Three hours and fifty-four minutes of grueling back-and-forth drama. For a good while during the NFC Championship Game Sunday evening, you wondered if each end zone was a country mile away from each team's offense.
There was some great defensive football played on the Candlestick grass, as well as clutch offense when the Giants had to have it. But ultimately, it was special teams -- specifically two botched punt returns by San Francisco's Kyle Williams -- that decided the game in New York's favor. Ironically, New England also prevailed after a stunning special teams miscue by its opponent: Baltimore's Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field-goal attempt with 11 seconds remaining that would have tied the game.
When the Giants and Patriots face off in Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI, look for the margin of error to be just as small. These clubs played a 24-20 nail-biter back in early November and, of course, faced off in one of the most memorable Super Bowls ever four years ago. (The Giants won both games.) Seems like these two sides could be on a collision course for another classic title bout.
Here's an early look at the game ...
Super Bowl XLVI: New York vs. New England
When: Sunday, Feb. 5, 6:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
Early take: Much like Super Bowl XLII, this game will come down to how much protection the Pats provide Tom Brady. The Giants have already proven in this playoff run that they can cover, holding Matt Ryan to 199 yards passing, Aaron Rodgers to 264 and Alex Smith to 196. Thus, New England must provide its quarterback with time. Limiting the Patriots' passing game would make their offense mostly ineffective, due to the inconsistent ground attack. BenJarvus Green-Ellis doesn't fumble, but he doesn't win games, either.
In the AFC Championship Game, the Ravens failed to pressure Brady enough, yet were able to pick him off twice because of a secondary that held its own. If the Giants' secondary can play as well as Baltimore's did, then the Super Bowl might very well fall into Big Blue's hands -- mostly because the Giants' offense is far more formidable than the Ravens'. Basically, Eli Manning > Joe Flacco.
In the Week 9 contest between these two teams, Brady's tight ends were effective (12 receptions, 136 yards) and the ground game was there (24 carries, 106 yards), but his two interceptions cost the Patriots excellent field position. Still, expect Giants safeties and linebackers -- be it Kenny Phillips or Michael Boley -- to struggle with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Darlington: The sequel
On the flip side, New England's secondary will have just as much trouble -- if not more -- with Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham. The Patriots' front seven can't duplicate the pressure San Francisco put on Eli Manning, thus exposing their secondary (which, by the way, isn't as good as the 49ers', either).
Bottom line: Manning could have a field day with the league's 31st-ranked defense. It should be noted that the franchise quarterback drove the Giants 80 yards to beat New England in that November meeting.
» How much will the Giants run the football, so as not to put the entire game on Manning's shoulders? In the November meeting, they ran 29 times for 111 yards. A high number of carries like that helps limit Brady's time on the field.
» After throwing those two picks against the Giants in Week 9, Brady tossed only two more interceptions the rest of the regular season.
» Bill Belichick was also an assistant on that team, as well as the '86 Giants that won Super Bowl XXI, serving as defensive coordinator. Later, he was Parcells' defensive coordinator on the 1996 Patriots team that lost Super Bowl XXXI to the Packers. This is Belichick's fifth Super Bowl appearance as New England's head coach.
» Manning set an NFL record on Sunday with his fifth road playoff win.