We were promised a classic. We were given an unlikely rematch of a history-making clash, and we were told that the sequel would live up to the high standards of the original. It’s certainly nice when the hype machine gets something right. This was an epic duel of evenly-matched sides, and although neither was in danger of being confused with a juggernaut, Super Bowl XLVI will go down as a classic.
This game truly featured everything anyone could ask for in the way of a thrilling finish. There was a late, heroic drive, and a valiant counterattack that fell just short. There was offbeat coaching, as the New England defense allowed Ahmad Bradshaw to score a touchdown that he attempted to avoid. There was a heroic catch, as Mario Manningham made a spectacular over-the-shoulder grab of a perfectly thrown Manning bomb to kick off the game-winning drive. There were critical miscues, including a rash of dropped passes late for New England. Ultimately, there was the immortal final play, the lasting image of a football dropping to the blue-painted turf, mere inches from the outstretched fingertips of Rob Gronkowski, the injured workhorse who fell just short of snagging a championship out of the Indiana air.
Of course, more happened in this game than just the final sequence. The early stages played out just as this writer anticipated, with the Patriots being severely outplayed in all phases yet remaining within striking distance. I did not, of course, anticipate the frequent and severe mental errors committed by the Patriots that led to their early deficit. The Brady safety was, quite frankly, out of character. The Patriots defense went from poor to clueless, negating a fumble recovery by having twelve men on the field. The Giants proceeded to score a touchdown from this gift, which ultimately proved to be the winning margin. Overall, New York fumbled four times; three were recovered by the Giants, often improbably, and the other was wiped out by the fatal penalty. New England played awfully for the first twenty minutes of the game, and was in danger of being blown off the field.
Of course, one cannot take away the excellence displayed by the Giants during this stretch. Eli Manning opened the game on fire, completing every pass he threw in the first quarter-and-a-half, and generally putting substance behind his midseason assertion that he was every bit as capable as Brady. Manning gained the most from this game, as it is now impossible to deny that he is one of the league’s elite quarterbacks, if only during playoff season.
Eli has eclipsed his brother Peyton in championships, and barring an unforeseen resurgence of Peyton’s career, this will likely be permanent. Peyton is perhaps the best regular-season quarterback the game has ever seen, but because of his stoic, unemotional play style, it seems that he is unable to elevate his team during the heightened competition of the postseason. Eli is a fairly unexceptional regular-season leader, and he, like his team, is prone to motivational swoons at times. However, when the intensity cranks up, he and undervalued coach Tom Coughlin can get the best out of their team, and Eli elevates his game accordingly. Eli has never lost a playoff game away from home, which strongly indicates his masterful handling of high pressure.
Certainly, the Giants defense deserves praise, but this was no excellent defense; instead, it was a fairly poor unit that elevated its play to the level of just good enough, much like the Patriots. Make no mistake, in the year of offensive supremacy, the offenses would decide the championship, and Eli Manning dramatically outplayed Tom Brady in this game.
Despite all of this, the Brady Factor still cannot be ignored. Despite all of the hardships surrounding his team — the hobbling of his best receiver, the missed chances and avoidable errors, the drops and defensive pressure — Brady was within a ricochet of emerging on top in this game. The what-ifs are tantalizing for New England supporters — how is the game altered if the Patriots recover that first quarter fumble? What if Gronkowski had not been injured by the Ravens’ Bernard Pollard, a man with an almost-sinister knack for saddling the Patriots with crippling injuries (Brady’s knee in 2008, Wes Welker in ’09)? What if Belichick had allowed the Giants to score one play earlier on their final drive, preserving a timeout for Brady’s last shot? Ultimately, this game was too close to call, and a few fateful bounces were enough to send the Giants to the top once more.
The future looks uncertain for these teams, as the Patriots are clearly declining from their 2003-07 run of glory, and the Giants have a well-worn habit of underachievement following success. New England cannot rely on Gronk-o-magic to compensate for their lack of a capable defense, especially with a full-length offseason allowing their rivals to pour over the film. This is still a playoff team, but that says more about the AFC East’s current shambles than it does about New England. As for the Giants, they will become the team that everyone wants to avoid in the playoffs, yet there is still no guarantee that they will even qualify. Dallas is rising, slowly, and the Eagles might finally have this “dream team” thing figured out. Meanwhile, New Orleans and Green Bay have heard the alarm bells and will reinforce defensively. However, in this writer’s opinion, San Francisco enters the 2012 season as the title favorite, as they are the only realistic top team with a shutdown defense (sorry, Baltimore, you are getting very old), and believe it or not, Alex Smith is actually a fairly good quarterback when given the chance. He is no Drew Brees, but he can be an excellent Kerry Collins, someone who plays adequately enough to allow the stronger parts around him to reach their full potential. Count me as a believer in the Harbaugh Miracle. In the AFC, Houston could well be on top of the pack, and barring any Andre Johnson injuries, this is a rising team with a strong home field and a realistic chance at a number-1 seed. Of course, anything can happen, and that is why the games are played. This is your Football Informant, signing off. Coming next week, The Offseason Files!