With all eyes on Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI--and my Patriots involved in the big game again--I feel the need to join the parade and weigh in with my prediction for how things will go.
Before I begin, I have to say that I've been overwhelmed by the massive amount of Giants love so far from the "experts". Yes, they've played well lately (otherwise they wouldn't be here), and yes, they present matchup problems for the Patriots in multiple regards--hence the win in the regular season (and no, Super Bowl XLII doesn't mean a thing from a matchup/prediction standpoint).
But they don't build those big buildings in Vegas by accident, and the oddsmakers still give the Pats the edge, even given the murky health of tight end Rob Gronkowski. That might have something to do with the fact that the Patriots were 13-3 in the regular season, while the Giants were 9-7 and actually got outscored by their opponents--but I digress. The point is, these teams are pretty dead even as far as matchups go, and I'm surprised to see any consensus at all among the assorted media.
Now, as you'll know if you've read me often, I have significant philosophical problems with the typical reward system surrounding punditry. Experts are rewarded for making big, bold statements at every turn, knowing that they will get tons of attention for their correct picks, but face little accountability when they are wrong. Predictions (and predictors), therefore, tend to be overly bold, overly confident, and needlessly specific and certain.
All of these dynamics are at play with the standard practice of picking not just the winner of the Super Bowl, but the exact score. I won't be doing that here. Instead, I'm going to be the stat-geekiest stat geek around, giving you a range of possible outcomes, with accompanying probabilities. Hooray! Math fun for everyone! And because I'm not actually making a real pick, I can't possibly be wrong! Alright, fine, I'll make a standard pick at the end, just for kicks, because I know you want it. But I'm not happy about it.
Now... let's get to it. I'm presenting you with three potential game scenarios: The Shootout, The Slugfest, and The Blowout. For each scenario, I'll give you both the probability of that type of game happening, and the conditional probability of each team winning if that scenario develops. Make sense? Alright, cool.
Game Scenario #1: The Shootout (Probability: 55%)
Recent Super Bowl examples: Super Bowl XLV, Super Bowl XXXVIII, Super Bowl XXXII
Neither of these teams has a particularly great defense. The Giants and Patriots allowed the 27th-most and 31st-most yards of any team in the league this year, respectively, and neither was in the top half of the league in terms of points allowed (the Giants were actually statistically worse than the Patriots, allowing 25 points per game vs. New England's 21.4). Furthermore, both offenses were quite explosive, with Tom Brady and Eli Manning both finishing in the top 5 in the NFL in passing yards.
Therefore, "The Shootout" is far and away the most likely game scenario to develop in Super Bowl XLVI. Picture both teams scoring over 24 points, with the winner posting at least 30. Who has the edge in this scenario? The statistics say the Patriots, despite their shaky secondary. That's mostly because of Brady, who has a higher completion percentage, more touchdown passes, and fewer interceptions this year (and for his career) than Manning.
In games this year where both teams scored at least 24 points, the Patriots were 4-1, while the Giants were just 3-3. Simply put, this year's Patriots are designed to win this type of game. Their edge isn't overwhelming here, but it's significant. In a shootout, the better quarterback usually wins, and Eli is still no Tom Brady.
Edge: Patriots (60% to 40%)
Game Scenario #2: The Slugfest (Probability: 30%)
Recent Super Bowl examples: Super Bowl XLII, Super Bowl XL, Super Bowl XXXVI
This scenario is essentially the opposite of The Shootout, and it would be a repeat of the last time these two teams met in the Super Bowl--a 17-14 Giants victory. Picture both teams scoring fewer than 20 points, and a few big plays (think: helmet catch) making the difference.
Despite the limitations of both defenses, this scenario isn't terribly unlikely. Both defenses have their strengths--generally speaking, it's the Giants' pass rush and the Patriots' ability to force turnovers--and those strengths have shown themselves at various times in the playoffs. Neither defense has allowed more than 20 points in a game so far this postseason (the Giants have allowed an average of 13 per game, the Patriots have allowed 15), and the defenses have combined for 17 sacks and 8 turnovers in the playoffs.
Ultimately, though, this kind of game has to favor the Giants. The Patriots are at their best when they're playing a wide-open game, and they certainly don't want to have to rely on their defense to make stops if they can avoid it. That worked against the Ravens, but barely. It's unlikely to happen again, and the Patriots will need to avoid the turnovers that plagued them in the AFC Championship.
Edge: Giants (70% to 30%)
Game Scenario #3: The Blowout (Probability: 15%)
Recent Super Bowl examples: Super Bowl XXXVII, Super Bowl XXXV, Super Bowl XXIX
Ah, yes. The Super Bowl blowout. It's been so long since we've had one of these that we've almost forgotten that they were a mainstay of our childhood (assuming that we grew up in the '80s and '90s). Beginning with Super Bowl XV in 1981, 12 of the next 19 Super Bowls were decided by two touchdowns or more, and several of those were severely lopsided affairs (seven were 20+ point blowouts, of which four were 30+ point routs).
Those games have gladly become a thing of the past--seven of the last twelve Super Bowls have been decided by a touchdown or less, and there hasn't been a true "blowout" since the Buccaneers' Super Bowl XXXVII rout nine years ago. But there's still a chance of the blowout returning, even if it's the least likely of the three game scenarios.
But if the blowout does rear its ugly head again, chances favor the Patriots--by a wide margin. Since Tom Brady took over as Patriots quarterback in 2001, no team has won more games or lost fewer games by two touchdowns or more. The Patriots are 61-14 in those types of games (in the regular season; they're an additional 5-2 in the postseason), good for a staggering 81% winning percentage. No other team in the league comes close, and this disparity is a big part of the reason that the Patriots have been so dominant for the last decade--the Patriots rarely get run off the field, so they've pretty much always got a chance.
The Giants, for their part, are an even 33-33 in blowout games over the same span (plus 2-1 in the postseason), and they're only 10-10 over the last three seasons, during which the Patriots have gone a staggering 19-3. The only good news for the Giants is that their two postseason blowout wins have both come in the last month, over the Falcons and the Packers. But history indicates that a third such win is highly unlikely. If the Super Bowl rout returns, chances are it'll be Brady & Belichick who bring it back.
Edge: Patriots (80% to 20%)
So what do you get when you put it all together? Well, an awesome little stat geek matrix, that's what!
For the record, then, the most likely outcome (of the 6 possible) is a Patriots win in a Shootout, with the Patriots also holding the overall edge. Interestingly, though, the 2nd and 3rd most likely scenarios are both Giants victories--in a Shootout and in a Slugfest, respectively. The take-home lesson is that if the Patriots can avoid a Slugfest--something they were unable to do in Super Bowl XLII--they've got a great chance at winning this game.
Okay, since you made me do it, here's my "standard" pick. My matrix, which is mathematically proven to never be wrong, tells me that a Patriots Shootout win is the most likely, so that's what I'm going with. I have 33% certainty that my pick is correct.
The Crimson Cavalier's needlessly precise, certain-to-be-wrong Super Bowl prediction
Patriots 34, Giants 24
With Gronkowski playing but limited, Brady is forced to use his secondary targets more frequently. He does so very effectively, as both Chad Ochocinco and Kevin Faulk haul in touchdown passes. Wes Welker and BenJarvus Green-Ellis contribute the other touchdowns for the Pats, as New England's offensive line does an admirable job of controlling the Giants' pass rush.
Meanwhile, with the Patriots employing bracket coverage on Victor Cruz for much of the game, Manning must also look to his secondary options for production. He is similarly effective, with Jake Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw making big contributions in the passing game. A slick receiving touchdown from Bradshaw keeps the Giants close, and they have a chance to tie the game in the late stages.
Trailing 31-24 with under four minutes to play and the ball in Patriots territory, Manning chooses a bad time to throw his first interception of the day--he tries to force a ball to Cruz in the slot, and Julian Edelman comes up with the crucial pick. A screen pass to Aaron Hernandez brings the ball into Giants territory, where a Stephen Gostkowski field goal gives the Patriots the clinching points.
There. Now that you know what won't happen, you can go ahead and enjoy the game. Do I get to be on ESPN now?