The two championship games played on Super Sunday were hard fought, close matches, and there were truly four possible outcomes for the Superbowl match-ups. The Patriots will line up again against the New York Giants in what should be an intriguing game.
We all thought the Patriots were done this year. Tom Brady kept doing his thing, and was a big part of the “year of the tight end” with Gronkowski and Fernandez as imposing targets. Gronkowski in particular has been a revelation. His huge size means he can rack up yards after the catch as he bursts through the secondary, and has proven to be a fantastic target in the end zone, setting a record for touchdowns by a tight end. But an ageing and ineffective defence meant they were playing shoot-out football (and still winning). This was all OK as long as the offence kept steaming along. Teams that were able to bring genuine pressure on the line found they were able to get Brady to actually make mistakes: missed passes and interceptions started to appear against quality defences.
After a good start, the Giants fell into a slump mid season, and just scraped into the playoffs with a win in week 17 over division rival Dallas, and a regular season record of just 9-7. Their mere presence in the Superbowl is an important lesson for other teams. The incremental advantage of a high seed position in the playoffs or an outstanding regular season win-loss record is small. You have to be in the playoffs, you have to be hitting form as a team at the right time, and you have to be able to win on the road.
The Giants did just enough to make the playoffs. They were in good form early in the season, and then really hit their straps in the last 2-3 weeks. That is what counts. And the key to winning on the road is being able to play a physical defence, and control the clock with a strong running game. They took a similar route to reach the Superbowl in 2008, and at that time, I described exactly what they had to do to beat the unbeatable Patriots, and they did it and won. Brady was protected by an outstanding offensive line that year, and no-one was able to pressure him. The Giants were, and things went downhill from there.
This is looking a lot like a repeat. Brady has succumbed to pressure in several games this year. The Giants have the pass rush to break through their offensive line, bat down balls, and create the pressure that Brady doesn’t deal with very often. On offence, their two large running backs Jacobs and Bradshaw will be pounding all day even if they get little return – it will eventually come. The big difference is Eli Manning, who in my opinion is outshining his brother Peyton. Eli is far more athletic than his brother out of the pocket and on the move, and when the play breaks down. He can convert on third-and-long to keep drives alive. Victor Cruz has been an excellent target this year – he’s quick, has sure hands, and if he’s double teamed, then Nicks will be open. The Giants offence is much better than 3 years ago, and their defence just as good. The Patriots offence is almost as good, and their defence just isn’t good enough.
But I give Bill Belichik far more credit than that. He is one of the smartest coaches in the NFL, and has shown his ability to create a winning teams from players others have ignored or discarded. We will see things on Sunday on offence and defence that he has never shown before – formations particularly using the two tight ends and the running game. If the Patriots win, it will be because of his superior coaching.
Prediction: Patriots come out with some big surprise plays early to get ahead, Giants settle down, then slowly build scoreboard pressure until a wild fourth quarter where intercept Brady a couple of times to run away with the win.