NEW YORK GIANTS NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Vegas Line: Giants + 3
Rob’s Line: Giants + 1.5
There is one glaring reality about this rematch of the classic that was Super Bowl XLII in Arizona: the New York Giants are a better team than then and the New England Patriots are a worse team than then. Heck, there’s so many angles to this game that there’s no obvious starting point, suffice to say that the fervour building up to this is palpable and I, for one, cannot get enough of it.
Much has been written about Super Sunday four years ago and how these are now two very diiferent teams. That much is true, but it’s those in the New England corner who want to believe that the most. They’ll have been alarmed at just how tough the Giants have looked when winning on the road in the playoffs in Green Bay and San Francisco, but, that aside, as all sports fans know, they will also have been equally alarmed on the superstition front. This is the Super Bowl, I hear you cry. How can I belittle such an occasion with talk of what you may deem to be nonsense? I’ll tell you why: because this is exactly the type of occasion when the true sports fan clings on to the tiniest of hopes and the dark portents floating around Indianapolis won’t be fitting snugly into the pockets of Patriots fans right now. Let’s take a look at why and it really is quite simple. Almost too simple.
In Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots were deemed to be the home team. They chose to wear their blue ‘home’ uniform. They didn’t meet again until Week 9 of this season, when the Patriots, as the home team, again, naturally, wore blue. In the former game, New England were favoured by twelve. In the latter, they were favoured by nine. On both occasions, Eli Manning won the game for the Giants in the final minute. I wonder how close to temptation Bill Belichick actually came to asking his team to don their white ‘road’ jerseys for this one. If I were a Patriots fan, I’d have been wishing for precisely that. By the way, I should point out here that, as it’s an even numbered Super Bowl, the AFC representative has the choice of which colour to wear and the Patriots have chosen to wear blue again on Sunday.
So, with the ‘nonsense’ out of the way, how about some of the other storylines surrounding this? Quite incredibly, Manning will be playing in a Super Bowl in the home stadium of his older brother, a city that’s been in thrall to Peyton Manning since 1998. And just in case you thought the younger Manning would have the limelight all to himself these past two weeks, it’s coincided with a monumental, and very public, falling out between Peyton and Colts owner Jim Irsay. I shan’t dwell on that here, but it’s a story that refuses to go away and you honestly couldn’t have scripted it better.
Without dwelling on that story, Peyton will be sore at something. Regardless of who wins on Sunday, this is probably the one matchup he didn’t want. Firstly, with New England as the designated home team, they’ll get to use Indianapolis’ locker room on game day. The Colts and Patriots have developed a fantastically fierce playoff rivalry over the last decade and no Colt will be happy at New England gatecrashing Peyton’s place. Now, naturally, Peyton will be cheering on his kid brother all the way, but if the Giants do prevail, Eli will have two rings to Peyton’s one…plus Eli will have gone 2-0 in Super Bowls; Peyton’s 1-1.
Four years ago, the Giants rolled into Arizona with nothing to lose. The Patriots were 18-0 and one more win would have placed them in the company of the ’72 Dolphins as the only teams to have perfect seasons in the modern era. Barely anybody gave the Big Blue a chance, but they seized upon that and the collective proved to be greater than the sum of its parts that day. It was one of the classic Super Bowls and surely it’s too much to ask for something similar this time around. That they played out another classic this season (NY 24-20 after a scoreless first half) has the whole of the football watching universe literally salivating for kickoff. This is inescapably too close to call and the feeling it’s brought ever since Conference Championship weekend came and went is an emotion we’ll miss between next Monday and next September. We’ve never had it so good!
The reason I mention the game four years ago and the attitude of the then underdog is that, despite being underdogs again this year, the Giants are affording the Patriots one heck of an amount of deference. Sure, Justin Tuck is talking up his defensive line and the havoc they can wreak, but there’s a healthy dose of fear and respect on both sides and nobody is looking to tempt fate too much. This is the chess match before the chess match and I think now’s a good time to look at the spread in Vegas.
What is there not to like about New York plus a field goal? As I mentioned earlier, the Giants are a better team than four years ago, the Patriots are worse and the Big Blue have triumphed in their last two meetings as heavy underdogs. There will be both Giants fans and sharp punters alike who will look at this line as akin to buying money and, at first glance, being able to back arguably the better team plus three points looks ridiculous. However, buyer beware. Your can’t lose, won’t lose Giants are up against the double headed genius of Belichick and Tom Brady.
New England’s iconoclastic coach has been surprisingly candid this week and it’s difficult to escape the feeling that he’s enjoying this Super Bowl experience more than the previous four he’s been to as a head coach. Maybe it’s because he realises a couple of home truths and its truths that could play right into his hands. Firstly, despite his team being favoured in Vegas, more than half the money wagered so far has been on the Giants; it’s unlikely he knows this from his own research, but don’t you worry, he would’ve been passed on that particular nugget as a motivational tool. Secondly, he knows how unpopular his team is in this part of the world and when you tag on to that the fact that the entire city will be cheering on Peyton’s kid brother, it practically makes New England the underdog, not something either Belichick or Brady are used to.
Having been the centre of attention four years ago (and with that comes an extraordinary burden, particularly during Super Bowl week), is it any wonder that Belichick epitomises cool right now?
While it may feel as though we’ve never have had it so good, one player that that doesn’t apply to is Rob Gronkowski. He has what was originally termed a “classic” high ankle sprain. I love the description as I’d hate to see what an ordinary one looks like, but whatever the difference may be, it does look as though it’ll keep him from going through one single practice. There’s no danger of him missing the game, but he won’t be anywhere near 100% and that’s a big loss to the Patriots. He will have lost the ability to turn and cut and you have to wonder how he’ll be used. New England have exuded calmness when it comes to Gronkowski’s status, but I’ll wager it’s been a different story behind closed doors.
OK, let’s take a closer look at the two teams and how they reached Indianapolis.
The Patriots have won their last 10 games in a row, their last loss being the 24-20 reversal to these very same Giants. Here’s a killer stat though: they hadn’t beaten a team with a winning record all season until dispensing with the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. That’s troubling if you’re thinking of asking New England to cover, but one thing in their favour is that, like New York, Baltimore is a tough nut to crack and crack it they did. However, that was on home turf and as I mentioned earlier, due to the unpopularity of New England in this city, this will probably feel akin to a road game for them.
Before beating the Jets on Christmas Eve, the Giants had lost four of their previous five, but, unlike New England, they faced a much tougher schedule, particularly during the middle of the season, succumbing as they did to the 49ers, Eagles, Saints and Packers, consecutive losses that had almost everybody writing them off and at the time it was difficult to disagree with that assessment. The 23-10 home embarrassment to the Redskins in Week 15, that brought the Giants back to 7-7, clearly lit a fire under this team and they knew that, essentially, their playoff run started the very next week with that aforementioned game against the hated Jets.
In hindsight, the Cowboys never stood a chance in the winner takes all, NFC East finale at MetLife Stadium in the last game of the regular season and, including that game and the playoff run, Manning has proved sensational, throwing 11 touchdowns against 1 interception and he faces a New England secondary there for the taking. This unit finished 31st in the league throughout the regular season and it’s almost impossible to gauge how the Patriots are going to stop Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham and Jake Ballard.
New England lined up receiver Julian Edelman at cornerback against the Ravens, specifically against the slot receiver and that translates to being Cruz on Sunday and if you’re looking for a memorable quote, try this for size. Bob Glauber, of Newsday, said that should that eventuality take place in Super Bowl XLVI, Cruz will “destroy” him.
Vince Wilfork is the heartbeat of New England’s defense and he’s never played better than he is right now. He figures to play a prominent role at defensive tackle stopping New York’s run game, a unit that ranked dead last during the regular season. However, Ahmad Bradshaw has been getting healthier by the week and, teamed with the power that Brandon Jacobs brings, it’s a good one two punch to have as the weaker part of your offense.
Wilfork made huge headlines after his performance against the Ravens, but his defense still gave up an average of 130 rushing yards per game during the playoffs. Wilfork’s play this Sunday is crucial as, should the Patriots be able to force Manning to throw, it allows New England to play more nickel packages…but they will include Edelman. Quite the conundrum for Belichick, but if any coach in the entire NFL is capable of scheming for that, it’s him. In fact, will Belichick even consider a scheme that actually allows the Giants some yards on the ground, thus keeping the ball out of Manning’s hands?
With Gronkowski’s status as it is, a heavier burden will be placed on fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez, but it’s not as though he’s not up to it. He’ll love scrapping for every yard he can and his tussles with Giants linebackers Michael Boley, Chase Blackburn and Mathias Kiwanuka will prove pivotal. In fact, it promises to be pretty crowded over the middle when the Patriots throw the ball as Brady’s favourite target, Wes Welker, will line up in the slot and do what he does best, namely running short slant patterns inside and using his speed to generate yards after the catch. Deion Branch, the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, almost seems to get forgotten in all the talk surrounding Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez and that’ll suit Belichick, for sure. Branch has previous and shouldn’t be ignored.
The one area of the Giants’ defense receiving the most attention is their defensive line. Forgive me, that’s not quite correct…it’s their pass rush. Four years ago, Brady was terrorised by this group and they’ve only gotten stronger with the addition of second year defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Sebastian Vollmer looks like returning at right tackle for the Patriots and that can only be good news as they’ll need all the healthy beef they can muster. That’s to take nothing away from rookie Nate Solder though, who’s done a sterling job in Vollmer’s absence, but Brady will have a little more faith in Seb.
How often in Super Bowl history has a team relied on a running game spearheaded by two undrafted backs and a rookie? BenJarvus Green-Ellis is New England’s primary ball carrier, backed up by Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead and it’s not a unit that’ll necessarily strike fear into Giant hearts. No, this looks to be a game that will be won and lost through the air and could simply boil down to which quarterback throws the most interceptions. Brady’s thrown three in his last two games, Manning just one in his last four.
Should Pierre-Paul, Tuck and Osi Umenyiora be able to exert enough pressure and get to Brady, we may see him have as patchy a game as he did in the AFC Championship two weeks ago. You would never have been allowed to get away with this as little as seven weeks ago, but I have more faith in Manning this Sunday than I do Brady. Yes, Gronkowski’s status does mitigate Brady, but Manning is simply on fire and playoff road victories in Green Bay and San Francisco have afforded him worship usually reserved for Peyton.
The one beautiful intangible surrounding Brady is his motivation to avenge that Super Bowl XLII loss. The pain of that one goes far deeper than the euphoria of winning his first three Super Bowls and that may see you disagree with my assessment about trusting Manning more. Brady will dig deeper than he ever has and he’ll need to against a team with the utmost belief in itself. I prefer the cold, hard facts being delivered by Manning right now, but I know never to discount what Brady’s capable of accomplishing.
As of Saturday morning, the Giants are still available plus three points, value that’s too good to miss. This promises to be unmissable and I sincerely hope it is.