At last, the Big Game is upon us, and as usual the playoffs didn’t go according to plan – we end up with a 9-7 Giants team facing a Patriots team with the NFL’s second worst defense (by yards allowed) – and yet this game promises to be close and exciting, largely because both QBs are Hall-of-Fame caliber. We’ll break down the QB matchup, take a look at some other key matchups, and predict a winner.
When these teams met in the Super Bowl four years ago (what, you hadn’t heard?), Tom Brady was well-established as a top-notch QB and a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer, but Eli Manning was regarded by many (including me) as an average QB who was gaining notoriety because of his name. Frankly I still believe that was a fair assessment at the time – before 2008 Manning never ended a season with a completion percentage higher than 57% or a QB rating higher than 77 (I’d consider anything below 80-85 to be sub-par in today’s NFL).
Something changed after that Super Bowl, though – four seasons later, Manning has passed for over 4,000 yards three straight years, his completion percentage has been above 60% each year, and while he still throws too many interceptions the number of INTs is down sharply from his first four seasons. In addition, with the demise of the Giants’ running game, Eli is the focal point of the entire offense – if he has a bad day, the Giants rarely can win – and he has risen to the occasion. His coaches and players have raved about Manning’s work ethic, preparation, and attention to detail; and I think this is a clear case of a player blessed with average physical skills maximizing his potential. Eli’s not the tallest, strongest, or most accurate QB, and he certainly isn’t a great runner, but he makes up for that with great preparation, pocket presence, and field vision.
Tom Brady is in many ways a more refined version of Eli – drafted in the sixth round, considered too small, too little arm strength to make it in the NFL, Brady has ALWAYS succeeded with great accuracy, preparation, and timing. Brady turns the ball over far less, but he’s also had a greater variety of weapons at his disposal most seasons. Either way, both have earned their place in this game and both will (rightfully) be their teams’ focal point, win or lose.
Some other keys to the game:
Turnovers: I say it every week, and it’s as true Sunday as ever…the team that wins the turnover battle is a HUGE favorite to win the game. HOWEVER, this is more important for the Giants than it is for the Patriots – with their win over the 49ers, the Giants are 12-1 when they win or tie the turnover battle this year, and 3-0 in the playoffs, but are 0-6 when they ‘out-turnover’ their opponents. Interestingly, the Patriots have had six games where they have turned the ball over more times than their opponent, but they have won four of those including both of their playoff games.
Running game: Neither team defends the run well at all – New England allowed 100+ rushing yards to both the Ravens and Broncos, and allowed 4.6 yards per carry during the regular season. The Giants have been no better, allowing 4.5 per carry during the season; and after doing an amazing job shutting the Falcons down, they have allowed 147 and 150 rushing yards in their last two playoff games. On the other hand, the Giants’ offense reverted to form after that Atlanta game, rushing for a TOTAL of 180 yards in their last two games, while the Patriots piled up 242 against the Ravens and Broncos. We know that Brady can win without a great running game, and we’ve seen this year that Eli can as well – but strange as it sounds, I trust the Pats’ running game a lot more than I trust the Giants. New York was the worst rushing team during the regular season, and while they should have some more success against the Pats’ vulnerable front seven, I don’t see them dictating the pace of the game on the ground. New England is an underrated rushing team, and I look for them to have the advantage in this area.
Injuries (specifically Gronkowski): The big questions are if New England TE Rob Gronkowski can play with a high-ankle sprain, and if so, how effective will he be? I believe he will play but not nearly at 100% – see how Ben Roethlisberger was hampered by a similar injury – and that will clearly hamper New England, as Gronkowski had one of the best, if not THE best season, by a TE ever.
Having said that, I hear talk that New England won’t be able to score without Gronkowski playing well, and I don’t buy it. Bill Belichick has won three Super Bowls without having a dominant receiving option, and Aaron Hernandez is still available as a top TE for the Pats. In addition, while they’ve played fairly well over the past month, the Giants’ safeties and corners were not very good for most of the season and I look for Brady and Belichick to expose weaknesses in the deep secondary. They won’t be as explosive as normal, but the Pats will put up 24-30 points on an overrated Giants’ defense.
Interestingly, there are few other injuries of note – the Giants seemed to have used their injury quota up on season-ending cornerback injuries in August.
Key matchup: Pats’ O-line vs. Giants’ pass rush. The only thing the Giants truly do well on defense is rush the passer, and conversely the Pats’ offense is really only stymied when Brady gets hit a lot. If Umenyiora, Tuck, and company can get to Brady early and often, they can turn this into a replay of 2008 and give themselves a shot in the end. If Brady is able to sit back and make his reads, New England could win by 14.
Final Analysis: the line is Pats by 2.5, and that seems about right – this game should be close. I will be rooting for the Giants, but I cannot escape the idea that Brady is due for a HUGE game on the big stage – he hasn’t won a Super Bowl in eight years, he knows the window might be closing; I expect he will have a big day. Eli will make some plays, but not quite enough – PATS 27, GIANTS 23.
Enjoy the game!
Dave Glass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.