A Date To Remember: A brotherhood of champions

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The Giants defensive line hunted Tom Brady again in Super Bowl XLVI

Super Bowl XLVI
Justin Tuck again harassed Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLVI, sacking him twice.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

A Date To Remember is an occasional series Big Blue View will be running through the Super Bowl, highlighting the glory of the Giants’ past and celebrating the biggest playoff wins in franchise history.

The Brotherhood

Feb. 5, 2012

Super Bowl XLVI

Giants 21, Patriots 17

A new text message arrives every other day or so.

Osi Umenyiora knows the senders might change. But the recipients remain the same.

Michael Strahan. Justin Tuck. Mathias Kiwanuka. Dave Tollefson. Barry Cofield. Fred Robbins. Jay Alford.

The D-Line Brotherhood remains intact, even if the chosen medium is no longer locker room bonding but an on-going group text.

“We stay in touch all the time,” Umenyiora told Big Blue View from his home in London, where he serves as an NFL ambassador to the United Kingdom. “You would think with Strahan running the world, Tuck being at Wharton [School of Business] and then Goldman Sachs and me being out here in England, we would have separated. But we just haven’t.”

That bond was forged in the trenches on the road to two Super Bowls. It was shaped by overcoming Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots not once, but twice on the grandest stage in American sports.

And it was cemented in Super Bowl XLVI: Giants 21, Patriots 17.

The script seemed awfully familiar. Somehow history repeated itself on Feb. 5, 2012.

Giants. Patriots.

Manning. Brady.

The Giants again won playoff games on the road to get there, including in Green Bay and another NFC Championship in overtime thanks to a clutch Lawrence Tynes field goal.

Then they again rode a last-minute drive in the Super Bowl that hinged on a critical pass play — this time Eli Manning’s perfect, over-the-shoulder, 38-yard throw to Mario Manningham, and the receiver’s expert toe-tapping along the sideline in between two Patriots defenders.

But it was the close-knit defensive line once again battering Brady — as it did in Super Bowl XLII — that put Manning and Co. in a position to win the game. The Giants sacked him only twice, both by Tuck, but they hit him at least eight times.

Tuck also pressured Brady into an intentional grounding penalty from his own end zone on the Patriots’ first offensive play, resulting in a safety.

Then that Giants defense closed out the victory when New England got the ball back for one final drive. But 57 seconds weren’t enough, not even for Brady, not against that unit. Once again the surefire Hall of Famer could not score 20 points on the Giants.

“It was eerie in 2011,” Umenyiora said. “The way everything played out. We beat Atlanta, then went to Green Bay and knocked off the top-seeded Packers again and beat a San Francisco team that was just so tough.

“I mentioned it to [coach Tom] Coughlin after the San Francisco game. I was like, ‘This feels so familiar. It’s like this is the exact same thing that happened four years ago.’ And he was like, ‘I know.’”

John Mara had the same thought as he stood on the Lucas Oil Stadium field, confetti at his feet, waiting to be handed the Lombardi Trophy after the game.

As the Giants co-owner waited, Giants fans nearby chanted, “Déjà Blue! Déjà Blue!”

“To get one Super Bowl win in the manner that we got it four years ago usually lasts a whole career,” Mara said. “But to get two of these? It is behind description. It really is.”

It began with camaraderie. It began with culture.

“We were literally brothers,” Umenyiora said. “We played for each other. We fought for each other. Everything we did, there were elements of everybody wanted to be a success, but we wanted everybody else to be successful also.”

It didn’t exist just within the defensive line room either. It was locker room-wide.

“There was just an aura in the locker room of leadership all the way down to the 53rd guy on the roster and the practice squad guys,” Tynes told Big Blue View. “Everyone was so close. It was pretty neat to see.”

Manning (30-of-40 passing for 296 yards and a first-quarter touchdown toss to Victor Cruz) may have been the Super Bowl MVP again.

But the Giants would not have won without Tuck (a combined four sacks in the two Super Bowls) and Umenyiora (3½ sacks, seven QB hits and a forced fumble in the 2011 postseason).

They would not have won without the invaluable sacrifices of Kiwanuka and safety Antrel Rolle.

And they would not have won without the foundation of a quality locker room designed first by general manager Ernie Accorsi and then Jerry Reese and the camaraderie formed by the players.

It created an environment that the rest of the league envied for years.

‘An aura of leadership’

The Giants built a culture, not just a team.

The front office evaluated players beyond 40-yard times, bench press reps and blocking technique.

They sought leaders. Character guys. Football IQ.

Winners.

Champions.

“The two things that stick out to me about the 2007 and 2011 teams: You have a group that has camaraderie and true happiness for the guy next to you when he does well and no ‘me guys.’ Those were those two teams in a nutshell,” Tynes said.

Before the regrettable days of Ben McAdoo, Eli Apple and Ereck Flowers, it was a formula that made the Giants a model franchise for years.

And in a brutal profession where players get beat up every Sunday and released the moment their skills begin to diminish, the people made it all worth it.

“It is such a cutthroat sport,” Umenyiora said. “But then sometimes you get in these little pockets where you’re with people who really care, and we had each other’s back.”

People who have your back during a battle with the front office over a contract, like Tuck, Kiwanuka and Jason Pierre-Paul did for Umenyiora.

People who have your back when a series of nagging injuries reduced your effectiveness, like Umenyiora and Kiwanuka did for Tuck.

People who are leaders like Strahan, Rich Seubert, Shaun O’Hara and Antonio Pierce on the 2007 team. People like Rolle, Chris Snee and Tuck — who earned his MBA from Wharton last year and is a vice president in Goldman Sachs’ private wealth management division — in 2011.

“I don’t remember ever realistically in my life outside of 2005, 2007, 2010 and 2011, when going to work was a joy,” Umenyiora said. “I was so happy to go in there and hang around those guys and be around them every single day.

“You didn’t want to miss practice. You didn’t want to miss meetings. Nothing was boring. It was just fun being around them. The fact that we had that kind of work environment I think really made us that much better.”

Some wonder if the absence of superstars contributed.

Despite all the talent on the two Super Bowl champion teams, Strahan was probably the only star.

Manning was still progressing in 2007, and while a well-respected leader by 2011, he never reached Brady/Brett Favre/Aaron Rodgers status. Tuck, Umenyiora, Pierce, Rolle … they were all Pro Bowl players, but not national superstars.

Tynes thinks that made a real difference.

“We had Michael Strahan, but you could seriously say he was the only superstar,” he said. “Eli? Maybe Plaxico? But true superstars? We just didn’t have that. I think that’s why those teams were so good.”

Talent was paramount, of course. But Accorsi and then Reese also designed those rosters with character and locker room culture as critical considerations.

“We had so many good people that we played with,” Tynes said. “We had some Ivy Leaguers. We had some Northwestern guys. We had some Boston College guys. They truly did believe in character. I think they got a little bit away from that in the last four or five years, which can happen from time to time.

“But the character of the teams that I played on — not just the Super Bowl years but every year there — was special. The Justin Tucks of the world … they were all good guys.”

And Reese was especially skilled at supplementing and filling out the roster with unheralded pickups.

“The camaraderie that Jerry Reese built … He brought in a Tollefson or a [Domenik] Hixon or a Kevin Boothe or a Madison Hedgecock,” Tynes said. “Not superstar players, but he brought in so many important guys.

“He gets bashed for his draft picks, but every GM today is trying to do what he did: Build a cohesive locker room of players that can play for and with each other. And that’s what those two teams had.”

That character was on full display when those teams were confronted with adversity.

In 2011, there was quite a bit of it.

A struggle

The season began under a cloud.

And each week something else seemed to loom over the team.

The hangover from the playoff-less 2010 season. First-round pick Prince Amukamara reporting late to camp, then breaking his left foot in just his second practice. He missed nine games. Then came injuries to Tuck, Terrell Thomas, Jonathan Goff, Hixon and others. And finally a second-half swoon.

The season may have been most trying for Umenyiora.

He held out briefly, saying Reese had promised him a new deal and didn’t deliver. Then after reporting to camp, Umenyiora needed surgery on his right knee. He missed the first three games.

The defensive end then returned with a vengeance, recording four sacks in his first two games and six in his first four. He helped pick up a defense that was inconsistent due to a series of nagging injuries that sapped Tuck’s effectiveness and forced rookies to take on major roles at linebacker and in the secondary.

Then Unemyiora suffered a high-ankle sprain in a blowout loss to the New Orleans Saints in late November and missed four more games.

“Everything that had transpired that year… it was tough,” he said. “Just to be playing that way, and then you get injured, and then you come back at a time when I felt like the team really needed me to step up, and to be able to step up like that was really incredible. It just made everything worth it.

“Even though things didn’t work out from the contract perspective, things worked out from an on-the-field perspective. The fact that we were able to do what we did and win those games and how I was able to perform and help the team, those things will never be forgotten. I’m just really happy to have been a part of that.”

Through it all, Umenyiora’s teammates supported him, especially Tuck, the defensive captain. And they picked each other up through the injuries and strife.

Pierre-Paul was a godsend, recording 16½ sacks and 93 tackles in his breakout season. He forced offenses to key on him as Umenyiora and Tuck worked their way back to health.

”Jason was just a monster the entire year,” Umenyiora said. “He was just a dominant football player. He was a constant, whereas me and Tuck were almost alternating because of the injuries. He would be there and play well, then get hurt. Then I would play, then I would get hurt. We really weren’t on the same page in the regular season. But Jason was there consistently.

“And then toward the end of the year when Tuck was finally healthy and I was finally healthy, we were able to really put everything together for that stretch run. And we were able to really impose our will on offenses.”

Meanwhile, Kiwaunka unselfishly switched positions, moving from defensive end to linebacker to fill a hole. Although it wasn’t the best thing for his career, it was the best thing for the team. Kiwanuka did it without complaint.

And Rolle played the nickel corner role instead of his preferred safety spot to fill another hole.

Despite the strife, the Giants began 6-2 after traveling to Foxborough and beating the Patriots, 24-20.

But second-half swoons had become an annual tradition under Coughlin’s otherwise successful reign. 2011 was no expectation.

The Giants then lost four straight and five of six. The low point was a devastating home loss in Week 15 to the last-place Washington Redskins. It dropped the Giants to 7-7.

They had to win their final two games — against the back-to-back AFC title game participant Jets and the first-place Dallas Cowboys — just to win the NFC East and sneak into the playoffs.

There was a reason they were the first nine-win team to win a Super Bowl.

But by January, they were confident and playing as well as anyone.

A shower of confetti

Momentum built with each victory.

The final two games of the regular season. Then the Wild Card game domination of the Atlanta Falcons.

Then another upset of the Packers at Lambeau Field and another overtime victory in the NFC Championship, thanks to sacks from Tuck (1½), Kiwanuka (½), Pierre-Paul (½) and Umenyiora (½).

Finally, it was time for a rematch with the Patriots.

The Giants built a 9-0 first-quarter lead thanks to the Brady safety and Cruz’s 2-yard touchdown.

But New England scored the next 17 points as Brady set a Super Bowl record with 16 straight completions.

Two Tynes field goals closed the gap to 17-15.

And then, with 3:46 remaining, the season rested in Manning’s hands.

With help from Manningham and Ahmad Bradshaw, he marched them 88 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

“I have a ton of respect for Eli Manning,” Umenyiora said. “He’s such a good dude and a good quarterback. He’s cool. He’s calm under pressure.

“We’ve seen him dig us out of holes many times before.”

Manning set up Bradshaw’s accidental 6-yard touchdown run.

With the Patriots giving the running back a clear path to score to save time for one final drive, Bradshaw actually intended to stop at the 1-yard line and drain more of the clock.

Manning even screamed “Don’t score! Don’t score!’’ But Bradshaw’s momentum carried him into the end zone.

That left Brady and the Patriots with 57 seconds. They needed to go 80 yards.

Tuck’s second sack of the game helped ensure they wouldn’t.

“When you have those kind of players on your defensive line — and the secondary was playing well, the linebackers were playing well — it makes it very, very difficult for anybody to beat you,” Umenyiora said.

Brady’s last-gasp Hail Mary into the end zone — the late Aaron Hernandez was the closest to it of all people — was knocked down by Kenny Phillips.

Then the confetti floated down from the rafters, showering Manning and the Giants in a storm of red, white and blue.

He stood in the middle of it, once again a champion, having again beaten the best quarterback of this generation, this time on his brother Peyton’s home field in Indianapolis.

Manning had engineered the eighth victory that season in the fourth quarter or later.

“More often than not, he pulled us out of some really bad situations,” Umenyiora said. “He’s just a tremendous football player. Things unfolded tremendously throughout the whole postseason.”

But it wouldn’t have happened without the D-Line Brotherhood.

Coughlin had chosen “Finish” as the season’s mantra after all the late-game collapses of 2010. Well, finish these Giants did.

”I don’t know if I could have written a better script than this one,’’ Tuck said.