By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
Certain events come along with such certain outcomes that the more fun and edifying course comes from entertaining a less likely scenario.
Try cooking up a story in which, given the evidence, O.J. didn’t do it. In which Pete Rose didn’t bet on baseball. In which Bill Clinton did not have sex with that woman.
Or, in which the New York Giants will beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
How does anyone beat the Patriots this year? No one has done it so far, including the Giants, whose 38-35 loss to New England at the end of the season gave the Patriots the final piece in their 16-0 regular season.
The Patriots could be the best assembly of athletic performance machinery we’ve ever seen. Without winning a Super Bowl in three years, they’ve been the champions in waiting the whole time. Playing for their fourth Super Bowl title in the last seven seasons, this franchise is the NFL’s state of the art, the model operation.
It happens that two straight years without the trophy compelled New England to redouble its efforts this year with a shopping spree for wide receivers, including the incredible Randy Moss. Now, they’re better than ever.
With Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth added to the arsenal, New England already turned its very good team into a great team. The infamous “Spygate” episode, in which the NFL busted a Patriots’ staffer taking unauthorized video of the opener against the New York Jets, added fury to the Patriots’ fuel.
By halfway into the season, the Patriots appeared unbeatable, then proved their invincibility every time an opponent produced enough nerve to lead in the second half. This New England team is certainly one for the books, finishing off the best regular-season performance in NFL history.
A Super Bowl win doesn’t merely make the Patriots 19-0. It stamps them as the best franchise over seven years during the 42-year Super Bowl era. They truly are an historical football team.
But if we return to the start of this New England dynasty, we spy a fascinating parallel, which could remind us of an important factor when the Patriots line up against the New York Giants Sunday in Super Bowl XLII.
In 2002, the Patriots went to their first Super Bowl with head coach Bill Belichick. The Patriots were just another football team through ten weeks of that season, sitting on 5-5 after losing three of their first four games. But the Patriots rallied with eight straight wins, going to the Super Bowl by forcing turnovers, taking care of the ball and playing opportunistic special teams.
Their Super Bowl opponent, the St. Louis Rams, entered the game as prohibitive favorites. Immediately after they beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL Championship Game, odds makers started setting them at 16-point favorites in the Super Bowl. The Rams led the NFL in offensive and defensive yardage, cruised to a 14-2 regular season record and won eight times, playoffs included, by more than two touchdowns.
The Rams, however, played through one evident flaw. They couldn’t take care of the ball. If their gambling offense rang up more than 500 points for the third straight year, they also lost 31 fumbles and 24 interceptions. Against most opponents, the Rams could whistle past their turnovers.
The Super Bowl would be a different story. The Rams outgained the Patriots, 427-267. But the Patriots made no turnovers and the Rams made three, which the Patriots turned into 17 points. The Patriots won, 20-17, one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history.
Now we come to the Super Bowl New England is supposed to win, and the tables are slightly turned. Though the Patriots finished the regular season plus-16 in turnovers and the New York Giants finished minus-14, the postseason is a different story. The Giants haven’t made a turnover during the playoffs, while Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has thrown three interceptions.
If the Giants can win the turnover battle, then New England’s superiority is negated and the Giants are in this game. The Giants already know they can play with New England. And the Giants are a better team today than when they lost to New England.
The keys for New York are its defensive line and quarterback Eli Manning. If New York defensive ends Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck play the games of their lives, New England will be forced to help its offensive tackles, taking receivers out of patterns.
Though Strahan, Umenyiora and Tuck combined this season for 32 sacks, the Giants only got to Brady once in their Week 17 encounter. If the Giants can play more to their regular form in the Super Bowl, we could be looking at a much different game. At the very least, New York’s pass rush could force New England to run, taking away the quick strike.
Manning absolutely must take care of the ball. Giants wide receivers Plaxico Burress and Armani Toomer both did excellent work against the Green Bay Packers and their defensive backs during the NFL Championship Game, while Manning made accurate throws. The Giants’ passing game is not a thrill ride, but it is a solid operation.
Somehow, the Giants must run the ball. But the New England defense is vulnerable, definitely the team’s weak point. New York running backs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw are hammers who can pound on the New England defense and wear it down, provided the Giants can take care of the ball and keep it away from Brady.
Unquestionably, the Patriots are the best single-season football team we’ve ever seen coming up to the Super Bowl. The 17-0 Miami Dolphins of 1972 couldn’t match New England’s week-for-week dominance.
But if the Giants can produce a pass rush to take New England receivers out of patterns, and if Manning can take care of the ball, and if the Giants can win the turnover battle, and if the Giants can run the ball, they will stand a chance.
Then again, even if the Giants do all that, the Patriots might still win. By all indications, they are that much better. But the true indication is yet to come.Email | Print