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Patriots' mystifying game plan, Eli's excellence and much more

INDIANAPOLIS -- For the first time ever, a 9-7 team won the Super Bowl, and these New York Giants certainly earned it. After road wins against the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in the NFC, the Giants beat the AFC's top-seeded New England Patriots.

Despite ranking dead last in rushing during the regular season, the Giants ran the ball throughout the playoffs like they had the league's top ground game. After piling up 351 yards in the first three postseason games, New York finished the job with 114 more on the ground against New England.

Here are six more storylines that caught my eye on Super Bowl Sunday ...

What happened to New England's no-huddle offense?

The Patriots used nine snaps of no-huddle in the whole game. Against the Ravens, they employed the usual 35 snaps of no-huddle (just like they did against the Broncos a week earlier). It was a big part of what got New England to the Super Bowl. The Pats had their best drive of the day in the second quarter, when they drove 96 yards on 14 plays to take a 10-9 halftime lead. On this drive, Tom Brady went no-huddle on four snaps, resulting in 30 yards gained. For the game, the nine no-huddle snaps generated 54 yards and a touchdown. Entering the game, I was convinced the Pats would frequently attack with the no-huddle, and I'm sure Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell was happy that they didn't.

Some theorize that Bill Belichick was protecting his defense by slowing the game down. This is flawed thinking. Brady has been protecting his defense all year by scoring as many points as possible as fast as he can. I'm not so sure "protecting the defense" was the reason we didn't see the no-huddle more often, but I do know the Giants benefited from being able to substitute pass rushers. Late in the game, the New York pass rush still had the gas to go get Brady.

Fourth-quarter Eli strikes again!

We all saw the beautiful, 38-yard pass play in the fourth quarter from Eli Manning to Mario Manningham, which turned out to be the back-breaker for the Patriots. It was a perfect throw and spectacular catch against double coverage, but this play wasn't the whole story for No. 10.

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Manning was the best fourth-quarter quarterback in the NFL the whole season, completing 120 of his 182 passes (66 percent) for 1,715 yards and 15 touchdowns. This late excellence carried over to the Giants' thrilling postseason run. In the final period of four playoff games, Eli completed 32 of his 45 passes (71 percent) for 351 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. The finishing touch came on Sunday night, when Manning went 10-for-14 for 130 yards against Belichick's defense in the money quarter. Yeah, this guy's elite, for sure. And he's going to be hard to beat for years to come if he keeps this fourth-quarter pace up.

A Giant impact: New York's return to health

Back in Week 9, the Giants went up to Foxborough and beat the Patriots 24-20 without Hakeem Nicks, Ahmad Bradshaw and Henry Hynoski. The main reason I picked the Giants to beat the Pats again was that those three men would be playing in this game. Hicks, Bradshaw and Hynoski combined 217 yards and a touchdown on 31 touches.

Breer: Bradshaw's accidental TD

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Much has been made of the return to health on New York's defensive line, and rightfully so, but these three offensive players made a huge impact on the Super Bowl.

Personnel-group adjustments

During the two-week buildup for this game, we heard plenty about the Patriots' different offensive personnel groups. But on Sunday night, the Giants' malleability was king. The G-Men didn't miss a beat after losing tight ends Travis Beckum and Jake Ballard to injury. New York seamlessly transitioned out of the 12 (1 RB, 2 TE) and 22 (2 RB, 2 TE) personnel packages and into a 20 (2 RB, 3 WR).

I talked to Ballard right after the game, and he said the 20 personnel package not only picked up the slack but presented a different set of problems for the Patriots. (He also wasn't too concerned about his injury, a torn meniscus in his left knee.)

Special teams, hidden yardage & unsung heroes

As soon as the game was over, the first person I wanted to talk to was Steve Weatherford. The Giants punter did a fantastic job of putting the Patriots on a long field with his pinpoint accuracy, dropping three of his four punts inside the 10-yard line. The first punt put New England on its own 6, leading to the safety for intentional grounding. The average starting point for the New England offense was the 16-yard line, meaning the Pats had to go 84 yards for a touchdown. The Giants won the hidden-yardage battle in the kickoff department, too -- New York's average starting position was the 25-yard line, while New England's was the 21.

Weatherford is clearly a solid candidate for the Unsung Hero of the Game, but Hynoski and linebacker Chase Blackburn deserve consideration, as well. Hynoski had two receptions for 19 yards (breaking a few tackles in the process), but his real contribution was lead-blocking for Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. Hynoski's ability to read the defense and get up on linebackers was impressive. When I talked with Giants All-Pro guard Chris Snee after the game, he couldn't say enough about Hynoski's blocking. And don't forget: The rookie fullback saved the day by recovering a Nicks fumble, eventually leading to a Giant field goal. Meanwhile, Blackburn wasn't even on the team most of the year. But he stayed ready, working out at home (while teaching) and hoping the phone would ring. It did. After the game, Michael Boley told me Blackburn was always bragging about his basketball skills. Well, that "box-out rebound" interception against a much taller Rob Gronkowski verified these hoop claims.

Does the Hall of Fame await them?

Some would argue that Tom Coughlin and Manning have more to accomplish in order to be considered legitimate Hall of Fame candidates. I beg to differ, now that both men have a second Super Bowl ring. Coughlin is 65 years old and still has a great ability to communicate with young people. As owner John Mara told me after the game in the locker room, "At 7-7, I wasn't so sure I would be standing in the Super Bowl-winning locker room, but I was sure even then that we had the right coach." Manning is only 31 and very durable. It's not hard to imagine him getting back to this big stage, and he just left the shadow of older brother Peyton with his second championship.

Earlier in the week, I said Coughlin and Eli were a win away from Canton, and I truly believe they both punched their ticket with this performance in Indianapolis.

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