- Ashley Fox
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Remember where we started, outside the NFLPA office in Washington, D.C., the big, burly Jeff Saturday embracing a tired and grieving Robert Kraft, the deal to save football done? It was a little more than six months ago that charged rhetoric finally gave way to reason and we got back to the business of football.
Then the insanity ensued. A super-sized free agency period. Condensed training camps. Peyton Manning's neck. Cam Newton's arm. The Harbaugh brothers. Green Bay's march toward perfection. Drew Brees' assault on history. The dream team's nightmare. The Jets' collapse. Matt Schaub and Jay Cutler and Jason Campbell. Detroit. Atlanta. Tim Tebow!
It all circled back to a relatively innocent comment from the usually innocuous Eli Manning, who in an August radio interview with Michael Kay said he considered himself "in that class" of elite quarterbacks with Tom Brady.
It was blasphemous then. And now?
Well, once and for all, Manning can prove it. End the debate. Silence the critics. Beat the best quarterback of this generation, the one with the three Super Bowl rings and the uber-hot wife and the great hair, in Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday and there will be no question, no caveat, not anymore.
Can the New York Giants do it? Or will the New England Patriots return to the mountaintop and win a title in memory of their owner's beloved wife? Here are 10 questions and answers about the game.
1. Which quarterback would you rather have right now?
Let's face it, both of these guys are elite. Manning might be new to the party that Brady has hosted for basically the past decade, but he is in the door.
Brady is clutch. He wins in the postseason. He is nearly unstoppable with the ball in his hands and the game on the line. He has got 34 career game-winning drives to overcome a fourth-quarter deficit or tie, including two in the 2011 regular season and one in the AFC title game against Baltimore.
If Brady wins Sunday, he will be in the heady company of Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw with four Super Bowl rings. Already, he is tied with Montana for the most postseason wins (16) ever.
But look at Manning right now. He is playing as well, if not better, than Brady. Whereas Brady has thrown six touchdowns (all in the divisional round against Denver) and three interceptions in two postseason games, Manning has thrown eight touchdowns and one interception in three road playoff games.
Brady is known for his comebacks, but Manning had five fourth-quarter comebacks this season, including one against the Patriots in Week 9 and another against San Francisco's brutalizing defense in the NFC title game. While Brady threw for more than 5,000 yards in the regular season against mediocre competition, Manning threw for 4,933 yards, 29 touchdowns and 16 interceptions against one of the hardest schedules in the league.
Manning is right there. At the very least, at this moment in time, Manning and Brady are even.
2. Where is Bobby Fisher?
Giants defensive end Dave Tollefson had an interesting idea, given the meticulous planning of the offense-minded Tom Coughlin and the defense-minded Bill Belichick. Instead of playing the Super Bowl, Tollefson said, "They should put two chairs and a table at the 50[-yard line] and have Tom and Bill play chess for the Super Bowl championship."
Predictably, Tollefson added, "I'd have my money on Tom."
It is fair to say that Belichick, with his three Super Bowl rings, is the most accomplished man coaching today. He is 155-58 overall with the Patriots. With 17 postseason wins, Belichick is tied with Joe Gibbs for third in NFL history behind Tom Landry (20) and Don Shula (19), and his .739 postseason winning percentage is second to only Vince Lombardi, who went 9-1 in the postseason.
Coughlin doesn't have multiple rings, but he has one. He is 11-7 overall in the postseason, including 7-3 with the Giants. Coughlin's New York team has won seven of its past eight playoff games, including all four en route to the win in Super Bowl XLII.
The two men used to be on the same staff under Bill Parcells, Belichick coaching defense and Coughlin on offense. They sparred then. They will spar again. The winner gets to be Bobby Fisher.
3. Is there really a revenge factor for the Patriots for Super Bowl XLII?
The short answer is: abso-freaking-lutely.
Sure, there are only seven players on New England's 53-man roster who were part of the team on Feb. 3, 2008, when the Giants ended the Patriots' 18-game winning streak and won the Super Bowl, 17-14. But check out who those players are: Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Vince Wilfork, Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Kevin Faulk and Stephen Gostkowski.
All of those guys contribute. All of them are factors. All of them will want to right the perceived wrong they endured at the Giants' hands.
Fifteen players on the Giants' current roster played in Super Bowl XLII, including Eli Manning, Brandon Jacobs, Chris Snee, David Diehl, Kareem McKenzie, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Aaron Ross and Corey Webster. There are more than enough players on both teams to keep the rivalry alive.
The 2007 Patriots had a chance to go down as the best team ever. They didn't. This team can further cement the Patriots' status as the most dominant team since the calendar flipped to 2000.
So yes, revenge is most definitely a factor.
4. Does the Week 9 matchup even matter now?
Yes and no. The Giants can draw on the fact that they won at New England 24-20 in a game that mirrored their Super Bowl victory over the Patriots. Tom Brady's touchdown pass with 1 minute, 36 seconds to play gave New England a 20-17 lead, but Manning answered by orchestrating an 80-yard drive that ended with a touchdown pass to Jake Ballard with 15 seconds left.
The Giants' win ruined the Patriots' 20-game home winning streak and improved Manning's record to 2-1 against New England. That is worth something, I guess, but that game was 13 weeks ago. These teams are very different than they were then.
5. Which team is hotter?
You don't usually get to the Super Bowl without making a serious run, and both teams have.
Since losing at home to the Giants in Week 9, the Patriots have won 10 straight games, six by double digits and four by 20 points or more. During the streak, New England has averaged 35.9 points per game. They were held to less than 27 points once -- in the AFC title game against Baltimore, which the Patriots won 23-20.
Since losing at home to Washington 23-10 in Week 15, the Giants have won five straight games, including three straight on the road in the playoffs. Each game was a must win -- the first two to get into the playoffs, the last three to stay there -- and New York's average margin of victory was 14.8 points per game. They won by fewer than 15 points only once -- in the NFC title game against San Francisco, a 20-17 overtime win.
"When your back is up against the wall, when people on the outside looking in say 'there is no opportunity,' that 'there is no chance,' we really rallied together as a football team," Giants offensive lineman David Diehl said.
Not sure what, if anything this means, but it is an interesting coincidence: New England and New York each started its run with a double-digit win over the Jets, and each won its conference title game by a field goal.
6. Will Rob Gronkowski play?
Yes. As the second-year Patriots tight end said all week, this is the Super Bowl. Take a shot, and then give it a shot.
But how effective Gronkowski is will go a long way in determining the Patriots' success. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare for defenses. That's why he set NFL records for a tight end in receiving yards (1,327) and touchdowns (18).
7. Why the Patriots?
Because Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are due.
Because Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are impossible to cover.
Because Vince Wilfork can get to Manning from any position along the defensive line, whether the Patriots are playing 4-3 or 3-4.
Because Wes Welker is the best slot receiver in the game.
Because Chad Ochocinco deserves a ring, don't you think?
Because if it comes down to a field goal, Stephen Gostkowski already has made the longest field goal (50 yards) in Patriots playoff history, better even than the revered Adam Vinatieri.
8. Why the Giants?
Because their running game has vastly improved since the playoffs started.
Because their four-man pass rush will be able to knock Brady off his game.
Because if Julian Edelman plays again on defense, Cruz will be doing the salsa all day.
Because the Giants are on a win-or-die run just like four years ago.
9. Is there anything to playoff karma?
Not really, but it is fun to consider anyway. The memory of Myra Kraft looms large on this Patriots team, or at the very least, its owner. That Billy Cundiff miss in the AFC title game? Well, not everyone is convinced Myra didn't have at least a little something to do with that.
On the flip side, the Patriots practiced all week at the Indianapolis Colts' facility. The Colts don't like the Patriots, and vice versa. And how did Indianapolis' season go again?
Meanwhile, Eli Manning is playing in his brother's stadium, with Peyton -- you might have heard about him this week -– in the building unsure if he will ever take another snap for the home team. A win by Eli would make the Manning brothers' score: Eli 2, Peyton 1.
It probably means nothing. Or does it?
10. So which team do I like?
Ultimately, the Patriots won't be able to cover the Giants' offensive weapons. Belichick is a master of defense, but not even he will be able to cover up their lack of talented personnel in the secondary.
The New York Giants win, 27-24.
Ashley Fox is an NFL columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @AshleyMFox.