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Patriots Are Favored, But Why?

The Super Bowl is three days away, and there’s one thing I can’t figure out.

Why are the Patriots favored?

I understand that New England went 13-3 while the Giants were 9-7. I know that the Giants scored six fewer points than they allowed over the course of the season, while the Pats had a positive differential of 171, third-highest in the league behind New Orleans and Green Bay. 

I know that the point spread isn’t a prediction about the game, it’s a gauge of where the betting money is likely to fall, with an eye toward balancing the books and pocketing the vig, the 10 percent premium on losing bets. 

The game opened a week and a half ago with the Patriots a 3.5-point favorite. The betting line has moved to 3. But I’ve yet to hear much analysis pointing toward a New England victory.

Why are the Patriots favored?

Does the team have a bigger fan base likely to bet on them? Unlikely. True, the New York market is split between the Jets and the Giants, but Jets fans have a much more bitter rivalry with the Pats than they do with their Meadowlands co-tenants.

As they did four years ago, the Giants are peaking at just the right time. The defensive line is healthy and wreaking havoc. They shut out the Atlanta offense, neutralized Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, and matched the vaunted 49ers defense in the slop in San Francisco.

The offense is hitting its stride as well. With opponents geared up to stop dangerous slot man Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham have given Eli Manning a variety of deep threats, combining for seven touchdown receptions in the postseason. Eight Giants caught passes against the Niners, spreading the field and finally opening space for Cruz, who had 10 receptions for 142 yards. 

Sure, the Patriots have won 10 straight while averaging 35.9 points per game. The offense has unprecedented weapons in tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski, when healthy, has the speed to go deep up the middle, the height to catch the ball in traffic, and the strength to break off a pattern and still bull his way to a first down. Hernandez became a running threat out of the backfield in the divisional round against the Broncos, and if a defense concentrates too much on these two, that opens things up for Wes Welker, Deion Branch, and an assortment of others from innumerable spots on the field.

Statistically, according to Football Outsiders, the Giants performed reasonably against their opponents’ Nos. 1 and 2 receivers, but ranked 30th against all others. Teams that offer a multiplicity of options on offense gave the Giants problems, but with defensive end Osi Umenyiora back, New York can put pressure on the quarterback without blitzing, keeping seven in coverage, occasionally matching size with Gronkowski by dropping a lineman back and rushing a safety or linebacker. 

Early season or late, the Patriots’ defense has been dreadful. Football Outsiders ranks that unit 30th overall, equally bad against the rush and the pass. The most comparable defense in the league was Green Bay’s, and we all saw how the Giants handled that challenge.

While New York is coming together, the Patriots squeaked into the Super Bowl with one of their worst performances of the year against Baltimore. Tom Brady threw vital interceptions, the defense let Joe Flacco come within one completion in the end zone of winning in regulation, and Gronkowski’s high ankle sprain puts his value in question for Sunday’s game. 

The Giants silenced a strong offense from Atlanta, knocked out Super Bowl favorite Packers in Green Bay, and survived a slugfest with San Francisco. New England trounced the Broncos, though that was mostly a matter of being on hand when the magic ran out. And then they struggled against the Ravens.

Bill Belichick will have had two weeks to get ready for everything the Giants can throw at him, and to devise a few new wrinkles of his own. The same thing was true before Super Bowl XLII. With only one week to prepare, the Pats lost to the Giants 24-20 at home in week nine this season.   

Everything points to a Giants victory: current form, recent history, the strengths and weaknesses in the team matchup. That leaves just one question.

Why are the Patriots favored?

Jeff Neuman's columns for RealClearSports appear on Monday and Thursday. Follow him on Twitter @NeumanJeff. His collected golf writing and blogging can be found at www.neumanprose.com.

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