New England Patriots: Optimist's and Pessimist's Guide to Super Bowl XLVI
Billy Cundiff, Lee Evans and the AFC championship are in the past now. Forget about them, Patriots fans.
It's time to focus on two Sundays from now, and Super Bowl XLVI against, of course, the New York Giants.
It had to be the Giants, didn't it? New England finally gets off the playoff schneid, only to draw the very team that started that skid.
Figures. Either that, or the stars are aligning for revenge.
That's the thing. This matchup invites polar-opposite emotions. There's reason for the negative to dread the game, and reason for the positive to be eager for it.
Here are the reasons for Patriots fans to feel either bad or good about the Super Sequel. Decide for yourself which camp you belong to.
Pessimist: Oh No, the Giants Again?
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If there was one bad thing about last Sunday, it came at the end of the NFC championship game when Lawrence Tynes's 31-yard field goal was dead center and the New York Giants punched another ticket to the Super Bowl.
The reasons to be wary of the Giants, both physically and mentally, are many. New York obviously has an emotional impact with Patriots fans. It's torturous to watch even a few seconds of highlights from Super Bowl XLII, and the idea of going against the Giants again, and possibly losing again, causes instant anxiety and tension for everyone in the region.
To make matters worse, there are way too many similarities between this year and '07 for Patriots fans to dismiss easily. These Giants won their last two NFC games against the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds, respectively. The same thing happened in '07.
These Giants won their last two NFC games against teams they lost to during the regular season. So did those Giants.
These Giants won on an overtime field goal by Tynes. So did those Giants.
These Giants were perhaps a loss away from losing Tom Coughlin as a casualty to the hot seat. So were those Giants.
These Giants face a Patriots team they faced earlier in the season. So did those Giants.
Sure, it doesn't match up 100 percent. But it's eerie enough. The Patriots and their fans got the storied Super Bowl matchup—as well as all the nightmares that go with it.
Optimist: The Loss in November Will Help
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It hurt back in November, but now that the teams are meeting again, maybe the Giants' 24-20 victory over New England was a blessing in disguise.
Each of the Patriots' last three playoff losses, which includes the Super Bowl loss to New York, had something in common. In each, New England wasn't prepared for its opponent. It didn't answer the Giants' pass rush in 2007. It wasn't ready for Baltimore's physicality in '09, and it didn't expect the Jets' zone defense last year.
There's another similarity. All three times, the Patriots were playing a team they had beaten in their previous encounter that season. Meanwhile, when facing an opponent for the first time since losing to that team during the season, since 2001, Belichick's Patriots are 11-2.
The reasoning is simple. When teams are close in skill level, the losing team has an advantage in a rematch. The winner just tries to stick with what worked the first time, while the loser knows what didn't work and re-creates its strategy. So the winning team has to essentially prepare for two schemes, while the loser gets a second crack at a similar one.
The series with the Jets in 2010 was a prime example. In the first game, Rex Ryan's team came out in a primarily man scheme, putting Darrelle Revis and, later, Antonio Cromartie on Randy Moss to erase him. The Jets won.
By the second game, Moss was gone, and the Patriots were utilizing a wider cast of options. The Jets stayed in man, but as a result, there were mismatches everywhere. The Patriots won big.
By the playoff game, the Jets had chucked their man and pressure scheme in favor of a zone-coverage defense. Those reads from the previous game weren't there for Tom Brady, he was confused, and he was sacked often as he tried to figure it out. The Jets won.
Belichick's two losses when trying to avenge a loss came in the 2005 playoffs to Denver and 2006 AFC championship game to Indianapolis. But the theory held true in both cases. New England outplayed Denver all game, but made five turnovers, one being an end-zone interception that was returned 100 yards by Champ Bailey.
In 2006, New England came out flying against Indianapolis, but simply ran out of gas late in the fourth against Peyton Manning's relentless fast-track offense.
This doesn't mean New England will beat the Giants on Super Sunday. But if the past is any indication, Belichick will force Tom Coughlin to try different things if the Giants want to earn a fourth Lombardi Trophy.
Pessimist: Tom Brady's Been Mediocre in Most of His Recent Playoff Games
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How quickly the luster can come off of a record-breaking performance—even if you're Tom Brady.
A week after becoming the toast of the NFL with an astonishing six touchdown passes against the Denver Broncos, Brady came down to earth in the AFC title game. He threw two picks, no touchdowns, led the Patriots to only two touchdowns in five red-zone trips and made bad decision after bad decision, wild throw after wild throw.
Suddenly, it was time to criticize Brady again. A week after it was appropriate to link this year to Brady's masterpieces, it was appropriate to remember that that Denver game was really Brady's only "Bradyesque" playoff game since he went 26-of-28 and ripped up Jacksonville in the 2007 divisional round.
Nobody was less impressed than the quarterback himself. Brady's comments on the podium during the trophy presentation afterward were his first postgame utterances in public. And of the first three words, two of them were "I sucked."
He's wrong. He didn't suck. He was off, sure, and he certainly wasn't great. But he made some big plays during the game. He did lead the winning touchdown drive, after all.
But it's not enough. The Giants will make that not be enough.
Brady will have to be excellent for the Patriots in Indianapolis. And though the Denver game made it seem like his playoff stinkers were a thing of the past, the truth is that he hasn't been excellent lately. He's only once, if that, been awful. But he hasn't been as good recently as he'll need to be.
Brady had a tough time Sunday, and no one will be a harsher critic of him than he will be.
Optimist: Angry Tom Is Good Tom
The fact that Tom Brady wasn't great Sunday should worry you.
The fact that he knew it and said it? The exact opposite.
From the second the clock at Gillette Stadium ran out and the clock for Indianapolis began, Brady was upset. Unsatisfied. Ticked off.
So when Jim Nantz offered Brady a penny for his thoughts, Brady said exactly what was on his mind. The Patriots were going to the Super Bowl, and their quarterback was mad. It was almost as if he had to remind himself they did, in fact, win the game.
Hours after the game, the stories continued to roll in. Brady apologized to Kraft and swore to be better in the Super Bowl. He told Sal Paolantonio he was eager to "redeem himself." He reached out to his old quarterbacking coach for tips.
He wasn't going to accept anything less than greatness on the stage designed for it.
This should reassure Patriots fans. When it's time to "put up or shut up," Brady puts up. He's the best at it.
He's got nothing else except degrees of respect to win, and yet he's always able to conjure up chips to put on his shoulder. This time, he had one made for him.
Brady's been down this path before. In the NFL Films "America's Game" documentary about the 2001 championship team, Brady, who left the game due to injury, commented on the last time he felt he couldn't share in the joy of a victory.
"We won, everyone goes into the locker room, and I don't really feel a part of it," he said. "That motivated me so much to get ready to play the next week."
Brady pretty much repeated the first part of that quote Sunday. There's plenty of reason to believe he's thinking the second part as well.
Pessimist: There's No Way Rob Gronkowski Will Be 100 Percent
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It looked bad. Really bad.
When Rob Gronkowski's ankle buckled following a tackle by—of course—Bernard Pollard on a 23-yard reception at the end of the third quarter, it appeared that the Patriots were going to have to find a way to finish the season without the All-Pro tight end.
Somehow, Gronkowski returned to the game, and he says he aims to play in the Super Bowl. But it's hard to believe his injury won't be a handicap in the Super Bowl. After all, Ben Roethlisberger returned to the game following his high ankle sprain, but he was never himself for the rest of the season and the one-and-done Pittsburgh Steelers suffered for it.
There's no word that Gronkowski's injury is the same sprain, and the Patriots (as usual) aren't giving any details. But it's hard to see the injury and think he'll completely bounce back. According to reports, there is ligament damage (as is the case with any sprain), and the chances Gronk will be at 100 percent by Super Sunday are slim.
Gronkowski is essential to the Patriots offense, and the Super Bowl could turn into a shootout between two quarterbacks who have been hot. If Gronkowski is unable to be himself, the Patriots will be handicapped.
Optimist: Gronkowski Will Be Playing, and That's Enough
Rob Gronkowski said after the game that he'd be ready by the Super Bowl, and it was hard not to buy his tone. He was laughing, joking with reporters, butchering the Spanish language—just being himself.
This was a good sign for the big tight end. Normally, injured Patriots are gone from the locker room by the time reporters show up. The fact that Gronkowski was not only at his locker, but addressing questions about his injury (however evasively), suggests that he'll be on the field in Indianapolis with his team in a week and a half.
If Gronkowski is suited up and active, that might be enough. He doesn't rely on speed or agility to get open, and he contributes well as a blocker when he isn't running routes.
Furthermore, the mere presence of Gronkowski is enough to alter the Giants' defensive schemes. If he's on the field, New York will have to account for him, and assume he's still dangerous. That would ease the coverage on New England's other targets and allow the offense to click.
Plus, for what it's worth, Gronkowski's ankle looked swollen in the locker room after the game, but not to the degree the replay would have suggested. Maybe he was lucky enough to avoid a bad injury. After all, it wouldn't be the first time that's happened.
Pessimist: The Giants Were the Worst Available Matchup
Having to play the Giants in the Super Bowl is a psychological burden at this point. But there are tangible reasons to consider New York an unfortunate opponent.
On the field, the Giants were the toughest matchup coming out of the NFC. In addition to already beating New England during the regular season, the Giants are a difficult draw because they don't have the glaring weakness the other teams did.
For the Saints and Packers, the defense was the Achilles heel. For the 49ers, as everyone saw Sunday, it was the passing offense. The Giants are different. They run well and throw well, and with the league's best defensive line, they stop ground games and rush the passer to cut the head off of passing offenses.
The saying across the league is that, to stop the Patriots, you have to get to Tom Brady. Who does that better than the G-Men, whose line could very well be better than it was when they abused the Patriots' linemen in Arizona?
There are things the Giants don't do as well as others, of course, but there's nothing they don't do well at all.
The Giants are the dreaded opponent for a plethora of emotional and mental reasons. But from an X's and O's standpoint as well, they're pretty good across the board.
Optimist: The Patriots Avoid Ravens West
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There's just something about those Baltimore Ravens. Tom Brady usually manages to beat them, but he rarely looks good in the process.
During the game, it quickly became obvious that reports of the Ravens' defensive demise were greatly exaggerated. Baltimore is still elite, as good as it gets. Ed Reed is the best safety of this generation, Ray Lewis is the best linebacker of this generation, Haloti Ngata is the best defensive tackle in the game and Terrell Suggs, Lardarius Webb and Bernard Pollard, though the latter has the maturity of a seven-year-old, are all pretty good players.
Furthermore, the veteran status of that defense makes it unflappable in clutch situations, no matter how good the opposing offense is. Tom Brady's no-huddle attack usually unnerves the defense. Not the Ravens. They were calm and collected on every play. They knew they could make a play when they needed to. They knew they could beat Brady.
And while the Giants have lethal elements to their defense, they're not the Ravens. The San Francisco 49ers, on the other hand, are much, much closer to Ray Lewis and company.
If the Patriots drew the 49ers, it would have been like playing the AFC championship all over again. The 49ers are like the west coast Ravens. Their pass rush is incredible. Patrick Willis and the rest of those linebackers never miss a tackle. They cover all day. They force mistakes. They got to Drew Brees two weeks ago and they got to Eli Manning Sunday. They would have gotten to Brady.
A matchup with the 49ers would have made life easier for the Patriots defense, as the Niners offense is far worse than that of the Giants, but Vince Wilfork and Co. would have still had their work cut out for them. The Patriots were probably looking at a game in the 20s again.
Stops would have been easier for the New England defense, but the Patriots would have still been forced to make them.
The Giants aren't slouches, but they're top-heavy. Their strength is in their pass rush. If the Patriots are able to block it, Brady will have an easier time against the linebackers and secondary than he would have against San Francisco. It's a tough matchup either way, but there's less to focus on with the Giants defense.