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Tougher than the rest

I have a chance to settle an old score, right an old wrong, find peace in my old age and apologize, in sideways fashion, to those whom I wronged so many years ago.

The way to do all this is to pick the Giants to upset New England, and that's what I'm doing. Giants to upset the New England Patriots, currently favored by 12½, in the great stormfest known as Super Bowl XLII.

In 1968 I was the beat man, covering the Jets for the New York Post. I was around the team every day. I flew down with them to Miami for Super Bowl III and I stayed in their hotel, the Galt Ocean Mile in Fort Lauderdale. The Colts opened as 17-point favorites. By game time, the rush of Baltimore money had pushed the price up to 19½, one of the biggest line moves in Super Bowl history. They were calling the Colts The Greatest Team Ever, or at least the greatest on the defensive side of the ball. Their owner, Carroll Rosenbloom, thunderously echoed that sentiment.

I had a feeling about the Jets, not a strong one, but Joe Namath working against that strong side rotating zone? Gee, he'd never had trouble with it before. Could it be that ... ? Do I have the courage to ... ? Nah, I'll pick the Colts to win, but by under the spread. That'll make everyone happy. So I did and it made no one happy, least of all me when the Jets scored the biggest upset in Supe history. Who was happy? Leonard Shecter of the Post. He picked the Jets. I kicked myself for the coward I was. No longer. Today, I am a man.

I was in Green Bay on Sunday. The Giants clearly were the better team, tougher, more resilient, harder hitting. That bone chilling cold that was supposed to imbue the Packers with strength and sap it from their enemies, kind of like the giant Antaeus from Greek mythology who drew his strength from contact with the ground ... that brutal, minus-24 wind chill cold was brushed aside by the Giants.

Which was all very well, but Sports Illustrated had sent me out there to do a Super Bowl advance, a look ahead, which isn't easy when the magic of the moment is the game just completed. But coaches are always grading film a week or two in advance, and I knew Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnola must have done a complete workup on the Patriots, so I found him in the locker room and asked him about stopping Tom Brady.

That question might be answered by a news flash that seems to be spiraling out of control around the league. A video is making the rounds showing Brady walking the streets of New York with a cast on his foot. This comes right out of the blue, and it could be that he has simply found a more efficient way to navigate midtown Manhattan, or we could have a major story here. More later, but right now I'm back to the mundane task of getting the strategy from Spagnola.

When he began by feeding me the old jazz about how you have to give him a lot of looks and mix it up, I finished it for him. "Give him the same look and he'll kill, no, you have to mix it up, and the important thing is constant pressure because you don't want him, to get comfortable in the pocket ..." etc., etc.

"I guess you've heard this before, huh?" he said, and I nodded, and the separation was amicable. And gradually it dawned on me, as I toured the locker room, picking up a quote here and there -- there isn't a way to stop Brady and Welker and Moss and Faulk and Maroney ... the whole riotous bunch. A team just has to be tougher, more resilient, more able to sustain high-level pressure on both sides of the ball for a longer period. And I honestly feel that the Giants can do it. Just look at what this improbable team has done so far.

They didn't win their 10 straight on the road against stiffs. Five of the teams were favored over New York, including Dallas and Green Bay, the conference's top two, which fell in successive weekends. The Giants had to come from behind in eight of the 10 games, including Green Bay, in Lambeau, in the frigid temperature before all those screaming fans. I saw one article that suggested Brady and the Patriots might have struggled at first because the wind chill at Foxboro was nine degrees. How about Eli Manning and the boys? They were working in a wind chill that was minus-24 in the fourth quarter and OT.

"Having been on a team that won the Super Bowl, from a wild-card spot," said Todd Christensen, the All-Pro tight end who was on the 1980 champion Raiders, "the ongoing confidence gained by continuing to win at other people's houses cannot be stressed strongly enough."

And that's one of the reasons I like New York a week from Sunday. The ongoing confidence. The Giants are on the rise; the Patriots no longer wrap games up in the third quarter, as they used to. San Diego, with its collection of crippled stars, shoved them around for a while. New England isn't peaking right now. They look human, tough, to be sure, but beatable.

I don't know where Moss has been for two weeks. Brady's interest seems to be elsewhere, mainly because Moss isn't getting free. It would be easy to say that for some reason Randy's losing interest, but it could be an offseason evaluation catching up to him, that the season has gotten too long and his body is starting to wear out. Just suggestions, mind you, (now watch him have a three-TD game).

The team has relied on Maroney, who, very quietly, has rushed for more than 100 yards in four of the last five games. Who's the one opponent who held him under the century? The Giants in their Dec. 29 meeting (46 yards and a 2.4 average). And against the Packers, they gang tackled Ryan Grant to the tune of 29 and 2.2. The week before he had run for 201 against the Seahawks.

"He wasn't going to do to us what he did to Seattle," said New York's massive running back, Brandon Jacobs. "This is the NFC East, man."

But facing the Patriots is like trying to patch a leaky garden hose. Fix one spot, and it'll spring a leak somewhere else. And against San Diego the major leak was Faulk, who seems as if he's been making impossible third down catches for the Patriots forever. And of course Welker, who has caught nine passes or more in seven games, has become, in one year, Brady's prime target.

"My favorite player in the whole league," says the Cowboys' offensive coordinator Jason Garrett of Welker.

"They went to their backup plan," said the Chargers' Shawne Merriman, after Welker and Faulk had teamed up for 15 catches against his team. "They have weapons all over the field."

"We wanted to force them to defend everything," Bill Belichick said.

Oh no, it'll be far from easy for the Giants, but they have some weapons of their own, you know, and not only among their highly touted pass rushers. I think the new threat is rookie Ahmad Bradshaw, a kick returner until he emerged as a serious running back at the end of December. He is 5-8, 198, very close to Tiki Barber, physically, and possessed of some of Tiki's moves, the cutback instincts, the ability to size up a defender and tell when he is out of balance and can be faked or run over.

Jacobs is the big, 264-pound hammer. He will smack into the line and make a tackler pay, but he also runs into the heart of the defense on occasion, and he has gotten his share of injuries over the course of the season. But he can soften up a defense, and for the last few games the Giants have been jolting opponents with the big guy, and finishing them off with the little one. The tandem helped New York keep the ball for 81 snaps against Green Bay to the Packers' 49, and maybe that's why the Giants looked so energetic in the fourth quarter and overtime, while the Packers were hitting the big sag.

Personally, I would like to see Bradshaw as the featured back, matching a coaching revelation such as the one that finally hit the Cowboys in their last game and convinced them to send it in on Marion Barber. But I think the Giants' offensive coaches know what they're doing without my help.

Well, there will be handicapping up the gazoo for the next 12 days, more than anyone ever will be able to handle. There will also be a city, Phoenix in this case, full of Giants fans, and maybe they're the reason why I haven't come on that strong about New York until now. When you're too close to something, when you have to read about it every day, as I do here in Jersey, and hear it dissected and analyzed every time you go into the newspaper store, hearing all the whining and moaning and crowing -- well, that turns you off and you wish that the team would just go away somewhere for a while. At least that's how I react.

Get ready for the hype-fest, but be thankful for some small favors, too. A Brady-Favre Super Bowl would have brought the "greatest ever" magpies out of the trees ... actually I'd started to hear it already. On talk radio, of course. Greatest QB duel in Super history, forgetting, of course, that Joe Montana and Dan Marino once faced each other.

A San Diego-New York Super Bowl would have dragged out all the old stories about the trade that sent Manning to New York from San Diego, and how the Chargers wound up with Phillip Rivers, etc. -- for the hundredth time or so.

Brady, coming off a lights-out performance, would have ignited all those firestorms about whether or not he is the greatest, and I swear to you, I wasn't ready for another round of those. No, I like this Super Bowl just the way it is, thank you. I appreciate the chance to ride with a double-digit underdog to win straight up. We must all be thankful for small blessings that happen to come our way.

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