- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2008

PHOENIX — Double-digit underdogs to perhaps the greatest team in NFL history, the New York Giants have a chance at upsetting the New England Patriots tonight in Super Bowl XLII.

Absolutely, the Giants can win.

If Eli Manning plays the game of his life, the Giants can win.

If their vaunted pass rush can break through the Patriots’ stout offensive line and force Tom Brady, he of the gimpy ankle, to move around, the Giants can win.

If every break goes in their favor — penalties, turnovers, replay challenges — the Giants can win.

Seriously, they can.

“Never say never,” defensive end Michael Strahan said.

Said defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo: “I certainly feel it’s the [ultimate challenge]. They’re one of the elite teams of the last 10 years.”

Said coach Tom Coughlin: “We’ve been underdogs pretty much every time we’ve played. We’ve gone on the road and been underdogs. We’ve been underdogs at home. It’s kind of been a natural thing. The main theme that comes out of that for our team is having something to prove.”

And during his final message to the team, Coughlin’s theme points to one example.

The 2001 New England Patriots.

The Patriots started 0-2. The Giants started 0-2.

The Patriots won the AFC title game on the road. The Giants won the NFC title game on the road.

The Patriots were 14-point underdogs to St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI. The Giants are 12-point underdogs tonight.

New England started its dynasty (three titles in four years) with an upset win over the Rams in New Orleans. The Giants can help the 1972 Miami Dolphins remain the only undefeated team in the Super Bowl era with a win tonight, which would be New York’s third Vince Lombardi trophy.

Four double-digit underdogs have won the Super Bowl: The Joe Namath Jets (plus 18 vs. the Colts), the Hank Stram Chiefs (plus 12 vs. the Vikings), the John Elway Broncos (plus 12 vs. Green Bay) and the Brady/Belichick Patriots (plus 14 vs. St. Louis).

The Giants are one of the poorest teams to reach the Super Bowl. Since the introduction of the 16-game schedule in 1978, two other teams have reached the game with a record worse than 11-5: the 1979 Rams (9-7) and the 1988 49ers (10-6). But San Francisco, which defeated Cincinnati, had Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Roger Craig.

The Giants are the fourth team to start 0-2 and reach the Super Bowl, joining the 1993 Cowboys (with Emmitt Smith holding out) and the 1996 and 2001 Patriots.

Two other statistics that help qualify the Giants’ postseason run as unlikely: New York had a minus-10 turnover ratio — only the 1983 Raiders had a worse differential (minus 13). Los Angeles defeated the Redskins 38-9 in Super Bowl XVII.

But what do the Giants have going in their favor and why should the Big Blue Faithful have hope this morning?

A few reasons. Some legitimate, others a stretch.

Start with Manning.

He has turned into a game manager this postseason. He’s not turning it over and all of a sudden, people consider him a premier quarterback. But Manning has a decent running game, three receivers who are getting open (Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, Steve Smith) and a knack for making key throws on third down.

But against the most prolific offense in NFL history, Manning will have to take chances and avoid throwing interceptions.

“The teams that have success on the field, there’s a very clear understanding by the quarterback of what it is you’re trying to achieve as an offense,” Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said. “He understands what we’re doing, it’s for a reason. He understands what I’m anticipating.”

A change-of-pace running back like rookie Ahmad Bradshaw could let Manning’s play-action skills become a factor. A seventh-round pick, Bradshaw leads the Giants with 163 rushing yards this postseason. New England’s defense has been prone to long runs. The Patriots ranked 26th in yards allowed a carry (4.4) in the regular season.

The more effective Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs are, the longer New York can control the ball, which means Brady can’t cause his usual damage.

Spagnuolo said during the week that after the Patriots’ 38-35 win over the Giants in Week 17, he thought his defense did some good things until he looked at the box score — the 38 points and the 356 yards passing by Brady.

The Giants led the NFL with 53 sacks in the regular season (although they got to Brady just once). In the postseason, New York has three sacks but 35 quarterback hurries, including 26 quarterback hits.

New England allowed only 21 sacks in nearly 600 dropbacks by Brady this season and its offensive line features three Pro Bowl selections. But if Strahan, Osi Umeniyora and Justin Tuck can force Brady to force the issue, the Giants could force some takeaways and give their offense a short field.

A great game by Manning. A 100-yard effort by Bradshaw. Big plays downfield by Burress. Game-long harassment of Brady.

If all that happens, then the Giants could beat the Patriots.

Seriously, they can.

WHY IT COULD HAPPEN

The Giants are a 12-point underdog in tonight’s Super Bowl against the New England Patriots. Here are five reasons why they could pull one of the biggest upsets in the game’s history:

1. Eli Manning doesn’t just manage the game

The fourth-year quarterback has been heaped with praise this postseason because of his ability to avoid turnovers. But managing the game won’t cut it against the Patriots, whose record-setting offense is bound to hit 30 points. Anything less than 300 yards and three touchdowns by Manning won’t be good enough. Expect New York to come out with an aggressive game plan and play-caller Kevin Gilbride to let Manning sling it downfield.

2. Tom Brady throws three interceptions

It happened for the Patriots quarterback in the AFC Championship game against the Chargers. But San Diego managed only two field goals (on drives that started in New England territory) and a punt. Brady has 11 interceptions in 639 regular season and playoff passes, so the chances are slim he’ll throw multiple interceptions. But if he does, the Giants have to score touchdowns — not field goals — off the takeaways.

3. Bradshaw gains 100 yards

New England’s defense ranked 10th against the run in the regular season but 26th in yards a carry, meaning the Patriots are susceptible to long runs. In the regular season, opponents had 40 carries that gained at least 10 yards and 16 rushes that gained more than 15 yards. Enter Ahmad Bradshaw. A complement to bruiser Brandon Jacobs, Bradshaw has shown quickness and an ability to make defenders miss. If he can pop a few long runs, the Giants can churn out some time-consuming drives.

4. Justin Tuck is unblockable

Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora get more attention, but Tuck is a force as a pass-rusher. Against the Redskins in Week 15, he was the Giants’ best defensive lineman. In the playoffs, he has eight tackles, three quarterback hurries and four quarterback hits. At 6-5, 274, his quickness might be too much for Patriots left tackle Matt Light to handle one-on-one. If Tuck (10 regular-season sacks) can get to Brady from the blind side, he can try and force a fumble.

5. R.W. McQuarters does something big

McQuarters, the Giants’ veteran nickel cornerback, had no interceptions and three pass break-ups in the regular season. But in the playoffs, he has made big plays in each of New York’s three road wins with three interceptions and four pass break-ups. He also has averaged 9.1 yards on punt returns. There’s a good chance McQuarters will be roasted in coverage if assigned to Wes Welker in the slot. There’s also a chance he could jump a route and intercept Brady.

Ryan O’Halloran

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