NEAL CONAN, HOST:
After a few more days of escalating hoopla, the Super Bowl between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots kicks off on Sunday evening, but whether you've got a small financial interest in the game or if you're just waiting for the ads, there are stories on the field in Indianapolis - the Brady legacy, salsa dancer Victor Cruz, hometown boy Mathias Kiwanuka, and of course the medical epic of the high-ankle sprain. What story will you follow in Super Bowl XLVI?
Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. NPR correspondent Mike Pesca joins us now from member station WFYI in super city. Mike, nice to have you back.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hello.
CONAN: And my friends in Boston tell me there is only one story, and that is revenge.
PESCA: Revenge, yes, because the Giants had that amazing victory after the 2007 season, the 2008 Super Bowl, which ruined the Patriots' perfect season - Eli Manning escaping the clutches of the Patriots blitz late, throwing it up in the air, a catch off a receiver's helmet and the rest, including a Plaxico Burress touchdown, is history. The Patriots, revenge? I mean, has any team been more successful in the last decade? If that's what it takes to get you going, so be it.
CONAN: It is odd, however, the Patriots, 12-point favorites in that game back four years ago, but even in this game installed as the favorites. They had a much better regular season than the New York Giants, but favored just by three points. And almost everybody says, wait a minute, the Giants are going to win this.
PESCA: Yeah. People - there really is a bandwagon - at least two out of every three, maybe three out of every four people who I talked to are making the case to me that the Giants are better and momentum is what matters. And they say things like, well, you know, you've got to realize the Giants have won five straight. Wow, that really is impressive. I'm sure the Patriots, who've won 10 straight, are certainly quite impressed with the half as long winning streak that the Giants have put together.
I think the reason why, it would seem that a team who has won four more games in the regular season than the other should be much - a much bigger favorite. People look at the personnel the teams that they have now, and the Giants were - every team suffers injuries, but the Giants have gotten their defense rather healthy. And when their defensive line is as healthy as it is, which includes Mathias Kiwanuka and Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck, they really can pressure the quarterback.
The reason they won in 2008 was that they sacked Brady five times. Another, they're different teams. There are different circumstances. It's not going to be a replay of the 2008 game, but there are some fundamental truths in football. And even if Brady is this great field general and even if he knows how to handle the blitz, if you constantly put pressure on any quarterback, it's going to derail an offense as awesome as the Patriots was and the Patriots is.
CONAN: And these are the two most generous defenses ever to appear in a Super Bowl, which almost guarantees the game is going to be, what, nine to six.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PESCA: Yeah, right. It will all be decided by a safety and a drop kick. I think that the generosity of the defense is the amount of yards, the number of yards allowed. It's a rubric that people want to get away from, because these days a turnover seems to matter much more than the number of yards that you give up. And a team can give up tons of yards - heck, the Patriots did - and still be fairly OK in what would seem to be the much bigger deal, which is giving up points.
The Patriots were terrible in yardage, but they were 15th in giving up points, and that's not that bad. And like the Giants, they are a little healthier too. They have Brandon Spikes, who's a very good defender, Patrick Chung. Those are a couple of their defenders who were hurt during the year. They'll play in the Super Bowl. But their secondary, the guys who have to defend the awesome receivers of the Giants, is a really weak secondary. And when you have Julian Edelman, a guy who was a quarterback in college, converted to a receiver in the pros, and Bill Belichick, the Patriots' coach, said, you know, we're so hurting in secondary, Julian, go play defense on a few plays, you're admitting that you're very vulnerable to the pass attack of any team, let alone the Giants.
CONAN: And that pass attack led by the most unlikely of stars, and that is Victor Cruz, who grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, almost in the shadows of the old Meadowlands Stadium, went to that football factory Massachusetts, and then was not drafted by anybody.
PESCA: Yeah. And he, by the way, while growing up in the Meadowlands, did he root for the Jets and the Giants? No, Cowboys fan.
CONAN: Cowboys fan, yeah.
PESCA: Yeah, yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PESCA: But he - he's great. Hakeem Nicks, another wide receiver for the Giants, really great. And it is kind of funny. The Giants, you know, Amani Toomer was a great receiver for them. Plaxico Burress was a great receiver. How come they keep having all these different great receivers over the last decade? Maybe it has something to do with the guy throwing the ball. And this year, we all, as football fans, finally realized that Eli Manning is a good-to-great quarterback. And you can debate how good is he, is he great, is he - and I'll be doing a story on this - the idea of elitism, which on the campaign trail, you can't endorse. Very bad.
CONAN: When you're in NFL.
PESCA: Yes. In the NFL, you want to be called an elite quarterback. Bottom line, it doesn't matter. You could say there's two, three or four quarterbacks better than Eli, but there is no question that Eli Manning can win a Super Bowl, has won a Super Bowl, and is a very real danger, if you're a Patriots fan, to win the Super Bowl again.
CONAN: Mike Pesca with us, from Indianapolis. So what's story are you going to be following in the Super Bowl? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. And we'll start with Rich, and Rich on the line with us from Prescott in Arizona.
RICH: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I'll be following the Manning brothers' storyline, being that this is going to be Eli's second shot at a Super Bowl championship and, hopefully, his second victory. And then he'll have one over his brother, Peyton, who will probably be watching the game in his hometown of Indianapolis.
CONAN: Well, his hometown is New Orleans, but he plays for the Indianapolis Colts - except maybe not next year, Mike.
PESCA: Yeah. And he didn't play for them this year because he was out at all year with a neck injury. And everything that Jim Irsay, the owner of the Colts, has to do is decide on that which is unknowable, which is what will Eli - I'm sorry - what will Peyton Manning's health be? And he has a $28 million bonus, and I think $7 million in salary. So we're talking about not just a huge chunk of change out of Mr. Irsay's very deep pockets, but with the NFL salary cap situation, if you make a mistake and you commit all that money to a player who's unhealthy, as Irsay himself says, then maybe it could be the case that the Colts' fans who are now clamoring for Peyton's return might say, you, idiot, Mr. Irsay. You soaked this money into a hurt player.
Irsay's in a tough, tough situation. He genuinely loves - well, I don't know if he loves Peyton Manning as a person. I think he does. He professes as much. He definitely loves having that guy as his quarterback because he is spectacular. I don't know if he can sign Peyton Manning again. Reading through his comments - he's given a number of interviews - it would seem hard that he has enough information for him to commit 30-plus million dollars to an injured neck and an injured player like that.
CONAN: Especially when, through their incompetence, the Colts have the number-one pick in the draft next year. And there's a quarterback from Stanford with the felicitous name of Andrew Luck lying out there, who everybody says is going to be, well, the next Peyton Manning. So they may be rebuilding. Mike - Rich, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
RICH: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Reese, and Reese with us from Laramie in Wyoming.
REESE: Thanks for taking my call, Neal. I appreciate it. I'm actually following a tale of two taverns, Foley's Pub and McGreevy's bar - in New York City and Boston, respectively. They've taken up a bet because Foley's Pub said they wouldn't serve Sam Adams during the Super Bowl. The loser is going to donate the earnings from all the shepherd's pies sold from the Super Bowl to opening day in baseball. And the loser will have to tend bar at the winner's establishment in the winner's jersey.
CONAN: So this is back to the vengeance.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Well, it's back to the New York-Boston rivalry and, Mike Pesca, this certainly supersedes even the Super Bowl.
PESCA: This is - this reminds me of the high jinks that those guys at Cheers and Gary's Olde Towne Tavern used to pull on each other. But - so Sam Adams is off tap. What about Brooklyn Lager? What New York beer is getting punished up there in Boston?
REESE: Yeah. See, that's the problem. There is no real good counterpunch or anything like that. So...
PESCA: Right, right, right.
REESE: ...you know what? Put your money where your mouth is.
PESCA: There's no quid pro suds, so they have to go with the shepherd's pie. I get it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Reese, thanks very much for the call.
REESE: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: Here's an email from Robin: I will be following Jean Pierre-Paul. He is a machine. As the saying goes, defense, wins championships. So this, of course, the defensive end, I guess.
CONAN: He rotates to various positions, but the defensive and from Haiti, originally.
PESCA: Right, Jason Pierre-Paul. He can do, I think, 17 back flips in a row. He's an amazing specimen of physicality. When he played in college - he only played a year of college at USF South Florida, and so people said, well, he looks pretty good. He has these very long arms, but I don't know how high we should take this guy. He seems like he's going to be a great defensive end. Because he doesn't have enough college experience, a few teams passed on him. The Giants took him, and especially - maybe he wouldn't have flourished with some other teams. But playing with the other guys on the line, Pierre-Paul is an exciting athletic defender. He seems to block, bat down about three passes a game.
And that general notion about defense winning championships, I think that's out the window. I really think it's a cliche. But this was supposed to be the year where it got stood on its head and laughed at like never before, where the Packers and the Patriots were on this destination to play each other with the worst defenses in the NFL. And I think the post-season showed that for different reasons - and I will be exploring this in a story coming up this week - for several reasons...
CONAN: A forthcoming story, ding, ding, ding, coming up later.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PESCA: Right. Maybe not today, but stay tuned to your local - check your local time and channel. But I'm going to be exploring the idea that defense seemed to kick in a bit more in the playoffs, and maybe we cannot totally throw the idea out that we could win, despite defense. Even though the Patriots and the Giants didn't have good defenses during the year, they certainly showed moments of very good defense. And without those moments, they wouldn't be in this game.
CONAN: Mike Pesca, NPR national correspondent, with us from the site of the Super Bowl in Indianapolis. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
Stephanie in Arlington, Massachusetts, writes: I'll be following the Gronk story. Will Rob Gronkowski play with that upper ankle sprain? And I have seen - otherwise, I'm sure - perfectly sane physicians quoted in the newspapers saying, well, I saw that young man's terrible injury on TV. I don't think he'll be able to play next year, either.
PESCA: Right. I don't know what it is about getting called by a football reporter that makes a physician totally ignore the Hippocratic Oath, but yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PESCA: Although I haven't seen an MRI or an X-ray, not only will I diagnose him, I am going to give him - I'm going to prescribe some pills that, if he wants to call me, he can take.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PESCA: The Gronkowski injury is the only actual news. You know, what is new? The health of his ankle is new, and we've gone through a few injuries in the past Super Bowls. They get magnified like you wouldn't believe. Pouncey, the center on the Steelers, that was an injury where he couldn't play.
A couple of years ago, Dwight Freeney, the pass rusher on the Colts, also was suffering a ligament injury. I think that's probably the more instructive case, because Freeney did play, and I'd be shock if Gronkowski didn't play at all. First of all, after he got hurt against the Ravens, he did show up and play a few more plays at that game. Now, you have adrenaline, and that - just because you can play on the day you got hurt doesn't mean you'll be able to play two weeks from now. But he's very important to the offense. He's very motivated to play. He's walking without a boot. You saw him do some light jogging. I'd be shock if he didn't play. The question is: How good will he be?
Dwight Freeney got sack in the first half of his Super Bowl. But by the second half, it really tightened up, and we could see something like that. Gronkowski is so important to the Patriots' offense. He had the greatest season a tight end has ever had. He averaged more than a touchdown catch a game. But that could be good or bad. Obviously, the Patriots want him. And I've seen statistical models that show without Gronkowski, they are much, much less likely to win. They will be putting up fewer yards.
However, if you're the Giants, you might go into the game planning for Gronkowski to be a focus of the offense. And if he's not, then you have to adjust your game plan. Turns out, the Giants' Tom Coughlin, the coach of Giants, perhaps his greatest strength is the ability to adjust his game plan. So all of that plays into the chess and psychology of this game, as well.
CONAN: Let's go next to Gayle(ph), Gayle with us from South Hampton in New York.
GAYLE: Hi. The story I'll be following is Mark Herzlich.
CONAN: Ah, the young man who survived cancer, was told he would not be able to walk, and then not only walk off the plane, but is going to play in the Super Bowl.
GAYLE: Absolutely. Dreams come true.
CONAN: Dreams come true. And that's another aspect of this game. Yes, Mark Herzlich, who plays - a young player for the Giants. But there's also - we mentioned Mathias Kiwanuka, who grew up in Indianapolis, went to high school, I think, just about 10 miles away from the stadium...
PESCA: Yep, Cathedral High School, yeah.
CONAN: ...but whose father comes from Uganda and was a victim of Idi Amin.
PESCA: Yeah. His grandfather was the first president of Uganda, actually. And the weirdest thing of all is that, in last year's Super Bowl, the defensive player on the NFC team, Charles Peprah, his grandfather was once the head of state of Ghana - so, two consecutive Super Bowls where the grandson of an African head of state is playing. Kiwanuka, to honor his father, is - has a big back tattoo of the seal of Uganda. And if you've never seen the seal of Uganda, it is quite detailed. There is a crane on the right. There is a shield in the middle, and there is a Kob - which is a kind of gazelle - on the left. So I haven't actually seen the tattoo. I just - I'm desperate for him to show it to me. Perhaps in a victorious mood in the locker room, I could get a glimpse of the seal of Uganda on his back.
CONAN: Dave from Portland writes: I enjoy the Super Bowl because the golf course is empty, and that is a rarity on any Sunday in this country. So there are other opportunities.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: And this from Guillaume, who writes: I'll be following the infamous commercials. There will be those, Mike, who wait for the players to go away so they can watch, what, Matthew Broderick recreate Ferris Bueller.
PESCA: Yes. I hear the NFL itself has hired someone to act as Gale Sayers to emphasize player safety. What are they getting, three-and-a-half million dollars per spot? And one of the reasons is not only are a lot of people watching, people are paying attention to the commercials - although I think, from my professional perspective as a sports commentator, I could say: Aren't we a little over the talking-and-dancing animals? I think that that has lost it appeal. I would zig where everyone else is zagging, and I would use, perhaps, real animals doing animal things to sell my product. Of course, for three-and-a-half million dollars, you might want the cute factor of the talking polar bear, chimp, et cetera.
CONAN: Which story will - obviously, it'll be a player who plays a critical role in the game. And there's always the David Tyree factor, as we referred to earlier, the player who made the miraculous catch against the helmet, whose ghost the Patriots will try to exercise on Sunday. But will there be one story that you would like to be able to report on Monday morning?
PESCA: I think that Victor Cruz, as you said, will probably have a good game. And the fact that this guy was undrafted and has brought salsa moves to the NFL really is just phenomenal. And whoever wins, it's always a referendum on the greatness of the quarterback, but it'll be - it's a descent bar debate. You would debate, hey, is Eli really better than Peyton? I don't think so.
PESCA: But if Brady wins, you have that debate. Maybe Belichick really is the greatest coach in NFL history. Maybe Brady really is the greatest quarterback.
CONAN: Mike Pesca, national correspondent with NPR, with us today from WFYI. Mike, enjoy the game.
PESCA: I will, and you're welcome.
CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Join them for the psychology of disgust: why we're grossed up by stinky feet, but not by stinky cheese. We'll see you again on Monday, when the game's going to be decided by then. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.