INDIANAPOLIS -- The Patriots-Giants Super Bowl rematch has anything but a been-there, done-that feel to it. This is a classic matchup of two proud and well-run organizations, with head coaches and quarterbacks who are exceedingly accomplished and familiar, and teams that play the game the right way, and have the long-term results to prove it. We've got legacy questions to chew on, matters of revenge and redemption to debate, and all the star power you could possibly hope for on the game's grandest stage. It's a game that all week has felt like it should have no favorite, but I've had the growing sense that it's almost time for New England to re-scale the NFL mountaintop. Here are my five best reasons the Patriots will be champions once more:
BURKE: FIVE REASONS GIANTS WILL WIN
1. Don't underestimate the revenge factor in New England. Someone high up in the Patriots organization asked me this week who I liked in this game, and as I answered he just nodded and said I was seeing it the same way he was seeing it. I told him that while it seemed like a complete toss-up on the surface, my gut was telling me to lean toward New England because of how much Tom Brady and Bill Belichick burn to get even with the Giants for that monumental upset and ruined perfect season of four years ago.
Trite maybe, but pride is a great motivator, and that memorable Giants victory in Arizona was, by far, the most bitter pill that Brady and Belichick have had to swallow in their 12-year run together in New England. They lost some of their aura and invincibility that night in the desert, and they're not the type to quietly forgive and forget. I think they want this one as payback, and when two teams are this evenly matched, motivation can be the edge that matters.
While Brady and Belichick won three Super Bowl rings in their first four seasons of Brady's starting tenure, it has been seven long years since they hoisted the shiny trophy and endured the postgame confetti shower. They both are fiercely proud of their accomplishments and legacies in NFL history, and realize that a fourth Super Bowl victory in five tries will catapult them into truly rarefied air, with Brady tying his boyhood idol Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw with four rings, and Belichick matching the great Chuck Noll and the Pittsburgh dynasty in the '70s as a four-time winner.
Don't get me wrong, there are legacies to be burnished in this game for Giants quarterback Eli Manning and head coach Tom Coughlin as well. And though I get the sense that New York would love to knock off the New Englanders once more and validate their '08 win, it's the Patriots who feel they have to win this one, earning back some of their honor and prestige and proving that all is right once again in the football world. It feels more personal to the Patriots, and in the Super Bowl, nobody influences the outcome more than a team's quarterback and head coach. It's going to be a nail-biter, but I'm banking on Brady and Belichick and their difference-making will to win.
2. The Patriots offensive line can both serve and protect. While New York's pass rush is one of the most fearsome in the NFL, and has had it really rolling in the postseason (nine sacks in three games), keeping Brady upright and clean in the pocket has been a strength of New England's. So it's a bad assumption to believe that New York will be able to harass Brady the same way it did when it sacked him five times and hit him on nine occasions in their first Super Bowl matchup, four years ago.
The Patriots offensive line has given up just one sack in two playoff games this year, and Denver and Baltimore were no slouches in the pass rush department. For the season, New England's 32 sacks allowed averaged out to two per game, which is the same number of times the Giants got to Brady in New York's 24-20 upset of the Patriots in Week 9. Yes, New York's defensive line is healthier now, but New England's offensive line has been getting it done all season.
Left tackle Matt Light and left guard Logan Mankins have been superb, and they figure to be in the spotlight on Sunday, given how much production the Giants have gotten out of their right defensive end position, where Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora were both highly effective. Veteran Brian Waters has been a godsend at right guard, after the retirement of Stephen Neal. According to Pro Football Focus, Light had his best performance in pass protection in years, giving up just four sacks all season. Waters has been even better, allowing a team-low two sacks in his first year as a Patriot.
Brady has worked behind a unit that surrendered just 142 pressures in '11, the eighth-fewest in the league. Eli Manning only wishes he had been that well protected, because New York's offensive line gave up a league-high 220 pressures, which was 15 more than any other team in the league.
And if New York can't get enough pressure on Brady with just its front four, it's clearly advantage, New England. According to ESPN research, Brady carved up defenses for 17 touchdowns and just two interceptions when he was rushed by five or more defenders. So the blitz has been Brady's friend this season, not his nemesis.
3. Gronk is back on two wheels. I know the last two Super Bowl teams that had key starters battling ankle sprains in the week leading up to the game both lost: The Colts with defensive end Dwight Freeney in '10 and the Steelers with center Maurkice Pouncey in '11. But that's a trend that stops now, because the Patriots' beast of a playmaking tight end, Rob Gronkowski, practiced at least on a limited basis Thursday for the first time this week, and reportedly suffered no setbacks because of it.
If Gronkowski is even at 85 percent of his effectiveness, the Giants defense is in trouble, because no team has successfully dealt with the matchup problems presented by New England's two tight-end set of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. You can take one of them away for portions of the game, but not both. The Patriots use them in so many creative formations -- see Hernandez playing running back against Denver in the divisional round -- and will find ways to exploit New York's coverage plans, which appear to center around using safeties against them, with linebacker Michael Boley also responsible for shadowing Gronkowski.
To say Gronkowski has developed into Brady's go-to receiver is an understatement. Including the playoffs, Brady has targeted Gronkowski 139 times this season, completing 104 of those passes for 1,537 yards, 20 touchdowns, good for a 141.1 passer rating and just three interceptions. In short, he's a devastating option, and Brady knows how to get him the ball.
We just saw the Giants give up a pair of touchdown passes to 49ers tight end Vernon Davis in the NFC title game in San Francisco, so there are gaps in that New York secondary. Look for the Giants to try to get physical with Gronkowski and Hernandez at the line of scrimmage, getting them out of their routes before they even begin, and limiting how much time they have to find those downfield seams. But Gronkowski is also a great red-zone option for Brady, and that's where he might still be most effective even if his ankle limits his maneuverability. With his soft hands and his size, Gronk will remain a potent weapon down close to the goal line. Sore ankle, or not.
4. These Patriots don't crumble, and don't fade in the face of adversity. It hasn't always been pretty in New England this year. No one will confuse this for a perfect season. But Bill Belichick's team has proved to be both tough-minded and resilient, bouncing back numerous times over the past five months.
There was the humiliating 21-point second-quarter blown lead in the Week 3 loss at Buffalo, their first defeat to the Bills since '03. There were the back-to-back losses in Weeks 8-9 to the Steelers and Giants, performances that made the critics question whether New England's era of dominance in the AFC was at an end. And there was the season-long debate about the Patriots defense, which simply couldn't slow opposing offenses down at times, let alone stop them.
But none of those down moments or shortcomings wound up defining this New England team. It stayed the course, endured the rough patches and emerged alive and well, qualifying for the seventh Super Bowl in franchise history and fifth in the past 11 years.
For me, the story of the Patriots season can be summed up in how they handled the two games that ended the regular season, at home against Miami and Buffalo. New England looked horrible early in each game, falling behind 17-0 at the half to the Dolphins and 21-0 to the Bills after just three possessions. But the Pats scored on their first five possessions of the second half against Miami, and won 27-24, and then roared back to victory against Buffalo, finishing with a 49-point unanswered run to blow out the Bills.
That's what it has been like in New England this year. When you think there's no way these Patriots can win, or recover, they find their footing and play like champions again. The young defense is playing its best ball of the season at the right time of the year, growing up before our eyes, and the offense still features one of the league's most potent and breathtaking passing attacks.
So don't sell the Patriots short. They have their flaws. But they have plenty of strengths, too. This isn't the mighty 18-0 Patriots of '07. But New England this year proved it can take a blow, steady itself and land a few punches of its own.
5. I'm getting to be money in the bank in early February. Is anybody but me keeping track out there? I had Green Bay winning in last year's Super Bowl installment of 5 Reasons Why the Fill-in-the-Blank Will Win. I explained and predicted the path to victory for the underdog Saints over the vaunted Colts two years ago in South Florida in the same Friday staple of our Super Bowl coverage. And it was a similar Nostradamus-like vision I exhibited three years back, when I presciently opted to ride the Steelers horse in their narrow victory over Arizona in Tampa.
So you can confidently cash out that 401K and run to put it all on the Patriots over the Giants in Sunday night's much-anticipated rematch. Don't even give it a second thought. My middle name might as well be "Ice Cold Lock.'' It's a gift, really, and who can explain these things. Best just to let it flow and share it with the world.
Oh, and pay no attention to those who might try to point out that I also had the Patriots over the Giants in Super Bowl XLII four years ago in Arizona, or that neither of my preseason Super Bowl picks this year -- Green Bay and Baltimore -- even made the game this season. Even Nostradamus missed a few.