The Football Informant: Gigantism and patriotism, round 2

This is what it all comes down to in the end, the final game for all the marbles. Just like the BCS title tilt down in New Orleans, this one features a pair of teams that legitimately hate each other. Four years ago, the New York Giants wrecked the New England Patriots’ bid to become the second undefeated champion in modern NFL history on one of the strangest, most memorable, and all-around greatest plays in Super Bowl history. Eli Manning’s escape from the clutches of the Patriot defense, and the desperate throw that led to career backup David Tyree’s sensational helmet catch over the top of all-pro safety Rodney Harrison will not soon be forgotten. It is a play that literally changed NFL history. Both teams may pretend that February 5, 2012, is a new day, but mark my words, this game is as personal as it can be. Tom Brady wants revenge, and that is a very scary thought.

Yet, the New England Patriots have been far from dominant this season. Their 13-3 record was the product of a season-ending eight-game win streak in which they played two 8-8 teams and six teams with losing records. In a season in which defenses across the board suffered acutely from the lost off-season, the Pats precision offense was able to rip its opponents to shreds. New England scored at least 24 points in all 16 regular season games it played, scoring at least 30 points 11 separate times. Indianapolis, Arizona, Kansas City, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Washington all failed to reach 30 points even once.

New England may be able to score like they did four years ago, but these Patriots are a shadow of their 2008 counterparts defensively. The 2012 Pats have a defense that is arguably the worst in the league, and if not for the Packers’ no-show stink bomb against Detroit in the final week of the season, the numbers would have the Pats in last as well. It has been suggested that the Patriots defense suffered from playing against pass-crazy offenses trying to catch up to Brady all season, but even so, that is inexcusable.

But the power of a Hall of Fame quarterback on his last-chance tour should not be overlooked. New England’s offense, like its defense, is also a skeleton crew, despite the historic season it posted. Much has been written about the tight end revolution in the NFL this season, as the Patriots and Saints have pioneered the concept of tight ends as downfield threats first and short-pass targets and lead blockers second. For the Saints, this is the result of the sheer abundance of offensive talent that Sean Peyton has amassed, raising up five ace receivers. For New England, the excellent tight ends Ron Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are heavily featured because otherwise the offense would consist of nothing more than Tom Brady playing pitch-and-catch with Wes Welker. Realistically, the Patriots are an injury to Gronkowski or Welker away from being a .500 team. Lose Brady, and they are looking at a Colts-style collapse. This team is not nearly as good as the one that Matt Cassell led to 11 wins in 2008.

Still, it is impossible to understate just how dangerous this team can be when it is healthy. The Patriots defense has improved markedly in these playoffs, indicating that their season-long struggles may have had more to do with lethargy than weakness. This is not an elite squad even at its best, but the Patriots only advanced to the Super Bowl on the strength of the defense, which covered for a rare poor game from Brady by locking down the Ravens when it counted.

The Ravens were highly unlucky to lose, however, and the circumstances of their final-play missed field goal were somewhat fishy. According to members of the Ravens sideline, the scoreboard down marker was incorrect, indicating a third down when it was actually fourth down and contributing to the chaos on the sideline. What happened next, however, was pure Belichickian brilliance. The ice-the-kicker timeout has become almost ubiquitous at the NFL level, and the Ravens clearly expected a New England timeout before the field goal attempt. Belichick even got the sideline referee’s attention and stood next to him before the final snap. In short, Belichick bluffed the Ravens into not using their final timeout, and the reverse psychology worked, as kicker Billy Cundiff badly missed a field goal that he did not expect he would have to kick. The Patriots’ edge is in the intangibles, in the mind games and clutch plays that decide a close game, as evidenced by their three Super Bowl wins in the past decade, all on late-fourth-quarter field goals. New England is still built to win Super Bowls, if nothing else.

The Giants, meanwhile, are pulling off another trademark run through the playoffs. New York has been a consistent playoff contender for the past decade, but the team has a maddening penchant for under-performance and inexplicable losing streaks. Their performance in recent years has been almost the complete inverse of their expectations. The Giants had high hopes at the beginning of the Eli Manning era, only to be shot down by post-season flops. At the end of the 2007 season, the team was 10-6 and coming off a tough loss to the unbeaten Patriots. Suddenly the switch flipped on, and the Giants became unstoppable, rolling all the way to a championship victory over those same Patriots. The next three years were spent progressively lowering expectations, including back-to-back seasons of missing the playoffs entirely. Coach Tom Coughlin’s job security was in question once again, and the Giants looked dead in the water. New York stumbled to a 9-7 record, taking advantage of the spectacular collapse of the Philadelphia “dream team” to steal the NFC East championship from the playoff-averse Cowboys in dominant fashion.

Once again, the switch has been flipped, and the Giants have become the team that they should have been all along. The unremarkable defense sprouted a monster pass rush, dominating Mark Sanchez, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan, and Aaron Rodgers in four consecutive weeks. Eli became a legitimate elite quarterback, and undrafted phenom Victor Cruz (the Cruz Missile) burst onto the scene with a 99-yard touchdown catch against the Jets in week 16. The Giants have a solid run game with Brandon Jacobs, an effective passing attack under Manning, the league’s most terrifying deep threat in Cruz, and a brutalizing defensive line led by Jason Pierre-Paul, suddenly the league’s premier pass rusher. The Giants have few glaring weaknesses, but have begun to win with stifling defense, the same formula that beat New England in ’07. The G-Men were also fortunate to escape from San Francisco, winning on the strength of Kyle Williams’ two turnovers late on punt returns, combined with Alex Smith being incapable of mounting a Super Bowl-clinching drive. Williams, the backup kick returner, was only in the game because of an injury to starter Ted Ginn; thus, if the Giants win the Super Bowl, it can rightly be said that the loss of Ted Ginn swung a championship.

Realistically, the Giants should be about a seven-point favorite in this game; the fact that the line is actually New England by three shows just how big of an influence the Brady Factor holds. As much as I like the Giants’ strengths all over the field, I have to agree with Vegas. Brady will not be surprised by the New York pass rush, and the Patriots defense has been playing close to lights-out football lately. I expect the shootout that the 2007 game was supposed to be, and Danny Woodhead will make a game-clinching catch off his shoe to set up New England for the winning field goal. Patriots 37, Giants 34.

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