Thoughts of a west coast Patriots fan on the eve of the big game…

–Everyone is talking about what’s “at stake” in Super Bowl XLVI. If Eli wins his second SB MVP, is he a lock for the Hall of Fame? If Coughlin wins his second SB as a head coach, is he a HOF lock? If Brady and Belichick win their 4th SB together, are they now to be considered, respectively, the greatest quarterback and coach of all time? Let’s save these questions for the end.

–Both teams have been very careful all week to not dole out any “guarantees” of victory. Smart move, as that’s dicey territory and becomes prime bulletin board material. Of course, the media has gone out of it’s way to insist that guarantees are being made, parties are being planned, and players are claiming they’re going to win. Unless someone comes out and says “I guarantee we’re going to win,” or, “Bet your life that we’re going to win,” it’s not a guarantee. It’s really not difficult to understand. Antrel Rolle of the Giants has been quoted repeatedly saying “We expect to win.” Why does ESPN insist on making it a top story on its website? Is it abnormal? Should a player ever go into a game not expecting to win? Would it be more appropriate to have a field full of George Costanza’s, giving interviews like “We won’t win. I can’t do anything right. Don’t bet on me, it makes me nervous, I don’t do well under pressure”? Maybe ESPN would have more fun with that. Antrel Rolle is right: why would he get on a plane to Indianapolis if he didn’t expect to win? Anyone who gave legs to that “guarantee” should be put down.

Don’t worry, “Worldwide Leader,” you’re not even close to being the worst media outlet to falsely publicizes “guarantees” this week. Nobody’s going to call the New York Post a highly reputable newspaper, as it borders on being a tabloid. Same for the New York Daily News (check out their editor-in-chief’s previous job). But they are still widely circulated newspapers in the most prominent city in America. At the Patriots send off rally, Tom Brady said something to the effect of, “We hope to have an even bigger party next week.” Pretty harmless, and it simply means that he hopes to win the Super Bowl, which would lead to a victory parade the following week (by the way, a Giants win would trigger a parade too, if you didn’t know). Of course, the Post ran a backpage headline of “TOM’S TAUNT” while the Daily News ran a headline of “PARTY OF JIVE.” If I’ve read these headlines right, it’s now trash talk to hope that you win? Hoping to have a party, which implies that you’re hoping to win the game, now implies a guarantee, or some sort of closely related trash talk.

Not only is it not trash talk from Brady, but if I’m Belichick, I flip it around use it as bulletin board material for the Patriots to feed off of. I show them the headlines, play up an angle like “Everyone is against you for no good reason, show them what you’re made of.” I’m sure Belichick will think of something, just like he did for SB XXXIX when he used the Eagles parade route as motivation (something the New York papers, original as ever, want Coughlin to do this week). Enough with the guarantee talk. Both teams have worked hard and deserve their spots in the Super Bowl, and it’s disgusting that some media outlets can’t give them some leeway when projecting their rightfully earned confidence.

–Gronk is banged up, is Ocho going to step up!?!?! Probably not. Although, given some of the stories being pumped up this week, I guess the potential Ocho breakout performance isn’t the worst thing to discuss. Okay, it’s pretty much near the bottom of the list. Let’s just say that instead of wasting time before the game, we’ll all just say “Hmm, didn’t see that one coming” and discuss it if and when it actually happens.

–Speaking of Gronk, I have no idea how he’s going to play. Judging by the play of Ben Roethlisberger (one of my favorite players in the league, seriously) when he had a high ankle sprain, Gronk will be pretty limited. Judging by his father’s declaration that Gronk is a freakish healer, he’s going to be fine. Only Gronk knows, which is a terrifying overstatement at this point. Nobody knows. So, yeah, it’s another thing that’s sort of useless to talk about because it’s an unknown. This whole “not worth talking about until the game” is becoming a theme. Kind of makes me think a lot of these “story lines” are media driven. Nah, they wouldn’t do that.

–Let’s discuss some things that are worth talking about, because they’re known entities that will be playing this weekend, and will have an impact in some way. I want to talk about the Giants pass rush, because I’m really in awe of it. How does the league allow the Giants to assemble such a devastating weapon? Teams allowed the Giants to draft Osi, Tuck, and JPP? How could other scouts not see what dominant players these guys are? And, given the Giants success over the past few years, how are more teams not basing their defenses around the philosophy of “Quarterbacks are good enough to pick apart nearly any secondary, the only way to stop them is by applying pressure up front”? It’s amazing to me how teams aren’t stacking their defensive lines with talent in order to lighten the burden on what have become helpless secondaries. Short of a Revis-Asomugha tandem, cornerbacks are going to get beat all day long. Here’s a simple concept: If two guys are running to a specific spot, and one of them knows exactly where it is and how to get there, while running at top speed, and the other guy has to follow him and try to somehow get to that spot first even though he doesn’t know where the spot is, the guy who knows where he’s going is usually going to get there before the guy who’s reading and reacting in real time. That is the essence of the receiver-cornerback duel, and the reason why exponentially more NFL passes end up being receptions than interceptions. The best way to compensate for that natural disadvantage? Force the quarterback to throw the ball anywhere but that specific spot. That’s what a dominant defensive line can do for you.

I am fortunate to have Vince Wilfork on the team I root for, and to quote Herman Boone, “He’s a Hall of Famer in my book.” But Vince’s strengths are 1) stopping the run, and 2) commanding two blockers, ideally to free up pass rushers. Technically, that second point does lend legitimacy to Vince’s value to an overall pass rushing scheme, but you won’t see him flying around the corner, creating having for the offensive tackles all day. I wouldn’t trade Vince for any one of the Giant defensive linemen (okay, maybe JPP), but part of me wishes that the Patriots had the collection of speed, power, and talent on their defensive line. It’s been beaten into the ground that the Pats lose when Brady is being knocked around and spends a chunk of his day pulling chunks of grass from his helmet. And it’s true. Not a knock on Brady, because any QB would get rattled from such a beating (like the one TB took in SB42), but more a testament to what a D-line can do. The Giants possess that kind of line. I really hope Brady goes un-sacked and is rarely pressured this Sunday, but I’m realistic enough to know that the Giants’ front four will be heard from on Sunday.

–Earlier in the week, I wrote a paragraph on why the Super Bowl should be held in a warm weather location every year, citing the fact that it’s become a spectacle and a week-long experience, and people should be given the chance to enjoy their time in the dead of winter in Miami, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, etc every year instead of places like Indianapolis and New Jersey (two years from now is going to be very interesting). However, listening to the radio and watching television shows all week, everyone appears to love Indianapolis. This morning on WEEI, I heard the city described as being a cleaner version of New Orleans. That’s good enough for me. Plus, the weather has held up. Hearing such wonderful things, I’ve softened my stance and had second thoughts, realizing that these colder, smaller cities do deserve their shot at hosting. Maybe it’s not necessary for the league to develop a set rotation of only the elite Super Bowl destinations. Speaking of elite…

–Just kidding. We’re not going there yet. Few more bullet points. Sorry.

–When Sunday does roll around, we’ll be watching the game at our house in Venice, throwing a party for the occasion. The rest of the Pats crew and I seriously considered heading to Sonny McLean’s for the game. Why not? The atmosphere is unbeatable. The crowd is 100% pro-Patriots. And we went there for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, which turned out pretty well for us. Taking the karma and superstition further, our failure to go to Sonny’s for Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals might have caused the game to swing the other way, the sports gods punishing us for not joining our brethren.

Why are we staying at home instead of going to Sonny’s? A few reasons. Most importantly, it’d be a long day. It’s a long day anyways, but we’d have to get to Sonny’s around 8am. By the time the game starts, nearly eight hours later, we’d already be exhausted. There’s a Bruins game on that morning, and even though we’d try not to expend too much energy watching that game, we probably would. That’d leave us buzzed and tired by 1pm, which wouldn’t bode well for our prospects of making it until 7pm, and even later if we stay for a hopeful/potential celebration (hope the NY papers don’t take that out of context). And to balance out the karma thing, the only regular season Patriots game I watched in its entirety all year was the Giants game, obviously a game the Pats lost, and I watched it at Sonny’s. I should probably be going back to Sonny’s to balance things out, you know, lose one win one, but we’re staying home, having an all-Pats (or at least neutral and keeping their mouths shut) crowd, and hoping for the best.

–Another thing I should elaborate on: If I’m such a huge Patriots fan, why did I only watch one full game all year? Well, I work on Sundays and am unable to watch football, other than the first half of the early nationally televised CBS and FOX games (a heavy dose of Eagles, Giants, Jets, and Bills). That’s it. I caught some of the tail end of MNF Pats games, and that was about it, save for the Giants game, which I watched when my parents visited Los Angeles and I took the day off from work. I saw the entire Denver playoff game, but missed the Baltimore playoff game (which was good for my blood pressure). My logic for missing the Ravens game: If we lose, it’s a game I probably won’t have wanted to see. If we win, I’ll see the Pats in the Super Bowl. It worked out for the best. So, while the spectacle and extravaganza is taking place, I will trying to enjoy watching football. I saw so little football this year that I am genuinely excited to watch the game. Of course, it doesn’t become a real game until the middle of the first quarter, after both offenses and defenses have been given their first chance to shit themselves, but still, it’ll be nice to just watch football

–I read Rich Cimini’s piece on ESPN New York the other day. He said Tom Brady is overrated. His reasoning: Brady’s less than stellar playoff record after starting his playoff career 10-0. Since then, Brady is 6-5. Cimini argued that if not for Marlon McCree’s idiotic fumble in ’06, and Lee Evans’ drop this season, Brady would be 4-7 in his last 11 playoff games. Apparently, Cimini thinks that both of those plays are flukier than the Tyree catch, making Cimini an idiot. Not only did Tyree trap the ball on his helmet, but Eli escaped a surefire sack when Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green failed to haul him down. Given that, halfway through the play, it looked like a game-ending sack, and then it became a circus catch, the Tyree play is far flukier than the McCree (a defensive back who fumbled, which happens from time to time after interceptions) play or the Evans play (cornerbacks reach in and break up plays all the time). By Cimini’s logic, where fluky, rare plays should be stricken from the record, it’s more plausible that Brady should be 7-4 in those games, with another Super Bowl title (and probably SB MVP award too). He’s just too ignorant and dense to see the other points highlighted by his theory. As I learned in my email exchange with Matt Schwartz regarding Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, it’s a dangerous, slippery slope to play the “If not for x, then definitely y” game. Obviously Cimini is just fine playing that game, and playing it by his own rules.

Cimini also cites Brady’s interception in the ’06 AFC title game to Marlin Jackson as an example of his lack of clutch-ness recently. However, Cimini failed to note that it was a desperation throw, and that even if he’d made a first down, Brady was still probably going to be short on time for his comeback. Oh, and Cimini forgot that Brady did everything he had to do to win that game, but his defense collapsed. Cimini also doesn’t mention that Peyton Manning in that game was throwing to Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Dallas Clark, while Brady was throwing to Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney, and Ben Watson. Yeah, Brady really didn’t show up for that one. Peyton Manning’s career playoff record is 9-10. Hey Rich Cimini, if Tom Brady is overrated because he’s only 6-5 in his last 11 playoff games, what does that make Peyton? Slightly below average? Nothing like shock value to get some readership, Rich. How about you go away, think of a better argument that makes sense, and give it another shot. Putz.

–Before my head explodes, let’s get to the coaches. I actually don’t have a ton to say about these guys. They’ve both done great jobs. I am curious as to why Coughlin seems to fail to properly prepare and motivate his team for 8-game stretches every season, but when it counts, the guy can coach. He prepares impeccably in the playoffs. He can motivate with the best of them. He trusts his coordinators, and he trusts his players. Peter King has been pushing his HOF candidacy all week, and while even Peter isn’t 100% convinced that Coughlin belongs, he points out that a debate amongst HOF voters is sure to ensue once the time comes. I don’t know enough about coaching standards and the HOF, but if he coaches for a few more years, keeps racking up wins, and maybe even a few more playoff appearances, it will be tough to keep him out. I really want to dislike Coughlin, but I can’t. Hell, he lived in the same dorm as I did at Syracuse (Sadler Hall, what’s good). How can I hate on that?

And there isn’t much more to say about Belichick. It’s another masterful coaching job on his part. To take a team to the Super Bowl that starts Sterling Moore and James Ihedigbo is impressive. To make the Super Bowl with converted receivers like Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater playing defensive back is miraculous. Sure, Edelman was getting beat by Anquan Boldin in the 4th quarter of the AFC Championship Game. But the Patriots still won. When Edelman started getting actual minutes against the Jets and Eagles this season, he was making key tackles and the defense started coming together, slowly but surely. Not many other coaches convert receivers to cornerback, nickel backs, and linebackers (watch where Edelman lines up sometimes), and make the Super Bowl. Yes, it’s a referendum on his so-so GM performance, but it’s a feather in his coaching cap. I don’t know how to properly judge coaches, but considering his entire career, his vast abilities, and pile of records, it’s tough to not consider him the greatest coach I’ve ever seen, if not the greatest ever.

Another wrinkle with Belichick: He’s been gregarious all week, which has thrown people off. Is he being congenial on purpose to make his team look better? Is he set in his game plan so comfortably that he can relax for the final few days and enjoy himself? Has he not come up with a game plan to beat the Giants, admitted to himself that his team is screwed, and is just putting up a front? Did his medicine get mixed up with Gronk’s? Who knows, but it’s been nice to see.

–Very, very excited that the game is on NBC. Who can listen to Joe Buck drone on and on for 4 hours about Eli Manning, while Troy Aikman does his usual imbecile act? Joe Buck is, and always has been, anti-Boston and pro-New York, whether it’s slurping Jeter while abhorring the Red Sox, or praising Eli and the Giants while condemning the Patriots. Joe Buck is useless, and it seems that a lot of people feel that way. Jim Nantz has his detractors, sure, but at least he can make the event feel like it’s important, be it The Masters, the Final Four, or the Super Bowl. Same goes for Al Michaels, who still brings it, and who will bring it this Sunday. Michaels reached big-game status 32 years ago during a certain hockey game, and has been a top dog ever since. With him will be Cris Collinsworth, arguably the best football analyst there is. Doesn’t every Sunday night game on NBC usually feel like it’s absolutely the best game of the week? Well, that’s the production crew that will be behind this Sunday’s game, so expect a great show.

–Now to the quarterbacks, starting with Eli. Oh, Elisha. What to make of you. First things first, and I say this confidently: Whether he wins this game or not, he has, unequivocally, not done enough in his career to make the Hall of Fame. He has, over the course of his 8-year career, figured out how to be a great 4th quarter quarterback. It’s admirable, and has given his team the ability to win many games at the gun. However, if he was truly a HOF quarterback, many of these late wins would really be blowouts. People point to Tom Brady’s decrease in 4th quarter comebacks over the years. That’s because he figured out how to ruthlessly pound teams into submission, leaving no need for heroics. With Eli, it’s usually a guessing game as to who’s showing up. He’s always had above average weapons (Tiki, Plaxico, Shockey, Steve Smith, Manningham, Jacobs, Nicks, Bradshaw, Cruz) and at the very least, an average defense. Yet, his teams still floundered at some point during each one of his seasons, finally pulling it together for a month four years ago (and this year, to be fair). For a guy who plays for such a stable organization so committed to winning, he was, for much longer than he should have been, the premier obstruction in the Giants path to sustained excellence. If Giants fans deny this, call them liars, because for the longest time, they were as frustrated with him as any fan base was with one of its athletes. I applaud Giants fans for sticking with him, dealing with all of his flaws, and supporting him fervently now that he’s made it. Just don’t try and say you always believed in him.

Next, we look at Eli’s career numbers. In his seven full seasons as a starter, he’s only had one season where he threw for fewer than 14 interceptions. Brady has never thrown for more than 14 interceptions. Manning has started 40 fewer games than Brady…but has thrown 14 more interceptions. Eli’s career rating is 82.1, while Brady’s is 96.4. These two guys are not in the same class. As Garry Rosenfield pointed out in this blog a few days ago, Eli is not in Brady’s class because Brady is the best to ever do it (if you want to argue, fine, but he’s definitely in the top 3-5 on any mildly sane person’s list). Eli had some pretty solid numbers this year, but still didn’t come close to the year that Brady had.

Now for the “E” word everyone has on the tip of their tongue. I’m struggling with it because Eli has shown that he’s as good as anyone in the two minute drill. Well, for the past few years that’s been the case, probably starting with the ’07-’08 playoffs. Before that game, Eli was among the worst in the two-minute drill, a surefire bet to throw a game sealing interception. I lived with a Giants fan all throughout college. The ratio of him complaining about Eli to him praising Eli wasn’t good. That goes for every other Giants fan, who, until SB 42, would have happily switched quarterbacks with half the league, which I just touched on. If we’re basing Eli Manning’s “status” in the NFL on the past five games, then yes, sure, he’s a top 5-7 quarterback in the league, still behind Brady, Rodgers, Brees, Roethlisberger, and maybe one or two others (I’d still like to see Cutler with a real offense and Rivers with a real coach). Maybe Eli has been slightly, barely, better than Brady over the past six weeks. People are forgetting Brady’s 6 TDs against Denver. They’re forgetting him going down 21-0 against Buffalo and storming back for 49 (!) unanswered points. People are acting like Brady’s 5200+ yards didn’t just happen. To Eli’s credit further, he threw for nearly 5,000 yards, and has played great in these do-or-die games. Thing is, he shouldn’t have had these must-wins, because he shouldn’t have lost twice to Washington (how’d Brady do against them?) or to Philadelphia (how’d Brady do against them?), or to Seattle. The Giants had a brutal schedule in the middle of the season, and have impressively avenged losses to Green Bay and San Francisco. But this team should have been 12-4 at worst, not 9-7. Elite quarterbacks with outstanding offensive weapons and a strong defense (both things everyone’s agreed on this week) don’t go 9-7. Of course, the playoffs matter a whole lot, which is why Eli wasn’t shipped out of New York 3-4 years ago, and why people are so in love with him this week. Greatness in the playoffs matters too, and it’s why Peyton will never be Brady, because while their regular season numbers are comparable, Tom was, and is, better in the playoffs. Career-wise, his playoff numbers tower over Eli’s, and the regular season comparison, in the words of the late, great Big L, “Is like comparing a Benz to a Chevrolet.”

Does that make me 100% certain that the Pats will win, as Garry sort of laid out this week? Not exactly. I talked about some of the matchups earlier, like the Giants dominant D-line and their receivers against the Pats secondary. Am I certain Brady will come out with a vengeance? Strangely, no. Great defenses can trip him up, just like they can do to any great QB. However, it’s just unsettling how quickly the experts have been all week to say that Brady is in decline, shrinks in big games, and can’t do it anymore. They’re sort of treating this all like Brady is Roger Federer ’09-’11, great enough to be a top 3 QB on a top 3 team, but not good enough to get the job done when it matters. If the Pats lose and Brady plays a great game, I don’t think it tarnishes his legacy one bit, or lends credence to the theory that Brady doesn’t have it anymore and isn’t clutch. If he doesn’t have a great game, the haters will be in full force, saying that he’ll never be Montana, it’s all his fault the Pats lost, and Eli’s better. No, Eli will not be better if his team wins, as Brady will still be a better playoff QB (having appeared in three more Super Bowls and winning one more), and an exponentially better regular season QB. The claim that Brady is no Montana will gain traction too, and while it’d pain me to say it, I’d at least have to acknowledge that Joe never lost a Super Bowl, while Tom will have lost two. Factoring in defenses and everything, it may not be fair to potentially claim that the SB losses are Brady’s fault and he’s no Montana, but it’d be equally as, if not more difficult, to prove he is as great as Montana.

My hope is that he’s able to channel what makes him great, build off his mistakes in the previous game, and perform like a stone cold assassin. My dream is that he comes out, tosses five TD passes, gives the Patriots a three score lead, and in the 4th quarter, keeps throwing the ball, rings up 7 TD passes, sets all sorts of Super Bowl records, and needs to be metaphorically held down by the referees and timekeepers once the clock strikes 0:00 to get him to stop his Sherman-like march. I know, probably not going to happen. But there is a chance we see calm, calculating Brady (pretty much what we saw against Denver when the Tebow talk clearly pissed him off), and that’d be a delight for Patriots fans. Concurrently, I’d love to see Eli revert to his old self, looking all confused, throwing the ball up for grabs, and giving points away. Again, not likely, but I can fantasize.

–I’ve never liked making predictions. It’s just not my thing, it never turns out well, and I won’t make one here. I will do a mini ramble about each big story line, and try to decipher what has to give. Starting with the matchups. Giants win the matchups, led by their formidable defensive line. They also have a dangerous aerial attack, matching up beautifully against the Patriots infamously weak secondary. Patriots have a pissed off Brady and Belichick, which usually yields strong results. But Brady may be over the hill. However, the Giants secondary isn’t as great as people think. But, the Patriots have a banged up Gronkowski. Well, they’re playing with heavy hearts and an extra kick because of Myra Kraft.

What’s going to trump everything else? Will it be the D-line and the absence of Gronk that gives the Giants a win? Or will it be the fire of Brady and the memory of Myra that gives the Patriots the win? Or will it be something else entirely? All I know is that after a season of watching nothing but highlights, I’m looking forward to seeing an actual live game. And there’s nothing greater than the Super Bowl. Enjoy.