Friday February 1st, 2008

Here on Thursday, the interviewing ended. Put another way, the New England Patriots were allowed to stop talking and the New York Giants were forced to do likewise. This is literally true; 15 minutes after his last interview session was to have ended, the Giants' Michael Strahan at last rose from his microphone and was nudged away from his inquisitors (audience might be a more appropriate description) back to the team's inner sanctum. He was still talking over his shoulder as he disappeared behind a curtain, his voice trailing off like the closing chords of a song fading into the air but never really ending, as if big No. 92 is still talking somewhere, right at this minute.

It is no longer newsworthy that Super Bowl week is a Theater of the Absurd. You have seen the images of media day. Flip on your television or your radio and you can hear the endless analysis. Preparation for a single football game -- even one matching the first 18-0 team in history against a storied franchise from the media capital of the world -- is finite. The need for analysis (opinion?) is nearly infinite. The resulting repetition is brain-sucking, but of course, profitable and oddly endearing. It is hard, for example, not to admire the NFL Network for its relentless voice.

All that aside, Super Bowl week is a laboratory, as well. Players and coaches are placed under examination more repeatedly -- and for longer periods of time -- than any human would consider reasonable.

(Frontline players -- Brady, Bruschi, Manning, Strahan -- have all done more than 2 ½ hours' worth of media time, at least an hour of it standing at a lectern, press-conference style. It's punishing duty that most of them handle remarkably well, albeit in their own style. Tedy Bruschi gives you the idea he could do eight hours straight and not stop smiling; Eli Manning, far less extroverted, works at it much harder.)

What we learned from this exercise is the Giants are loose and the Patriots are polished. It doesn't mean that many of the Giants are not also polished, or that many -- possibly all -- of the Patriots are not also loose. But if forced to categorize each team -- and lord knows, we are -- I would stick with: Giants loose and Patriots polished.

This pigeonholing began Monday when Giants' wideout Plaxico Burress predicted the Giants would win the game, 23-17. Really, all that Burress did was acknowledge that he felt the Giants would win (Duh!) and tossed off a score without really giving it much thought. (And bless his heart for both of these things, because this Namath-chanelling moment became the only "news'' of the week, once it was clear that Tom Brady's ankle was just fine).

The Giants subsequently arrived in Phoenix dressed largely in black (another non-story story), and spent three days enjoying the stage, with virtually no exceptions. Burress delightfully never backed down from his prediction. "What I said is what I said,'' Burress, um, said. "I believe in my guys as much as they believe in me. They stand behind me.''

And they did. Clearly the Giants' mojo is fueled by their playoff run.

"Really, it started with the last game of the season,'' said rookie cornerback Aaron Ross. (Who also told me his girlfriend, Olympic 400-meter sprinter Sanya Richards, will be in attendance at Sunday's game. "You kidding?'' Ross said. "That's my woman.'') Seldom has a team gained more from allowing an opponent to score on seven of nine offensive possessions or to rally in the fourth quarter from a 12-point deficit, as the Patriots did to the Giants.

Another issue is that Burress sat out the Giants' Wednesday and Thursday practices, first with continued chronic soreness in his right ankle (Wednesday) and new swelling in his left knee (Thursday). There is general agreement among the Giants that Manning and Burress started working better together several weeks ago when Burress started practicing, which he did not do early in the season.

Back to the realm of the immeasurable: The Patriots exude an entirely different sort of vibe. Sports journalists of all kinds -- the good and the bad -- share an expectation of their subjects. A certain number of predictable axioms will be scooped from a shallow pool and distributed. The Patriots are exceptionally good at this: "We're just thinking about this game,'' says Bruschi.

"It's just going to be two great teams competing out there,'' says slot receiver Wes Welker.

But it's wrong to dismiss the Patriots straight-up as Stepford Pats. Their locker room is more like a boardroom with hampers. At first, the paucity of delicious material is frustrating, because there are some fascinating people behind those masks. Back in October, when the momentum toward history was just building, I spent solo time with all five of their linebackers: Bruschi, Rosevelt Colvin (now injured), Junior Seau, Adalius Thomas and Mike Vrabel. All five of them are fascinating, introspective people, in addition to being great football players with life and sports history. (And at distinctly varied points on the career continuum, which only makes the story richer.)

That window opens seldom, with the players or the coaches. Ten days before the Super Bowl, I talked with coach Bill Belichick. I tossed off a generality about the Giants' defense and Belichick immediately challenged me, which is refreshing. He won't let things slide, and that's a slice of what he does with his own team. What's right is right.

The entire atmosphere slides quickly from annoying to impressive. They are running a business, which happens to field a football team. That's true of every team in the NFL, but nowhere does that quality express itself more deeply in the locker room than in New England. They are playing football, and they present it to the public like serious work. Which, since there are billions of dollars in play and people can get maimed participating, would be accurate.

So we are back to loose and polished.

It is a default position that nothing gleaned in advance of the Super Bowl affects the outcome. In a sense, that's true. But in this case, that's a dangerous stance. To be sure, Burress' prediction is pointless fluff, subsistence food for the media. But the Giants' confidence is real, and it gives them a shot Sunday.

However, the Patriots' polish is real, too. And that's another kind of confidence altogether. A better kind.

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