One game remains before the 2012 NFL season is consigned to the history books. We get a full two weeks to contemplate and anticipate how a season which started following months of uncertainty about its very existence will end.
If the main course is as delicious as the appetizer then Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis the Sunday after next promises to be a sumptuous meal.
Both the AFC and NFC Championship Games this past Sunday were, if not artistic masterpieces, filled with drama. Each contest was decided on the final play of the game, one a made field goal, the other a miss.
And thus the matchup for Super Bowl XLVI has been determined and with it the chance for either redemption and revenge or proof that the first time was no fluke.
New England, and especially QB Tom Brady, was far from sharp in getting past defensively stout Baltimore, 23-20, to win the AFC Championship. The Patriots dodged what appeared to be a certain Ravens game winning touchdown pass that was dropped. Moments later came a short missed field goal from the normally reliable kicker, Billy Cundiff, that would have forced overtime.
New England returns to the Super Bowl for the first time since its memorable 2007 season and for the fifth time in Brady’s 11 season career.
Their opponent, the New York Giants, were also far from sharp in winning the NFC Championship in San Francisco. The G-men needed OT to defeat the 49ers, 20-17 in a game that saw QB Eli Manning take a physical pounding.
Manning was sacked six times and hit even more after releasing the football, but certainly proved he does deserve to be in the discussion about elite quarterbacks. After all, you can’t spell “elite” without “eli.”
The Giants benefited from poor San Francisco specials team play as a pair of fumbled returns by kick returner Kyle Williams, playing in place of injured Ted Ginn Jr, which set up first a fourth quarter touchdown that gave the Giants a 17-14 lead and then set up the game winning field goal.
The Giants return to the Super Bowl for the first time as well since that never to be forgotten 2007 season setting up a rematch with the Patriots. The Giants won 17-14, handing the Patriots their only defeat of that season after New England had entered that game 18-0.
Will it be déjà vu all over again?
Or will the Pats get their revenge and a sense of redemption?
Nothing, of course, can replace the lost opportunity for perfection such as the Patriots had prior to Super Bowl XLII. But Super Bowl XLVI does give New England a chance for a fourth Championship in an 11 season span which, in itself, would be a pretty remarkable achievement in this era of increased parity brought about by free agency and other factors not present a generation or two ago.
As an illustration of that parity San Francisco was trying to become the eleventh different NFC team in 11 seasons to make the Super Bowl. But by upsetting the 49ers the Giants have become the only NFC team to make multiple Super Bowl appearances since the 2000 season.
This will be New York’s third Super Bowl since that season. They lost Super Bowl XXXV to Baltimore and defeated New England in the aforementioned SB XLII.
As was the case in that Super Bowl, this year’s Big Game also features a rematch of a regular season game between the Giants and Patriots. Recall that in 2007 the Patriots capped their 16-0 regular season with an exciting 38-35 win over the Giants on the road.
The Giants took from that game the confidence that they could compete on even terms with what had seemed for much of the season an invincible New England. That confidence was rewarded with the dramatic upset win in Glendale, Arizona.
In that 2007 regular season meeting the Patriots were 14 point road favorites in that 38-35 win, outgaining the Giants by 74 total yards (390 to 316). The game easily went OVER the total of 47.
In the Super Bowl the Patriots closed as 12½ point favorites with the total ballooning to 55. The game stayed well UNDER as the Giants won 17-14, outgaining New England by 64 total yards, 338 to 274. In both meetings the Giants limited the Patriots to 44 and 45 rushing yards.
As was the case then ,the Patriots remain a pass first offense with QB Tom Brady relying more on his tight ends (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez) and WR Wes Welker.
Welker’s presence may be key this time around as he was lost to injury in the 2007 AFC Championship Game and did not play in the Super Bowl.
Both meetings were cleanly played with the Giants committing the lone turnover in their first meeting and each team losing just one turnover in the Super Bowl.
The Giants and Patriots met earlier this season in New England on Nov. 6. At the time both teams were 5-2. The Giants had won two in a row, both by a FG against, ironically enough, AFC East teams Buffalo and Miami.
The Patriots had just been upset at Pittsburgh, losing 25-17 as 3 point road favorites and being outgained 427-213 in what was arguably New England’s worst performance of the season. The loss at Pittsburgh ended a streak in which New England had scored at least 30 points in 13 straight regular season games dating back to the middle of the 2010 season.
Their Week 9 meeting this season was a mini-classic that was scoreless at halftime. The Giants had the first two scores of the game in the third quarter to take a 10-0 lead before the Patriots scored three straight times to forge ahead 13-10 midway in the fourth quarter.
The drama then continued as the Giants scored a TD with just over three minutes remaining for a 17-13 lead only to see the Pats match the score in less than a minute and a half for a 20-17 lead with barely a minute and a half left.
But as he has done multiple times this season – and as he did in Super Bowl XLII – Manning led the Giants down the field for another fourth quarter comeback, tossing a game winning 1 yard pass to Jake Ballard with just 15 ticks left on the clock that followed a controversial 20 yard pass interference call against New England safety Sergio Brown.
The Patriots have not lost since dropping that 24-20 decision to the Giants, winning their final 8 regular season games and earning the AFC’s top seed with their 13-3 record. They then easily dispatched of Denver 45-10 for their first playoff win since the 2007 AFC Championship game before Sunday’s nail biter and perhaps fortunate win over Baltimore.
Just after the Giants’ overtime win over the 49ers, the Patriots opened up as between 3 and 4 point favorites over the Giants at Vegas and offshore Sports Books. By mid morning Monday the line had pretty much settled into New England being favored by a field goal with several books attaching a -120 to the Giants at +3 and allowing bettors to lay the 3 with the Pats even money.
This line appears correct and we should not see much, if any, deviation for most of the time leading up to the Super Bowl. Barring unforeseen developments the line likely closes at 3 although there could well be additional juggling of the vig attached to the line with support expected to show on the Giants.
This means by kickoff we could see the Giants +3 (-130) or so and the Pats at -3 (plus money).
Both the Giants and Patriots suffered injuries this past Sunday but as of Monday morning the key injured players are considered “probable” for SB XLVI. The most noteworthy injuries are to New England’s Gronkowski and to Giants WR Victor Cruz.
The total has already shown significant movement, opening Sunday at 53 or 53½ and climbing up to as high as 55½ by midday Monday. The Total is most interesting as the two meetings in the 2007 season produced 73 and 31 total points.
The earlier meeting this season produced a scoreless first half but a 44 point second half, including 31 in the fourth quarter.
Since seeding began in 1990 when the playoffs expanded from 10 to 12 teams this will be just the third meeting of teams seeded 1 and 4. But both of those meetings took place more than a decade ago and in successive seasons.
As the NFC’s top seed St Louis won Super Bowl XXXIV 23-16 over AFC fourth seeded Tennessee in that memorable that ended with the Titans falling a yard short of likely forcing the first, and only, overtime in Super Bowl history.
But a season later it was the AFC’s number 4 seed, Baltimore, hammering the NFC’s top seed, ironically, the Giants, 34-7 to win Super Bowl XXXV.
The Giants are the eighth Wild Card to make the Super Bowl since 1990. Wild Card teams are 4-3 in their seven prior Super Bowls during this stretch.
Since realignment in 2002, which increased the number of divisions from 6 to 8 while reducing the Wild Card field from 6 to 4 the Giants are the fourth Wild Card team to reach the Super Bowl.
The Giants won SB XLII over New England as a Wild Card two seasons after Pittsburgh used a similar route to winning SB XL over Seattle. The Steelers came up short in their second role as Super Bowl Wild Card, losing last season to Green Bay.
Enjoy the two week buildup and hope the game lives up to the hype that most assuredly will precede it.