Home > NFL > Super Bowl 46 Preview: the best matchup you never wanted to see

Super Bowl 46 Preview: the best matchup you never wanted to see

Perhaps it would be an understatement to say that the city of Indianapolis is ready to host this year’s super bowl.  It makes sense to put the game in cold weather cities.  The idea should be to have a week where the players, coaches, and game is the center of the entire week, and while you generally get this in San Diego or Tampa, having the game in Indianapolis, Detroit, or even Cleveland makes a lot of sense.  The problem is that the smaller the town and the colder the climate for the super bowl, the more resistance it meets in the voting stage.

I am not particularly against the idea of the super bowl being hosted by New York/East Rutherford, and I even understand the allure for the NFL league offices to be able to stay at home when planning events for the big game.  But the problem with New York as a hosting site (and to a lesser extent, someplace like Chicago) is that the focal point for most of the week will drift away from the two teams it belongs on, and to the venue.  Indianapolis really is the neutral site for a football game, and the idea that the Super Bowl is “too big” to bring to a climate such as Indianapolis is not a line of thinking I agree with.

With that out of the way, I want to examine the profile of the two teams who will compete for the 46th version of the Lombardi Trophy.  There’s something to be said that New York and Boston having once again put teams in the big game.

The New England Patriots

The Patriots spent all year playing second fiddle to the Green Bay Packers.  If you get caught up in the moment, it would be easy to forget how long the Patriots have been this good.  With the exception of about the first nine or so Matt Cassel starts, the Patriots have pretty much been the same team for three and a half years now.  And it’s somewhat remarkable that they have only been to one super bowl over that timeframe.

This Patriots team is not quite what the 2010 Pats were, and they sit alongside the 2009 Pats as maybe the fifth or sixth best Pats team of the last decade.  Worse Pats teams have won the super bowl (2001), but better Pats teams (2010) have lost in the first round of the playoffs.  The formula to beat the Patriots was exposed around midseason, but unlike last season, the Patriots saved their best performances for the New York Jets, got themselves deep into the playoffs, and were able to leverage homefield advantage, which they had earned to get to the super bowl when they were very questionably the best team in the AFC.

The Patriots still have those questions to answer as we head into Super Bowl Weekend.  It says a lot about Bill Belichick and Tom Brady if a Patriots team that is perhaps not among the five best of the last decade proves itself to be the best in the NFL this season.  But if the Patriots drop the Super Bowl by 10 points, then we’re looking at a very different legacy.  While talk radio personalities might be quick to try to make it a referendum on the Hall of Fame careers of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.  It should not be.  But through the prism of a second Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants, a lot of things would make more sense.

Since Brady emerged as the franchise quarterback of the Patriots late in the 2003 season — basically, when it became clear that the Pats were set at QB for the next ten years — the Patriots followed a very similar path to the championship.  They were the best team in football in 2003 and 2004 with an emerging if perhaps a bit overrated offense to support an excellent year in and year out defense.  The Pats were the class of the AFC back when the NFC was incredibly weak.  The true super bowls in those days came down to Colts vs. Patriots, match-ups that were always won by the team playing at home.  Those were great Patriots teams that had blowout wins over other great teams, maybe none more impressive than their two touchdown victory over the Steelers on the road in the 2004 AFC Championship.

But there is a difference between playing the 2003 Panthers and 2004 Eagles in the super bowl, and playing the New York Giants.  And if the Giants win again, it adds a pretty big “yeah, but” to the Patriots super bowl victories.  Yeah, the Patriots were a great team back in the day, but as soon as the NFC started bringing elite teams to the party, the Patriots didn’t fare so great.  A victory on Sunday kills that line of thinking: the Patriots can handle elite teams in big games still.  Their ability to do so may not have died in 2004.

This game means hardly anything for the legacies of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.  That story would be different if the Patriots had lost in 2001.  If Brady and Belichick were simply two time super bowl champs, and hadn’t won it all in seven years, they would be facing a coach-quarterback duo in Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin who would be seen as the greatest coach-QB duo of their generation if they could just win this game over the other great coach-QB duo.  As it is, Brady and Belichick have little to lose in this game because they have both already achieved success unparalleled in the history of the NFL.  In fact, that past success may be one of the only reasons people expect the Patriots to find a way to pull this game out.

The New York Giants

There is a lot more at stake here for the leaders of the New York Giants — Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin — than there is at stake for the rest of the team.  Both Manning and Coughlin are at an age where a trip back to another super bowl is unlikely.  Manning will likely play for six to seven more years, and will likely win the NFC East one, two, or maybe even three more times in his career.  But when you look at how loaded the NFC North and NFC South are with young quarterback talent (where everyone has one), the days of the NFC East sending two teams to the playoffs consistently (or three teams to the playoffs ever) are in the past.  As talented as Eli Manning is, he is not Peyton Manning, and the Giants are more likely to miss the playoffs in any given year than they are to make them.

By winning this game, Manning and Coughlin, even if they are not ever back in another super bowl as a coach-quarterback tandem, put them in position to be judged among the highest rated of their peers, even if they can’t compete with Brady and Belichick over the remainder of their careers.  For Manning and Coughlin, their entire case to be considered all-time greats comes down to this one game.  For the rest of the Giants, what they already accomplished in 2007 (for those who were there in 2007 at least) already speaks for itself.  This is the difference between being one-time and two-time super bowl champions.  Significant, sure.  But no more significant than the simple idea that when you’ve managed to keep your season alive for 22 weeks, it becomes your only goal to pay off your efforts with a super bowl title.  There is no historical context to this game as far as Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, or Victor Cruz are concerned: just a ring.

The bigger issue for the Giants is how to win this one game and pay off their super bowl run.  The Giants slammed both Green Bay and Atlanta and looked great in doing so.  But against San Francisco in the NFC Championship game, they played like a team that would have gotten killed by the Patriots in the super bowl.  The Patriots don’t have the 49ers defense to frustrate Eli Manning, but they can use a lot of similar techniques if Giant first downs are going to be so few and far between.  And after that game, I’m not sure the Giants are a great bet to put up even 20 points against the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

I think, in defense of the Giants, that the chances that Brady struggles against the Giants defense are every bit as good as the chances that the Pats defense can handle Eli Manning.  And all the numbers and trends from both sides push towards an offensive explosion in the super bowl.  It only the nature of the super bowl game itself that makes me hesitant to pick the over.

I am not hesitant to pick the Patriots to win though.  The Giants looked like one team during the entire regular season, and then we saw that same team rear its head last week against the 49ers.  Those wins against the Cowboys, Falcons, and Packers were great wins and are a significant part of the story of the 2011 NFL season.  But even in Week 9 when the Patriots were struggling to score as much as any team, the Giants needed a last second drive to win the game.  I think the Patriots will be up one more score in the fourth quarter of this one, and a ten point lead with four minutes to go should be enough to hold against the Giants.

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