Whether you believe at this point that the "hay is in the barn," as is the case with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, or that there is coaching to be done right up to kickoff, as is the case with Giants coach Tom Coughlin, Super Bowl Sunday is finally here! In what many think is one of the most hyped, evenly matched Super Bowls of all time, both teams vie for some degree of immortality. Belichick and Tom Brady can win their fourth Super Bowl, putting them in the truly elite stratosphere. Eli Manning looks to join the club of two-time winners, with a pair of big-game victories over the great Brady-Belichick duo. Two great offenses led by two great quarterbacks will challenge a pair of suspect defenses. The two weeks of talking is over. It's time to walk the walk in front of the entire world. So as the hours wind down to the 6:29 kickoff, enjoy this very special Giants edition Super Sunday Six-Pack!
1. Pass protection – New York had 48 sacks during the regular season, led by 16.5 for second-year sensation Jason Pierre-Paul. The Giants like to use a "NASCAR" package of all defensive ends to get after the quarterback, creating a matchup challenge for opposing interior lines. Obviously the New York line was the story of the upset four years ago. The way they've talked this week, they plan on being the story of the game once again. But the Patriots offense line will have something to do with that. Logan Mankins seems ready to redeem himself. Matt Light has had a great year. And Sebastian Vollmer could be poised for a return in the biggest game of the year. Beyond just blocking the Giants, the Patriots could look to use a lot of short drops and quick throws to keep guys like Justin Tuck from getting to Brady. If that combination of protection and quick throws succeeds, Brady will find plenty of room to work against a suspect secondary that ranked 29th in the NFL in passing yards allowed. If the pressure does its job, it could be another long Super day for No. 12.
2. Run and gun – One of the great questions is how the Patriots, a true game plan offense, decide to attack an opponent. Do you run at a pass rush like New York's? Or do you spread it out and sling it? The Patriots could do both in this one. New England's no-huddle attack can wear down any defense. Combine that with a spread look and short, quick throws and it would be a good way to stagnate and tire out the Giants front. Then once you have them worn down and winded, change packages on the next drive to run right at them. BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a nice drive against the Ravens. The Giants aren't nearly as good stopping the run. Benny could get a couple series where he gets to establish himself. Other times, Brady's no-huddle spread could tear up. Keeping the Giants on their toes could be the best way to keep them off Brady's legs.
3. Cover it live – No group may be more in the spotlight than the Patriots secondary. The group has been criticized all season. It finished the year 31st in the NFL in pass yards allowed. It built some confidence with some turnovers and big plays down the stretch – thanks Sterling Moore. Now the boys in the back end face their biggest challenge of the season in the form of Manning and his impressive crew of weapons. Looking back at the regular season and through the postseason, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks are on fire. They are both big plays waiting to happen. They seemingly alternated between 50-plus yard touchdowns all year long. The Patriots likely can't afford to match anyone up with either scary target. And I don't think they'll try. New England will probably throw a variety of looks at Manning and his receivers. But in the end, the pressure is on the secondary to get the job done. It's unlikely to think they'll shut this impressive passing attack down, but the Patriots defensive backs will have to make their share of plays. They probably need to get their hands on a ball or two throughout the evening. If the secondary looks like the group that's made enough plays in the last month plus, the Patriots have a chance. If it looks more like the group that struggled to open the season then it could be a long day.
4. Special attention – There's been a lot of talk of the two high-powered passing attacks this week and their supposedly overmatched pass defenses. There's been talk of defensive fronts and offensive lines. In the end, though, there will probably be a play or two on special teams that could decide the game. It may be a game-winning field goal, ala Adam Vinatieri. Maybe it's a big kickoff return from Danny Woodhead, who's been close to breaking one of late. It could be Julian Edelman on a punt return. Maybe something as dramatic as a fake punt or onside kick. Regardless of where it comes from, there will be a play in the third phase that we'll be talking about on Monday. Speaking with Matthew Slater and some of the other New England special teamers this week, they seem poised and excited to change the tenor of this game at some point. Now they have to do it.
5. Confident vs. Cocky – The Patriots, including Bill Belichick, seemed to have a lot of fun this week. The New England team is loose, maybe as loose as it's ever been in a big game. The Giants have also been loose, borderline cocky, through the week. How will these two team demeanors come together on the field? Will there be an early feeling out process? Will it be big-play energy from the opening whistle? It's hard to assess a team's mentality from afar, but if I had to right now I'd say I like the Patriots mindset. They seem loose but ready to do business. The Giants seem too loose, almost assuming a victory. Maybe I'm wrong with this assessment. Maybe we'll find out in a few hours.
6. Gronk fiesta – All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski was the story of pre-Super Bowl week. His ankle was story No. 1. He practiced later in the week and is questionable for the game. I think it's a lock that he'll play. The question is at what level. He's arguably the most important player on the offense. He blocks when needed. He's a matchup nightmare through the air. He can win one-on-one battles. But he does all those things when healthy. Will be good enough to get all that done today? Will he fade in the second half after a long halftime break, as Dwight Freeney did a couple years ago with a similar injury? If he's anywhere near 100 percent I think Gronk could be in line for an MVP day. What a story that would be. Then he could get over to the celebratory team fiesta. If he's unable to play at a competitive level, it would really hurt the Patriots offense and overall chances of winning.
Some are expecting this to be a Super tight, down-to-the-wire game. Others think a lot of points could be put on the board by these two hot QBs. But Super Bowls rarely play out like we think they will. I see the Patriots coming out and alternating between the hurry-up spread and more powerful attack. Keeping the Giants front off balance, I think Brady will be up some early points. But I don't think Manning will wilt. He hasn't all season. He'll fight back and he has the guys to make plays through the air against a still-suspect Patriots secondary. The game will be close in the 20s in the second half. But in the end I see the Patriots defense making the play or two it needs – including a turnover – to sway the game. Then I think you'll see a long, run-based drive to put the game away. The Patriots take the 35-24 victory to bring a fourth Lombardi Trophy back to Foxborough.