Home > NFL > The New York Giants and New England Patriots will both be knocked off in 2012, but for different reasons

The New York Giants and New England Patriots will both be knocked off in 2012, but for different reasons

In a very half-assed super bowl preview, I wrote these two paragraphs to sum up the historical context of the game for 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

It sure seemed like I was trying to write off the New York Giants under Coughlin and Manning even before they played this game.  I might have been doing that to try to frame the significance of the game for those two people, but even then, I was guilty of empty musing on the future of two people I don’t know.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the game, I don’t feel any differently about the Giants.  The Giants never make it look easy in the regular season, and there’s no reason to expect things to be different next year when their head coach is 66 and their starting quarterback is 32 and his two backfield mates are 28 (Bradshaw) and 30 (Jacobs).  They were 9-7 this year, making the playoffs in the weak NFC East, the year before that they went 10-6 and missed the playoffs, the year before that they went 8-8 and missed the playoffs.  This is who the Giants are, and their competition is only going to get harder as the year go on.  In fact, my experience with working the numbers tells me that the Giants aren’t even likely to open as favorites in the NFC East next year, as that will be the Philadelphia Eagles.

And as I said on Wednesday: have you seen the NFC North and South lately?  Unless we’re looking at the team that dropped a home game to Vince Young’s Eagles, and twice last year to Rex Grossman’s Redskins and picking them to win the NFC East again, the reason the Giants won’t repeat as Super Bowl Champs is because they aren’t likely to be in the playoffs even if they manage 9-7 again.  The Saints and Packers aren’t going to be easier to beat next year.  The gap between the Giants and those teams figures to grow.  And not in favor of the Giants.

But as an actual team, there is no obvious reason for the 9-7 Giants to regress.  My ‘prediction’ — if you want to call it that — that the Giants are unlikely to be in the playoffs next year is based almost exclusively on the fact that they almost didn’t make the playoffs this year, despite getting a lot of breaks with the way the seasons of the Cowboys and Eagles fell apart and with the way the Redskins spent the month of October as the second best team in the DC metro media market, behind Virginia Tech.  Eli will be back and he’s a top five fantasy quarterback next year.  Victor Cruz is the real deal.  If Hakeem Nicks can stay healthy, he will be a force to defend.  They have the whole off season to add more offensive weapons, which they need badly.

Nothing from Super Bowl 46 did anything to change my opinion of the Giants as an organization.  That’s not something I could say about the Patriots.  On Wednesday:

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.

Unless you were previously delusional about who Bill Belichick and Tom Brady were heading into this game, your opinion of them probably isn’t different now.  They had lost the last two times they played the Giants; if you didn’t believe before that the Giants were the virtual equal of the Patriots as an organization, maybe you do now.

There was nothing particularly special about this version of the New England Patriots.  They got very close to winning the super bowl, which says more about their organization than this year’s team.  The 2007 and 2010 Patriots set all sorts of records.  The 2003 and 2004 Patriot teams were the best in the league.  It would not have made anyone bat an eye if those teams won the super bowl.  Two of those teams did.  The 2001 Patriots were special because they came from oblivion.  The 2011 Patriots?  Well, like the 2006, 2008, and 2009 teams, they were just kind of there.

The 2006 New England Patriots are remembered for a couple of things: blowing a huge lead in the AFC Championship game to the Indianapolis Colts, and forcing the organization to evolve into what became the 2007 16-0 Patriots.  Five years later, the Patriots find themselves at the same crossroads.  For the first time in five years, the Patriots are heading into an offseason as an underdog to get back to the Super Bowl next year.

But the bigger problem for the Pats is something I did not touch on on Wednesday because — in part because of my game pick — I did not see this coming.  But as clean as the Patriots’ run to Super Bowl 46 was (they famously did not beat a winning team before the Ravens in the AFC Championship), it is hard to see the Patriots competing on the same field as the Saints, Packers, Steelers, or Giants at this point.

And what exactly can the Patriots do to stop it?  In 2007, they shifted their organizational philosophy, took a chance on a trouble child in Randy Moss, traded a second rounder for Wes Welker, and spent the next five years spreading teams thin and posing problems for any defense that had been built through traditional methods.  The Patriots were so good, that they got copied.  The Packers, the Eagles, and the Steelers are all base 3 or 4 receiver teams now.  The Colts were a spread team even before the Pats were.

But the proliferation of the spread offense began to create defenses that could stop it: the 2010 Packers, the 2011 Ravens, the 2011 Giants.  Even the Steelers, who had long been haunted in the playoffs and regular season by Brady, got into the fun of shutting down the Pats offense.  It created a defensive position.  The slot safety.  And now with no M0ss, with a guy in Welker who worked through an ACL injury in the middle of his five year contract, a trade for Chad Ochocinco, 2,000+ combined receiving yards from their tight ends, the Pats have exhausted every possible advantage of the spread offense beyond simply having superior talent.  And it becomes a legitimate question whether Bill Belichick is willing to go back to the drawing board and try to get another championship through a new idea.

The bigger problem for the Patriots is this list.  That is the list of best seasons (min. 3,700 passing yards) ever by an age 35 quarterback.  There is a number of really good seasons in there by Hall of Famers.  But that is not recent history: that list is inclusive of every 3,700 yard passing season by an NFL QB age 35 or older.  The fact that Brady declined from 2010 to 2011 is not itself indicative of a trend, but Brady’s 2010 was one of the great QB seasons ever.  It far surpasses everything on this list.  It seems silly, but when you were watching Eli Manning outplay Tom Brady in the playoffs, it is a legitimate question to wonder what Brady is still capable of.  Is he Brett Favre or Warren Moon, capable of having 4,200 yard passing seasons in 2015 and 2016?  Is he Roger Staubach?  Is he Rich Gannon, capable of winning the league MVP at age 37?  Possibly.

But what if Tom Brady is more like every other player in the history of the NFL than those four guys?  What if he is more like, dare we say Peyton Manning?  What if at age 35, Brady cannot reasonably be expected to carry a team anymore?  Brady has thrown 36 and 39 TD passes the last two years.  The most ever thrown after age 35 by Favre or Moon was 33.  The regression with Brady, even if he is still a pro bowl level player in 2012, seems inevitable.

The Patriots have their work cut out for them in 2012 even if they could count on Brady to carry them into the future.  If they are going to have to manage Brady’s workload at the end of next season, the Pats could be looking at 8-8 next year.  Furthermore, Deion Branch and Wes Welker are free agents.  BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a free agent.  Danny Woodhead is a RFA.  Matt Light is close to the end of the road (though the Nate Solder pick was clearly made with him in mind).  Brian Waters was brought into be a stop gap for Dan Connolly, but Connolly was forced into every week duty by the Week 1 injury to C Dan Koppen, who is also an aging free agent.  One of two defensive pro bowlers on the Pats, Andre Carter, will be 34 and coming off major knee surgery.

If Belichick returns to the Patriots next year, he’s coming back to that.  It’s not quite a rebuilding project, but it is close.  The phase of Tom Brady’s career where he is an elite NFL quarterback is probably over.  Brady can be quarterback of the Patriots for the next five to six years provided health, but the Patriots are going to be forced to move that responsibility around a bit.

The AFC East doesn’t look daunting next year.  The Patriots will be the easy favorite, but it’s a different playoff field if San Diego and the New York Jets make it next year instead of the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos.  And unlike in the last five years, it’s not the Patriots who are most likely to represent the AFC out of that group.  We may have just seen the last hurrah for the Patriots as the dynasty we know them as.

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