So we have reached the end of the line in this wild NFL season. We are three days away from the Super Bowl, which constitutes a rematch of possibly the best Super Bowl ever.
The New England Patriots will try their luck again with Eli Manning and the New York Giants on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Though the Patriots offense isn't as glitzy as it was four years ago, it certainly is strong. They have a pair of difference-making tight ends. The question is will the better of the two be available on Sunday, and if so to what extent? Plus, there is still Tom Brady who (love him or hate him) you have to respect the job he has done getting the Patriots here with an inconsistent running game and a secondary that suffered through injuries and poor play for the majority of the year.
The Giants have been almost a replica of themselves from their last Super Bowl run. They got hot at the right time, and they faced a playoff type atmosphere before the actual postseason began. When they beat the Jets and Cowboys in consecutive weeks to wrap up the divisional title, New York set sail on their run. Manning has done it with a receiving corps that is really talented, but had its off moments during the year, and a defense that is sorely lacking play-making ability outside of Michael Boley at the linebacker position. Also, their running game has been absent thanks in big part to Ahmad Bradshaw missing time during the year.
Now that the stage is set, what are some things to look for? Here are a few match-ups and scenarios to watch on Sunday while you're enjoying your Super Bowl party spread.
1. GRONKED OUT?- Rob Gronkowski set the record for receiving yards by a tight end during the regular season, and is a yards after catch monster. He's really tough to bring down in the open field because of his raw strength. Well, he's been hobbled by an ankle injury that he suffered late in the AFC championship game. Remember the impact Maurkice Pouncey's injury had for the Pittsburgh Steelers? At center, he kept together a shaky offensive line, but after murmurs that he might play, Pouncey did not. The Steelers were jumped by an aggressive defense early on that forced a couple of bad mistakes by Ben Roethlisberger, and of course Green Bay won.
Fast forward to this season, and Gronkowski is an added element of that offense, which is really tough to prepare for. If he's out of the equation or not at full speed, it suddenly becomes a little bit easier for the Giants' coverage schemes. Remember, New York does have a good secondary that can focus on controlling Wes Welker and Deion Branch on the outside. With that said, Brady would have a lot more against him if this one important man named "Gronk" is not able to go.
2. A WIL-FORK IN THE ROAD- The Giants' running game resembled that of Green Bay last year. They were not effective for most of the season, but stepped up and did enough in the playoffs. Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs need to get at least the positive yards they got early on against San Francisco. Just the fact that Kevin Gilbride is willing to commit consistently enough to the running game early on should be a big key as it was two weeks ago. However, Vince Wilfork is waiting in the middle, and he showed everyone what he's capable of at his best. He'll lead the way up front defensively for the Patriots, and maybe the Giants' best hope for rushing success again will be to try to set the edge with Bradshaw.
3. HANDS TEAM- Mario Manningham has been playing well of late, but this is the big stage. Mostly he, and at times Hakeem Nicks, have had problems with drops. You can't leave opportunities out there to move the chains and move the ball down the field because this Patriots offense is much more efficient than San Francisco. They'll make you pay for it. Nicks, Manningham, and the rest of the receiving corps needs to be up to par early on to help set the tone.
4. NOT ESPECIALLY SPECIAL- In what is expected to be a close game, special teams is often looked at as a difference maker. The one problem- both of these teams don't have stand-outs in the special teams unit. If the game is won through that third phase it will be how the Giants beat San Francisco, which is off of mistakes in returns. Other than that, both teams' return units are below average, and their coverage units are both solid. Plus, Lawrence Tynes has proven he can make big game kicks, and I'm not worried about Stephen Gostkowski who is 85 percent in his career in field goal conversions, and is usually reliable.
5. WE MEET AGAIN- Remember, the Giants went up to New England and beat them 24-20 back in November. The Patriots haven't lost a game since. Remember also, New York forced four turnovers in that game, yet still had to rely on a last minute drive by Manning that completed with the winning touchdown pass to Jake Ballard with 15 seconds to go. New York had a lot of things break right for them, but you make your own breaks as well. The Giants can force turnovers, and it starts up front with that rush. However, even if nobody in the Patriots locker room is saying it, I would be willing to bet that they remember that loss, and are looking for a measure of revenge.
Now for the capsule on the game itself, and my selection.
N.Y. GIANTS VS NEW ENGLAND (-2.5)- This game is different in many aspects. It's expected to be closer than what Las Vegas tried to tell people in 2008, Eli is getting much more deserved respect going in, and there are only 23 players from both teams who played in that Super Bowl four years ago. However, the more I think about it, what hasn't changed? The Giants' defensive front is not only as strong, but maybe is better overall than four years ago. New England does have some experience on that offensive line, but are they quick enough to handle the rush of Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umenyiora among others? With both of these quarterbacks, you know what you're going to get. They're both high caliber signal callers who have not been shaken with any kind of adversity. I have been back and forth on this game since it was set, and I'm still not sure. The difference is small, but I think the Giants force that extra turnover, and the injury to Gronkowski has flipped me this way as well. I like the Giants to win, and I will go out on the limb a bit on who I believe will get the MVP. I think it will be Victor Cruz who completes this year's journey that started when almost nobody knew who he was. His ability not only over the middle to make catches in traffic, but also his ability to outrun corners on the edge for big plays should, and I believe will be utilized.
N.Y. GIANTS-27 NEW ENGLAND-24
CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP WEEK
2-0 STRAIGHT UP
2-0 AGAINST THE SPREAD
OVERALL PLAYOFF RECORD
7-3 STRAIGHT UP
5-5 AGAINST THE SPREAD
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