By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots (15-3) take on the New York Giants (12-7) for the Super Bowl XLVI title in Indianapolis on Sunday.
Both teams come in hot, the Giants winners of 5 in a row and the Patriots winners of 10 straight. Both QBs are on top of their games. Eli Manning has had his best season and has played tough and smart through the playoffs. Tom Brady had arguably his best season throwing for over 5200 yards and 39 TDs during the regular season before dismantling the Broncos in the divisional round. Brady had a rough game against the Ravens in the AFCCG but they have traditionally played him tough his entire career.
In the era and the old mantra “Defense Wins Championships”, that is likely put to on a back burner for at least this season as the Giants come in with the 29th ranked defense in terms of yards allowed and the Patriots 31st. Strangely enough however, it will be the play of the defenses ultimately that will decide who wins on Sunday.
It’s hard to believe that the season ends on Sunday, it seems like just yesterday that new CBA was signed and the first practice was held in a walk-through atmosphere that seemed unreal at the time as fellow writer Russ Goldman and I sat watching the players go through the motions. Now 110 practices later, the Patriots prepare to play for the biggest prize in the league. On to the matchups…
Patriots Running Game:
A solid running game is one key from a Patriots perspective for a Super Bowl victory on Sunday. The Patriots will not be looking to pound the ball like the 1978 Patriots but enough to keep the Giants defensive line honest and make them pay if they just sell out and try to pin their ears back to rush the quarterback on every down.
In Week 9 the Patriots tried to take advantage of the Giants so-so rushing defense and weren’t able to establish the game they had hoped for. While rushing for 106 yards isn’t bad, it wasn’t what they needed in the game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis led the way with 52 yards on 12 carries as the Giants even in the nickel package were able to keep the Patriots at bay.
One of the ways they did that was while in their nickel package, where the Patriots have run on opponents this year, the Giants dropped S Deon Grant down into the box like a linebacker right over G Brian Waters, then sliding WLB Michael Boley in the gap between Logan Mankins and Matt Light where he was in better position to blow up a run or blitz Tom Brady.
The Patriots are primarily a passing team and will be looking for a complimentary running game. They may try to spread the Giants out and use some quick hitting runs with Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead to hit the ball up the middle. All of this opens up the play-action pass that Brady loves to utilize in the middle of the field.
Patriots Passing Game:
Bottom line here is if Tom Brady plays in this game like he did against Baltimore, the Patriots lose plain and simple. If Brady plays similar to the way he did in the game against Denver then their chances of winning rise dramatically.
The Giants will be trying to take away the Patriots two tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez which has been an area where the Giants struggled for much of the year. But asked about if he thought the Giants could take the duo away, Giants S Antrel Rolle said, “Think? No,” Rolle said. “I know it. I know it.”
While much has been said, and rightfully so about the Patriots secondary, the Giants secondary has been little better, good for only 29th during the regular season, but have been covering up for it with a tremendous pass rush that netted 48 sacks, good for sixth in the NFL on the percentage of sacks per pass plays. It starts with Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks), Osi Umenyiora (9) and Justin Tuck (5).
Umenyiora and Matt Light will be matched up once again, as those two have a habit of getting under each other’s skin. For the Patriots Sebastian Vollmer may come back to play in this game opposite Tuck, if not rookie RT Nate Solder will be called upon. The Patriots tried to counter the Giants big pass rush by installing an extra TE (Solder) in the line during the Week 9 loss. It wasn’t successful, taking away a needed option in the field. I doubt you’ll see that this time, the Patriots will go with their standard package for the OL and only go to the heavy line package in short yardage and goal line situations.
The Giants like to stunt and twist their pass rush on obvious passing downs, bringing the pressure up the middle. They are excellent at getting pressure with just four pass rushers and dropping seven into coverage. They don’t blitz much, but in this game we may see MLB Chase Blackburn get sent on a few blitzes right up the middle as well as Mathias Kiawnuka from the outside.
The Patriots plan on countering the pass rush by having Brady get rid of the ball quickly, spreading the Giants out and having the wide receivers go on short, intermediate routes that play upon mismatches. When the Giants play man-coverage, look for Brady to attack down the middle of the field along the hash marks with Gronkowski and Hernandez.
Expect the Patriots to use the hurry-up offense a lot in this game, it will limit the Giants substitutions, force them to show their hand more with the defense and tire out the pass rushers. It has been a very effective tactic this season for Brady to use.
Another tactic the Patriots will use with the Giants in man will be to put Gronkowski or Wes Welker in motion to get a freer release at the line of scrimmage. The Patriots also like to attack man coverage by putting Welker and Deion Branch on the same side split out wide and have Branch clear out space by cutting deep inside leaving just enough room for Welker to get some space. This was highlighted in Matt Bowen’s always excellent column in the National Football Post. It’s doubtful that Chad Ochocinco plays much on Sunday, if at all.
Expect the Giants to play some deeper zone coverage as well, mixing things up and trying to force everything down low to the check down receiver. Bottom line is, as the protection goes, so does the Patriots passing game. If Brady has time, there will be open receivers on the field.
Giants Running Game:
Another item talked about all week as the mainstream media has been pumping the Giants tires has been the “powerful Giants running game”. While the tandem of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs certainly has the capability to be just that, the fact remains that the Giants running game finished dead last in the NFL. Neither averaged 4 yards per carry this season.
The Giants, like the Patriots will be looking for the complimentary running game to keep the pressure off of Eli Manning and make play-action passing much more effective. One factor about the Week 9 matchup was that Bradshaw missed the game due to injury.
The Patriots struggled against the run down the stretch of the season until they got Pat Chung and Brandon Spikes back from injury. Since then, the front seven starting with DTs Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love have been outstanding in the middle. Spikes brings the physical, intimidating, in-your-face style at MLB/ILB that they will need to slow down the run, especially in short yardage situations.
Spikes summed it up best in an interview with the Boston media, said, “I play violent, physical and if I don’t, they’ll do the same to me.” Another interesting tidbit from Week 9 was that Spikes went down with a knee injury in the 3rd quarter and Chung was injured late in the 4th in the loss to New York.
I don’t expect the Giants to be able to run much against the Patriots front seven in this game, they shut down the unique Broncos running attack and basically stifled the Ravens and Ray Rice, holding him to just a 3.1 YPC average. They did wear down in the 4th quarter against the Ravens which will bear watching but I think they don’t give the Giants much room to run.
Giants Passing Game:
Much like the Patriots passing game is the key to the game on offense from a Patriots perspective, the Giants passing game is the key on defense. Eli Manning had an outstanding season passing for 4933 yards, and carried it into the playoffs with wins against Atlanta, Green Bay and San Francisco.
His three WRs have been big targets during their playoff run, Victor Cruz was huge against the 49ers and has caught 17 passes in the post-season. Hakeem Nicks has 4 TDs with Mario Manningham three. Like the AFCCG the Patriots will have to be aware of Bradshaw out of the backfield as he has 14 catches himself.
The question will be how the Patriots plan on defending the Giants during this game. It’s an area where the Giants won’t have the advantage of looking back to Week 9. Although they played without Nicks, the Patriots were playing an entirely different system at the time. During that game, the Patriots were primarily in a four man front with the linebackers playing over the DL (4-3 Over) utilizing Albert Haynesworth at DT.
The Patriots are back to playing their classic 3-4 base defense now with Kyle Love on the NT position and Vince Wilfork and Shaun Ellis playing at DE. Wilfork has been outstanding at pushing the pocket back, in the first game he played well against David Baas, the Patriots will need an even bigger game from him this time.
Much has been made about how the Giants are welcoming having Julian Edelman cover Victor Cruz in the slot. I don’t think that happens this week. I think the Patriots will slide Kyle Arrington over to Cruz and go with Devin McCourty on Nicks and Sterling Moore on Manningham. These matchups still favor the Giants to be able to find lots of open space.
After a huge first half, the 49ers copy-catted the Washington defense’s plan on stopping Cruz by having inside coverage and then forcing him outside into safety coverage. The Patriots may put a LBer over Cruz in the slot and chip him on the way out.
One play the Patriots will have to watch in the red-zone (courtesy of Bowen) is where the Giants use Cruz clears out the defenders and allowing the second TE (Bear Pasco) to cross wide open underneath. They used this against the 49ers for a 6 yard touchdown.
Cruz will definitely be the focus on Sunday but they can’t neglect the other two by any means, so they will have to bring pressure on Manning to throw off his timing and not give him the time to throw deep and hopefully force a turnover or two. That starts with Wilfork in the middle with Love. The Giants middle of the OL is their weak spot and that’s where the Patriots will try to bring their pressure. I look for Bill Belichick to bring Mayo and Spikes on Mike Blitzes to try to force Manning into making mistakes.
Mark Anderson and Rob Ninkovich will also be counted upon to bring pressure from the outside working against tackles Kareem McKenzie and David Diehl. Ninkovich who has stepped up his game in the playoffs will also be counted upon to limit Bradshaw out of the backfield where he’s been a frequent target.
Both teams possess strong kicking games that can make the clutch kick at crunch time or change field position with well-placed punts deep in opponents territory. Lawrence Tynes is a proven big game kicker having booted OT field goals twice to win NFC title games. Steve Weatherford has been solid with a fine 45.7 yard per punt average.
The Patriots counter with the reliable Stephen Gostkowski who enjoyed another solid season in both field goals but also kicking off deep as well as the colorful “Don’t Mess with the” Zoltan Mesko who averaged 46.5 yards per punt and a stellar 41.5 net average.
Neither return team has generated much in terms of excitement, which usually means that we’ll probably seen someone step up and make a big play. The Giants use KR Jerrel Jernigan and Will Blackmon returning punts. The Patriots have Danny Woodhead returning kicks and Julian Edelman returning punts. This, like many other matchups this week is basically a push. Both coverage units are solid for both teams.
The press has gotten a lot of mileage out of the “Revenge Factor” this week for the Patriots. Given that so few players remain from the 2007 season Super Bowl team, I doubt it would be a theme that would resonate with the team.
The Giants come in confident, almost to the point of being cocky and arrogant. Rolle, Jacobs and Chris Canty have all basically guaranteed victory this weekend, which must be driving Tom Coughlin crazy. They come in hot having won five in a row against some of the top teams in the NFC.
The Patriots come in hot as well having won 10 in a row since the aforementioned Week 9 loss to the Giants. The team seems loose and poised and they too are confident while not blustering like their neighbors to the south. Bill Belichick is as relaxed as I’ve ever seen him which is worthy of note in itself. Belichick rarely loses to a team twice in one season, and Tom Brady’s numbers facing a team for the second time are outstanding. He averages around 26-39 for 315 yards and 2 TDs. Those are the type of numbers the Patriots will need. Plus Brady has thrived playing indoors in a dome.
However, the biggest X-Factor this week for the Patriots may be Myra Kraft. The team has dedicated their season to honoring the memory of her all season. They presented owner Bob Kraft with a painting they commissioned in her honor. Winning the title for the Krafts may be the crowning achievement for a season where the team has heard so much negativity from its own press.
Regardless of what the mainstream media is professing, this is going to be a very close game, once again going down to the wire. The media has gone all in on their pick of the Giants, whose defense has suddenly morphed into the 85 Bears before our eyes.
While we’ve been subjected to the endless stories about the ineptitude of the Patriots 31st ranked defense, but how bad is it …really? We know… we’ve watched the Patriots give up at times huge chunks of yardage during games but do they yards equate into points?
A couple of things to keep in mind, the Giants defense isn’t a top 10 defense either, in fact they were ranked 29th overall and New York gave up more points than the Patriots defense this season. New England had the only defense in the NFL that didn’t allow more than 27 points in any game this season. The only game where they allowed more than that was in Week 3 in Buffalo where the Bills returned a pick-6 on Brady.
It all comes down to execution, whichever team plays better on Sunday will go away the winner. Both teams have offenses that can pile up the points and in a hurry or be methodical and pick you apart down the field. With both QBs needing only 200 or so yards passing in this game to be the first 6000 yards passers (regular season and playoffs) in NFL history, these teams are prolific in the passing game.
Neither team was particularly great at running the ball this season but have stepped it up in the playoffs. The Giants are averaging 117 YPG and the Patriots 121 YPG. Running game will be key here to spring the passing game.
Turnovers may ultimately spell the difference here, whom ever protects the ball better and forces the turnovers on the other should come out on top. So who wins Sunday?…
Tune in Thursday night at 6 p.m. for Patriots 4th and 2, our blog talk radio podcast with host Russ Goldman, Derek Havens, Damien Jarrett and I as we’ll break down the game and give our predictions on who comes home with the Super Bowl title on Monday. All of us write for PatsFans.com, check out our coverage of everything Patriots, especially Ian Logue’s stat sheets that are some of the most detailed anywhere.
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