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Even while favored, Patriots are underdogs

Posted by Jason Tuohey  February 3, 2012 12:27 PM

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This time, on the seventh Super Bowl trip in New England Patriots history, the forecast is riddled with uncertainty. Never, in fact, have the Patriots played a title game in which the outcome was so clearly in doubt.

All of which makes the national perspective on this game all the more curious, because the large majority of people seem to be picking the New York Giants.

Let's back up here for a moment and state the obvious: in the NFL, especially, Super Bowl predictions mean nothing. The St. Louis Rams (in Super Bowl XXXVI) and the Patriots (Super Bowl XLII) were considerable favorites, and both teams lost the game outright. Not a single one of us can predict what will happen on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, and that would be true whether the Patriots were favored by seven or 17.

But here's what doesn't make sense about this game in particular: the Patriots essentially have been a three-point favorite from the start - the smallest Super Bowl point spread in roughly 30 years - and yet most everyone outside of New England is picking the Giants. Why? Based on what? When did such a mismatch become so clear? Everything about Sunday's game suggests that public sentiment should be split as evenly as it was in the 1960 presidential election, and yet the scale seems noticeably skewed in favor of New York.

If you don't understand this, you're not alone.

In New England, too, we all know how good the Giants can be. During New York's run to the Super Bowl, the Giants have played better and more complete football than any other team in what Bill Parcells often referred to as "the tournament." Beginning with a pair of regular season victories over the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys in Weeks 16 and 17, the Giants have won five straight while allowing a measly 13.4 points per game. They have beaten the top two seeds in the NFC (the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers) on the road. They have beaten no team with anything worse than a .500 record.

Fine. We get it. The Giants are hot. But this is also a team with the capability to play very poorly, something everyone seems to have forgotten in the last month or so.

For example, did you know the Giants were actually outscored during the regular season? Did you know that prior to Week 16, they were a minus 38 for the year? Overall, their pass defense ranked 29th. Their rushing defense ranked 19th. Their rushing offense ranked 32nd. Simply put, there's a reason why the Giants went 7-7 through their first 14 games, something everyone is now too readily dismissing.

So are we just supposed to chuck 14 games of history out the window?

Yes, yes, yes - that was then and this is now. But those earlier games during the season are still at least part of who the Giants are whether New York fans want to admit it or not, just as surely as the Patriots' early-season performance is a part of theirs.

In New England, we know the Patriots' flaws all too well. The Patriots ranked 31st in pass defense, 17th in rushing defense, 20th in rushing offense. Sounds a lot like the Giants, right? Until New England's AFC Championship victory over the Baltimore Ravens, the Patriots had not beaten a team that finished the year with a winning record. Not one. The Patriots faced maybe three teams all year with an elite quarterback - the San Diego Chargers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Giants - and lost two; the only victory came against San Diego in Week 2, when Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers looked more like Ryan Leaf.

So let's get this straight: the national audience is holding the Patriots' regular season against them, but not that of the Giants. Does that make any sense? The Patriots still have Tom Brady. The Patriots still have Bill Belichick. Vince Wilfork could be the best defensive player on either team to be playing in the Super Bowl, something we learned when Wilfork manhandled the Ravens in the AFC title game.

Everything about this game screams that it is a 50-50 proposition - a true coin flip - and yet people seem to be treating it nationally as if the Giants are the obvious choice.

For the Patriots, in some ways, this Super Bowl is unlike any other in which they have played. In Super Bowl XX, despite what people wanted to believe, the Chicago Bears were the obvious choice. Eleven years later, the Green Bay Packers were the clear favorite. The St. Louis Rams were the clear pick in Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots in Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX. In Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots were 18-0 entering the game and prohibitive favorites.

Nationally, some skewing of national predictions made sense. But this time?

During the height of the Belichick era, we all know how the Patriots operated. In 2003 and 2004, when the Patriots won back-to-back titles, the Patriots went a combined 34-4 and were clearly the best team in football. Nonetheless, Belichick somehow convinced his players that they were being disrespected, which we all deemed preposterous. The Patriots were damn good and everybody knew it - including them - and nobody disrespected them.

Now, years later, it feels as if people are indeed looking past New England.

Or maybe they're just a little too focused on the Giants.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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