PHOENIX -- I admire a good underdog story as much as the next guy, and the one featuring the New York Giants is extremely compelling.
They've also written a pretty nice comeback story, turning red-hot at the absolute right time -- the beginning of the postseason.
I like Eli Manning's transformation from underachieving No. 1 overall pick to consistent elite performer. I like Tom Coughlin's transformation from ultra-rigid drill sergeant to a coach who can listen as well as he dictates.
But I don't like anything about the Giants as much as I like the New England Patriots' chances of being 19-0 after Super Bowl XLII.
The Pats had the look of an NFL champion back in August, when I (along with many others) picked them to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy for a fourth time. They've since developed the look of dominance that has put them in a position to make history and go down as the greatest team in the history of the league … and one of the greatest in the history of sports.
Here are five reasons why the Patriots will achieve perfection on Sunday:
- Tom Brady will perform at his best. His much-discussed ankle injury, suffered in the AFC Championship Game, won't be a factor. It didn't even show up on the Patriots' injury report, and he practiced all week. Brady's struggles against San Diego in the AFC title game were an aberration. Against the Giants, we will see the Brady who won league MVP by throwing 50 touchdowns. On Sunday, he will attack the middle of the field with slot receiver Wes Welker and tight end Benjamin Watson. Welker and Watson are fast enough to split safeties Gibril Wilson and James Butler and help open up the perimeter for speedy wideouts Randy Moss and Donte' Stallworth, with one or both reaching the end zone.
- The Pats will be able to run the ball effectively. The most under-appreciated aspect of the offense is their rushing attack, which ranked 13th in the NFL. Laurence Maroney has come on as a major force in the postseason. Maroney is particularly successful running up the middle, behind center Dan Koppen and guards Logan Mankins and Russ Hochstein. He should continue to have that sort of impact in the Super Bowl in order to help slow down the Giants' pass rush and give the Patriots' offense some balance.
- Brady will effectively use play-action against the Giants' aggressive defensive front. He is one of the very best quarterbacks in the league at reading the blitz, and quickly checking to hot routes. The Patriots will spread the field with four- and five-receiver sets and let Brady locate mismatches. Most everything that the Pats do on offense begins with Brady using play-fakes and attacking with short and intermediate passes. The quicker he gets the ball out -- especially on sideline routes -- the better his chances of keeping the chains moving and getting into a rhythm. And he will be able to do exactly that on Sunday.
- New England should do a good job of handling the Giants' impressive one-two rushing attack of powerful Brandon Jacobs and speedy Ahmad Bradshaw. The Patriots did an excellent job of shutting down Jacksonville's rushing attack, one of the best in the NFL, in their divisional-round victory over the Jaguars. The Pats' run-stopping ability begins with nose tackle Vince Wilfork using his considerable lower-body strength and leverage to clog the middle and force runners to bounce outside to Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas. New England's aging inside linebackers, 39-year-old Junior Seau and 34-year-old Tedy Bruschi, should be able to count on Wilfork to keep them free of blockers. The Giants will need at least two blockers to handle to Wilfork, and that should help provide freedom for ends Richard Seymour and Ty Warren, and the Pats' linebackers.
- Once the Patriots have the Giants' running game under control, they will be able to confuse Eli Manning, or at least keep him off balance, by mixing up fronts and coverages. Although Manning has yet to throw an interception in the postseason, he should count on some pass-rushing configurations that he has never seen before and coverages that will cause him to hold the ball and/or take a sack, make a poor pass under duress, or entice him into making a bad pass.
Regardless of how they do it, a Patriots victory over the Giants will be the sort of achievement that can be admired for many, many years to come. That's because -- given the 35 seasons that have passed since the Miami Dolphins went 17-0 -- it will likely be many, many years before we see another perfect season in the NFL ... if we see another.
I expect the Patriots to write the final chapter of this incredible season with a blowout win. Final score: Pats 42, Giants 10.