Thursday, February 2, 2012

Patriots-Giants Super Bowl XLVI Preview

It's finally here!! No, not the Super Bowl -- my pre-game breakdown of the Super Bowl! The game itself is a few days away, but I thought you'd like a little reading material to kill time between now and then. If you've seen enough articles with catchphrases like "revenge game," "can't spell 'elite' without 'Eli'," and "why are the Patriots favored," here is something to break up the monotony.

As is my standard practice in such situations, I will look back at the last games these teams played -- a 24-20 New York Giants victory on November 6, 2011 and a 17-14 Giants win in Super Bowl XLII four years ago. Then I'll consider what has changed and whether or not the Patriots can alter the outcome and get a win against these guys. Checking in on those games gives us a decent chance to determine how the Super Bowl will unfold, and I am including each team's best game plan to win it all.

1. A Giant Reversal

In 2007, the Giants entered Super Bowl XLII with a punishing ground game and basic-but-clutch quarterback play. In the four years since, they abandoned those principles entirely, entering this year's Super Bowl with an excellent passing attack and a terrible running game. Note the monumental change in these stats (with NFL rankings in parenthesis):

2007 Giants rushing:
4.6 yards-per-carry (3rd) and 134.2 yards-per-game (4th)
2011 Giants rushing:
3.5 yards-per-carry (32nd) and 89.2 yards-per-game (32nd)

2007 Giants passing:
6.2 yards-per-pass (27th), 197 yards-per-game (21st), 73.0 rating (24th)
2011 Giants passing:
8.4 yards-per-pass (3rd),  295.5 yards-per-game (5th), 92.9 rating (6th)

Note that their 2011 running game ranked dead last in the entire NFL, a stunning turn-around since 2007. Bruiser back Brandon Jacobs had his worst year as a starter in 2011, averaging just 3.7 yards a carry and only 40.8 yards a game. Speed back Ahmad Bradshaw didn't do much better, 3.9 yard a carry and 51.9 a game.

Not exactly what the Patriots faced four years ago. To borrow a phrase: "Rematch?! Don't talk about rematch! RE-match?!"

2. Patriots Additions and Subtractions

As always, there are injuries and roster changes, with new players preparing, some just hoping to play, and some who know they won't play.

Last November, linebacker Brandon Spikes had five tackles in the first 15:08, but then he got hurt and was done for the next six weeks. With him back in the lineup the past two games, the Patriots shut down two of the strongest running teams in the NFL (Ravens and Broncos). Not that they have to worry about the Giants' 32nd-ranked running game, but Spikes is also better against the pass than the backup linebackers.

Another addition is running back Kevin Faulk, a playoff-tested veteran -- reliable as a pass receiver and pass blocker. Rookie Stevan Ridley fumbled in the Broncos playoff game, and the Patriots left him off the game-day roster against the Ravens. With ball-security vital in the post-season, Ridley might find himself out in the cold again with Faulk taking his place in the Super Bowl.

And even though it might sound like a reach, corner Sterling Moore didn't play in the first game, and he showed himself to be a big-play guy against the Ravens in the AFC title game. Not that he shuts down receivers, but he plays better at corner than Devin McCourty, and Moore's skill allows the Patriots to move McCourty to safety, where he is much better.

On the downside, tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered a high-ankle sprain in the last playoff game, and will be limited, although he will most certainly play. He doesn't make a living with lateral movement, but he will be affected, which means the Patriots should have a game plan ready in case he isn't effective. They probably won't risk him as much on running plays either, so look for pass plays early in the game when Gronkowski is on the field.

And the one key player certain not to play is defensive lineman Andre Carter, who is out for the playoffs. He had three QB hits in the first game against New York, but he is on injured reserve and will not play on Sunday.

3. Giants Getting Healthy

The most obvious addition for the Giants is wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, who missed just one game this year -- his team's victory over the Patriots. He is an important part of their offense, averaging 5.7 catches and 93.5 yards per game since returning to the lineup. Their biggest deep threat, Nicks will be a dangerous match up for a Patriots secondary that struggled this year.

The Giants do not have any significant injuries. Bradshaw has been hobbled with a foot fracture, though he was a full participant in practice on Wednesday. And several of their vaunted defensive linemen are nursing small injuries; but you should expect them to play for sure and probably to be pretty effective.

The injury factor clearly goes to the Giants, who are nearly at full strength at just the right time.

4. Giants Game Plan For Victory

The Giants can't run the ball against the Patriots, so they should only do enough to keep the defense honest. But quarterback Eli Manning is playing at an extremely high level, so they should be able to pass. And with a full complement of receivers, he will attack the New England back-seven, a weak secondary and a linebacking corps that struggles against the pass.

On defense, everyone expects New York to get pressure with just the front four. But almost as many people expect the Patriots to use tight ends and running backs to keep Tom Brady upright. So the Giants will have to blitz some of the time -- if only to hurry up Brady's decision-making and keep the blockers guessing.

They have the linebackers to blitz. However, those 'backers are weak in pass coverage, so any blitzes will expose their secondary either short or deep. But it's a risk they have to take if they can't get pressure with the front four.

Most important is that the Giants have to win the turnover battle. They claimed a +2 turnover ratio in the regular season victory, but they only won the game by 4 points (and that on a very late touchdown drive). Every team wants to get more takeaways than their opponent, but that is essentially a requirement for the Giants to claim victory this Sunday.

(Note: game-film analyst Ron Jaworski counted four Manning passes that should have been intercepted in the NFC title game. Manning will have to protect the ball better in this game; if he tosses up that many potential picks, the Patriots have the secondary players to cash in those turnovers.

5. Patriots Game Plan For Victory

They lost in their last Super Bowl appearance because of bad offensive adjustments and coaching (it says so here, so it must be true). Therefore, in this game it is extremely important to take what the defense gives them. Even without Gronkowski, the Patriots have enough offensive weapons that the Giants can't take away everything.

So if New York jams receivers at the line and bull rushes Brady, he has to dump it off or call screens/draws to combat it. If they come out with six defensive backs in a deep cover-2, then audible to running plays. The short- and intermediate-routes in the middle of the field should be available to the Patriots and their multitude of slot/possession receivers, but if the Giants overload that area, Brady has to hit Deion Branch or Aaron Hernandez deep to make the defense back off.

This would be a much more favorable match-up with Gronkowski at full strength. But even if he doesn't play, that still leaves Branch, Hernandez, Wes Welker, and Danny Woodhead to attack the weakest part of the Giants defense -- their linebackers and half of their secondary.

On defense, the Patriots spent the year mixing together all kinds of different alignments, gap responsibilities, secondary groupings, and linebacker blitz schemes. And they probably spent the last month deciding which ones work best against deep-threat receivers, and given that they have the film, they most certainly know better than I do.

But if forced to guess which one they'd go with, I'd say a combination of McCourty and Chung at safety in a two-deep shell, hitting receivers at the line of scrimmage, and controlled bull-rushes up front to push the Giants line back into Manning. If they can't get pressure that way, look for them to use games and tricks up front to confuse New York's offensive line and get free pass rushers.

Manning is bad at escaping free blitzers (as most QBs are) and is very bad throwing off his back foot. And with a two-deep concept, the Giants will have to work their way down the field for points, something they didn't do very well for three-quarters of the game last November.

Quick Hits:

A. In 16 regular season games, the Giants were +7 in turnover margin, and they are +5 in just 3 post-season games.

B. In 16 regular season games, the Patriots were +17 in turnover margin, but they are minus-3 in 2 post-season games.

C. The Giants are 3-1 in the last four games against the Patriots, despite being outscored 82-89 (sort of the opposite of the Patriots-Ravens recent games).

D. Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots are 34-15 the second (or third) time they play a team in the same season. (Trivia question: name the last year they were under .500 under those circumstances, answer below.)

E. Tom Brady had a 57.5 QB rating in the AFC Championship Game. Here are his average stats the week after he has a QB rating under 60.0 (excluding playoff loss to Ravens in January 2009):

29 of 35, 236 yards, 2 TDs, 0.5 INTs, 95.3 rating.


This is the hardest game to pick in quite some time. The Giants changes on offense make them better suited to exploit the Patriots defense. But the Patriots offense is well-designed to attack the weakest parts of the Giants defense, too. If Gronkowski was 100%, it would be easy to pick the Patriots because that would give them three match-up nightmares on the field at the same time (with Welker and Hernandez).

But without Gronkowski, this is a much closer game. It probably comes down to the turnover battle. And as stated before, Brady averages about 0.5 picks the week after he has a down game. So I'm going with the Patriots in a 2- or 4-point victory; but if you're planning to bet on the game, I recommend lottery tickets instead. This one is just too close to call.

Keep the faith,

- Scott


PPS. Trivia Answer:
In 2006, the Patriots were 2-3 the second/third times they played teams.


  1. I feel like picking the coin flip is a better bet than trying to pick a winning team on this game!

  2. I'm spending my money more wisely -- I'll play the Powerball instead.