Giants vs. Patriots, Round Two: The Psychology of the Rematch

What will be going through Tom Brady's mind as he faces New York at Sunday's Super Bowl?

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Tom Brady has already put together one of the greatest careers in the history of the NFL. He owns three Super Bowl rings and two Super Bowl MVP awards, and on Sunday he will start in his fifth Super Bowl, tying John Elway's record for most starting appearances by a quarterback. Should the Patriots win, Brady will join Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks with four Super Bowl rings.

Despite all these accomplishments, some recent comments by Brady suggest he still smites at the fact that just four years ago the New York Giants upset the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, denying him and his teammates the chance to become the only team in NFL history to finish a season with 19 wins and zero losses. Last week Brady toldBoston sports radio station WEEI that he cannot watch highlights of that game, adding "we had a great opportunity there and really squandered it because we didn't play our very best." Those words, particularly "opportunity" and "squandered," suggest that Brady may not be completely over that loss. This shouldn't come as a surprise, since just last year it was revealed that Brady is still upset that he wasn't chosen until the sixth round of 2000 NFL draft. He is clearly an athlete who does not easily forget the past, and one of the concerns for the Patriots heading into Sunday's rematch is whether the painful memory of Super Bowl XLII will in any way inhibit the All-Pro quarterback from performing at the level that earned him two Super Bowl MVPs in the early 2000s.

Sunday's game marks the first Super Bowl rematch since 1994, when the Dallas Cowboys defeated the always-a-bridesmaid Buffalo Bills for a second straight championship. (Super Bowl XLIII was Buffalo's second straight loss to the Cowboys but fourth straight Super Bowl loss overall, a record whose dubious reputation often prevents that Bills team from receiving the praise they deserve for reaching four straight championship games. It takes a significant amount of talent to be that good for that long.) In the three rematches which have occurred in Super Bowl history, the team that prevailed in the first contest also won the second time around. (Technically there have been four rematches in the Super Bowl era, but since the third meeting between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys occurred 17 years after the second meeting I don't consider that an actual rematch.) The first meeting between the Giants and Patriots is now considered one of the greatest upsets in championship history, but the two teams' rosters have changed so dramatically since then—only 16 players on New York's roster and seven on New England's played in the 2008 championship—that it's hard to even call this game a rematch in the true sense of the word. Still, there are a number of key players on both teams—Brady, Eli Manning and Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora—that made significant contributions four years ago, and it is reasonable to wonder whether or not the memory of thes previous meeting will have any bearing on the outcome of Sunday's game.

Sports psychologist Dr. Michael Lardon says that rematches can leave athletes prone to certain psychological foibles. Anticipating a rematch can cause athletes to allocate chunks of their attention to criteria outside of their control, like the crushing pain from previous defeat or the confidence gained from a prior win, and detract from their ability to stay focused on the task at hand. To avoid such pitfalls, Lardon suggests athletes work to keep their minds trained on executing particular roles in the upcoming game rather than focusing on the desired outcome. "That's what made Pete Sampras such a great athlete: He would never focus on winning, he'd focus on execution," says Lardon.

Chris Stankovich, a licensed athletic counselor who describes his work as helping athletes achieve the somewhat abstract construct commonly referred to as "mental toughness," echoes this sentiment but adds that the way an athlete approaches a rematch from a mental standpoint is critical to his or her success. "You can look at it [a rematch] as a threat, or you can look at it as a challenge," says Stankovich, adding that athletes who feel threatened by the prospect of a rematch are more likely to suffer from a case of jittery nerves once play commences. To Stankovich, the case of a rematch is a perfect example of how athletes ought to focus on what's relevant, the upcoming game, and block out the irrelevant, what happened in the past.

In this sense, preparing for a Super Bowl rematch is no different than preparing for any other game during a season, since staying focused on the relevant details of an upcoming game and avoiding irrelevant distractions can help a player perform well in a Super Bowl or a week three contest against a non-conference opponent. In post-game press conferences, NFL coaches and players love to spew the mantra "we're just going to take it one game at a time," conveying the sense that they are so zeroed in on the next opponent that extraneous factors will not distract them week to week.

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Kevin Craft is a writer based in Arlington, Virginia. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, and Arlington Magazine.

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