After two weeks of endless coverage and meaningless debate, the Super Bowl is finally here. Like everyone else, I have an opinion. In addition to scoring the most points, here are three other factors that will determine who leaves Indy with another title. And yes, they’re all obvious.
Last Week: 2 – 0 – 0
Playoffs: 7 – 3 – 0
Sunday, February 5 (6:29PM ET)
1. Quarterbacks (duh)
I know, I know, it’s the most obvious factor of all, but I couldn’t ignore it.
Neither quarterback played exceptionally well in the conference championship round. In fact, if the 49ers secondary could catch, we’d probably be discussing Alex Smith’s unbelievable turnaround. But we’re not. Instead, we’re dissecting Tom Brady’s lackluster play and the grittiest performance of Eli Manning’s career.
With optimal conditions and two weeks of preparation and rest, I don’t expect another lousy performance from either quarterback. However, both Manning, and especially, Brady are susceptible to turnovers. Brady’s thrown multiple interceptions in two of his last four playoff appearances. Again, Manning would have been lucky to escape San Francisco with two interceptions and somehow he left with none. Both quarterbacks take risks and trust their receivers to bail them out. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s often what makes great quarterbacks great. But how many mistakes each quarterback makes and whether or not the defenses can take advantage will be the most decisive factor on Sunday.
2. Pressure (again, duh)
The Giants boast the best pass rush in the NFL (when healthy). They flustered Aaron Rodgers, made Alex Smith look like Alex Smith circa 2007, and were successful in chasing Tom Brady from the pocket in a victory over New England earlier this season. With apologies to Eli Manning, New York’s pass rush is its greatest asset. When the Giants were losing even though Manning was racking up gaudy numbers, it was because the defense couldn’t stop anyone. The Giants secondary is, to be fair, not very good. In the regular season, New York surrendered at least 340 yards to Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady. Needless to say, the pass rush is critical to New York’s chances. If they can’t get consistent pressure on Brady and allow him to stand back there untouched, they can’t win. It’s as simple as that. Rob Gronkowski may not be at full strength (thanks to Bernard “Redcoat” Pollard), but I think it’s Aaron Hernandez that will give the Giants fits. Where Gronkowski is a big, physical threat down the middle of the field, Hernandez can line up anywhere and do anything. Corey Webster is New York’s best cover corner, and he can’t cover Wes Welker, Gronk, and Hernandez all at once. That means the Giants will need to help out their secondary by dropping more linebackers in coverage or hope they can generate enough pressure from the front four to force New England to keep an extra back or tight end in for protection.
Let’s not forget about the Patriots. While their pass rush isn’t as celebrated as New York’s, it’s been nearly as effective in the playoffs. Against Denver, New England registered five sacks and then added another three against Baltimore. Vince Wilfork terrorized Joe Flacco in the AFC Championship Game. Wilfork should have similar success against an offensive line that struggled to protect Manning two weeks ago. Although the New England secondary takes a lot of heat for being one of the worst in the NFL, they did finish 2nd in the league in interceptions. A little heat from the Patriot pass rush could force Manning into an interception or two. Assuming, of course, the Patriots actually hang on to the football.
Either way, the defense that gets consistent pressure will have the inside track to hoisting the Lombardi trophy. (Unless of course you’re the 49ers and your punt returner fumbles twice in the final 20 minutes. Then all bets are off.)
3. Big Plays (earth-shattering news)
Fumbled punt returns. Turnovers. Dropped interceptions. Missed field goals. Osi Umenyiora slapping the ball out of the quarterback’s hand while Gregg Jennings stands alone in the end zone. Yeah, big plays matter. The smallest mistake like a punt grazing a knee changes everything. All things being equal, I think the Giants are the better, more well rounded team, especially defensively. For the Patriots to win, they must avoid backbreaking turnovers and big offensive plays by Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and the rest of the Giants offense. Or, force more turnovers and connect on more big plays than the Giants. Either way, the Patriots must have the edge.
The best way to get that edge? A hurry up offense. Even if Brady does nothing but throw four and five yard passes for the 1st half, he has to keep the defense off balance and pray they get a little worn out. Pass rushers often get frustrated by a dink and dump offense as well, so slowing the Giants pass rush off the line certainly wouldn’t hurt, either. If the hurry up is successful, the Patriots will have opportunities deep downfield when the secondary is too flustered to call the right coverage or someone overcompensates and blows an assignment. If the hurry up is frequent AND effective, the mistakes will come.
The other wildcard is the running game. Obviously, running the football is the fastest and most effective method to slowing a pass rush. However, this is the Super Bowl. I don’t expect either team to abandon what they do best (pass the football) in order to discourage a pass rush. This is about winning a championship. You line up and do what you do best against whatever your opponent does best. Don’t change your stripes now and let the defense dictate how you play the game. Does that mean either team should completely abandon the run? Of course not, that would only make sense to Andy Reid. However, neither team can get so caught up in running the football that they forget what they do best. Your quarterbacks got you here. Give them the keys to drive you home.
As I mentioned, I think the Giants are the better team with the hotter quarterback and better pass rush. They’ve eliminated the NFL’s best quarterback and best defense en route to the Super Bowl. Regardless, the Giants have done a little too much talking this week. I know that’s their style and it’s proven successful, but teams generally dish out smack for two reasons; overconfidence or intimidation.
Overconfidence is deadly. Enter a big game like this against an equal opponent and you’re finished. You can’t recover from overconfidence. It’s a fatal disease. Intimidation? Please. I know the Giants like to think they can rattle Brady and the Patriots, but there’s a reason New England has been the NFL’s most successful franchise year in and year out. You don’t achieve that consistency by worrying about what your opponent is doing (or saying).
I’m an Eagles fan and would take pride in the NFC East taking home another title. (And knowing Vince Young took down the champs. Holla!) However, even with three Super Bowl titles in the bag, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick need this one to cement their legacies. Contrary to what Vegas says, the Patriots are indeed underdogs. I think that’s right where they want to be. PATRIOTS If I were Charles Barkley; Patriots -3
Last Week: 1 – 1 – 0
Playoffs: 7 – 3 – 0