As the football fatefully fell to the turf in front of the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday evening in Indianapolis, it was official: the NFC had won another Super Bowl—the conference's third straight and fourth in five seasons.
Of course it was the Giant’s second in that time span—both of which were led by the duo of Tom Coughlin and New Orleans’ own Eli Manning.
But one of them was also won by New Orleans’ adopted son, Drew Brees, and the New Orleans Saints. With Super Bowl XLVII coming to the city of New Orleans there couldn’t be a better season for Brees and Co. to add a second Lombardi Trophy to their trophy case.
With that in mind, Sean Payton and the entire Saints organization can learn a great deal from Super Bowl XLVI, which the Giants of course won 21-17. Here are five things the Saints can learn and implement into their program to ensure they host Super Bowl XLVII.
It was talked about the entire week leading up the game and really for a great deal of the 2011 season. But it was even more obvious when the Pats and Giants lined up from one another to make football war—the G-Men could disturb the quarterback.
It’s become pretty common knowledge that Tom Brady is the worst of the elite QBs in the NFL when he's pressured. He struggles with his accuracy due mainly to his being flustered with big bodies flying all around him.
The Giants took advantage by rushing four, getting hands up in Brady’s line of sight, and forcing Brady into quick throws when they weren’t taking him to the ground. It was the same exact strategy the team used in their previous title victory over the Patriots.
The coordinator of that defense was Steve Spagnuolo who just recently signed on to run the Saints’ defense for the 2012 season. Could there be an encore in store for the former Rams head coach?
If so, he will have to find at least one player—but preferably two-plus—who can get pressure on the quarterback by simply beating his man. Against the Patriots that pressure came almost exclusively from the defensive ends. But Spagnuolo’s most talented defensive lineman on the current Saints roster is tackle Sedrick Ellis.
Otherwise the Saints lack significant talent along the line.
Look for Mickey Loomis and Co. to seek pass-rushing defensive linemen in free agency and/or in the upcoming NFL draft.
Though the Giants won the game with the pass, there's little doubt they benefited greatly from the number of running plays Kevin Gilbride called throughout the entire game.
The Giants ran the ball 28 times on an average run defense, but one who struggled mightily all year against the pass. As a result, they possessed the ball for more than 60 percent of the game—37:05 to just 22:55 for the Pats.
This caused a tired Pats’ defense to consistently maintain eye contact on the running backs, offensive linemen and Eli Manning who would then use the Patriots’ eyes against them with play-action passes.
Then the tired Patriots defense gave up huge plays on the final game-winning drive perfectly engineered by the younger Manning brother. There’s little doubt he was more effective because of the Giants’ offensive balance.
If you’re a Saints fan that statement has to leave you bummed out. The Saints became one-dimensional against the 49ers in their divisional round loss in San Francisco.
If the Saints—under Pete Carmichael Jr. or Sean Payton—can remember to run the football in every game, no matter the circumstance, they can outscore any team they play next season, even in the postseason.
Rob Gronkowski's ankle was the most famous foot in football since Rex Ryan admitted to the national media a few short seasons ago he and his wife get off partially on the basis of feet.
Gronk's injury severely hurt the Pats' chances in this game from the beginning. With an unhealthy Gronkowski, the Patriots were limited to Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker as playmakers.
The result was Tom Brady searching for open receivers but only finding restrictions in coverage and angry men in white jerseys running at him to kill him.
Contrast that with the Giants' arsenal of weapons which excelled in spite of two of the team's three tight ends leaving the field for good due to injury in the course of the game.
The Giants' three known receivers had huge games.
Mario Manningham had five catches for 73 yards while Hakeem Nicks had 10-for-109. Pro Bowl slot receiver Victor Cruz had just four catches and 25 yards but scored the Giants' lone passing touchdown.
Even more, the Giants got major contributions from their plethora of backs and tight ends in the passing game.
What's all this mean for the Saints?
Remember Pierre Thomas' first-quarter injury against the Niners? Yeah, it was a huge reason the Saints were unable to maintain offensive balance in that football game. Thomas was likely the player identified throughout the week to get the most carries in that game.
Going forward, the Saints must guarantee they have at least three great receivers, two really good tight ends and three healthy running backs dressed for every single football game. In other words, I'm telling you the best offense in the NFL needs to add skill players to their arsenal if they want to win another Super Bowl.
This starts with retaining Marques Colston and/or Robert Meachem.
Did you notice former Saints punter Steve Weatherford perfectly dropping punts inside the Patriots 10-yard line? If you didn't, you missed a key aspect of the football game.
Weatherford's performance enabled the game's first score—an odd intentional grounding in the end zone for a safety—and forced Tom Brady and Co. to go 80-plus yards on almost every drive.
Neither team stood out in any other area of special teams, but the Patriots’ average starting field position didn’t help their cause in the game.
In 2011, the Saints played complementary football in their 13 wins but did not in their three regular-season losses. Then they failed to do so effectively in their playoff loss to the Niners.
The Saints often failed to run the football effectively at the end of games and turned the ball over early in Sean Payton’s tenure as head coach. For most of 2011, the team did well in those areas. But they didn’t get off the field with turnovers and thus scoring touchdowns was often more difficult than it had to be.
It may sound as if we’re nitpicking—and we probably are—but the Saints have a number of areas they must improve in to finish football games and win another title. Improving its ability to play complementary football is one of the most essential of these.
One could argue the primary reason the New York Giants were victorious Sunday night was their toughness. Not only were the Giants the more physical football team, but they were more mentally tough.
They did not allow a halftime deficit and an early touchdown to extend it to dissuade them from their goal. They kept their cool throughout the entire game—finishing the game with just four penalties for 24 yards.
And they were tough enough to get a defensive stop when it mattered most, late in the fourth quarter and again in the last gasp effort put forth by the Pats culminating in the Hail Mary attempt which fell hopelessly to the ground if you were rooting for the Patriots.
Similar to the previous slide about playing complementary football, the Saints were physically and mentally tough in a large portion of their regular-season games this past season. But when it mattered most, the Saints could not get a key stop on consecutive occasions.
That’s because their character on the defensive side of the ball—and by association as the team’s weakest link, the entire football team—was not a mentally tough team, rather one who got lucky more often than not.
Let’s hope Steve Spagnuolo can change the attitude of the Saints defense to make them a more mentally and physically tough defense. If he can, the Saints figure to have as good a chance at a Super Bowl title in the 2012 season as any other group in the league.