Sunday, February 3, 2008

Super Bowl preview

By Rick Morris

A quick note at the outset: I am an unashamed, unabashed admirer of the 1972 Dolphins. During the course of this past season, it has become apparent that I am one of the few anywhere, apparently, as the champagne toasts and braggadocio about The Perfect Season that I find amusing and appropriate are hated by the rest of Western Civilization. How Don Shula, Mercury Morris and the rest of the gang I appreciate and respect have managed to "babyface" Bill Belichick (in the parlance of pro wrestling) by comparison remains one of the great mysteries of life to me. I also don't care much for The Hoodie. But I pride myself on objective analysis and I will not let my personal biases factor into my assessments of this game. Also, I will be live-blogging the game on this very blog as it is unfolding.

^ First of all, here's a look at some of the best resources you will find anywhere for your pre-game reading. Pro Football Weekly has a great overall game breakdown, injury report, series of keys to the game, position-by-position comparison and series of staff predictions. CBS Sports has a detailed game breakdown video up on its website. And USA Today has a great Tale of the Tape that breaks down the statistics in excellent fashion.

^ Football Outsiders made the very provocative argument that this Super Bowl is the biggest mismatch in history on paper. They back up that statement quite well, although they hasten to add that that does not mean the Giants have no chance to win. The gist of the matter is that not only have the Pats been playing at the historic clip to get to 18-0 (especially on offense, as we are all well aware), the Giants come into the game having put together a fairly mediocre season by the standards of the previous 82 teams that made the Super Bowl (when the whole of the season is considered statistically). Frankly, the dramatic improvement (whether lasting or otherwise -- we'll find out) of Eli Manning is a microcosm for what the Giants are trying to do here -- put together a dramatic, almost-unprecedented in-season improvement that culminates in a Super Bowl win.

^ In my previous analysis of the postseason, I have referred to the Giants defense as being nothing more than the sum total of its pass rush. The secondary and the run defense have striven mightily to prove me wrong, especially in the NFC Championship Game. I question strongly whether they can bring anything near that level of effectiveness tonight, inasmuch as they weren't able to do much in their previous loss to the Pats. There's only so much fault you can drop on a team for getting picked apart by Brady & Company, though, as I noted in my postmortem of the playoff game against Jacksonville; the Jags tried their best to put a body on all available weapons, but there are just too many. And the admittedly superhuman Giant pass rush can be disarmed by effective running from Laurence Maroney and screen passes to that wee little sprite Kevin Faulk.

^ Analysts who claim that the Giants are better off for having played the Pats and for having almost pushed them to the brink in Week 17 are probably right. New England has an enormous mental edge over everyone they play, but the intimidation factor is probably a tad less against a team that stood in better against them than almost anyone else.

^ No talk of Belichick's Patriots can be complete without addressing the role of various mind games that are constantly taking place. Doubtless he is deriving additional motivation from the interjection into the process of Spygate one more time from Professional Ambulance Chaser Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Spector. And the "Brady in a walking boot" motif struck me as a self-indulgent attempt by New England to interject a little drama into the proceedings, perhaps a bit the same as Bob Griese reemerging from injury to lead the Perfect Team over the top 35 years ago. Although the Giants will bring the heat in abundance, I don't look for Brady's alleged injury to play any part in the outcome whatsoever.

^ In terms of fun irrelevancies to the final outcome, this game marks the first time that two teams enter with a combined appearance figure in double digits: it's the Pats' sixth appearance and the Giants' fourth. Also, it marks the third time in the history of the Super Bowl that teams will play each other after missing a previous meeting by one year. The first time was in Super Bowl 19 when the 49'ers and Dolphins faced off against each other (San Francisco appeared in Super Bowl 16, Miami in Super Bowl 17). The second time was in Super Bowl 24 when the 49'ers and Broncos were matched (Denver appeared in Super Bowl 22, San Francisco in Super Bowl 23). The Giants and Patriots have twice missed playing each other in the Super Bowl by one year: New England was in Super Bowl 20, while the Giants made it to Super Bowl 21 and then the Giants were in Super Bowl 35, a year before the Pats in Super Bowl 36. The good news for those hoping for the big upset? NFC teams are 2-0 in such situations. Pete Axthelm would be proud!

^ Here's my actual prediction: I see the game being moderately high-scoring and hovering right around the pointspreads for side and total. I don't see the Giants being any closer to victory on the second go-round minus an unexpected turnover burst from New England; Belichick and his crew have had two weeks to prepare and extend their natural coaching advantage. New York will probably be coming from behind, perhaps as early as the second quarter, and they will be more predictable if they are. New England will look to establish great offensive balance between the run and the pass and in all likelihood they hit their offensive trough in their unimpressive effort against San Diego two weeks ago. The Giant pass rush will have to force at least two fumbles from Tom Brady or an equivalent number of interceptions from what would be uncharacteristically poor throws. Randy Moss and Plaxico Burress will probably each have decent but not hugely explosive games. Interestingly enough, neither team has punted the ball very well this season, so defensive stops could well result in good field position for the incoming offenses. In the end, the field for MVP will probably end up being crowded with a few possibilities, but Brady will take it, not least of which because the media has been snowed about the "adversity he is overcoming with his injury." New England finishes running the slate with a Super Bowl 42 win, 34-20.

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