Anyone who knows me will know that football – American, rather than Association – is my big sporting love, and has been for over 25 years now. Which is a very scary number, as it means I’ve seen more than half (56% to be exact) of the Super Bowls played.
This year’s installment of America’s biggest sporting event, probably its biggest annual event, takes place in Indianapolis this Sunday. A long time ago I would write previews of big games, analysing each team, picking apart their strengths and weaknesses, and offering predictions. These were then emailed round various friends, and sometimes what I said actually turned out to be on the money. I’ve decided to revive that, in a form that will live on in posterity (unlike those old emails!).
So here it is then, my first annual Super Bowl preview! (Obviously if football of the NFL variety isn’t your thing, you probably want to look away now. That’s fine, I understand. Honest)
New England Patriots
The Patriots’ road to the big game is one we’ve seen them take many times before – since 2001 they’ve won the AFC East division 9 times, and only once in that span have they failed to win at least 10 games. That said, the Pats weren’t the dominant force they’ve been in the past, with narrow wins over the likes of Washington, Miami, Buffalo and even Indianaoplis. Perhaps most significant of all was their week 9 loss to the Giants at Gillette Field – they Pats only home loss of the year. An omen for this Sunday?
New York Giants
While the Patriots road to the playoffs looked fairly assured for most of the season, the Giants was anything but. A four game losing streak in November and early December left them with a series of must-win games in the last four weeks of the season. And win they did, beating Dallas twice to scrape past them and take the NFC East title. A dominant defensive front, coupled with some QB play from Eli Manning have been keys to the team’s success through the last few weeks of the regular season and into the playoffs.
Giants offense vs Patriots defense
Without a dominant rushing game (they ranked 32nd in the league in both rushing yards and yards per carry) the Giants have relied heavily on veteran QB Eli Manning, and for the most part he’s done the business, throwing for just under 5,000 yards. Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz were the team’s leading receivers, combining for almost half (158) of Eli’s 359 completions. Good news for Giants fans is that NE’s defence gave up more yards than anyone except Green Bay. Not so good news is that for most teams those yards didn’t equate to points, as the Pats exhibited a “bend but don’t break” mentality. The Baltimore Ravens found this out to their cost, with four trips to the red-zone yielding just a single touchdown in the AFC Championship game. For New York to win they have to be able to finish drives consistently – field goals aren’t going to be enough.
Patriots offense vs Giants defense
New England’s running game didn’t rank particularly highly either, but with Tom Brady under center, and an impressive array of receivers to throw to, they didn’t need it. Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski led the way, combining for 212 of Brady’s 401 completed passes. Gronkowski’s fitness is in doubt for the big one, though, so Brady may need a big game from the likes of Aaron Hernandez, Deion Branch or even Chad Ochocinco to move the ball consistently. Up against them is one of the most consistently aggressive defensive fronts in the league. The Giants averaged three sacks per game in both the regular season AND the postseason. NY need to maintain this and keep the pressure on Tom Brady to have any chance of stopping the Patriots offense.
Neither team has much to write about as far as special teams go, with both having fairly average punting and return games. New England would appear at first glance to have an edge in the kicking game, with Stephen Gostkowski having a better overall success rate than Greenock-born Lawrence Tynes. However, most of Tynes misses have come outside the 40 yard line, so the kickers are fairly even too.
Keys to the game
For New York:
- Get pressure on Tom Brady, early and often. Allowing the Patriots QB to get into a rhythm spells trouble
- Turn possession into touchdowns. Field goals, or even worse coming away with nothing, will probably not be enough to win the game
- Slow the tempo of the game. Give Tom Brady enough chances, he’ll find a way to beat you, no matter how much pressure you get on him. The Giants have to limit how many times #12 gets to touch the ball
For New England:
- Establish a running game. If the Pats can move the ball on the ground early, it should slow the Giants pass rush
- Spread the ball around. With Gronkowski’s status uncertain following his high ankle sprain, Brady needs his other receivers to step up, and give him throwing options
- Don’t give up big plays. The Pats defense gives up yards, but stiffens near its own goal line. What they have to avoid, though, is giving up touchdowns from distance
Weighing all of the above up, I’m going for a 23-20 Patriots win. We’ll see if I’m right on Sunday night.
If you’re in the UK, you can watch the Super Bowl in HD, on BBC 1 or Sky Sports, this Sunday. Kick off will be around 11:15pm.