For better or for worse, the Super Bowl is one of the landmark dates on the American calendar. It gets millions of viewers every year, both by die-hard football fans and people who ask which player is the quarterback. Let’s put it this way: If I were to walk into a room and propose that the day after the Super Bowl should be a national holiday, I would get a lot of positive responses. It’s hyped and beloved in our culture.
That being said, on occasion the matchup itself is heavily upstaged by the hype that surrounds it (it’s not like anybody outside of Chicago was particularly pumped to see Rex Grossman in the Super Bowl). Not this year. No matter who wins, or by how much that team wins, the game’s juicy storylines will make it memorable. Quite simply, this is a particularly momentous championship game, one that will obviously crown a champion, but also a few legacies when all is said and done.
On the surface, the draw to this matchup is simple: it’s a rematch. The Giants and Patriots engaged in one of the most memorable Super Bowls of all time just four years ago (I don’t think we need to go over that game). Just three months ago the two teams met in a 24-20 thriller. In short, the Giants have won two straight versus New England, so they seem to really know how to beat the Patriots. At the same time, many wonder whether a team can beat the mighty Patriots three times in a row, and their skepticism is reasonable. No matter who wins, it will be compelling.
It’s worth note that both quarterbacks are pursuing a career defining title. On one hand we have Eli Manning, who is after his second Super Bowl ring. One Super Bowl is great, but winning a second would put Manning in a club with John Elway, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese, Ben Roethlisberger, Bart Starr, Jim Plunkett and, of course, Tom Brady. That Multi-Ring Club is exclusive and pretty much assures Manning’s place in history. Also, as has been talked to death, a second ring will open the door to the Eli vs Peyton argument–for the right reasons or wrong reasons, people will think Eli is better than perhaps history’s greatest quarterback because he has one more ring.
Brady, though possessing three rings, has his own legacy to protect on Sunday. Brady earned the crown of the winner of his generation in his first four seasons, a run that defined his career and set expectations impossibly high for his career. By winning his first ten playoff games, Brady made every playoff failure seem shocking and disappointing. If he wins a ring, he’ll retain his status as one of the greatest winners in NFL history. If he loses, people will no doubt wonder whether he was in the right place at the right time. And at 34, this may be Brady’s last shot at Super Bowl, and he’ll want it to count.
Though the game is obscured by a web of story lines, the matchup itself seems to come down to three simple questions.
1) Can New England’s offensive line manage New York’s pass rush?
2) Can New England’s secondary keep up with New York’s receivers?
3) Will Rob Gronkowski be healthy enough to be effective?
Really, it comes down to those three things. The third one is most important–Gronkowski is New England’s best offensive weapon. If he cannot play or, more likely, is hobbled by his injury (high ankle sprain), then we’ll see a very different Patriots offense on Sunday. Without Gronkowski to draw coverage, every other New England receiver will have a harder time, and Brady will be missing his practically unguardable target.
The Giants pass rush also has the potential to swing this game. Brady occasionally has difficulty finding his targets if he’s under pressure, and it’s no secret that the best way to beat the Patriots is to rattle Brady. The Giants succeeded in the regular season matchup against New England and, going back further, in Super Bowl XLII. If New York’s top tier front four run wild against the Patriots, New York will likely win the game. It’s really quite simple.
Third, the Patriots’ biggest weakness also coincides with one of the Giants’ greatest strengths. The Patriots secondary has long been their weak spot–this was especially apparent when Julian Edelman covered Anquan Boldin at the end of the AFC Title game (and it wasn’t pretty). They’ll have to deal with Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, and the suddenly surging Mario Manningham. The thought of Edelman covering Cruz in crunch time of the Super Bowl probably makes every Patriots fan ill.
You can probably see where I’m going with this. All signs indicate that the Giants are going to win this game. Their quarterback may not have three Super Bowl rings and two MVPs, but Manning is having his best season and is on a hot streak right now. Their defensive line seems to be capable of pressuring Brady, and their receivers should get multiple mismatches against the Patriots’ secondary. On top of it, the Giants’ top offensive weapon isn’t suffering from a high ankle sprain. Eli Manning is the hot QB, the Giants are the hot team, they have the hot defense and they are at their peak.
The X-Factor is Brady. He’s been the hero so many times for New England, he’ll have to do it again for the Patriots to overcome the Giants’ multiple strategic advantages. After winning his first ten playoff games, his playoff record has been closer to the average, which begs the question: does Brady have what it takes to but the Patriots on his back one last time? I don’t know. All I know is that the Giants are the safe bet.
The Pick: Giants 27, Patriots 23