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Super Bowl XLVI: Six talking points as Giants give Patriots a case of déjà vu

New York Giants 21 New England Patriots 17

There was something of a sense of déjà vu about last night’s Super Bowl XLVI, as the underdog New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots in the NFL’s championship game, just as they had four years previously. As in Super Bowl XLII, Eli Manning led the Giants downfield to the winning score inside the final minute of the game.

On this occasion it was Ahmad Bradshaw, who walked untouched into the endzone from six yards out as the desperate Patriots tried to leave enough time on the clock for one last – and ultimately futile – drive. But again the key play came on a spectacular long pass completion by Eli Manning. Four years ago it was David Tyree‘s falling, juggling catch – here it was Mario Manningham‘s eye-of-the-needle grab down the left sideline.

Victory gave the Giants their fourth Vince Lombardi trophy in five attempts – just as last year the Green Bay Packers claimed their fourth Super Bowl win in five tries. In both instances a lower-ranked NFC side who reached the Super Bowl having to play an extra wild-card game defeated a top-two AFC side who had had the benefit of one fewer postseason game.

After last year’s game, I highlighted six key talking points from the Super Bowl. Reflecting back on this year’s game, it strikes me how similar the key talking points from Super Bowl XLVI were. Allow me to explain …

1. Aaron Rodgers Eli Manning is one hell of a quarterback

Much derided by many fans (myself included) early in his career, there can now surely be no question that Eli Manning has joined the pantheon of great NFL quarterbacks. For years he has lived in the shadow cast by elder brother Peyton, even having to compete in this Super Bowl in his sibling’s team’s home, Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. However the 31-year old has blossomed into one of the game’s best pressure quarterbacks, and this season he put up the numbers to prove it.

Despite a mediocre 9-7 regular season record that saw the Giants scrape into the postseason by the skin of their teeth, there was no doubt that the team lived and died on the ability of their quarterback. Manning threw 15 fourth-quarter touchdowns, a new NFL record. Six of those nine victories came after he brought his team back from fourth-quarter deficits. He then added a fourth-quarter comeback in the NFC Championship game at San Francisco, which the Giants eventually won in overtime. And, of course, he capped it off with the last-minute touchdown drive to win the game last night.

Manning overcame everything the Patriots' defense could throw at him (image courtesy of nfl.com)

Manning showed his composure repeatedly on the biggest stage of all, completing 30 of 40 passes in an error-free performance and leading the game-winning drive in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter with as good a display of quarterback play as the Super Bowl has ever seen. He completed five of six passes, including that one to Mario Manningham for 38 yards, the longest play of the entire game.

Eli walked away with his second Super Bowl MVP award, and rightly so. Up against both his own brother’s shadow and one of the NFL’s best big-game quarterbacks in Tom Brady, Manning looked no more ruffled than if he was playing pitch-and-catch in the park on a Sunday afternoon.

2. Turnovers are king

Turnovers played a less prominent role in last night’s game than they did the previous year, but even so they were pivotal to the overall result.

The game’s only turnover came early in the fourth quarter when Tom Brady‘s long pass from near midfield was intercepted by the Giants’ Chase Blackburn. It killed a Patriots drive which could potentially have been decisive – a touchdown would have made it a two-possession game – and fired up a Giants defense which had struggled to contain New England’s mid-game momentum.

But perhaps more important than the turnover that was were the turnovers that weren’t. Patriots defenders stripped the ball from Giants players three times during the game. A penalty negated Victor Cruz‘s first-quarter fumble inside the Patriots’ ten-yard line. Two plays later Cruz caught the game’s opening touchdown to give New York a 9-0 lead. In the third quarter, Hakeem Nicks was stripped of the ball near midfield, but fullback Henry Hynoski fell on the loose ball and the drive resulted in a Lawrence Tynes field goal. And, most crucially, two plays after Brady’s interception Ahmad Bradshaw also lost the football near his own ten-yard line, but lineman Chris Snee was quickest to respond.

If New England had recovered any of those three fumbles, they could have taken up to ten points off the board for the Giants, and potentially scored themselves. But instead the Giants won the turnover battle one-nil, and history shows that teams with a positive turnover differential are now 34-3 all-time in Super Bowls.

3. Even in the modern pass-happy NFL, you need a running game

Yes, we all know today’s NFL is slanted heavily in favour of the pass, with both Drew Brees and Tom Brady shattering Dan Marino’s 1984 single-season passing yardage record this year. No, it is no longer a prerequisite that a Super Bowl winner has at the very least a serviceable running game.

Increasingly, Super Bowl winners have triumphed with little more than a token running game, with big-play receivers and hard-hitting defense more than able to compensate for the shortfall. The 2006 Colts and 2008 Steelers spring readily to mind, and last year’s champion Green Bay ranked a lowly 24th out of 32 in rushing.

On the face of it, this year’s Giants were cut from the same mould. In the regular season, they ranked dead last in the NFL in both rushing yards (an anaemic 89.2 per game) and yards per carry (3.5).

Bradshaw was instrumental to the Giants' ball-control gameplan and ultimately scored the game-winning touchdown (image courtesy of nfl.com)

And yet when it came to the Super Bowl, they were able to control the game on the ground for long periods, keeping New England’s high-octane offense off the field and gradually wearing down their defense. In the biggest game of the year, the Giants ran for 114 yards – which would have put them firmly in the middle of the pack in the regular season – at a healthy average of 4.1 yards per carry. The one-two punch of Ahmad Bradshaw (72 yards) and Brandon Jacobs (37) helped keep the Patriots’ defense honest and slowed down their pass rush, giving Manning the opportunity to do his thing in the fourth quarter.

4. Big plays win big games

On a day on which strong defenses ensured that both teams struggled to deliver big plays – each side accounted for just two plays of 20 or more yards – it was fitting that the game’s longest play led to the game-winning score.

In Super Bowl XLII, Eli Manning miraculously escaped what looked to be a certain sack on third down before hurling the ball downfield for David Tyree to make a falling, juggling reception with the aid of his own helmet – a catch which was crucial to keeping the Giants’ game-winning drive alive:

Here, pinned back on their own 12-yard line and trailing by two with under four minutes remaining, Manning opened up with a 38-yard bomb down the left sideline to Mario Manningham. Covered by two defenders, the ball was delivered perfectly over the receiver’s shoulder, and Manningham did a fantastic job to secure the ball cleanly and keep both feet in bounds. It gave the Giants great field position and unstoppable momentum. Eight plays later Bradshaw scored the winning touchdown.

5. Playoff seeding is not all-important

More so in recent years than in the past, a lowly playoff seeding need not be a handicap to a team’s Super Bowl aspirations. The Giants themselves know this, having won Super Bowl XLII despite having to play three road games just to reach the Super Bowl. Last year’s champion Packers achieved the same feat.

So, despite a 9-7 regular season record which saw them sneak into the postseason by winning their last two games, being seeded fourth and having to play only two of their three playoff games on the road must have felt like a positive luxury. More importantly, the Giants brought the momentum of their late-season run, and the confidence of having overcome a lowly seeding before in a playoff run which was eerily similar to their previous Super Bowl campaign, right down to their overtime field goal win in the NFC Championship game.

It is tough to win week after week on the road in the playoffs, but it is not impossible. In a league where there is so little to separate the best teams, form is far more important than seeding.

6. The start of a dynasty?

We say this about every Super Bowl winner every year. We said it about the Packers last year. But what about this year’s Giants? They have a quarterback in the prime of his career, a pair of exciting receivers in Nicks and Cruz, and a defense which ranked in the bottom quartile during the regular season in terms of points and passing and total yardage, but hit championship form down the stretch. With a little more consistency in their own running game and on pass defense, the Giants are capable of being one of the most balanced teams in the NFL.

Will the New York Giants be back next year challenging for back-to-back Super Bowl wins? It’s certainly possible – and I do see them as being postseason regulars for some years to come – but I wouldn’t count on it. Look instead for the NFC to be represented by perennial playoff contenders New Orleans or the resurgent San Francisco 49ers.

We shall see in 12 months’ time. But don’t be surprised if the overriding talking points of next year’s Super Bowl are the same as they have been for the past two seasons. The game may evolve and the name on the trophy may change, but history has a funny way of repeating itself in the NFL.

Link: Super Bowl XLVI in numbers

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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