If poor Billy Cundiff, the Baltimore Ravens’ kicker, hadn’t flinched in the final seconds against New England, both conference championship games this year would have gone into overtime. Think about that. Think about how little difference there was, qualitatively, among the NFL’s Final Four. Has there ever been less?
The Patriots will throw down with the New York Giants on Sunday in Super Bowl XLVI, but it just as easily could have been a Ravens-San Francisco 49ers matchup — or either of the other possible pairings. Pats-Giants works better for NBC because Tom Brady vs. Eli Manning is dreamier than, say, Joe Flacco vs. Alex Smith. But there was nothing at all definitive about two title games. One team won, another lost. The caravan moved on.
So neither the Patriots nor the Giants will stride into Lucas Oil Stadium with the Swagger of Certainty. There’s no prohibitive favorite here, unlike so many other Super Bowls — including the one four years ago, when the 60-minutes-from-perfection Pats faced a Giants club that had clawed its way up from the wild card ranks. Yes, the Giants edged the Pats in Week 9 this season, but let’s not forget: Albert Haynesworth still was playing for New England then.
At any rate, this is a rematch that will keep lips flapping like a flock of seagulls from now until kickoff. But then, every Super Bowl is like that now, it seems — a terrific matchup with compelling storylines that produces a memorable game (to say nothing of the commercials).
Thinking out loud about Super Bowl XLVI:
• Brady has won three Super Bowls, Manning one. Yet, strangely, there might be more pressure on Tom in this game than on Eli. Why? Because in five of his past six postseason outings, dating to the 2007 AFC championship against San Diego, he hasn’t been at his best. In some instances, spotty protection had something to do with it, but there’s no question he needs to raise his game Sunday if he wants to add to his ring collection — and keep his name alive in the Greatest Quarterback of All Time discussion.
• As for Manning, he never has led the league in anything other than interceptions (twice), but when the week is out, he might have more Super Bowl wins than his iconic brother, Peyton (and as many as John Elway and Roger Staubach). Suddenly, almost quietly — if anything can be done quietly in New York — Eli has become a fabulous clutch player, pulling out game after game in the fourth quarter and OT. He reminds you a little of Jim Plunkett, another No. 1 overall pick who took a while to get his legs under him before capturing two Super Bowls, but he’s had a better career than Plunkett did (and, unlike Plunkett, has stayed in one place). At 31, he should have some good years ahead of him, too, maybe even enough to take a run at the Hall of Fame. Who would have imagined that before the first Patriots-Giants Super Bowl?
• Is Jason Pierre-Paul the most unstoppable defensive force in the NFL? Sunday’s game could go a long way toward answering that question. In Week 1, when the Giants opened at FedEx Field, hardly anybody knew who the second-year end (and former first-round pick) was. He was just “some guy” filling in at right end for injured Osi Umenyiora. But Pierre-Paul made himself highly visible that day with two sacks — and went on to have an All-Pro year, one that included a huge field goal block in Dallas that might have saved the Giants‘ season. In the second Redskins-Giants game in December, he was credited with 16 tackles, an incredible number for a D-lineman. Will the Patriots be able to control him (and still pay proper attention to Umenyiora and Justin Tuck)?
• Over the years, the Patriots have been masters of the narrow escape. They blew a 17-3 fourth-quarter lead against St. Louis in the Super Bowl — and lived tell about it. They blew a 21-10 fourth-quarter lead against Carolina in the Super Bowl — and lived to tell about. They were staring at overtime in the recent AFC title game — until Cundiff gave them a belated Christmas present. Can they continue to live so dangerously in what figures to be another closer-than-close Super Bowl?
• Rob Gronkowski’s high ankle sprain — you have to wonder about it. With his record-setting 17 touchdown catches and bouncer-quality blocking, he’s a huge part of the New England offense. If the all-world tight end is limited in any way, that’s not good for Brady and Co. (especially since Tom no longer has linebacker Mike Vrabel as a receiving threat down on the goal line).
• Vince Lombardi won five NFL titles, the most in the modern era. A win Sunday would give the Patriots’ Bill Belichick four — with time enough (he’s 59) to catch St. Vincent. In other words, there’s a lot riding on this game. Heck, look at Tom Coughlin. Another Super Bowl victory for him might put him, improbably, on the cusp of Canton. (He took Jacksonville to two AFC championship games, you may recall, before he climbed into the Giants‘ hot seat.).
And finally …
• In the first 23 Super Bowls, the losing team scored 20 or more points only three times. In the past 22 Super Bowls, the losers have scored 20-plus nine times. Stat No. 2: The Patriots have put up 30 or more points 13 times this season. They’ve also given up 20-plus the same number of times. Translation: We’re probably not looking at another 17-14 Giants-Patriots Super Bowl, especially since the game is being played in a dome. No, this one should keep the scoreboard operator plenty busy. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had to put in for overtime.