Apparently, New York and New England played in a big game a few Februarys ago. They’ll meet again in 13 days. Coughlin and Belichick are still on the sideline, Eli Manning and Tom Brady are still the quarterbacks, and Bill Simmons is still a Patriots fan.
However, more has changed than has stayed the same. It’s quite possible that at kickoff on Super Bowl Sunday, less than 30% of the key actors in the last Super Bowl meeting will play an important role this time around (as a contrast, Super Bowl XIII, a rematch of Pittsburgh vs. Dallas three years later from Super Bowl X, featured 24 of 44 starters still playing, including most of the top stars). The Patriots and Giants are vastly different versions of the two that met in the David vs. Goliath match when the Giants pulled one of the greatest upsets in NFL history. Let’s take a quick look about why this one is so different.
THE GIANTS RECEIVERS ARE WAY MORE EXPLOSIVE
David Tyree and Plaxico Burress had two of the biggest plays in the last Super Bowl, but let’s not forget that was a defensive battle, and the Giants had only 10 points before that game winning drive. Burress was the star receiver on that team, a guy noted more for his leaping and size than his speed. Amani Toomer was 33 years old, and the definition of possession receiver. Jeremy Shockey was there, but the team didn’t have a legitimate third wide receiver option (Sinorice Moss had the third most receptions among receivers).
Compare that to now, where Hakeem Nicks is younger and more versatile than Burress as the big receiver in this offense, while Victor Cruz has emerged as a threat to salsa dance from anywhere, going from nowhere to over 1,500 receiving yards. Mario Manningham, who was injured earlier this year, gives the team a third option who can also stretch the field, and had over 800 receiving yards each of the last two years. The Patriots will have a lot more to deal with on the outside in this game.
THE PATRIOTS TIGHT END CENTERED OFFENSE IS MORE VARIED
That 2007 New England team was all about the deep threat of Randy Moss (as well as Donte Stallworth), and how much he dictated defensive game planning, stretching the field vertically and opening space underneath for Wes Welker and the controlled passing game. By the time the Super Bowl had arrived, teams had already started limiting the big plays from New England, and then the Giants did it in spades.
This time around, the offense has completely evolved into something very unlike 2007. While 2007 was very much about the vertical threats on the outside, the outside receivers in this offense are an afterthought. However, a variety of formations do end up putting guys like Welker, Gronkowski, and Hernandez all over the field. In 2007, the tight ends accounted for less than 10% of the passing yards. This year, it is at 42% with Gronkowski and Hernandez.
New England has averaged a slightly higher yards per attempt this year, and by the Super Bowl, the passing explosion in New England was slowing down. Not so this year. Here’s a chart showing Brady’s numbers in the first 9 and last 9 games of each season before the Super Bowl.
THE GIANTS OFFENSIVE LINE IS OLDER AND NOT AS DYNAMIC AT RUN BLOCKING, WHILE ELI HAS MATURED INTO ONE OF THE GAME’S BEST
Eli Manning had some comeback wins in 2007, but he was not the quarterback that he is today. He was completing just over 56% of his passes, and his yards per attempt with that older and less explosive receiving group was 6.3 yards per pass.
Meanwhile, the offensive line was one of the best run blocking units in the league. Lumbering Brandon Jacobs was four years younger, and averaged 5 yards per carry, while Derrick Ward averaged 4.8 yards a carry as the backup. A rookie named Ahmad Bradshaw averaged over 7 yards a carry in limited action.
Fast forward to today, and the line is, on average, two years older than in 2007, and not as good at run blocking. Diehl, Snee and McKenzie are all still playing, but David Baas has replaced Shaun O’Hara at center. Jacobs and Bradshaw were both under 4 yards a carry in 2011, and the team struggled in key short yardage situations.
This is now Eli Manning’s team. That Super Bowl win came with some moments of magic for Eli, but was ahead of his time. Now, he is making plays more consistently, and is taking advantage of the better receivers. The running game is a counterbalance now, not the driver. In many ways, it is reminiscent of Terry Bradshaw returning to his second Super Bowl against the Cowboys. The first time around, it was the defense. The second time, Bradshaw was at the top of his game, and had Lynn Swann and John Stallworth in their primes, and was the best deep ball passer in the game.
[photo via Getty]