In honor of David Letterman, who just this past week celebrated his 30th year in late-night television, here are the Top Ten things you need to know about Super Bowl XLVI happening Sunday night in Indianapolis (hey, Letterman’s from Indiana. See, it all makes sense):
1. It’s all about Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots stud TE, who set NFL single-season tight end records by amassing 1,327 yards and 18 touchdowns this year, has been the most closely watched athlete on either team in the two weeks since the conference championship games. Friday reports had “Gronk” back in practice, a mere 11 days after suffering a sprained left ankle in the Patriots’ win over Baltimore. Most defensive coordinators have not been able to come up with an answer for Gronkowski, including the Giants’ Perry Fewell: In fact, “Gronk” had one of his best games of the year when the Patriots lost to the Giants in November, collecting 8 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown. Though Gronkowski’s status for the Super Bowl is still listed as “questionable,” this much seems certain: He will play but will not be at 100 percent. How close he is to 100 percent goes a long way in determining how high-flying the Patriots’ high-flying offense will in fact be.
2. With or without Gronkowski, the Giants have the more explosive offense right now. It seems like heresy to give the edge on big-play offense to the team NOT quarterbacked by Tom Brady, but the Giants have been moving the ball remarkably well since Thanksgiving, averaging over 414 yards a week over their last nine games. Not that there’s been anything wrong with the Patriots’ offense, but they don’t have that explosive, game-changing receiver, particularly if Gronkowski is out or limited. The Giants have Victor Cruz (averaging 18.7 yards per catch), Hakeem Nicks (averaging 15.7 yards per catch), and tight end Jake Ballard (with 15.9 yards per catch), all of whom pose a deeper threat than Gronkowski (14.7 yards per catch), Deion Branch (13.8 yards per catch) or Wes Welker (12.9 yards per catch).
3. If you had to – had to – pick a running game, you’d take New York’s. Neither the Patriots nor Giants have been running anyone over, and in fact the Giants finished dead last in the regular season in rushing offense, with a paltry 89.2 yards a game. (In comparison, the Patriots racked up 110.3 yards per game.) But in the postseason, Ahmad Bradshaw is once again proving his effectiveness, gaining over five yards per rush. Over on the Patriots side, even in a dominant 35-point victory against Denver, the Patriots’ lead rusher, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, was only good for 28 yards on 13 carries. And as any fantasy football player will tell you, rule number one is not to trust any New England Patriots running back.
4. If it’s not all about Rob Gronkowski, then it’s all about the Giants’ pass rush. New York’s defensive front has been causing all sorts of headaches for their opponents recently, and Tom Brady has probably been thinking about Justin Tusk, Osi Umenyiora, Chris Canty, and Jason Pierre-Paul more in the last two weeks than Cookie Monster thinks about cookies. But unlike Cookie Monster’s recent attitude adjustment regarding cookies, the Giants’ defensive front isn’t looking at making Tom Brady a “sometimes food.” They want to gobble him up on every down.
5. If it’s not all about the Giants’ pass rush, it’s all about Tom Brady and Eli Manning. There was a time when comparing Brady to Peyton’s little brother was akin to comparing Dustin Hoffman to Dustin “Screech” Diamond. No more. Not that anyone is questioning the abilities of Brady (although his playoff wins this year are his first since the AFC Championship game following the 2007 season), but Manning is the one that has lately been polishing his Hall of Fame resume: Five playoff road victories. 129 consecutive starts. An NFL-record 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes this year. An undeniable toughness and calmness under pressure. Oh, and he’s beaten Brady two out of the three times they’ve played. Brady is already considered one of the best of all time; if Manning can win his second championship on Sunday, he will have to be included on that list.
6. Madonna won’t disappoint. Last year’s Super Bowl halftime show featuring the Black Eyed Peas, who were booked largely in response from casual fans squawking about too many appearances by rock dinosaurs like The Who, The Rolling Stones, and Paul McCartney, basically sucked. But as one of the few eighties acts with tremendous staying power (U2 being the only act that can really compete), Madonna is a smart choice. She’s not exactly queen of the pop charts anymore, but at least she’s had hits this millennium and she has a back catalog of music that few can compare to. And she’s a fabulous performer. The only smarter choice would have been to invite back Bruce Springsteen. (The Boss does have a new album to plug and will be on the Grammys the following Sunday.)
7. The commercials will. The glut of overhyped Super Bowl commercials are like a typical Saturday Night Live episode: There’s usually a gem in there, but you have to sit through a lot of dull, uninspired material to see it. My advice: Start watching the game on your DVR about a half-hour after it starts so you can zip through the commercials, rewinding only when the Jerry Seinfeld Honda Civic ad comes up. Or, better yet, just watch the Seinfeld ad now online. (It’s hysterical, although David Letterman did the surprise Jay Leno appearance better back in 2010.)
8. It makes no sense why the Patriots are favored. Yes, Bill Belichick’s team has the more impressive legacy. Yes, Tom Brady is the “golden boy.” Yes, the Patriots had the (by far) better regular-season record. But the Giants have the more explosive offense, the more intimidating defense, a clutch kicker, and less injury worries. And they’re simply playing better now than the Patriots.
9. The Giants will win. History will repeat itself. Final score prediction: Giants 34, New England 23.
10. Eli Manning will be named Super Bowl MVP. The younger brother will, at least for a moment, steal the headlines away from his older brother and his ongoing soap opera with the Indianapolis Colts.
Enjoy the game. September’s a long way off.