INDIANAPOLIS -- Since the NFL instituted a 16-game schedule, no team that won just nine games in the regular season has won a Super Bowl. Maybe that's because none of those nine-win teams was as equipped for a championship run quite like this year's New York Giants.
Since the Giants lost to Washington in Week 15, they have been an unstoppable force, rolling over the Jets and Cowboys to clinch the NFC East, then taking down Atlanta, Green Bay and San Francisco in the postseason. For whatever reason, the switch flipped in New York just in time, and a Giants team with a boatload of talent up and down the roster found its groove.
"I think our football team has been through a lot this season. We’ve been through a lot of adversity," Giants defensive tackle Chris Canty said this week. "I think over the course of the last month and a half, we’ve really been playing at a high level. Let’s face it, confidence comes from demonstrative performance. We’ve demonstrated to one another that we can perform at a very high level, and we can compete, and we can beat some really good football teams."
One more win over another one of those "really good football teams" would send the Vince Lombardi Trophy back to New York. Here are five reasons the Giants can take down the Patriots Sunday:
1. A dominant defensive line. Justin Tuck told the media that he thought the Giants' defensive line was being "overhyped" in the run-up to the Super Bowl -- "We understand that no matter how good we are up front, we still need the guys on the back end to play well and vice versa," Tuck said.
That's all well and good, but New York's defensive strength clearly lies up front, where Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and a host of others provide the Giants with one of the game's premier pass-rushing units. All of those players talked this week about the importance of getting to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, at least to hurry his throws, if not to chalk up some hits and sacks.
One element that may help the Giants accomplish that goal is how creative they are with the ways they utilize their front seven. They'll dance their linemen around in different looks to try to throw off New England's offensive line.
If the Patriots can't counter and pick up those attacking Giants defenders, it could be a long day for Brady.
2. Eli Manning is on fire. Starting with that Week 17 blowout win over the Cowboys, Manning has been in a zone that looks a lot like Aaron Rodgers' dazzling playoff performance last year. He took hit after hit in San Francisco during the NFC title game and still threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns, giving him 923 yards and eight TDs this postseason.
"He takes the hits and gets right back up," Tom Coughlin said of Manning. "He’s not one of those who starts pointing fingers and yelling and screaming. ... His focus, pride, determination, the role he has chosen as the leader of our team, all those things are involved with the way in which he plays and how the team responds."
Manning also has just one turnover in his past four games -- an interception against the Packers.
3. Who's covering Victor Cruz? Based on what we saw from the Patriots when the Ravens went to a three-receiver set, wide receiver-turned-cornerback Julian Edelman could find himself in some one-on-one situations against Cruz, the Giants' slot receiver and one of the league's best performers throughout this season.
"I see he’s very raw at that position, obviously, because it’s not his dominant position," Cruz said of Edelman at Tuesday's Media Day. "But he’s quick, he’s fast, and he carries over a lot of the receiver stuff over to [cornerback], so we’ll see how it goes."
Another possible option for New England is to swing Kyle Arrington inside to see if he can hang with Cruz. Not only would Cruz still hold the heads-up edge in that matchup, but also it would take the Patriots' top cornerback from his usual spot on the outside, potentially opening up more room for Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham.
There's not really a good way for New England to deal with Cruz, which means the shifty receiver could be in line for a huge Super Bowl.
4. The Giants love the underdog role. Even though the majority of NFL pundits seem to be leaning toward the Giants, the Patriots have been favored all week. That's just fine with New York, which continues to use the underdog tag as motivation -- just as it did when these teams met in the Super Bowl last time, not to mention earlier this season.
"We’re going to use it as an insult, and we’re going to play with all our heart," Brandon Jacobs said. "We’re going to give it our all, and we’re going to prove everybody wrong."
Motivation like that only goes so far, but there definitely are some teams that thrive more when they're not in the driver's seat. The Giants fall into that category.
5. Ahmad Bradshaw had time to heal. A lot -- a LOT -- of the focus this week has been on Rob Gronkowski's injured ankle. The extra week off between the conference title games and the Super Bowl has given New England's star tight end enough time to recuperate to the point where he looks like he'll give it a go Sunday.
But New York running back Ahmad Bradshaw needed a breather as much as anyone. He's been struggling week in and week out since cracking a bone in his foot midway through the season.
He said this week, though, that he felt "great," a statement backed by his participation in the Giants' practices on Wednesday and Thursday; Bradshaw had been sitting out those sessions in the days prior to regular season games, in an effort to keep him as healthy as possible for Sundays. Bradshaw's presence in the New York backfield provides an added dimension that Jacobs cannot. Long playoff runs can be as much about luck as anything else, and the Giants just happened to get everyone on the field at the same time for the postseason.