Friday, February 03, 2012
It used to be cliche in this wonderful country of ours to work a nice punch-line in about the absurdly non-competitive Super Bowls that would occur year after year. No matter how close the match-up appeared on paper, for many years, the match-up on the field never lived up to the hype. Not even a little bit.
From Super Bowl 21 through Super Bowl 30 (representing the 1986-1995 seasons), the margin for victory of the Super Bowl was at an all-time high 19.9 points per game. Perhaps that has something to do with the age right before full-fledged free agency and salary caps. Perhaps it has more to do with some legendary teams in San Francisco and Dallas that may be unmatched in their talent and depth. But, for whatever reason, the Super Bowls back then were far more about commercials, half-time shows, and late night talk show monolouges using the final score for a laugh.
Even before that, the Super Bowl was not a place for great drama. The decade before that (Super Bowls 11-20) had a margin of 17 points per game, and the first decade of Super Bowls (1-10) gave us games with a 13 point per game difference. There was some theater along the way, but really, not too much in the big scheme of things.
But, along with the rest of professional football, this last decade has given us something that we have never seen before - consistently competitive and generally entertaining Super Bowls. From Super Bowl 36-45, we have had an average margin of victory at an all-time low of 8 points per game. In fact, aside from Super Bowl 37, when Rich Gannon threw 5 interceptions to the eager Tampa Bay defenders, the Super Bowl has had 9 games separated by just 59 points.
Of the 12 Super Bowls to be decided by less than a Touchdown, we have seen 6 of them in the last 10 years. This, like the low seeds advancing to the Super Bowl after not winning their own division in some cases is another characteristic of this age of professional football. It would seem to speak of the parity and perceived randomness of success, but then that would not properly credit the New England Patriots for what they have done in this decade.
They will be playing in their 5th Super Bowl in 11 years on Sunday, with a chance to win their 4th Super Bowl, which would tie them for 4th all-time with Green Bay, despite not having any Super Bowl victories before the year 2001. They will play in their 7th Super Bowl overall, now just trailing the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers for all-time appearances.
The Patriots are a testament to this age that excellence can still be discovered, but the theme of finding a franchise QB to lead you there is consistent with any age of football. Finding him in the 6th round is the exception, but his quality is at the top as Brady finds his way to his 5th Super Bowl with a chance to win his 4th, putting him in a neighborhood where only Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw have previously resided.
Meanwhile, the Giants perhaps are that poster-boy for this era. Win a Super Bowl in 2007 as a low seed that got on a roll, go dormant for 3 seasons without a single playoff victory, and then get on a roll with a low seed again in 2011 all the way to the Super Bowl. Somehow, in a year where they were swept by Washington, beaten at home by Seattle, and beaten at home by the Eagles with Vince Young for his only win of the season, they find themselves ready to win their 4th Super Bowl in franchise history - albeit in 4 different decades.
The Giants story, from their head coach to their quarterback appear to be a reminder that you can never be quick to judge a competitor at the highest level with a small sample size. Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning have a chance to be multiple-time Super Bowl winners, therefore giving them both a distinct copy point when their careers are measured for historical honors. Whether they pass the eyeball test in October or not is rendered rather irrelevant if they can win another Lombardi Trophy. Eli has already won more playoff road games than any QB in NFL History, so it is becoming increasingly difficult to not give him his due.
To add to the compelling nature of this contest, we have the boxing adage that "styles make fights". It seems that the Giants defense plays the proper style to uniquely give the Patriots offensive machine some discomfort. Whether we use their meeting in Super Bowl 42 or their meeting in Foxboro in November as a reference point, it seems clear that Brady was unable to find a real rhythm in either situation, thus keeping the game close throughout. Then, late in each game, Manning was able to put together high-impact drives to win both games in dramatic fashion. The Patriots are a team that finds its way into the 30s on the scoreboard routinely, and yet, in those two meetings against the Giants, they have not exceeded 20 points. Again, we must beware of the small sample size, but you can understand the reason for concern. Rob Gronkowski's ankle situation provides even more as the Giants have used a fair amount of bracket coverage on the tight ends to force Brady's throws to the outside of the field, and this should be made easier.
In looking at the contest from the other side, it is easy to be drawn to Vince Wilfork as a potential game breaker on the Patriots line. He destroyed a good portion of the Ravens' game plan in the AFC Championship Game, and with help from the rest of that line that varies from the 3-4 to the 4-3 from week to week, if they can make a real push and collapse the pocket around Eli, they should have a decent chance. But, the concern here would be knowing that the Giants have a QB-slot receiver combo in Manning and Victor Cruz that should force New England to dig deep down that defensive back depth chart and if Julian Edelman is trying to cover the slot again, Eli will play pitch and catch.
In the end, when forced to close my eyes and try to imagine how Super Bowl 46 plays out, I will play the percentages of turnovers deciding the outcome of this game. Many people forget, Asante Samuel dropped a rather easy Eli Manning interception with a bit over a minute to play in Super Bowl 42 that would have won the game for the Patriots. In some ways, it could remind someone of the 49ers dropped interception late in the NFC Championship Game 2 weeks ago. Like Brett Favre, Eli will throw a pass or two up for grabs and if you can pick it off, you will win. On the other hand, Brady has thrown 1 pick in 156 Super Bowl passes and therefore often doesn't flirt with disaster.
The team that wins the turnover battle in the Super Bowl is 33-4 with the only exceptions being Super Bowl 5, 14, 23, and 40. I think this will control the game and I trust Brady more.
So, expect it to be close and expect to be decided with a turnover in the 4th Quarter. High Drama in Super Bowl 46, with the prediction here of PATRIOTS 24, GIANTS 20.
Should be an outstanding way to finish another memorable season. And then I guess we have other sports to hold us over until we re-rack in August.