Tom Brady And History, With Eli Manning In The Way Again

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 02: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots answers questions from the press during a media availability session for Super Bowl XLVI at the University Place Conference Center & Hotel on February 2, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Super Bowl is here, and Tom Brady has a chance to write himself into NFL history on Sunday. But there's Eli Manning and the Giants again, standing in New England's way, one more time.

"Been like this all day," said the nice, exhausted woman at the grocery register. On Saturday afternoon this grocery store was full of customers with full shopping carts in long lines, and so were millions of others just like it. "Like it's about to be a blizzard tomorrow," the lady added.

This is the Super Bowl, and it's not an entirely rational endeavor. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans will spend $11 billion to stock up for one, four-hour window on Sunday. This happens once a year, it's completely ridiculous and unnecessary, and like fireworks on the Fourth of July, that's what it makes great.

But it helps to have a good game. Or at least, a matchup that feels worth the hype. For some perspective, imagine if things had happened differently. The 49ers and Ravens were two great teams that might have given us a great game, but if we were 12 hours away from a 49ers-Ravens Super Bowl, think of how much less excited you'd be right now. The Giants and Patriots, though?

You have...

  • Two of the most recognizable franchises in football.
  • Two cities that have despised each other for decades.
  • A favorite that's been obnoxiously successful for a decade, an underdog that's been all over the map as recently as December.
  • Two quarterbacks that perfectly personify the descriptions above.
  • Two coaches who might as well be taken straight from a movie. The stereotypical grumpy, miserable, bastards that everyone pretends to hate but sorta loves by the end.
  • Two great offenses with enough question marks on defense to guarantee we'll be entertained one way or another.

Oh, and four years ago they were on opposite ends of one of the biggest upsets in history. Even if you can't bring yourself to root for either team, as far as the context and the characters involved, you can't ask for a whole lot more in the Super Bowl. For once, there's a matchup that deserves of all the insane buildup that accompanies this game every year.

(Just kidding, nothing deserves as much hype as the Super Bowl gets.)

(But still.)

(This game comes as close as anything can.)

So let's break it down, starting with Tom Brady and ending with a Super Bowl pick.

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TOM BRADY AND HISTORY. There's not much you can say about Tom Brady that hasn't already been said about Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, or every other great player that's ever been held up as the standard for dominance in the NFL and beyond. You know this. On Sunday, Brady has a chance to cement his legacy among those guys, and maybe surpass them. You know that, too.

But what if he loses? Brady's already the most dominant quarterback of his generation, but if he loses Sunday, there's a good chance we remember his entire career differently. The mystique that shrouds someone like Joe Montana won't be all there with Brady. He's still one of the greatest ever regardless, but a loss Sunday destroys some of that mystique for good. It's the difference between Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.

We remember Magic as one of the three or four greatest players to ever pick up a basketball; we remember Michael Jordan as THE greatest. This isn't because they were that different as players. Magic dominated the game like nobody we'd ever seen before or since, the same way MJ did a few years later. The difference came in the NBA Finals.

Jordan never lost an NBA Finals; Magic lost four times. He won five, too, and played in an era where there was at least one other dynasty to contend with, but that doesn't matter. With Magic, he lives on through highlights and stats as one of the greatest players in the history of basketball, but he wasn't invincible. Jordan was every bit as electrifying as Magic, but over time we remembered him for his aura of invincibility more than any highlights or stats.

Brady probably doesn't care what another Super Bowl means for his legacy, and he shouldn't. But this is what's at stake: Sunday's the tipping point between Brady entering Jordan territory as an athlete whose winning transcends sports and stats, or becoming Magic Johnson, a superstar we'll remember forever within his sport, but not beyond.

If he wins, then the 2008 Super Bowl becomes a fascinating aberration and we're talking about (by far) the most dominant NFL quarterback in (by far) the most competitive era, and with a myth on par with Montana, MJ, and every other seemingly invincible icon from history. If he loses, 2008 and 2012 become the irrefutable reminders that Tom Brady was historically incredible during his time in the NFL, but still human.

Football's even more of a team game as basketball, so obviously there's more in play than just Tom Brady, and just like Jordan was the beneficiary of unbelievable help and lesser opponents than Magic faced, the Patriots could win or lose for a million reasons that have nothing to do with Tom Brady. In other words, the way we remember our icons doesn't totally make sense. But then, that's sports. Now, on the other end of the legacy spectrum ...

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THE PEYTON MANNING DRINKING GAME. It's best to just accept that Peyton Manning is the new Brett Favre, and assume that nothing will prove this more than Sunday's game and the rampant Peyton speculation that comes with it. Will he play in 2012? How good could he be? Should he walk away? These are the questions that will be bludgeoned into our subconscious over the next six months or so, starting on Sunday.

Given the circumstances, you could approach this one of two ways. Slam your head against whatever surface is closest -- wall, coffee table, etc. -- or embrace it and have fun. With that second option in mind, on Sunday, chug your drink when you see/hear any of the following:

  • An analyst gravely refers to "the situation in Indy"
  • Anyone on TV or at your Super Bowl party mentions "the big story this week"
  • Someone at your Super Bowl party asks what you think will happen.
  • Anyone mentions Andrew Luck's name.
  • A pregame show tells viewers to tweet them about Peyton Manning's future.
  • A fan of any team throws out a hypothetical scenario where Peyton Manning takes over their offense in 2012.
  • Chug continuously during Bob Costas' inevitable pregame/halftime video essay about Peyton Manning and human frailty and the future and how this is all Edgerrin James' fault.
  • Cameras cut to Peyton Manning during the game.
  • Cameras cut to Jim Irsay during the game.
  • Cameras cut to sad Colts fan in a Peyton Manning jersey, OR a happy Colts fan in an Andrew Luck jersey.

Annnnnd ... Yeah, if you play the Peyton Manning drinking game, you may still have to listen to neverending conversations about him, but you almost certainly won't remember them!

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KELLY CLARKSON SINGS THE NATIONAL ANTHEM. Just putting this on the record: Every year that R. Kelly doesn't sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl is a year that America's dream is deferred. CLAP YA HANDS, Y'ALL.

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TOM BRADY'S HOUSE. Okay, one more thing about Brady, just because this is the sort of thing that never gets mentioned during games. Don't you think the world should know that Tom Brady just built this house?

The couple paid $11 million for the 3.75-acre property, and then many millions more to build the house. When done, it’s expected to have eight bedrooms, a covered bridge, six-car garage, elaborate gardens, and a lagoon-shaped swimming pool — not bad ...

HIS HOUSE HAS A BRIDGE. If your house has a bridge, I'm pretty sure that officially qualifies it as a castle. The "lagoon-shaped pool" might qualify it as a pirate's castle. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, either. But wouldn't you rather we got aerial shots of Tom Brady's house than shots of him in prior Super Bowls? We know who Tom Brady was, but he's kind of turned into sports' version of Kanye West, the ultimate barometer for insane wealth in action. No story about Tom Brady's life would be too crazy to believe at this point. Show us THAT, Bob Costas.

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THE GIANTS GET NO RESPECT. All right, so first Ahmad Bradshaw says, "We're going to prove everybody wrong," apparently unaware that 65 percent of the betting public is picking the Giants. Then Tom Coughlin elaborates, saying, "It's still us against the world. And that's how we play that, period. We're in here and I've seen a lot of the stuff that's been said in terms of where we are. We're still the underdogs and we still have an awful lot to prove. Talk is cheap, play the game." ... This is just your regularly-scheduled reminder that coaching football isn't exactly rocket science, and that Tom Coughlin doesn't get nearly enough credit for being a dumber, less interesting version of Bill Belichick. "It's still us against the world." ... [uh, no it's not.] ... "Talk is cheap, play the game."

Okay, Coach!

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THE SUPER BOWL AS AN EXPERIENCE. At its best: The Super Bowl is when everyone comes to together to eat unhealthy food, make stupid jokes and stupider bets, and we all use a football game as an excuse to make new friends and reconnect with old ones. Oh, and commercials. Not everyone has an opinion on the game, but everyone watches the ads, and we all compare notes. We gawk at the ones we like best, shake our heads at the ones that miss the mark, and then get together the next day to relive the most absurd moments in either direction. You know people talk about the weather by default? For one day a year, the Super Bowl gives us something to talk about that everyone actually cares about. Because we all sat through it and loved/hated something we saw.

At its worst: The Super Bowl is an orgy with so many moving pieces that you don't even know what's happening as it happens, but you feel used and dirty afterward. It's four or five hours of sensory assault from all angles, all aimed at an audience so big that it can't possibly strike a chord with anyone. Then, somewhere between beer commercials that make American men look like eighth graders, stale halftime acts, and hours of subversive and explicit pandering to the American military complex, the Super Bowl Experience reminds us all that America's in a strange place these days. This happens around the same time you realize all the fun talk about ads plays right into Corporate America's hand, and then you say to yourself, "but wait Budweiser's owned by Europeans now ... So what are we even doing here?"

Of course, it's both. Every year. There's something for everyone to enjoy, and plenty to despise. So, just for the record, this year and forever, here's to appreciating the Super Bowl for what it is: A one-time-only buffet of all things America. It's bloated and ridiculous, but don't overthink it.

Just pick what you want and enjoy it.

And yeah, there's no way anybody's topping this Volkswagen ad this year.

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THE PATRIOTS' SECRET WEAPON. He's actually not secret at all. He's probably the most ginormous human being on either side. But while everyone worries about the New England secondary -- with plenty of good reason -- they seem to be forgetting Vince Wilfork up front.

The Patriots defense is a shell of what it was during the early Super Bowl years, but Wilfork might be the best defensive player they've had since Ty Law. On Sunday, one way or another, here's to betting he makes his presence felt. He's as good an interior lineman as anybody in the league, and he will A) help bottle up the New York running game and B) Command double teams that should free up the New England pass rush, C) Do this:

After New England shifted its front, Baltimore's pro bowl center, Matt Birk, was left one-on-one with Wilfork. Birk is 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds, and he had no chance. As soon as the ball was snapped, Wilfork had beaten Birk. He got underneath Birk — Wilfork's arms were firmly planted on Birk's chest, while Birk flailed his arms to try to regain some semblance of leverage. With his back flat and leaning forward, Wilfork drove Birk backward; in coach-patois, he put Birk on "roller skates" and slid him directly into Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Wilfork eventually grabbed Flacco's jersey, forcing a desperate heave out of bounds, but as much as anyone else it was Birk, driven backward by Wilfork, who disrupted the play and sent the Baltimore offense off the field. Wilfork, through force, speed, and technique, had turned Birk into another New England defender.

Don't underestimate the Patriots D; if only because it means underestimating Big Vince.

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NEW YORK'S DEADLY COMBINATION. In an era where pretty much everyone on an NFL field is stupidly big or stupidly fast, the most valuable players are stupidly both. On offense this means tight ends like Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez; on defense this means defensive ends that can single-handedly dismantle some of the best offenses in the league. New York has three guys who fit that bill: Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyora, and Justin Tuck. It's a big reason the Giants pulled off the upset in 2008, and from the first quarter on, their ability to harass Tom Brady will go a long way toward deciding what happens in 2012.

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LOVING ELI MANNING. I wrote about Eli this past week, and nothing I wrote then has changed: He's one of the strangest superstar quarterbacks we've seen in a long time. The guy who can make terrible, terrible throws at any time is the same guy whose quarterback rating this year jumped 15 points in the fourth quarter, and whose play the past few weeks has taken a supposedly-average Giants team within one win of its second Super Bowl in five years. He's bad just often enough to keep you guessing, but mostly he's lucky AND good, and it's all part of what makes him so much fun to watch, and hard not to like. So, can he win the Super Bowl?

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THE PICK. There are a number of reasons to like the Patriots here. In particular order...

  1. 65 percent of the public is betting on the Giants as three-point underdogs. Any time the public is that sure of something, they're usually wrong.
  2. The Giants fans, specifically, seem more confident than they should.
  3. Big Boi is rooting for the Patriots. Always bet with Big Boi.
  4. Bill Belichick is not going to get beat the same way twice. The Giants pass rush caught the Patriots off guard in 2008, but A) This Patriots offense has been overhauled since then, and relies more on intermediate throws to the tight end than deep routes to guys like Randy Moss, B) The Patriots will run more no-huddle specifically to keep the Giants off-balance.
  5. You can't overlook karma. Bob Kraft was one of the biggest players in settling the NFL Lockout, his beloved wife passed away and has been an inspiration for the Patriots and their fans all year long, and the Patriots have already done America a great service in twice embarrassing Tim Tebow on national television. If karma exists, the Patriots have plenty of it working in their favor.

Here's the thing, though: If the Giants can find a way to handle Vince Wilfork, they've got three receivers who can eviscerate a crappy New England secondary all night long. They've got a running game that's been overlooked practically the entire year. And they've got Eli Manning.

When it's all said and done, Tom Brady will go down as the greatest quarterback of this generation, but he's not invincible. Not the way he used to be, anyway. Against the Ravens, he missed open receivers and was completely shut down during the second half. He wasn't the player we all imagine when we say "Tom Brady," and it all goes back to that Giants Super Bowl.

In 2008, the Patriots went 18-0 before the Super Bowl, but down the stretch they stopped looking like the team we'd seen at the beginning of the year. They were great, but they no longer looked like the greatest team in history. They nearly lost to A.J. Feeley and the Eagles at home, got lucky against the Ravens, survived in Week 17 against the Giants, and then they played down to the level of two overmatched playoff teams (Jaguars, Chargers) to get to 18-0. So when the Super Bowl arrived, even as they were on the cusp of writing themselves into the record books forever, it didn't feel right. They weren't as invincible as their record made them seem.

In that Super Bowl, we kept expecting Brady to save the day. We waited and waited and waited, expecting him to turn it on, only it never happened. And his career changed. We stopped looking at Tom Brady like he's Football Jesus. We stopped expecting miracles.

With Eli? Put it this way: It'd be more surprising to see Tom Brady go into superhero mode and shred the Giants in the fourth quarter than it'd be if Eli did it to the Patriots. Maybe we're not "expecting" miracles from Eli, but they've definitely stopped being surprising. So, here's to betting that Brady's coronation turns into one for the little brother. For both of them, it just feels right. And if that seems less than scientific to you, well ... Nobody ever said this stuff was rational.

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PLAYOFF PICKS RECORD: 8-2

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