Monday, January 28, 2008

Preview of Super Bowl XLII (1/28/2008)

Giants/Patriots in one of the most anticipated games in years on national television with the subplot of a perfect season on the line. Didn't we do this a month ago? The Giants played the Patriots about as tough as any team this season, and the New York crew is brimming with confidence after knocking off the #1 and #2 seeds in the NFC playoffs -- both on the road. Quarterback Eli Manning hasn't thrown an interception this post-season, and they are getting big plays from the receivers and decent special teams play (except for those two missed field goals). They run the ball well and get consistent pressure on the quarterback with their front four.

Add to that Tom Brady's questionable ankle, and you might think the Giants might turn their 3-point week 17 loss into a Super Bowl win. Well, it could happen, but I don't think it will. Not to throw cold water on the hopes of Giants fans everywhere, but several things have changed from New England's week 17 win over New York, and those changes are almost all in the Patriots favor. And given that the Patriots won the earlier game, the factors that have moved in their direction probably mean they will win this one, too. Not to say the Giants can't win -- they have a better chance than many have given them. However, it would be pointless sophistry to argue that they should be favored or "will definitely" win. And here are my reasons for thinking that.

Point #1. "Oh the weather outside was frightful, but inside is so delightful." (Everybody now!)

Their last meeting was outdoors, in the cold (44-degrees) and wind, and perhaps most importantly, with a partisan Giants crowd to annoy the Patriots offense. Cold, wind, and crowd noise all make it tougher to pass than do anything else in the game (except maybe kick). And the Patriots have made Tom Brady and the receivers their bread-and-butter this season, so those conditions definitely helped the Giants on December 29.

In fact, bad weather was a factor in almost every game in which the Patriots looked beatable this year. So far this season, the Pats have played nine games in good weather and nine in cold/windy/rainy/snowy weather, and their offense was demonstrably affected by the elements. In "nice" conditions, they scored 7.7 more points (39.4) than they did in "nasty" conditions (31.7), and their scoring differential dipped from 29.1 to 9.0 points per game when the elements were less than ideal.

I probably don't need to point out that the conditions inside the dome in Arizona won't be a factor in the Super Bowl. You already knew that, didn't ya?

Point #2. Two weeks is too much.

The recent Patriots/Giants game was played on a short week. It was a Saturday night road game for the Patriots, the week after a 4:15 Sunday game the week before. But this is the Super Bowl fortnight, with 14 full days of hype, footwear fashion tips, and travel planning that drives fans crazy but gives coaches lots of extra time to plan for the game. Now, the extra time is sure to help some coaches more than others, and that is where the two-week break gives the Patriots another edge.

Bill Belichick is a outstanding 12-2 after a bye week with the Patriots, whereas Tom Coughlin is a less-than-stellar 1-3 after a bye week with the Giants. And for those moaning that four games aren't enough to indicate a trend with Coughlin, he's barely above .500 in his coaching career after a bye week -- a mediocre 7-6 when you include his time with the Jaguars. It's been said that giving Bill Belichick two weeks to prepare is unfair to the competition, and in this case, the numbers prove it to be true.

Point #3. Double dipping.

Given that the Patriots and Giants played only a month ago, it is one of the rare cases when NFC and AFC teams will play each other more than once in a season. A coach can learn a lot in the up-close-and-personal experience of playing a game, and any information should give a good coach a leg up in the rematch. So another factor that could impact how the Super Bowl will play out is how each coach has fared when playing teams more than once in a season. And it's yet another factor that points to a likely Patriots victory.

Since he joined the Patriots, Bill Belichick is 25-10 (71.4%) the second time he faces the same team in the same season, including a 7-2 record (77.8%) in the playoffs (3-0 in Super Bowls). With the New York Giants, Tom Coughlin is a below-average 7-8 (46.6%) in the same situation, including a small-sample 2-1 (66.7%) in the playoffs (no Super Bowl appearances). Certainly this doesn't guarantee anything, but it's clear that Belichick discovers a lot about how to defeat a team in the first game and puts it to better use than Coughlin does in the second one.

Quick Points

A) Some think that the Pats regular-season win over the Giants gives them a big advantage in the Super Bowl. But don't you believe it. In Super Bowls where the two teams met in the regular season, the winner of the first game is under .500 (5-6) in the Super Bowl. (And you might recall that the 2001 Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI after losing to them at home in the regular season.)

B) The 2007 Giants have the same regular-season record as the 1988 San Francisco 49ers, 10-6. Why is that significant? Because in 41 previous Super Bowls, those 49ers are the only Super Bowl champions with a regular-season winning percentage as low as .625.

C) Good news for the fifth-seeded Giants: #1 seeded teams are only 1-6 against lower-seeded teams in the Super Bowl since the year 2000. Bad news for the Giants: the Patriots are the only first-seeded team to win under that scenario (a Super Bowl XXXVIII win over third-seeded Carolina).


By all indications, the Patriots should win this game. The Giants beat the Packers and Cowboys by hanging around and waiting for their opponent to fold, and I don't see the Patriots folding under any pressure situation the game could offer. And even though the Giants play the style of defense that has slowed the Patriots this season, and even though they aren't turning the ball over, the fact remains that the Patriots won the regular-season game under adverse conditions in a hostile environment. In this game, the Giants won't have the weather on their side. And even if their fans buy a bunch of the available tickets, there are too many neutral fans at Super Bowls, and most of them will root for the Patriots so they can witness history.

I hate to say it looks like a comfortable win, because my record in such predictions isn't that great. But that's what it feels like. Something like 35-24.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots have never won a Super Bowl with the letter "I" twice in the number. They won XXXVI, XXXVIII, and XXXIX, but winning this Sunday would give them a Super Bowl victory with the letter "I" twice -- XLII.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "When the Packers and Cowboys lost to the Giants, they played some of their worst football of the year. What are the chances the Patriots do the same in the Super Bowl?" (note: you can wink after saying it if you like).

Keep the faith,

- Scott



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