Playing through injury is all about heart. Ask Rajon Rondo. Ask Bobby Orr. Ask Curt Schilling.
Heart matters. Rob Gronkowski is banged-up right now, and we know it’s bad. We don’t know how bad, but it’s bad. He may not have the most statistically impressive game of his life next Sunday, but he could have his most memorable one. The kid’s got heart, and heart will win this game.
For any opposing team, seeing an injured player uplift his team’s spirit has a demoralizing effect. If the Giants are unable to prevent a guy with a high ankle sprain from energizing his team and racking up some yards, they will be distraught. Tom Coughlin knows this, which is why Gronkowski will have a huge target on his back to start the game.
The first quarter will be a war over Gronkowski. The Patriots will try to use him early, and the Giants will try to diffuse him early. It’ll be a tug of war over one guy. The winner gets to claim total control over the early tone of the battle.
If Tom Brady can find a way to get Gronkowski involved in the first quarter with three nice receptions for big gains, it’ll set a great opening tempo. That will allow New England to dictate the pace of the game.
In the second and third quarter, Gronkowski may not be a heavy offensive factor, but he’ll handle blocking duties. He’ll most likely be involved with fewer plays during this stretch. This may be due to his injury, or it may be Bill Belichick’s way of removing the target from Gronkowski’s back for a while and averting any reason for the Giants to get hyped by assaulting a banged-up player.
If the Patriots can block the Giants upfront, plays can be made on New York’s secondary. Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker must take advantage and bridge the bookends of the game in Gronkowski’s potential absence. That will also be the time for Danny Woodhead, Deion Branch, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Julian Edelman to move the chains.
In addition to handling receiving duties, Edelman will see action on defense. Despite the fact that Edelman isn’t a masterful defensive back, he’s a masterful player for the specific system that Belichick has created over the last decade.
Belichick cuts guys that aren’t coachable by his standards. He likes guys who buy into his methods, play both sides of the ball, and roam from position to position. Guys like Devin McCourty and Aaron Hernandez buy into the system, and that’s why they’re finding success on this team.
Edelman’s been on the Patriots for three seasons, and it looks like he’ll be on this team for many more years to come. There’s a reason for that: good things happen when he’s on the field. Despite his mediocre season from a receiving standpoint, he’s shown flashes of future excellence and it’s only a matter of time until he comes into his own.
Anquan Boldin abused Edelman during the AFC Championship game, but Boldin is a big guy and has roughly 38 pounds on Edelman's next assignment, Mario Manningham. And let’s not forget: Boldin is a damn good receiver. Edelman will watch the film and correct his mistakes; he knows what he has to do, and he will do it.
Given the obnoxious statements Manningham recently spewed about Edelman’s weakness as a defender, I expect the Patriots' utility man to own Manningham next Sunday. Edelman’s probably a little pissed right now; my guess is he's already itching to smack Manningham in the face.
If Brady starts feeling pressure from the Giants’ front four, they can resort to the run game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is more than capable of picking up yards, and they can bring Hernandez out of the backfield as well. Either way, it’s imperative that Belichick sends a message to Coughlin: The Giants will not win by sacking Brady. Not this time.
If the Patriots can find success in the run game when Brady senses the front four are building momentum, the Giants will never find a rhythm. Guys like Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck are planning on being the difference in this game. If they are neutralized with blocking and a mixture of pass-and-run, then they will never find steady footing, nor will they have cause to celebrate and excite their offense into making big plays.
Quick basketball metaphor coming up. When the Boston Celtics play LeBron James, they generally have one golden rule: No dunks. When James dunks, his adrenaline pumps and he plays better. When they contain the dunks, they contain the beast. The Patriots must have the same goal: No sacks.
Neutralize the front four and you neutralize the beast. If Brady winds up on the ground, it’ll bring up too many flashbacks that will excite the Giants and send them on a run. It’s essential for the Patriots to demand that this game be played on their terms and their terms only.
If Brady stays firmly on his feet, that will mentally affect the Giants. They’re not really used to seeing him on his feet. Protection is essential, as is utilizing a balanced offense. Little by little, that message will get through to Coughlin's men and they will unravel. They pride themselves on strength and ff they don’t feel like they are the stronger team, they will collapse.
Special teams must have an impact on this game. In the AFC Championship, Woodhead interrupted a spectacular return with a heartbreaking fumble. Belichick had enough faith to let him return again on a later punt. Like all of Belichick’s players, Woodhead will not make the same mistake twice. Look for him to have a huge game and spend some time in the endzone.
Welker will own the third quarter. He’s due for a monster game, and he will come through. He’s finally healthy and he’s ready to become a champion. Like Woodhead, he will find the endzone.
In the fourth quarter, the king will return. Mentally and physically, Rob Gronkowski will take over the end of the game. He will be the closer. He’s the best man to emotionally uplift the Patriots and land the knockout punch.
Gronk will catch the game-winning touchdown. He’s been preparing for it all season. He wants to wrap his meaty paws around that ball so he can spike it into Super Bowl history, then pick it up and keep it for his personal collection of touchdown balls.
Brady will win his fourth ring next Sunday. Patrick Chung, James Ihedigbo and Devin McCourty will not win MVP, but their contributions to the victory will be remarkable. Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes will have their fingerprints all over this game.
Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski will be in the running for Super Bowl MVP, but they won’t get it. The MVP award is going to Vince Wilfork.