Looking forward to Super Bowl Sunday? We get you ready for the week with the top 15 story lines leading up to the biggest day of nacho consumption in our great country:
1. Sorry to start with bad memories, but as I tweeted last week, it's impossible not to think of some of those long, hot, summer days where suits (NFL owners and union reps) walked into hotels and meetings rooms to discuss the lockout. Why? Because the Patriots' Robert Kraft and the Giants' John Mara were two of the warhorses of that battle, among the most well-attended men on either side of the issues, and now they have been rewarded with their teams meeting in the Super Bowl. Of course, it has been a bittersweet run for Kraft, who lost his beloved wife (he often would refer to her as "my sweetie" in interviews) after a long battle with cancer. But Patriots players have helped heal the wounds, as RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis showed with his post-TD finger point to the "MHK" patch that sits over the players' hearts on their jerseys. Those patches will be on the team's Super Bowl jerseys as well.
2. Tom Brady told Kraft he would have a better game on Sunday than he did against the Ravens — and we all know the way he described his effort against the Ravens. It has been a while since Brady has had one of his vintage games against a great team, and the way the Giants are playing now, forget the 9-7 regular-season record — they are great. But Brady is Brady, and it would be just like the way he has played throughout his career to deliver one of his biggest games right after turning in a rather sub-par one (two interceptions, two more called back by penalty). Everyone expects Brady to respond, especially his teammates. "He's a great leader in the huddle," Patriots C Dan Connolly said. "He can get us motivated to go, and there's not another guy I'd rather have in there marching us down the field."
3. Brady is gunning for history. He can win his fourth Super Bowl, which would tie him for the most among quarterbacks along with Terry Bradshaw and Brady's boyhood idol, Joe Montana. Bill Belichick would be moving onto his right hand if the Patriots won. This would be his sixth, four with the Patriots and two with the Giants, which would put him near the top of the top, trailing only the widely forgotten Neal Dahlen of the 49ers and Broncos. History might not be what Brady and Belichick think about when they watch film this week or take to the practice field. But they'd be lying if it was not on their minds. Belichick waxed poetic during Monday's media session in Indianapolis, talking about lessons he learned with the Browns (he thought maybe he practiced too much with full pads) and his time with the Giants ("It was awesome," Belichick said.). His mood was relaxed, but mere hours before he had his team practicing in full pads. Is Belichick trying to send a message to his team that they might be the underdogs?
4. Eli Manning is getting credit for being a better leader than he was prior to beating the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII four years ago, and the proof came in the form of an impassioned speech he delivered to the team last week, talking about how distraught his brother, Peyton, was after losing in XLIV to the Colts. "I needed to hear that," Giants FS Antrel Rolle said. "Although I have been there before (losing Super Bowl XLIII as a member of the Cardinals), it was something I needed to be real to myself about. I am glad that he said what he said. He doesn't say much, so you know when Eli stands up ... and he had a look on his face that you knew it was time for business. Eli and I have a lot of conversations. Hearing him say that, you just heard it going through the room: 'He's our guy.' "
5. Hey, it's not the Big Game, but the side story of Super Bowl week has gone to the forefront. The very public Kramer vs. Kramer situation between Colts owner Jim Irsay and Peyton Manning is the buzz in Indy. Irsay has said he won't talk anymore about Manning this week after gabbing quite a bit, and we only can assume that Manning politely will plead the fifth as well at his various public appearances this week. But this crazy confluence of events — Manning's health, a Super Bowl, little brother and main rival (Brady) — all in one city has Indy exploding with anticipation. It certainly looks like a divorce in front of our eyes, what with a new defensive-minded coach and a GM in Ryan Grigson who apparently hasn't spoken very much to Peyton, but it seems hard to believe that Manning and Irsay won't at least attempt to patch things up amicably.
6. Rodney Harrison and David Tyree both are retired from the NFL now, but Harrison will be in town working for NBC. And you're likely to see a lot of him, starting Tuesday night when the NBC on-air talent holds a pregame press conference. Think a Tyree question will come out? Belichick was asked if this game will provide any extra motivation for current Patriots considering that some ex-Pats (including Harrison) said it most certainly would provide some for them if they were playing. What, you expected Belichick to play along with that one? "You can talk to all of those guys," Belichick said. "Their opinions are their opinions. But I see this game as this game. There aren't all that many people who played in the last game four years ago. This team is this team. I think our team is different than what it was at midseason and different from what it was in December. I think the Giants are a different team than when we played them in November, and I think they are a different team than where they were in early December. This game ... the elements of it are what we have in front of us, not what happened two months ago or what happened two years ago or four years ago." That means no Tyree questions allowed. Period.
7. The questions that should come out will be about Giants wide receivers will be about Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. They have been Manning's security blankets all season, and Manning has helped make them better, too. Cruz's story is phenomenal, and you'll likely see Giants practice-squadders and Cruz alike performing the Salsa Dance on Media Day. But once we get closer to game time, you'll see two competitors that might be better than any WR duo the Patriots have faced this season. Don't be stunned if one of them is in competition for Super Bowl MVP.
8. The Patriots, as you know, have some pass catchers of their own. TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and WRs Wes Welker and Deion Branch (a former Super Bowl MVP against the Eagles) are the nerve center of a high-flying short-to-medium, horizontal and completely deadly passing game. They get open, Brady throws them the ball. Simple as that. Except that Gronk is hurt with a high-ankle sprain, and his status for the game is in doubt. You know what that means: Gronkowski will be subjected to Maurkice Pouncey/Dwight Freeney/Hines Ward Injury Watch treatment, where every third media member who approaches Gronkowski during player availability this week will ask him how the ankle is doing. Get ready for wall-to-wall Gronkowski ankle coverage, which of course only will make the loveable lug even more so. He might not practice this week, but Gronk will play. It wouldn't be stunning to see him have a Freeney-like first half before fading in the second (after that long Madonna halftime show).
9. Belichick will spend the week swatting away Gronk questions like he does flies on his Florida fishing trips. But it will be fascinating to see how his counterpart treats this week's sessions. At Monday's press conference, Tom Coughlin looked relaxed and quite happy with his team's position. The tide has turned so quickly for his Giants, but really for him the most. Had the Giants lost to the Cowboys in Week 17, or somewhere else along the way, and not made the playoffs, yes, it's true: We'd probably be wondering about the job security of Coughlin. That would have been three straight years without a playoff berth and, frankly, that doesn't cut it in New York. But the discussion now has done a 180: We're playing the "what if" game with Coughlin and what a Super Bowl victory might mean for his legacy. Win this one, and that's two — the same number of bowls the beloved Bill Parcells (who could get into the Hall on Saturday) delivered to Giants fans. Throw in another 30 regular-season wins, which easily could happen in the three more years a Super Bowl win would guarantee Coughlin, and he'd tie Parcells' victory total in roughly the same number of games. Coughlin would not be hurt too much in the big picture by losing this game, but it would be fascinating to see what the win would do. Hall of Fame? Don't discount it.
10. Coughlin's fearsome defensive line might be better than the group that harassed Brady all game four years ago, and it might even be better than the one that made lift difficult for him in Foxborough in Week Nine. The Giants had only two sacks in the game but consistently got Brady off his spots and forced him to get rid of the ball quicker than he wanted to. Justin Tuck was not fully healthy then, neither was Osi Umenyiora, Mathias Kiwanuka was just coming along in Perry Fewell's defense and the tackles were not playing as well. Back then it was Jason Pierre-Paul doing it a lot by himself, and with a more full squad up front, the Giants have the goods to get after Brady. "I think it starts with hitting him, even when you don't actually get sacks, just keeping people around him so he can't step up," Tuck said. "I think he gets a little frustrated when he has to go to his second or third receivers. You can kind of confuse him sometimes with our coverage. I think there are a lot of things that can get him rattled, but it just seems like not too many people are able to do that."
11. The Patriots do not have as fearsome a rush, but they might have the single toughest matchup. Vince Wilfork is coming off perhaps the most dominant game of his career, buzzsawing his way through the interior of the Ravens' offensive line for at least a half-dozen game-changing plays. The Giants know that holding Wilfork in check could be their biggest key against the Patriots' defense. Wilfork might know this, too, and Belichick certainly does. "He can play a lot of plays, and he plays them well, too," Belichick said. "I think those plays he made at the end of the Baltimore game last week on 3rd-and-3, when he made the stop on the trap play. 4th-and-5, he got a hold of (Joe) Flacco, and he threw it away. Those were getting into the 60-play numbers late in the fourth quarter when we had to have it when the whole game was on the line, and he made two critical plays there."
12. If you've made it this far, chances are you have an interest in the game. But if you need more reasons to watch Sunday, here are 46 of them, courtesy of PFW's Eli Kaberon. If you're still not interested after reading that, you're just not trying.
13. The Hall of Fame announcement will be coming Saturday, and it's an interesting list this year. Some have called it the makeup class, as players such as Cris Carter, Jerome Bettis, Curtis Martin and Tim Brown and Parcells (he's considered a first-year-eligible coach, although he previously was up for nomination after "retiring" the first time) and owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. With throngs of New York media in town covering the Giants, it would not be stunning at all to see Parcells get the nod.
14. Commissioner Roger Goodell's press conference this year will have a lot less heft to it than last year's when impending doom via the lockout made it a testy, awkward affair. Concussions, full-time officials, Los Angeles (our man in L.A., the Times' Sam Farmer, will get the ball rolling on this) and the "in-game experience," as Goodell and NFL types like to call it. Translation: People love watching games on their fancy TVs almost as much or more than watching it in person.
15. Likewise, the tension in the room when NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith holds his press conference will be decidedly more muted than it was a year ago. But Smith's contract is up in March, and he'll have to answer questions about a letter to fellow agents by David Cornwell that took him to task. Smith also will be asked about HGH testing (and why it has not happened to date) and what is happening with injury settlements for retired players such as Hunter Hillenmeyer. If you read nothing else today, check out Brad Biggs' report about Hillenmeyer's post-career plight. These are the types of players Smith and Co. need to stand up for.