Consider me a spoiled fan. I’m that 23-year old Boston fan who has seen the Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics, and Patriots all win world championships; and UConn graduate that has seen two Final Fours and Kemba Walker lead a young, inexperienced team to a national title in my time of caring about the team.
With that said, it’s surprising that I’m such a pessimistic fan. I expect the worst, and that’s something that I can only think was instilled in me by being a Red Sox fan up until the 2004 season, watching Notre Dame fall to USC in 2005 in a game that eventually would have sent the Irish to the title game, and of course, Super Bowl XLII in 2008 where my Patriots were denied the title “Greatest Team of All-Time” while my Giants fan friends basked in glory. Sure, I had felt that feeling three times already, but it didn’t matter. It never does. As much as the “grace period” rule after your team wins a title makes sense, any fan knows that it’s a crock. You always want to win…need to win. If you don’t, let me be the first to question the strength of the ties binding you to your team.
That brings me to this Sunday. I pride myself on being the type of sports fan who can look at any situation objectively, regardless of whether or not I have a rooting interest in a result, and speak about the team/game/etc. as a sports fan, rather than passionate fan. Passion and rationality are almost always like water and vinegar in life, with sports being no exception.
The New England Patriots should not necessarily be in this Super Bowl on Sunday. Their defense has been atrocious throughout the season. It lucked out by facing Tim Tebow and Joe Flacco in its playoff run. Sterling Moore got beat like a drum by Lee Evans before a higher power allowed him to strip the veteran receiver in the end zone with only seconds left in regulation in the AFC title game. Needless to say, I have no misconceptions about this team. I know what we are – an offensive power, a bend-but-don’t-embarrass-ourselves-too-often defense, the greatest quarterback and head coach of all-time, and a system that continues to produce over 10 years after the franchise’s improbably run to Super Bowl title over the Greatest Show on Turf.
So while it makes sense to be freaking out about this Super Bowl that kicks off after 6PM on Sunday – and have no doubts that I will be an emotional basket case for four hours once the game gets underway – I have an indescribable confidence that I didn’t expect. Without getting into an analysis about the Patriots offense against the Giants defense and vice-versa, I’ll instead make it clear that my confidence centers around two important people – Tom Brady and Eli Manning.
Why a Patriots fan would be confident thanks to Tom Brady doesn’t take too much analysis, as he simply is the greatest quarterback of all-time, even if he doesn’t walk out of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Sunday with another ring. No, it’s not Peyton Manning who is the greatest; not Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas, John Elway…none of them. It’s Tom Brady, and as far as the GOAT (Greatest of All-Time) discussion, that’s it. Brady’s quiet confidence is something that as a fan, you simply have to admire. There’s something to be said in being outwardly confident in your abilities to the point that you feel you need to let everyone else know about it (see Phillip Rivers), but isn’t it better to let others place you in the pecking order? Is it just coincidence that undoubtedly, the four best quarterbacks in football – Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Peyton Manning – are humble athletes? Brady’s a winner, a superstar, a game-manager, a sound decision-maker (despite that bomb he threw into the end zone in the AFC Championship). I have nothing but confidence that he will take the field poised and ready to cement himself at the top of the NFL History mountain on Sunday.
Yet, surprisingly, perhaps my greatest confidence for Sunday is based on the other team’s quarterback, the pesky Eli Manning. Eli is a gnat. He won’t go away. At the beginning of this season, he proclaimed himself to be in Tom Brady’s class. Since TB12 is the GOAT at the quarterback position, it’s impossible for Eli to be in his class – there is no “class” of greatest ever, there is only one, and it is Brady. Nonetheless, the discussion transformed from “Brady’s class” (deemed to be a laughing joke by even the strongest of Giants fans) to “elite”. If I hear the word “elite” again after the Super Bowl, I vow to never utter it myself. The media, Giants fans, and even his own teammates seem to have a grudge against all who ever doubted Eli during the course of his career in making it their duty to prove and convince others that Eli is an elite quarterback. “No, really! He is elite! He is! He beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl and again earlier this season! He won on the road in Green Bay, and even beat that steel curtain of a defense that they have in San Francisco! What more does he need to do to prove to you that he’s elite?!” It’s like when a little kid does something wrong, only to try and convince you that everything is okay be repeating the same phrase over and over again. Eventually, you start to understand that they’re lying. Same is the case here, as the persistence of Giants fans and football talking heads to place Eli in the “great” or “elite” class rings hollow. He is very good – nothing more and nothing less.
“What more does he need to do to prove to you that he’s elite?” Personally, that’s my favorite question asked in the days leading up to this game, and therein lies the question that seemingly convinces people that Eli is a top-5 quarterback. In truth, he hasn’t done everything needed of him to take that next step, to establish himself as a great modern-day quarterback, as “elite”. It’s also what gives me the confidence in the Patriots raising their fourth Vince Lombardi Trophy on Sunday after the clock hits 0s in the fourth quarter.
He has never won when he is supposed to.
Think about it. The Super Bowl run four years ago was one that nobody expected…one that allowed Eli to play with house money. The same goes for this season, as at 6-6 and 7-7, the team was left for dead. Did anybody think the Giants were going to top Green Bay at Lambeau Field this season? Of course not, and even a game in San Francisco a week and a half ago was one with questions. Yes, Eli got knocked around, continuing to stand in the pocket even while facing the toughest defense and pass rush (sorry, Giants fans, the 49ers get to the quarterback better than your team does). Yes it was tough, and yes it was a gutsy effort.
But it’s not what he’s going up against this weekend. There are finally expectations on Manning – expectations to be great, expectations to lead, expectations to establish his “legacy” and his spot in Canton next to his brother Peyton. It doesn’t matter that the Patriots are the favorites in Vegas – because in the sports book that is public opinion, the Giants are the favorites. It is the better team. This is different for Eli, as he’s no longer the underrated fly-under-the-radar quarterback he has received a free pass because of throughout his career. This Sunday, all eyes are on him to be great, to be better than TB12, to be…elite.
I think he’ll falter. Want more? I think that Giants fans have a sneaking suspicion that he’s going to falter too. Be honest, those who wear the blue and white. You’re still not completely sold on Eli yet, are you? It’s the same feeling I had in the ninth inning of Game 6 in the 2004 ALCS between the Sox and Yankees when Tony Clark was up at the plate. I saw who was batting – Tony Clark. And he was going up against the Sox shut-down closer Keith Foulke. I was confident, but also had a sneaking suspicion that Clark was about to bite his former team and break my heart.
This is different for Giants fans, but also very much the same. They don’t really think Eli is as good as they want others to think, or else they wouldn’t need to make it a mission this postseason to convince people of it. Come Sunday, the Patriots might win, or they might not. I think they will, and Eli Manning is to thank for that.
He wants to be great? He wants to be elite? Time to show up and prove it, Eli. And if his team’s chances are squarely on his shoulders on Sunday, consider me a supremely confident Patriots fan. I don’t think he steps into that class – that top tier – on Sunday. Somewhere, I think TB12 is ready to ensure that nobody puts the two of them in the same sentence ever again after 60 minutes of football on Sunday.