I love dissecting Super Bowl angles as the first Sunday in February approaches. Here are a few to enhance your viewing pleasure when the Patriots and Giants get it on.
(A note before we begin. I find it tiring when I read Super Bowl stories in which Roman numerals are in every third line. Quick: Who was the hero of Super Bowl XXIII? If I asked you who was the hero after the 1988 season, you’re much more likely to remember Joe Montana’s game-winning drive. When I make a reference to a specific Super Bowl, it will be the season for which that Super Bowl determined the champion. Green Bay beat Kansas City in the first Super Bowl after the 1966 season. Super Bowl XLVI will decide the champion for the 2011 season. And so on.)
• Not only will this Sunday’s game be a rematch of the epic Super Bowl four years ago (where are you, David Tyree?), but it will be only the third time franchises with at least five Super Bowl appearances have met. Dallas beat Pittsburgh in 1995 and Green Bay beat the Steelers last year. The Patriots’ seven Super Bowl appearances are now third among NFL teams, behind only the Cowboys and Steelers (eight each).
• Over the course of the first 13 Super Bowls, six of the games featured a pair of starting quarterbacks bound for the Hall of Fame (Dawson/Starr, Staubach/Griese, Griese/Tarkenton, Bradshaw/Tarkenton, and Bradshaw/Staubach twice). Over the last 32 Super Bowls, only four can claim such a match-up (Montana/Marino, Montana/Elway, and Aikman/Kelly twice). This will change, of course, as players not yet eligible for the Hall are enshrined (two examples: Elway/Favre in 1997 and Peyton Manning/Brees in 2009).
Tom Brady has been a first-ballot Hall of Famer for a few years now. And if Eli Manning wins a second Lombardi Trophy, he’ll have Canton in his sights. (The only quarterback to win two Super Bowls and not gain Hall induction when eligible is the Raiders’ Jim Plunkett.) Making things extra juicy, this is only the third quarterback rematch in Super Bowl history (Terry Bradshaw beat Roger Staubach twice and Troy Aikman did the same to Jim Kelly). But it’s the first rematch between quarterbacks who have each been named Super Bowl MVP. (Bradshaw earned the honor in 1978 when he beat Staubach — MVP in ’71 — in their rematch.)
• Brady will join John Elway as the only quarterbacks to start five Super Bowls. And should he win, he’ll be just the third to earn four rings (after Bradshaw and Montana). So he’s in the conversation about “greatest quarterback of all time.” For all his championships, Bradshaw doesn’t earn much love in this debate, having won his titles for teams remembered largely for the defense they played.
Thankfully, football historians don’t call upon career stats when debating the greatest signal-callers. (Vinny Testaverde passed for more yardage and touchdowns than did Montana.) Before we narrow the debate of greatest QB to Montana and Brady, though, I’d ask you to remember some great football was played before the first Super Bowl. And two legends deserve a mention here. Johnny Unitas won four championships for his Baltimore Colts and Otto Graham won an astounding seven titles for the Cleveland Browns in the Forties and Fifties (the first four in the All-America Football Conference, an early competitor to the NFL). If you asked me to rank these titans, I’d go with (1) Unitas, (2) Montana, (3) Brady, (4) Graham.
• The Giants are the third team to finish the regular season 9-7 and reach the Super Bowl (after the 1979 Rams and 2008 Cardinals). But they’re the first to do so having been 7-7 at one point. Which means New York has essentially won five straight elimination games on its way to Indianapolis.
• This factoid may interest only me, but worth sharing. The AFC is 4-10 in Super Bowls played under a roof. Two of those four wins, though, belong to New England (2001 and 2003).
• He’s as crusty as they come, and dresses like a 7th-grader, but Bill Belichick has established credentials almost beyond compare in the Super Bowl era. Should he win a fourth Lombardi Trophy, he’ll stand alongside Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll as the only two coaches to do so. But Noll accumulated his rings over the course of merely six seasons, loaded with Hall of Famers — Bradshaw, Harris, Greene, Stallworth, Lambert, Ham, Blount, Swann, Webster — who played for all four teams. That dynasty essentially repeated three times, with a short interruption.
If Belichick wins Sunday, his four championships will have come over 11 seasons, with Brady the only linchpin throughout. An entire NFL roster will have been turned over (around a brilliant quarterback) under the same coach, with championship results. And were it not for that helmet-catch by Tyree four years ago, Belichick might have a fifth ring and an undefeated season on his resume. He stands to join a category of one.
• The pick: For me it comes down to the weapons at the disposal of the star quarterbacks. I’m convinced New England’s record-setting tight end, Rob Gronkowski, will be a shadow of himself as he nurses a severely damaged ankle. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez are valuable targets for Brady, but they’ll be easier marks for the Giant defense with Gronkowski diminished.
In addition to having the superior defense (end Jason Pierre-Paul is my dark horse for MVP), the Giants’ offensive weapons are healthy and peaking. Running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. Wideouts Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham. Eli Manning likes this stage. With that many weapons, you can’t bet against him. GIANTS 34, PATRIOTS 20