A Look Into the Superbowl: Strong Special Teams
I have been trying to come up with a pick for this game all week and I just can’t do it. I am never afraid to make a pick but in this situation I feel like it is a true crapshoot. The teams appear so even to me and it really just comes down to who plays better on Sunday. Of course it always come down to who just plays better on sunday – but usually I am able to convince myself of one outcome or another and run with it; not this time.
In this game I see the Giants as the slightest of favorites. This is because I think almost everyone in Indianapolis is going to want the Patriots to lose on Sunday. The Giants are also by far the more balanced team. On offense any Giants fan has to love the way Eli Manning is playing right now and those three wide receivers might be the most dangerous group of players in the NFL right now.
On the defensive side they have a tremendous D-line that has frustrated three straight quality opponents. The Patriots just can’t match them on the defensive side. I don’t care what they have done these playoffs, it came against Tim Tebow and Joe Flacco, and Eli Manning is much different.
But these Patriots are more like the old Pats than the high-flying 2007 team. They fight, they don’t mind a close game, they have proven they can come from behind and they don’t get rattled by a big play going against them. They can truly win any style of game – they have been the definition of tough. And they do have the team of destiny feel. This season has been dedicated to Roberts Kraft’s wife Myra. The last time the Patriots dedicated a season to somebody they went 16-0 in the regular season and fell one game short of perfection. The season was dedicated to deceased lineman, Marquise Hill. Before that they dedicated the 2001 championship season to QB coach Dick Rehbein who died during training camp. These factors all balance out in my mind. I don’t know who has the edge.
So what will be the deciding factor in this game? It might just come down to who steps up and makes a play on special teams. It happens more often than you might think. Just last week both conference championship games came down to which team could make a big special teams play in the end. The Baltimore Ravens missed a FG that could have sent the game to overtime. The San Francisco 49ers fumbled the game away in overtime on a punt return. So often games of this calibre come down to a special teams play at the end of the game.
In the 2001 Patriots Super Bowl I mentioned earlier, it was Adam Vinatieri who booted the game winning kick as time expired to deliver the Pats their first championship. They would not have even been in that game had it not been for two clutch kicks earlier in the playoffs to extend and win the game against the Oakland Raiders in the division championship round.
The last time the Patriots won it all it was a shoot-out versus the Carolina Panthers but the game still came down to a winning field goal by Vinatieri in the dying moments. This play was set up by a special teams blunder when the Panthers booted a kickoff out-of-bounds to give the Pats good field position to make the winning FG. To take it further the only reason the game was tied at that point was that the Panthers failed to convert for any points after two of their TD scores, the Patriots took advantage and made a 2-point conversion following their final TD. That three-point swing was the difference in the final score. The last time the Patriots lost in the playoffs they made a crucial special teams error in the first half against the Jets setting them up for a big touchdown. Patrick Chung took a punt-fake and tried to run up the gut in Patriots’ territory. The try wasn’t even close and from that point on the Patriots were battling uphill.
The Giants themselves know a lot about winning on special teams. They rebuilt their franchise winning low scoring games where every special teams score is crucial in the Bill Parcells era. But these new Giants have experienced this too. Everyone remembers the Norwood play, but does everyone remember that Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes kicked the Giants into the 2007 Super Bowl with a 47 yard overtime FG to vanquish the Packers in the NFC championship games? The Patriots – Giants Super Bowl that year didn’t exactly come down the a special teams play. But the Patriots did have to field a kick return with time running out. Despite being the 4th best team all season at returns they were unable to advance the ball beyond their 26 yard line despite the kick falling at the Patriots 9. In week 17 of that season everyone remembers the Giants battling the Patriots tough in a close loss – the game came down to Mike Vrabel recovering an onside kick to seal the victory for the Patriots.
Even during their match-up during the regular season this year special teams played a big factor in a close game. Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a FG at the end of the half that could have been the first points score in the game. Later the Patriots fumbled a punt return setting up the Giants with great field position (they didn’t score), and the Giants fumbled a punt of their own.
The 2006 Super Bowl opened with a Devin Hester kick return that almost swung the game and kept the Bears in it until the end despite some poor offensive play. The last huge special teams play in a Super Bowl came during the 2009 season when the New Orleans Saints opened the second half with an onside kick recovery that tipped the game in their favor.
Special teams can be everything in a game this close. So who will have the edge in that department this Sunday? Footballoutsiders.com rates special teams effectiveness for the entire season and they currently have the Patriots as the 3rd best special teams in the league and the Giants falling in at 12th. Neither team gets great returns but the Patriots get their strength from having the 3rd and 2nd best kick and punt coverage respectively. The Giants rank below the Patriots in every category except for kick returns.
So who has the final edge? I have to give it to the Patriots. Not just because the stats bear it out but the Patriots have won big games with special teams in the past. Gostkowski has been one of the leagues best since his career started and has come through nearly every time in clutch situations. Lawrence Tynes had the big kick to send the Giants to the Bowl in 2007 but earlier in that game he missed two potential game winners. Gostkowski is also much more experienced, and much more accurate that Tynes on long field goals. I give the kicking edge to the Patriots. Their coverage teams have also been stellar all year so it is hard to see the Giants getting a game-altering return. Both coaches have it in them to make a big call in a big situation, and I think both will be planning on it this Sunday knowing how close this game could be. I like the way the Patriots have responded in tight situations this year and if it comes down to special teams in this game I expect them to make the play.
I expect both defenses to play well and the game to go down to the wire. But the Patriots make the clutch plays in the end, including a game winning field goal. Patriots 23 Giants 20
…and that is the last word.