If you’re looking for a reason to believe as the Giants prepare to face the Patriots on Sunday — that is, besides Madonna’s preference for Eli Manning over Tom Brady — don’t look back to the 17-14 Super Bowl victory over New England four years ago.
The Giants started the year not knowing how they would replace a swarm of excellent receivers and wound up with better ones than they had last year. In fact, in Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, the Giants may have the two greatest deep threats ever to play alongside each other in team history. Cruz caught 82 balls for an 18.7 average; Nicks wasn’t bad either, with 76 and 15.7. The Patriots, meanwhile, became pretty much the first team in NFL history to succeed with what is basically a tight end-oriented offense: Rob Gronkowski made 90 catches this year for a 14.7 average and Aaron Hernandez had 79 at 11.5.
These are almost completely different teams on both sides of the ball. Not only that, but there are so many players on both offense and defense who have either returned to the lineup from injuries or assumed key roles over the second half of the season that both are essentially much different teams than they were on opening day.
Put another way, the two teams have practically reversed their strategies from the 2008 Super Bowl. Then, you’ll recall, it was the Patriots who were known for getting the ball downfield to wideouts (like Randy Moss) and the Giants who played the shorter, controlled passing game.
What makes the Patriots offense so dangerous and hard to contain is that passing to tight ends is, on the whole, much safer than throwing the ball downfield to wideouts. In most circumstances, the tight end merely has to slip off the line and catch a quick pop from the quarterback, and Gronkowski is so fast that he can’t be covered near the line of scrimmage by a linebacker and so powerful (at 6-6 and 265) that when he gets his hands on the ball, it’s hell for a defensive back outweighed by 75 pounds to bring him down.
That’s why you’re hearing all this fuss about Gronkowski’s ankle and whether or not he’ll be able to play. The Patriots are three-point favorites, but if Gronkowski doesn’t show up on Sunday, the Giants will almost certainly win. My own guess is that Gronk will heed Madonna’s advice: “I would just tape my ankle, say some prayers, take anti-flammatories, and get my butt out there.”
If he does, look for Gronk to catch from 10-12 passes and walk off with the MVP trophy. And always, always look for Brady to go to Gronkowski inside the 10-yard line — he had more TD catches, 17, than Cruz and Nicks combined.