Interesting question, isn’t it? On the one hand, you have the New England Patriots, unbeaten all season, going for their fourth Superbowl win in 7 years. On the other, you have the New York Giants, massive underdogs, but on a huge roll, having won three playoff games no-one (myself included) thought they would get close to winning. It should be a walkover. But will it? Let me do something that they never do in the US media, but which happens all the time in the UK, and compare the two teams like for like:
Unless you’ve been living in a hole for the past few months, you’ll know what a stellar season Tom Brady has had. You’ll also know that, in the past few weeks, Eli Manning has gone from being everyone’s second favourite figure of fun (sorry, Rex Grossman, you won that title again this year) to everyone’s favourite underdog.
Before this season, the question on everyone’s lips was “How good will Brady be now that he has some decent receivers to throw the ball to?”. Unfortunately, the receivers have turned out to be so good, no-one knows if it is them making Brady look great or the other way around. Moreover, Brady has had a decidedly shaky playoff campaign, throwing needless interceptions in the last two games and generally looking more harassed than he has all season. Oh, and he’s spend most of the past 10 days with his leg in a protective cast, having picked up a high ankle sprain in the AFC Championship game against the Chargers.
Manning, on the other hand, has barely put a foot wrong. The pressure of the playoff games seems hardly to have affected him (and, whatever you say, it got to Big Brother Peyton last year. Big time.) and the Giants have turned the ball over only once. He’s also held the side steady through the narrow overtime win against the Packers. It does seem that the more the spotlight falls on him, the more he feels able to be himself.
The clinching factor could be that Brady has been here before, three times. But he hasn’t since 2005. And whilst Manning has never played in a Superbowl, he did have the advantage of playing in the game in London in October, with all the attention that generated (if you don’t believe how much that meant, listen to the excited squawks coming out of New Orleans and San Diego, both of whom are supposed to be coming this year). I don’t see this being the walkover for Brady that everyone thinks it is.
We already mentioned the Patriots receiving corps. Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth, Wes Welker and Jabar Gaffney. Hell, even Grossman would look good throwing to these guys. Moss broke the record for number of receiving touchdowns in a season, Welker was, for me, the player of the season, Stallworth gives you extreme pace and if you can stop those three they’ll bring in Gaffney, too.
Against this, the Giants have Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, Steve Smith and their own Moss, Sinorice. Burress has played all season with a dodgy ankle and at times has hardly practised, but you can bet he’ll be working his socks off down in Arizona this week. He will cause huge problems for the Patriots, because at 6’5” he just towers above most defensive backs. It the ball is thrown anywhere near him, he’ll catch it. The same is true of Toomer, who has the safest hands in the NFL bar none. What they don’t have is the pace of the Patriots receivers, nor do they have the strength in depth – Smith is a rookie with much to learn, Sinorice Moss isn’t a rookie and doesn’t seem to have learned very much anyway.
RUNNING BACKS/TIGHT ENDS
The running back equation is almost too tight to call. The Patriots have Laurence Moroney and Kevin Faulk, the Giants Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. Both teams will be looking to run with the ball a lot – the Giants to try and take some pressure off of Manning, who will be targeted by the Patriots defensive line, the Patriots because the Giants will be covering all the deep position, trying to keep tracks of the four receivers. That said, the Patriots would love to have a monster like the 6’4”, 264 pound Jacobs to run at an opponent instead of Moroney, who is efficient but nothing more. The real challenge is how the sides cope with the third down specialists, Faulk and Bradshaw. Faulk is a long time veteran who saves his best for the big games. He can catch, too, as anyone who saw his stunning dive catch against the Colts will testify. Bradshaw is 5’9” in every direction and very hard to tackle when he gets going.
Where the Patriots edge it is in the tight ends. Ben Watson and Kyle Brady can catch, run, do everything but throw. The Giants lost Jeremy Shockey, one of their star men, with a broken leg in early December and can only field the rookie Kevin Boss. Boss had an outstanding game against the Patriots in the last week of the regular season, catching two touchdown passes, but he’s lost that element of surprise now.
OFFENSIVE AND DEFENSIVE LINES
The Patriots have two of the best offensive linemen around in Logan Mankins and Matt Light. Against them, two of the best defensive lineman, Michael Strahan and London’s own Osi Umeniyora. This is going to be one hell of a clash. Three of the four have been selected to the Pro Bowl the following week, so you really do have the makings of a classic battle. I’m going to pick the Giants to win this one, as Strahan (the one not going to Hawaii) plays on the opposite side of the line to the other three and should make mincemeat of his opponents, Nick Kazcur and Steve Neal.
On the other hand, the Giants’ offensive line will have serious problems protecting Manning. Not only do they face the Patriots’ legendary Richard Seymour, they are also up against the man who is officially the NFL’s dirtiest player, Vince Wilfork. He picked up his fourth fine of the season for foul play only this week, and in fact has two fines in the last three weeks. The Giants’ line has played better than they could ever have hoped for, but I think they are going to struggle.
The Giants’ secondary are going to spend their game running backwards, trying to cover the Patriots’ receivers. Whilst the likes of Antonio Peirce, Sam Madison and Kawika Mitchell are notorious harassers of quarterbacks, they are going to be needed to drop back and help further down the pitch, rather than joining in the fun up front with Strahan and Umeniyora. Whilst cornerback RW McQuarters will be hoping to add to his three playoff interceptions, if he is on the pitch at all it will indicate that the Giants either are under serious pressure, or that they’ve lost another starting back to injury.
By contrast, the Patriots have Adalius Thomas, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison and Asante Samuel, all of whom have had fairly easy rides for the last month and all of whom will be champing at the bit to get into the Giants’ offense. Their big worry is that they will be badly burned by Burress. I suspect that they will be told to put that out of their minds, secure in the knowledge that they have the beating of the Giants’ front five and that, if they don’t, they have other, more deadly receivers of their own.
There’s little to choose between the two sides on the kicking and punting side of the game. Neither side has terrifically good returners of a football. Jeff Feeley, the Giants’ punter, has finally made a Superbowl after 20 years in the game. His opposite number, Chris Hanson, is officially the most underworked man in the NFL, having had less time on the pitch than any other starter this season. He’ll be hoping not to do much on Sunday, either.
The worst thing for the game would be overtime, because neither team has a top quality kicker. Stephen Gostkowski of the Patriots has had a good post-season, but can be nervy and unreliable. Lawrence Tynes is aiming to be only the second British-born Superbowl winner and showed with that last kick against the Packers that he has some nerve. The last thing the game needs is 15 minutes of these two missing goals in front of a primetime audience. If it comes down to it, I back Tynes.
There you have it. If it is a kicking game, I expect the Giants to win. Anything else, though, and the Patriots will win by a clear 14 points.