Super Bowl XLII is remembered as one of the best games in Super Bowl history. Combine the elusiveness of Eli Manning in the pocket and the focus of David Tyree's gum-infused catch against his helmet, and you get one of the most extraordinary drives in NFL history (much to my chagrin).
The New York Giants and the New England Patriots will be meeting again in the big dance for the second time in the last five years, a game that has lofty expectations to replicate the first matchup. To the Patriots, the game will be regarded as "The Payback Bowl." Whereas the Giants spur motivation to prove that the first meeting was no fallacy.
The Patriots rely on their ability to utilize their personnel and matchups, which has provided them as much success as any team in the NFL. The G-Men on the other hand, are one of the most consistent teams at compiling talent that fits their physical system. The Giants first round pick in 2010, Jason Pierre-Paul, is the most recent one to fit the Giants mold and blossom into a superstar.
As for the Patriots, their second year tight ends, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski are a mismatch nightmare for just about any defense. Gronkowski redefined production from the tight end position with his monster sophomore campaign this past season.
Keeping in mind the x's and o's mentality of the Patriots and the physical prowess of the Giants, let's segway into the matchups that will be most indicative of the outcome in Super Bowl XLVI.
Contradictory to last week's game plan and execution against the Ravens, the Patriots defense will have a lot more on their plate in preparing for the steady Giants offensive attack. Last week, it was quite evident the Patriots were instructed to take Ray Rice out of his element. They limited his pass catching abilities by disrupting him out of the backfield and accounted for his quick, designed check downs.
What is the scoop on the Giants running backs?
Although neither Brandon Jacobs or Ahmad Bradshaw have Rice's pass catching abilities in their repertoire, they present great challenges for the Pats front seven. Jacobs and Bradshaw are both second level runners, meaning that once they hit an open (or quasi-open) hole for a few yards, their next burst is going to be physical and downhill, often resulting in extra yardage.
Bradshaw is the more polished runner, as he possesses Jacobs' physicality, but has a lower center of gravity and more moves in his arsenal. Jacobs is an outright freak of nature and delivers blows like that of a linebacker. It's well documented that when he is motivated to play, he steps his game up.
What is the importance of the Patriots keeping these two in check?
First off, if the Giants have their way with the Patriots front, it's going to sustain drives which will keep Tom Brady on the sideline. The Giants offense will benefit from a successful running game because the Patriots will be more susceptible to giving up big plays through the air. Most evidently, the Patriots defense will become vulnerable to the play action and open up the middle of the field on seam routes, something that torched the Patriots earlier this season when Manning and tight end Jake Ballard had their way with the Pats secondary.
Most likely result from this matchup?
Vince Wilfork is coming off the game of his life up front for the Patriots. I would expect his stellar play to continue against Giants banged-up center David Baas (calf). Brandon Spikes is another key component in the New England run defense, as he matches Jacobs and Bradshaw's physicality and is a capable tackler.
If Wilfork continues to disrupt the backfield, he will continue to make everybody's job easier on the Pats defense. I'd expect Jacobs and Bradshaw will get their yards, but the Pats will be able to prevent the two of them from being a consistent problem. The true test will be how the Giants run sets up the air attack, as they will look to expose one of the weakest secondaries in football.
The Pats secondary pride themselves on taking away the deep pass, which could end up being a problem with Eli Manning being an elite middle-level passer. I would expect Eli to occasionally benefit from flashing play action to find a lot of open real estate down the seam (created from stretching the safety who's playing deep and getting the other safety up in run coverage), and to find an open Ballard and Victor Cruz.
In a rare instance during Super Bowl XLII, Bill Belichick and his Patriots coaching staff were out coached. The most responsible for gaining the upper hand was then defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. "Spags" was one of the integral reasons for the Giants 17-14 upset. His designed stunts and blitz packages disrupted Tom Brady's rhythm and kept the highest powered offense in check.
However, Spagnuolo is no longer around, as he was recently fired as head coach of the Rams and is the current defensive coordinator for the Saints. If his 2008 blue print for counteracting the Patriots offense will be executed again, it will be current defensive coordinator, Perry Fewell's job to do so.
One person familiar to Super Bowl XLII is former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. McDaniels returned to the team as an offensive assistant, just in time for their playoff run and will take current OC Bill O'brien's position when O'brien leaves for Penn State.
Perry Fewell vs. Bill O'brien
Fewell will be studying a few games from the Patriots season that show how to limit the Pats offense. One was a week eight matchup with the Steelers. Pittsburgh's linebackers were physical with the Pats tight ends, pinched their safeties to anticipate the seam patterns and shadowed slot receiver Wes Welker with a corner. The Giants will also take a look at last week's AFC championship game where the Ravens duplicated the Steelers physicality.
O'brien will do his best to continue to exploit the matchups of his tight ends on linebackers and safeties, which was one of the biggest reasons the Patriots pulled out a win last week against Baltimore.
Tom Coughlin/Kevin Gilbride vs. Bill Belichick
Giants head coach Tom Coughlin got the better end of Belichick in the last Super Bowl meeting. Belichick often outsmarted himself and even made a questionable decision to go for it on 4th and 13. This time around, Belichick has to tighten up and stick to his calculated decisions on challenges and his legendary winning mentality.
As for the Giants offensive gameplan, Belichick has to find a way to account for the talent of the Giants wide receivers. Given who Belichick has for personnel in his secondary, this will be no easy task. Between Hakeem Nicks' size and Victor Cruz's continued success to get open and make big plays, Belichick's zone coverages will have to be clicking on all cylinders.
Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, will look to take advantage of the athleticism and size of his receivers. Whether he decides to use Hakeem Nicks as a decoy on go-routes to open up the underneath passing attack, or implements some double moves with Nicks' deep-threat ability, he will look to get his receivers involved early and often.
The Patriots have re-sculpted the tight end position in the NFL, just have a look at Rob Gronkowski's regular season statistics: 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. The Giants hope that Gronk will be hampered by an ankle injury he suffered in last week's AFC championship game, but something tells me that Gronkowski won't let the injury effect his play.
What is the Giants defense up against schematically?
The key to the Patriots success with their two second-year tight ends has been matchups. The success can be attributed to Brady's knack for reading defenses and the defensive personnel on the field for the opposing team. If the opposing team is in a dime or nickel coverage, Brady will often check to a running play and expose the undersized defense. If the opponent goes big and Brady has one of his tight ends matched up with a safety or linebacker, Brady is determined to expose it.
What adjustments should the Giants make to the Patriots offense?
Given the fact that the Patriots have no deep threats (unless a 2005 Chad Johnson shows up to the game), the Giants safeties need to take their chances and play closer to the line of scrimmage. This will minimize the middle of the field and lessen the amount of space the Patriots tight ends will have off the line. If the safeties play up by the box, this would camouflage their looks on defense and whether they are playing the run or pass.
The Giants should also consider sticking Corey Webster or Aaron Ross on Wes Welker in the slot. If they can successfully lessen the production of Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez, the Patriots are not only beatable, but Brady is susceptible to becoming rattled and forcing his passes.
What is most likely to occur with this matchup?
The Patriots will most likely be successful in distributing the ball to their tight ends. No NFL team has really proven they can stop one, let alone two of them, and the teams who have had the most success have had more capable players that can match up. Mathias Kiwanuka is the only one who is similar in size to Gronkowski, but Kiwanuka is often active against the run and doesn't have the pass coverage skills to cover a tight end downfield.
The lack of athleticism and speed in the linebacking core and the lack of size with the team's safeties (Antrel Rolle and Kenny Phillips) will make this a difficult task for the Giants to complete.
Hernandez is a solid complement to Gronkowski and is one of the best athletes on the team. He finds open space and makes intuitive decisions, which can lead to racking up big yards after the catch.
The picture to the left represents the last thing that Patriots fans want to face in the Super Bowl rematch against the G-Men. Tom Brady is the most important asset to the Patriots chances for winning and if there was a repeat-episode of front four domination by the Giants, it would steadily decrease the Pats prospects of winning.
What is the difference from four years ago to now for the two teams?
There is a big difference in how the Patriots offense operates since the last two teams met in the Super Bowl. In Super Bowl XLII, the Pats offense relied on deep threat Randy Moss taking the top off the defense, in order to clear out room for Wes Welker and the underneath passing game.
This was a long developing process, which stalled out to due the enormous volume of Giants pressure led by Justin Tuck, Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. Although Strahan has traded his cleats for a microphone, young phenom Jason Pierre-Paul has been the Giants most consistent and best defensive player. The Giants front four is still one of the NFL's most elite unit, just as it was during the 2007-2008 season, so there's not much difference in the problems that they present for the Patriots offensive line.
What is most likely to happen?
If the Patriots have any chance of winning, they will need to neutralize the ferocious New York pass rush. This could include chipping Pierre-Paul and Umenyiora with Gronkowski and Hernandez, or using right tackle Nate Solder as a tight end in an extra offensive lineman set.
The nucleus of the Pats offense is now two young tight ends who can find space in just about any type of coverage. By depending on shorter developing passes, the Patriots should be able to minimize the pass rush.
However, when you face an active defensive line like that of the Giants, you expect them to make exceptional plays regardless of how the offense draws it up, deflect balls at the line, and they will confuse Brady with different looks and stunts that will create big plays (sacks/forced fumbles).
That being said, I expect the pressure to be more in control than it was in Super Bowl XLII and when Brady does have time, he will exploit his matchups down the field.
It's no secret that the Patriots secondary is their weak link. There is no Asante Samuel or other elite corner anchoring their secondary this go around vs. the Giants. Combine that with Eli Manning playing at the highest level of his career and one of the deepest sets of WR's in the NFL, and that doesn't bode well for the Pats.
Hakeem Nicks has one of the best combinations of size, power and speed of any receiver in the NFL. When he isn't among the league leaders in drops he can be considered a top NFL receiver. Typically, one would think that Devin McCourty, a second year corner back coming off a pro bowl in his rookie season would be the one assigned with the task to cover Nicks.
However, McCourty has been atrocious and a nagging shoulder injury presents the question if he's even playing at 100 percent. McCourty even split time last week in the secondary, so it would be doubtful to expect him to shadow Nicks.
The Patriots do have Kyle Arrington, who recorded seven interceptions during the regular season and earned his first career trip to the pro bowl. Yet, Arrington's picks can be attributed to being in the right place at the right time, often being the beneficiary of deflections. His undersized frame and subpar coverage skills are things Nicks could easily take advantage of, but he is the leading candidate to cover Nicks.
On to the next one, we got Victor Cruz, an undrafted rookie free agent out of the University of Massachusetts. He managed to eclipse the 1,500 yards receiving mark this past season in his rookie year. I'd imagine the Patriots would split time between McCourty and Sterling Moore on the coverage. Moore is coming off a confident performance in last week's AFC championship. Neither McCourty or Moore can be expected to lock down a possession receiver like Cruz who has a knack for finding space and making plays.
Then we come to Mario Manningham, who figures to draw attention from a fellow wide receiver. Julian Edelman was primarily known for his special teams play and being a slot receiver, but this year Belichick tried him at defensive back. On the last drive of the AFC championship game, Joe Flacco abused Edelman's coverage of Anquan Boldin and came up a play short of escaping with the victory.
Why the Ravens didn't throw at Edelman earlier is the real question. Regardless, he figures to be in on nickel and dime packages and will attempt to make plays in coverage, most likely with no real success.
Realistically speaking, if the Patriots have trouble stopping the run or don't get any pressure on Eli Manning, the Giants are going to pick their secondary apart. The Patriots just don't have the talent to stick with the Giants receivers. This has to be the main concern entering the game for the Patriots. Expect soft shells and loose zone coverage, as I'm sure the Patriots will concede the underneath routes to the Giants in hopes of covering up the big play. The game is going to come down to their play inside the red zone, or as Bill Belichick calls it, the "red area."
If both quarterbacks have time to go through their options down the field, this is going to be a track meet. Keep an eye on the Patriots secondary and how they matchup against the Giants receivers and watch how the Patriots isolate their tight ends against the Giants linebackers, for high percentage matchups.
I think Brady will get the time he needs to move the chains and the Patriots defense will get a couple of key stops when needed, therefore I'm predicting a very close 31-27 Patriots victory.