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Thursday, January 31, 2008
Expect Burress prediction to fall short

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- Plaxico Burress caused a stir by predicting his Giants would beat the Patriots, 23-17.

It wasn't the forecast that was interesting but the score. This has been an offensive season, so a low-scoring game would be a surprise.

Tom Brady couldn't believe Burress thinks the Patriots would score only 17 points. The fewest points they've scored in a game all season was 20. In Week 17, the Patriots beat the Giants, 38-35.

The problem with making a prediction early in a Super Bowl week is that the questions won't go away. Burress will be hounded about it until after the game. He called it entertainment, but coaches harp on players not to give opponents bulletin-board material.

And doing that against the Patriots is downright crazy because coach Bill Belichick doesn't have a problem running up the score. He realizes teams in an offensive era have the ability to come back and that the best defense against that is a take-no-prisoners offense.

Oddsmakers put the over/under at 54 points, with the Giants being 12-point underdogs. Burress is going for the under. Brady and the Patriots aren't.

1. Weather: The weather could be a factor even though the game is being played in Phoenix. Forecasts call for a little bit of rain and the temperature in the low 60s.

If it rains, the roof at University of Phoenix Stadium may be closed. That would favor the Patriots. The Giants have a fast defense that can pressure Brady, but the field becomes a little slicker when the roof is closed. That could affect the Giants' defensive linemen, who might slip a little as they rush Brady.

New York has a more conventional offense, with two backs and two wide receivers. The Giants might be helped if the roof is open and the teams are exposed to the elements.

2. The Pats should open things up: During playoff victories over Jacksonville and San Diego, the Patriots used more two- and three-tight end sets. Expect New England to go back to four- and five-receiver sets against the Giants. That's where the Patriots are especially dangerous.

Wes Welker, the game's best slot receiver in 2007, led the league with 87 receptions out of four- and five-receiver sets. Brady completed almost 80 percent of his attempts to Welker out of those formations and threw him seven touchdown passes. Welker is a master of working the middle of the field, making moves and double moves on slot cornerbacks. The next-best receiver in those sets was Bobby Engram of the Seahawks, who caught 48 passes.

3. The Randy Moss factor: The Jaguars and Chargers made a concerted effort to take Moss out of games. Double-teamed and at times tripled-teamed, he caught only two passes for 32 yards in the Patriots' two playoff victories.

Though he's content with his role, Moss is due for an offensive explosion. With Kevin Dockery expected to be available for backup duty after missing time with a hip flexor, the Giants have five corners to match up against the five best Patriots wide receivers.

The Giants, primarily a man coverage team, probably will have a cornerback -- Sam Madison, Corey Webster or Aaron Ross -- press Moss at the line of scrimmage and a safety to help. If that happens, look for Brady to try a few short passes to Moss to get him into the game early. Moss is the game-breaker the Giants must stop.

4. Mastering play-action: The biggest improvement in Eli Manning's game is his success running play-action and not making mistakes. He hasn't thrown an interception in three playoff games.

ESPN's Ron Jaworski broke down tape and credited Manning with 11 completions in 16 attempts out of play-action in the playoffs for about 8 yards an attempt. Play-action works if the running game is working, and the Giants have a great 1-2 punch at running back. Brandon Jacobs is the hard-to-tackle big back, but seventh-round rookie Ahmad Bradshaw might be more dangerous against the Pats.

If Burress gets his way and this is a low-scoring game, Jacobs could wear down the Patriots' defensive line in the first three quarters and set up some long runs for Bradshaw. Given the age of the Patriots linebackers, any quick runner who can get past the first wave of defense can break a few runs. A close game could put Bradshaw in play in the second half.

5. The Brady ankle factor: The spread offense should make it easier for Brady to function with his mild high ankle sprain. He can drop back three or five steps, make decisions and throw.

According to Stats Inc., Brady completed 251 of 367 passes for 2,777 yards and 22 touchdowns in four- and five- receiver sets. During recent cold-weather games, Brady had fewer receivers on the field, which forced him to buy more time with his feet to get the ball downfield. The sore ankle may force a few bad throws, but Brady will be passing more than handing off, so he'll have plenty of attempts to get the offense going.

6. The Coughlin factor: In previous big games, Giants coach Tom Coughlin seemed to be tense, and his team didn't play well because of that. For this Super Bowl, Coughlin has created a relaxed environment for his team.

Of course, veteran leadership helps. Give Antonio Pierce and Michael Strahan credit for doing little things to help teammates have fun instead of making this too much of a business trip. Giants players had a blast dressing in black shirts, black ties and black coats for their flight from New York to Phoenix. Good team chemistry should prevent the Giants from playing poorly.

7. The Maroney-Faulk factor: Patriots running back Laurence Maroney was sensational down the stretch, rushing for 244 yards (a 5.2-yard average) in two playoff games. If he is successful running, he will open up play-action options for Brady that could result in long pass plays.

And don't overlook Kevin Faulk, an important option for the Patriots during the playoffs. A chain mover, he has 13 receptions in the playoffs.

With Maroney and Faulk playing well, Brady can toy with the Giants. He can run a little more on early downs thanks to Maroney. On third downs, he can throw behind the first-down marker to Faulk and watch him bang his way for the first down.

8. Red zone improvement: Belichick has harped on the Patriots to improve their red zone defense against the Giants. Manning threw for touchdown passes of 7, 3, 19 and 3 yards against the Patriots in the Week 17 meeting. Were it not for those four red zone touchdowns, the Patriots would have been tied for the NFL's second-best red zone defense with 24 TDs allowed. When the Patriots have a problem like that, count on Belichick to fix it.

9. Officiating: The NFL made a nice decision by selecting Mike Carey as Super Bowl referee. Carey's regular-season crews called a little more than two holding penalties a game, slightly above the average. Officials called fewer holding penalties this season and it has helped to increase scoring. With Carey, expect a higher-scoring game. In games he officiated, teams had the sixth-highest scoring average at 45 points combined.

10. History: The Patriots have a chance at the season of a lifetime. They can clinch their fourth Super Bowl ring under Belichick. The stars are aligned for them. Belichick has his best offensive team and a defense that is good enough. This is their time.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.