Analyzing the Top 5 Decisions of Super Bowl XLVI
The difference between two NFL head coaches is very small. Two veteran coaches like Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin both do mountains of preparation for the Super Bowl. They both know exactly what their players are capable of and what it takes to win in January.
Though Coughlin and Belichick have very different reputations amongst fans and the media, the differences in their coaching and philosophy are mainly cosmetic. As evidenced by the post-game embrace, a deep bond respect exists between these two coaches as well. But even small differences, small advantages and small mistakes in coaching can have a huge effect on a game with stakes as high as this one.
The "plot" of Super Bowl XLVI only had a few big twists and turns, but also a lot of little ones, too. Here are the top five decisions that swung the outcome of the biggest game on the planet.
Giants Lay Up at the End of the 3rd Quarter
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In the closing minutes of the third quarter, the Giants drove all the way to the Patriots' 11-yard line. Down by five, they had a great chance to take the lead with a quarter left to play.
Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride called two vanilla runs, which gained just two yards combined. On 3rd-and-8, Eli Manning was sacked while waiting for someone to get open against the eight men in coverage.
At that point, kicking the field goal was rational. But setting up shop at the opponent's 11, deep into the second half, and settling for three points? It nearly cost them the game.
Tom Brady Tries Passing Down the Middle
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Tom Brady didn't look like Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLVI. He had the heir, the looks and the smile, but he didn't have Brady's clutch accuracy.
Throughout the evening, from the fateful opening pass (flagged in the end zone for intentional grounding on a deep throw down the middle) and every play on, Brady struggled to throw down the seam. Despite mostly-excellent protection, Brady seemed rushed and forced many throws down the middle of the field. Some were high, some were behind, some weren't even in the vicinity.
Perhaps the coaches saw something they could take advantage of, or perhaps Brady's left shoulder was affecting his release (and therefore, accuracy). But whatever it was, Brady couldn't seem to throw the ball straight with any consistent success.
Giants Punt from Patriots Territory Down 2 in the 4th Quarter
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With a little less than 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, the Giants were down by two points and again in striking distance. Needing just five yards to convert their third down from the Patriots' 38-yard line, the Giants were sitting pretty.
Then, Giants center Kevin Boothe committed a false start, turning 3rd-and-5 into a difficult 3rd-and-10. Eli Manning couldn't connect with Mario Manningham on the next play, and the Giants faced a punting situation.
Or did they? The Giants were still in Patriots territory and down by just two points. With less than 10 minutes left to play, they were about to hand the ball back over to Tom Brady, possibly handing him their death warrant to sign.
I used Advanced NFL Stats' 4th Down Calculator to figure this one out. The average NFL team converts 4th-and-10 35 percent of the time. If the Giants had gone for it and converted, they'd have had a win probability of 79 percent. If they'd gone for it and failed, that figure plummets to 50 percent. From nearly-sure victory to a coin flip is a bad gamble indeed.
If the odds the Giants would convert that 4th-and-10 were better than the calculated "break-even point" (45 percent in this case), the choice would be clear: Go for it. The real culprit here is the false start; if the Giants were dealing with a 4th-and-5 in opponent territory, then punting would not be the answer.
By the way, a big shout-out to Giants punter Steve Weatherford on an incredible game full of big kicks and killer directional work.
Patriots Let the Giants Score the Game-Winning Touchdown
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This situation has confused me ever since there have been football video games sophisticated enough to make strategy worthwhile (or even possible)!
But it's one thing to let your buddy score on you on PlayStation so you can get the ball back on offense and control the flow of the game. It's another thing to hand your opponent points in the Super Bowl.
What the Patriots needed most wasn't points, it was time. They needed to get the ball back so they could score and score again. Belichick realized that playing conventional defense would run the clock down to zero, so he commanded the Red Sea to part...and Ahmad Bradshaw's go-ahead touchdown did indeed give Tom Brady the ball and a minute or so to work it down the field.
Kudos to Bill Belichick and Co. for having the cojones to do the right thing. That he did, and that/who/why he worked with were willing to trust him, speaks volumes of their respect for the Patriots head coach. It worked to perfection, of course.
Giants Try Not to Score Game-Winning Touchdown
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Ahmad Bradshaw scored the game-winning touchdown. The Patriots got out of his way, and he broke the plane with the ball in his hand, even though he didn't really want to. Bradshaw failed to execute correctly, but he was trying to stop short of the goal line so the Giants could just kneel out the clock.
It's that attempt to stop himself that's worthy of praise. To try and put the brakes on a full-on touchdown sprint is extremely hard. That his momentum carried him across the plane doesn't change the reality: The Giants coaches understood that the Patriots wouldn't be afraid to roll out a red carpet to the end zone and that their chance for victory would be minimized if they followed conventional wisdom.