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Unexpected pairing

The Baltimore Sun

In a Super Bowl of historic portent, the dynastic New England Patriots will attempt to finish off their perfect season in Arizona against the New York Giants, seemingly a team of destiny.

That improbable matchup was finalized last night when the Giants completed their romp through the upper echelon of the NFC playoffs.

The wild-card Giants upset the No. 2-seeded Green Bay Packers at frigid Lambeau Field, 23-20, on Lawrence Tynes' 47-yard field goal in overtime. It was New York's 10th straight road win of the season and only the third home playoff loss in Green Bay history.

Earlier, the Giants (13-6) took out the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys and the fourth-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They are the first NFC wild-card team to reach the Super Bowl in 32 years.

The unbeaten Patriots (18-0) punched their ticket to Arizona with a 21-12 win over the San Diego Chargers in freezing Foxborough yesterday.

The predominant theme of this Super Bowl will be the Patriots' pursuit of perfection. Now 18-0, they would become the first team to go undefeated through a 16-game regular season and the playoffs. The Miami Dolphins went unbeaten in 1972 when the league had a 14-game regular season.

Indeed, much of the discussion in Glendale, Ariz., will dwell on whether the Patriots are the greatest team in history. At the very least, they deserve to be in that discussion.

They will go after their fourth Super Bowl victory in the past seven years under coach Bill Belichick, who already is in elite company.

Belichick can tie Pittsburgh legend Chuck Noll's record for most Super Bowl victories with a win in Arizona, although it will have taken one more season. Noll won four Super Bowls in six years with the Steelers during their magical run in the 1970s.

The Giants' Tom Coughlin, on the other hand, finally reached the Super Bowl after losing two conference championship games with the Jacksonville Jaguars. His vindication coincides with the arrival of quarterback Eli Manning on the Super Bowl stage, one year after his brother Peyton won it all with the Indianapolis Colts.

Manning will be matched against the Patriots' Tom Brady, the league's Most Valuable Player. While Brady broke Peyton Manning's single-season record for touchdown passes (50), Eli threw 20 interceptions this season, the most of any playoff quarterback.

The quarterbacks are a study in contrasts. Brady, 30, was an unheralded sixth-round draft pick coming into the league, while Manning, 27, was the most-sought after quarterback and first pick of the 2004 draft. Manning had lost playoff games the past two years before getting his first postseason win this month.

New England beat the Giants, 38-35, in the final game of the regular season.

The Giants' march to the Super Bowl was underscored by their resurgent defense and a fierce pass rush led by Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. The Giants shut down Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre in the second half last night after Favre threw for two first-half touchdowns.

Curiously, the Packers weren't able to take advantage of the Giants' injury-wracked secondary. That will be the prime target for Brady and the Patriots, as well.

New England had its hands full against San Diego in the AFC final. With a tenuous 14-9 halftime lead, the Patriots turned to their three-tight end package and the running game of Laurence Maroney to dispose of the Chargers.

Maroney rushed for 106 of his 122 yards in the second half to help offset a ragged, three-interception performance by Brady.

In the NFL era of spread formations and wide-open offense, the two most prolific teams at sacking quarterbacks will make their way to Arizona. The Giants amassed 53 sacks during the regular season, and the Patriots had 47.

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