- Super Bowl XLVI Preview
The greatest show on turfAlex Dimond February 3, 2012
This Sunday sees the 46th Super Bowl take place, as Indianapolis plays host to an eye-catching duel between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots.
It is a game of numerous storylines. Most prominently, of course, it is a repeat of Super Bowl XLII - where Eli Manning's Giants contrived to spoil the Patriots' previously unbeaten season with a breathtaking final drive that featured arguably the most spectacular catch the sport has ever seen.
Both quarterbacks from that game four years ago are back, as are both coaches and numerous other members of each squad. The game also takes place at the Indianapolis Colts' Lucas Oil Field - the home of the team that was long considered the Patriots' biggest rivals, one also quarterbacked by Eli's older brother, Peyton (whose injury last summer ruined the Colts' season completely).
Legacies, destinies, revenge - so many elements are in play for so many players involved in the game. With the world watching (well, most of the United States and some sections of the rest of the world), all will be revealed come late on Sunday. Ahead of that, we break down some of the key elements that could decide the game.
The NFL, thanks to some rule changes, is more of a passing league than ever before. It is possible to win a Super Bowl with a mediocre man under center (hello, Trent Dilfer of the 2001 Baltimore Ravens), but is very difficult. It is no coincidence that the last two Super Bowls have been won by the two most prolific passing quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees) in the league...
New York Giants - Eli Manning
Manning is, in many ways, the polar opposite of the man he faces off against this weekend - a first round (first overall, even) draft pick who took a long time (the Super Bowl win in 2008) to really gain respect and end the doubts about him.
The son of a famous NFL quarterback (Archie) and brother of a future Hall of Famer (Peyton), the inscrutable Eli struggled in his early years - mixing some high quality play with some careless errors that only made it harder for anyone to truly judge him.
Victory in Arizona four years ago changed many perspectives on Manning, however - with people viewing his play in a new light. The 31-year-old still makes errors, but has the uncanny knack of coming up with big plays at big times, regardless of the pressure applied to him. For so long considered far inferior to Peyton (who may retire through injury this year) in terms of pure skill, his greater aptitude under pressure improbably has him one win from owning more Super Bowl rings than his worshipped sibling.
A good quarterback, but more significantly a great competitor - as Manning (who is 7/4 with bet365 to be named Super Bowl MVP) has shown to date, in must-win games that is a priceless quality.
New England Patriots - Tom Brady
Recognised as one of the best quarterbacks of all-time, and almost certainly the best of his era, a fourth Super Bowl ring for the sixth round draft pick (199th overall) might just see Tom Brady anointed as the best to ever play the game.
Hardly vaunted as a future star out of college (hence his lowly draft pick), Brady has an unmatched work ethic that chimes perfectly with coach Bill Belichick's own views on the game.
Brady has not looked back since getting a chance to start after an injury to Drew Bledsoe in 2001 - impressing with his decision-making and passing accuracy. While not possessing the strongest arm in the game, Brady invariably makes the right throws at the right times to keep his offence moving, and rarely crumbles under pressure.
Seven years without a Super Bowl title can be considered a real drought for the 34-year-old, one that has perhaps seen a slow re-evaluation of his talents in recent years. After one of the finest seasons of his career, however, victory on Sunday would end all discussions about his legacy.
New York Giants
Manning is a good quarterback with a great mentality, but he has some great weapons around him. The slippery Victor Cruz has been a breakout star at wide receiver this season (having gone undrafted through college, he led the league in receiving yards this term - a great turnaround), while Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham offer differing challenges that stretch the field both long and wide.
Brandon Jacobs is a behemoth of a running back (albeit one with a tendency to blow a bit hot and cold), a physical challenge that forces defenses to react even if he is never likely to run away with a game. He shares ball-carrying duties with Ahmad Bradshaw, a far smaller running back who offers great speed and another passing option out of the backfield.
The Giants defense is where their most obvious advantage lies, however. Osi Umenyiora remains one of the finest rushers in the game, while recent first-round pick Jason Pierre-Paul has become a destroyer this season - and will probably get a hand on Brady more than once come Sunday.
New England Patriots
The Patriots have the best quarterback ever to play the game (which does tend to help) and one of the finest coaches ever to patrol the sideline (which, in such an orchestrated game, also tends to have an impact).
The Brady-Belichick axis has been the fulcrum of the Patriots' consistent success of the last ten years (the 11-5 season of 2008 where Brady was injured and Matt Cassel took the reins perhaps an indication of the coach's significance), but there has always been a strong supporting cast to help them along.
This season the key components on offense have been two tight ends, Aaron Hernandez and Robert Gronkowski, who have quickly redefined what the position can be about. Usually a check-down, alternative passing option, the tight ends have become integral to Brady's play - with Gronkowski breaking all sorts of records for TDs from a tight end. 'The Gronk' has been struggling with an injury in the build-up to Sunday, but is nevertheless expected to be fit enough to suit up without too many concerns about his fitness.
Brady is protected by a solid offensive line, with both Logan Mankins and Brian Waters selected for the Pro Bowl this season. The defensive line is one that functions on organisation rather than outstanding talent (although there is some of that as well) - with Vince Wilfork remaining a terrier in the middle. The defensive backs are less intimidating, however.
New York Giants
Like the Patriots, the Giants have a suspiciously weak secondary - something that caused them more than a few problems throughout the regular season but has yet to prove a major hindrance come the playoffs.
The defensive line is an intimidating unit, but perhaps the same cannot be said on the other side of the ball - Eli Manning was forced to take some shuddering hits in the Conference Championship victory over the San Francisco 49ers (who, admittedly, have a quite spectacular defence) that he will be hoping to avoid this time around.
Unlike the Patriots, they have had an issue all season at tight end - Jake Ballard is increasingly utilised, but he's far from the league of Gronkowski, or the New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham - but other than that consistency has been the primary issue for an offense that, on paper, has strong running backs and productive wide receivers.
New England Patriots
The Patriots have a number of weaknesses, ones that you might reasonably expect to have caught them out before this stage. On offense, the enviable ability of their twin tight ends masks a reasonably alarming deficiency at wide receiver - with the fact Chad Ochocinco (115/1 with bet365 to score the game's first TD in a Patriots win by less than six points) can hardly get a touch more an indictment of him than his rivals at the position.
Deon Branch is an experienced wideout who lacks the pace or size to really stretch a defence, while Wes Welker is a fearless slot receiver who has nevertheless seen his role altered by Hernandez and Gronkowski's increased presence. At running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (wonderfully nicknamed 'The Law Firm' ... because that's what his name sounds like) is a competent runner, but lacks the sheer size of Jacobs that forces defenses to react and open up lanes for wide receivers.
Defensively, the Patriots were statistically among the worst in the regular season, with few standout features. Their secondary is the major concern - a collection of off-cuts from other (inferior) teams and, in the case of Julian Edelman, a wide receiver asked to do a job on the opposite side of the ball. That is an area the Giants have both the wherewithal and weapons to target, although the wily Belichick is likely to have a few schemes up his sleeves to counter that very issue.
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The Patriots have a glorious offense - routed primarily through their game-changing tight ends - but their defense is somewhat suspect and it remains to be seen whether they will get much joy out of their running game against their opponents' strong front seven. The Giants defense should be able to put pressure on Brady whenever he drops back, while Manning is likely to enjoy a solid passing day against a Patriots secondary that has even drafted a wide receiver into action in recent weeks.
It's overly tempting to suggest memories of four years ago will play on both teams' minds, but the fact remains the Giants proved they got the job done on that occasion and, while the Patriots have regressed (as any team would, after a near-perfect campaign), the Giants remain at a similar level. What is more, you sense the Giants' weaknesses match up kindly against the Patriots (who are also weak in the corresponding areas), but the reverse is not quite as true.
This is unlikely to be a blowout - but we reckon Manning can hold off Brady and enhance his reputation at the expense of his rival's in an encounter as tense, if not quite as dramatic, as four years ago.