Saturday, February 04, 2012

Handicapping the Super Bowl

(Side Note: I'm not sure I can use the words "Super Bowl" to describe tomorrow's game.  That has a copyright on it, doesn't it?  Now that I have eight followers instead of two, I need to watch out for stuff like this.  I've finally crested $6 on Google Ad words -- click the links on the ads, please! -- and I don't want to see my mighty empire come crashing down.  But, I'm going to live dangerously.)

If you're here to get gambling tips -- which is a bad move, since I did a horrible job handicapping the Championship Round -- then I like the Giants to win outright (+130) and the Over (53).

Here's why...

The Patriots defense, in my mind, is a constant.  They're always bad.  They'll give up 24-28 points a game on a consistent basis, but they won 15 games because they consistently put up 30 or more points on offense.  This has been especially true during their current ten game win streak.  The reason they were able to keep Denver and Baltimore at 20 points or under -- and the hated Ravens could have scored 23 or 27 in that game had a couple things gone their way -- is because those teams don't quality depth at receiver.  If New England is facing a team that does have depth at receiver, then they need to decide who to put Julian Edelman on.  If you're not familiar with Edelman, he a quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-cornerback who has played more snaps on defense than he has on offense this season.  He's a gifted athlete and a hell of a team player, but he is an awful cornerback.  In the AFC Championship game, Baltimore was able to get Anquan Boldin isolated on Edelman and Edelman got abused.  I like Boldin and I think he's a great player, but he's not very dynamic or explosive.  He's also not as explosive as Mario Manningham, Hakeem Nicks, and especially not as explosive as Victor Cruz.

If Kevin Gilbride (offensive coordinator for the Giants) can find a way to match Cruz up on Edelman through formations and motion, then this game is going to get ugly in a hurry.  Cruz had a huge game against a significantly better 49ers secondary in the championship round and he's a special player.  My guess is that Bill Belichick will focus on taking Cruz away first, but that still leaves Manningham and Nicks and still leaves him with someone to assign Edelman to.

Even if New York isn't able to run the ball effectively and the Patriots play mostly zone to take away the long ball and force Eli Manning to throw the ball into tight spots, it still won't end well for New England.  That just means the Giants will be able to mix in some Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw.  Also, the Patriots zone defense is even worse than their man coverage.  I think Belichick realized this about halfway through the season -- right after they lost two straight to the Steelers and Giants -- and switched to more man schemes.  He just needed to find a way each game to insulate Edelman by assigning him to the team's worst receiver.  New York's worst receiver is still considerably better than Edelman.  The opportunities will be there for the Giants on offense and I think that they will be able to take advantage of those opportunities.

So, Eli and company are going to be able to score points.  Will they be able to score more than Tom Brady's offense?

For me, this comes down to Rob Gronkowski.  He has a high ankle sprain, he's listed as questionable, and he's expected to play.  That's fine, but I keep wondering how limited he'll be and how effective he'll be given his limitations.  Steeler fans have come to know (and hate) the high ankle sprain and we've had a lot of experience with it over the last two seasons.  It's true that Gronkowski is younger than Roethlisberger and he's had two weeks to rest and get better, but I think there's an upper limit of what rest and recovery will do for an injury like this.  From everything I've seen and read, it just takes time, and Gronk hasn't had enough time for it to heal fully.  He may have a different, less severe, lower grade high ankle sprain than Roethlisberger, but you also can't get a little bit pregnant.  You either have a high ankle sprain or you don't.  Roethlisberger was able to play through his injury, but he was less effective.  Gronkowski will probably be able to play through the pain as well -- and he's getting fitted with a special shoe for the game -- but tight ends need to run more than quarterbacks.  I think the injury will slow him down and wear him down, which takes away a big weapon for the Patriots.

Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker are great players, but they're not game breakers like Gronkowski.  They'll be able to help Brady out and New England will be able to move the ball, but I don't think either of these guys is going to make a play that will break the game wide open.  Welker's also listed as questionable with a knee injury.  He'll play, too, but is he 100 percent?  I doubt it.  He had six catches for 53 yards against Baltimore and six catches for 55 yards against Denver.  The numbers against the hated Ravens are understandable, especially considering that Brady struggled in that game.  But Brady threw for 363 yards and six touchdowns against the Broncos and Welker ended up with 6/55 (with one touchdown).  He's not 100 percent and this offense will not be the same if Hernandez and Deion Branch are their primary weapons.

Then there's the New York pass rush, which is pretty good.  They were the key in Super Bowl XLII and they will be the key again.  Even with Welker and Gronkowski being limited, this is still a potent Patriots offense with a Hall of Fame quarterback and an outstanding offensive line.  New England knows that they'll need to score a ton of points to win this game and they'll be highly motivated to do so.  In any game against the Patriots, stopping the offense means getting to Tom Brady with four guys.  In New England's three losses -- and near losses to Baltimore and Miami -- the common thread has been that Brady has not had a good game.  He threw four picks against the Bills and was ineffective against the Steelers.  He had two interceptions and was inconsistent in the red zone against the hated Ravens.  Get in Brady's head and you have a chance.

The front four for the Giants know that they are the key to this game.  They understand that success on defense begins and ends with them.  I think they're up to the task and I think they're ready to get after it.

Still, the Patriots aren't known for rolling over and playing dead.  The Giants are going to score a lot of points because of the match-ups and New England is going to score a lot of points because they have to, and because they're still very good.  I see a close, high-scoring game, with New York coming out on top.

Giants 31, Patriots 28

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