BOSTON (CBS) – It doesn’t get any bigger than this.
The Patriots and Giants will take the field Sunday night in Indianapolis, ending two weeks of hype and finally playing some football.
“This is everything that you ask for as an athlete and as competitors,” quarterback Tom Brady, who will be playing in his fifth Super Bowl, said this week. “As a competitor you want to be here, you need to be here. This is why we’ve worked so hard over the years – high school, college, pros – to prepare for games like this.”
There’s been plenty of preparation for both sides in advance of Super Bowl XLVI, but ultimately, the game will come down to a few key matchups.
Tom Brady vs. Giants’ Weak Passing Defense
Brady stepped onto the stage at Gillette Stadium immediately after his Patriots beat the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, and the future Hall of Famer didn’t hold back.
“I sucked pretty bad today,” he told the 68,000 fans in attendance and millions watching at home.
Overall, his assessment was fair, considering he went 22-for-36 for just 239 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. However, there’s reason to believe he’ll avoid a similar fate this time around. While the Patriots’ defense has been the one receiving all the bad press over the past two weeks, the Giants’ defense really isn’t much better.
If the Patriots can contain the New York pass rush (that’s a big “if,” but we’ll get into that later), then Brady should be able to pick apart a secondary that allowed 255 yards per game (29th in the NFL). It is a unit that allowed 28 passing touchdowns, which ranked 25th in the NFL and was two more than the much-maligned Patriots defense allowed. The Giants also had 20 interceptions, which was three fewer than the Patriots.
“I feel like when I played a game like I did a couple of weeks ago, quarterbacks never try to turn the ball over, and if there’s one thing that correlates to winning games, it’s turnovers,” Brady said this week. “To turn the ball over two times like I did, I didn’t feel like that was certainly my best performance.”
It certainly wasn’t, and neither was his Week 9 performance against the Giants, when he also threw two interceptions. The odds are just stacked against that happening again.
Obviously, the wild card in this matchup is the health of Rob Gronkowski. If he can play at 100 percent, or something close to that, then the Patriots will be able to move the ball all night long.
“Defenses when [Gronkowski and I] are next to each other [need to plan] how to cover us because we’ve also got Wes Welker on the other side and Deion Branch,” Aaron Hernandez said this week. “We just have so many weapons. Not just me and [Gronkowski], but all of us complement each other and make it easy on each other. Rob draws so much attention and it leaves me open, or Wes draws so much attention and it leaves me and [Gronkowski] open.”
Hernandez expounded upon the difficulties that Gronkowski presents to a defense.
“With Rob Gronkowski, the defense has to decide if they are going to put a linebacker on him,” Hernandez explained. “If they put a linebacker on him, we’re going to go to him until they put somebody else. If they put a safety on him over the top with a linebacker underneath, that’s two guys on him now so someone has a one-on-one mismatch. If you want to put a safety on him, he’s too big for a safety, so [Brady] can just put it in the right spot. Basically, it starts with[Gronkowski] and who they are going to double-team. You can only double-team two people. If you are going to double[Gronkowski] and [Welker], then it leaves me open. If you are going to double me and [Gronkowski], then it leaves [Welker] one-on-one, so there are a lot of problems.”
Eli vs. Patriots’ Weaker Passing Defense
As bad as the Giants’ pass defense may be, the Patriots’ is most certainly worse. The unit allowed an unfathomable 294 yards per game, second only to the Packers. Just a few weeks ago, the Giants disposed of those 15-1 Packers behind a 330-yard, three-touchdown day from Eli Manning.
This weekend, Manning will be looking to do the same.
“I think we have a good secondary,” safety Patrick Chung said. “We match up well. It’s going to be a battle. We have to try and contain them. We can’t stop all three [receivers], because they’re that good. We’re going to try and contain them and do the best we can.”
Last time around, the “best” the Patriots could was not enough, and that was without Hakeem Nicks in the mix. Victor Cruz was a menace back in Week 9, picking up 91 yards on six catches, while Mario Manningham scored a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Add Nicks, who has 18 catches for 335 yards and four touchdowns in the Giants’ three playoff games, and the Patriots are in trouble.
If there’s one question, though, about the Giants’ offensive attack, it would be the unknown of how the young trio of Manningham (25 years old), Nicks (24 years old) and Cruz (25 years old) responds to the moment of being on the world’s biggest sports stage.
“This is all new to them,” Manning said. “They’ve responded well. Mario Manningham, Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, those guys have not played in playoff games and they’ve come in and made big plays for us in clutch situations. You just have to keep their mind-set at, ‘Don’t let this game become bigger than what it is.’ Still keep it as playing a game and going out there and doing your job and being focused on what you need to do to be prepared and enjoy it. You have to enjoy it. You have to have fun. You can’t get nervous about it. You can’t overthink things.”
All of that, too, doesn’t include the impact of tight end Jake Ballard, the man who caught the game-winning touchdown at Gillette in November. Ballard, though, doesn’t anticipate the Patriots leaving him so free this time around.
“Against the Steelers this year and Jason Witten of the Cowboys, [the Patriots] made sure they hit those guys every play when they were running out for routes,” Ballard said on Thursday. “We thought that was going to be the case when they played us but they didn’t do that to me as much. They weren’t worried about me. So I’m thinking this time around they might pay a little more attention and it’s going to be harder for me to release off the ball freely.”
Whatever the Patriots do, they’ll have their hands full. If they win this game, they’ll need to make a play or two and force turnovers. That, of course, is a lot easier said than done.
Giants’ Pass Rush vs. Pats’ O-Line
Really, this game will be won or lost in the trenches. Specifically, it’s what takes place when the Patriots have the ball that will control the pace and style of the entire game.
That was quite clearly the case back in Super Bowl XLII, an evening that must still haunt the dreams of Brady. That game, he was sacked five times and was stripped of the ball just before halftime of a 7-3 game. For most of the night, Brady was unable to operate in the backfield, and as a result, he finished with just 266 yards and one touchdown (he averaged 300 yards and three touchdowns per game that year).
Four years later, protecting Brady will be the Patriots’ primary concern.
“The key is blocking them. I don’t think anyone has any big secrets to it,” guard Logan Mankins said. “They give everyone problems so the key is doing what you’re supposed to and the way you’re supposed to and you have a good chance.”
But planning to protect the quarterback and actually doing so are two entirely separate ideas. The Giants’ defense, which finished third in the NFL with 48 sacks and has nine sacks in the three playoff games, will be out for blood, knowing that hitting Brady throughout the game will be the best route to victory.
“He’s a great quarterback,” Jason Pierre-Paul, who registered one sack in Week 9, said of Brady. “If you give him time in the pocket to pick on your secondary and throw the ball, he is going to hurt you. He is going to hurt you. Us, as a D-line, we know that the pressure is mostly going to be on us. If we don’t rush, then he has all day to throw the ball. Everybody knows that. I put it on us. I put it on the D-line to go out there and perform well. We have to perform well and get to Tom Brady quick. We just have to play all-out and give it all we’ve got.”
Justin Tuck, who forced that fumble in Super Bowl XLII, was kind enough to offer the Patriots’ offensive line some advice for Sunday.
“I would be thinking I have to play my best game because coming from me,” Tuck said. “I feel like we’re going to play our best game, so whoever is facing us better play theirs.”