AFC East: Road to Indy

NFL Films does a wonderful job replaying live sound from the previous week's games. That is why I was interested to hear what players and coaches had to say during Sunday's Super Bowl XLVI between the New England Patriots and New York Giants.

It was an emotional game where momentum swung from New York to New England and back to New York. The Giants won the game, 21-17. But there were two very interesting tidbits I took from New England's perspective.

First, following a fourth-quarter drop by Patriots receiver Wes Welker, NFL referee John Parry said to another official: "That was the game." Keep in mind New England was winning, 17-15, late and was about to punt the ball deep in New York's territory.

It showed even officials involved in the Super Bowl knew that New England's 31st-ranked defense wasn't going to make a big stop to win a championship. The ref's thought process at that moment wasn't any different from the media and fans who closely watched the Patriots all season.

Second, on New York's final drive, Patriots coach Bill Belichick encouraged his defense to let the Giants throw to Mario Manningham, who made the big 38-yard grab to get New York's Super Bowl-winning drive started.

"This is still a [Victor] Cruz and [Hakeem] Nicks game," Belichick said on the sidelines. "I know we're right on them. It's tight but those are still the guys. Make them go to Manningham, make them go to [Bear] Pascoe. Let's make sure we get Cruz and Nicks."

The Patriots were a team this season that thrived and executed under pressure. But these fourth-quarter mishaps by Welker and Belichick/New England's defense were the difference in Super Bowl XLVI.

Caption this: Tom Brady in despair

February, 6, 2012
2/06/12
12:00
PM ET
Tom BradyAP Photo/Paul SancyaTom Brady walks off the field after the Patriots lost to the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI.
INDIANAPOLIS -- I've had many players tell me losing the Super Bowl is the worst feeling in sports. It takes so much work to get there, so much sacrifice, and to come up short makes the loser question if it's worth getting there in the first place.

In our latest version of "Caption this," we have the agony of defeat featuring Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The New York Giants beat Brady and the Patriots for the second time in four years during Super Bowl XLVI.

So what is Brady thinking during this long, painful walk back to the locker room? There are tons of possibilities.

Be creative and, as always, keep it clean.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The New York Jets were in a very tough spot the past two weeks. The AFC East rival New England Patriots played against the Jets' neighboring rival New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI. It was a lose-lose situation for the Jets.

One team had to win a championship and be in direct competition with the Jets. It turned out the Giants -- a team that shares the same stadium and market with the Jets -- won their second Super Bowl in four years with a 21-17 victory over New England.

On Sunday night Jets owner Woody Johnson congratulated both adversaries in a statement released by the team:
"On behalf of the New York Jets, I would like to congratulate the Mara and Tisch families, Coach [Tom] Coughlin and the entire New York Giants organization. It was a closely contested game that showcased all of the best elements that our sport has to offer. The Giants demonstrated poise and resolve in earning a hard-fought victory in Super Bowl XLVI. Also, I want to congratulate the Kraft family, Coach [Bill] Belichick and the New England Patriots on a tremendous effort and an excellent season."

There is no debating the Giants are New York's team. They are dominating the market with two recent Super Bowls, and the Jets have no choice but to respect it (kiss the rings?) and play second fiddle.

The Jets also are chasing the Patriots in the AFC East. The 2011 season was a disaster, as New England swept the Jets relatively easily and the Jets imploded. The Jets were 0-3 against both Super Bowl teams.

Johnson and the Jets know they have a lot of work to do this offseason to narrow the gap with their two biggest rivals.
INDIANAPOLIS -- We are putting the finishing touchdowns on our weeklong journey to the capital of Indiana. The result was the New York Giants winning their second championship in four years over the New England Patriots, 21-17.

ESPN.com covered plenty of angles for both teams Sunday night. But Monday we want to hear from our AFC East community.

Here is our latest poll question: What's the biggest reason the Patriots lost in Super Bowl XLVI?

Was it the lack of points on offense? New England's high-powered offense, led by quarterback Tom Brady, only scored 17 points. Was that enough to win a Super Bowl? New England’s offense started slowly and finished slowly. There were some good moments in the middle quarters, but that wasn’t enough.

Speaking of the offense, what about receiver Wes Welker? The usually sure-handed Welker dropped a big pass down the seam that could have led to a first down and much-needed points in the fourth quarter. The Patriots were leading by two points. But Welker failed to make the play, which put the ball back in Giants quarterback Eli Manning’s hands.

That leads me to New England's defense. With 3:46 remaining, the Patriots' defense had a chance to close out the game but failed. New England allowed Manning and the Giants to drive 88 yards for the Super Bowl-winning touchdown. Is New England's much-maligned defense to blame?

Finally, New England overall was sloppy and had mental errors. There were 12 men on the field, missed assignments, a rare Super Bowl safety and miscues you're not used to seeing from the Patriots. Was lack of mental sharpness the reason New England lost?

Using our SportsNation poll, vote on the biggest reason New England came up short in Super Bowl XLVI. You can also share your thoughts in the comments section below.
INDIANAPOLIS -- It took a long time for Peyton Manning to topple New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. But Peyton Manning's younger brother, Eli Manning, never had that problem.

Eli Manning continued his dominance over Brady, a future Hall of Famer, with another stellar performance in Super Bowl XLVI. Brady was solid. But according to the Total Quarterback Rating, Eli Manning was better in New York's 21-17 victory.

Brady posted a 71.9 QBR, which was highlighted by a tremendous run in the second and third quarters when he set a Super Bowl record with 16 straight completions. Brady finished with 276 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. But Eli Manning was better in the first and most-important fourth quarter, leading to a 79.5 QBR. He threw for 296 yards, one touchdowns and had several clutch completions late in the fourth quarter. The performance earned Eli Manning this year's Super Bowl MVP.

Brady started slow and didn't finish strong, and that was a big reason the Patriots fell short. Here is Brady's QBR by quarters:
  • First: 0.3
  • Second: 97.7
  • Third: 86.7
  • Fourth: 24.1

Sunday's game was Eli Manning's third straight victory over Brady, which includes two Super Bowls.
Here are the most interesting stories in the AFC East Monday morning after the Super Bowl:
  • The New England Patriots locker room was somber following their 21-17 loss to the New York Giants.
Morning take: This Patriots team felt it was championship caliber and came up just short. The game, as expected, came down to a handful of plays, where the Patriots failed to execute and the Giants did.
Morning take: The throw wasn't perfect, but a player of Welker's skill should have made the catch. Welker knew it and stayed on the ground after the drop. That put the ball in the hands of New England's defense, and we know how that ended.
Morning take: New York registered 398 yards. But the main thing is New England simply doesn't have the defensive game-changers needed to stop great offenses. That will have to change in the offseason.
Morning take: That would have been a history-making play. New England executed a Hail Mary about as well as you could in that situation. It’s really a game of inches.

Patriots' defense still a step behind

February, 6, 2012
2/06/12
12:09
AM ET
Mario Manningham Rob Carr/Getty ImagesMario Manningham's 38-yard catch sparked the New York Giants' winning drive.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The moment of truth had arrived for the New England Patriots' defense in Super Bowl XLVI.

Leading by two points with 3:46 remaining, the unit was at the crossroads. Either stop the New York Giants from driving 88 yards to win a championship, or fail and go home empty-handed.

After 19 games of ups and downs, the formula was that simple.

"We were saying 'This is where we want the game,'" Patriots cornerback Sterling Moore said. "We want it on us. Somebody has to step up."

Well, nobody stepped up when it mattered most for New England's defense. The Giants marched down the field easily, in nine plays, and scored the Super Bowl-winning touchdown with 57 seconds remaining for a 21-17 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium. It was New York's second championship over the Patriots in four years.

The saying that "defense wins championships" still applied in the Super Bowl. The Patriots played hard and were scrappy defensively, but the group that was ranked 31st in the NFL this season couldn't hold it together for four quarters.

New York's final offensive drive was a microcosm of New England's season on defense. The Patriots gave up passing yards in bunches, starting with a 38-yard reception by Giants receiver Mario Manningham. Giants quarterback Eli Manning (296 yards, 103.8 passer rating) then proceeded to pick the Patriots apart with additional completions of 16 and 14 yards.

With time running out and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on the sideline, coach Bill Belichick had no choice other than to let the Giants score the final touchdown to get the ball back to the offense. It was a helpless feeling in the biggest game of the year -- a feeling that New England's defense experienced several times this season.

The Patriots allowed 411 yards per game in the regular season and 396 yards in the Super Bowl. Similar to the regular season, New England did a decent job at keeping its opponent out of the end zone until the final drive. Nearly everything we saw from the Patriots' defense in this game held true to form from the regular season.

"I still feel like defense wins championships," a disappointed Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes said. "We had our chances. We were right where we wanted to be on the defensive end, and I just feel like I let the guys down myself."

Spikes spoke about several missed plays he left on the field, but there were several big errors defensively in the game. The miscues started early when cornerback Antwaun Molden was the 12th man on the field in the first quarter. The play negated a fumble recovery by the Patriots and eventually led to New York's first touchdown.

There were two additional times the Patriots forced fumbles but teammates weren't around to recover them. New England played with maximum effort but seemed a step slow in big moments.

"Somebody had to come up with a play," Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "Somebody has to make a turnover."

There is good news for the Patriots: Help is on the way. The future could be bright for New England's weakest unit in 2012.

New England has plenty of cap space and early draft picks -- more than any team in the AFC East. The Patriots have approximately $20 million in cap room this offseason. Expect free-agent receiver Wes Welker to take a chunk of the pie. But after that, plugging holes on the defense is the primary focus.

The Patriots also have two first-round picks and two second-round picks in April thanks to recent trades. At least half of those picks should go to the defense, if not more. New England could use another pass rusher, a shutdown corner and another starting-caliber safety to pair with Patrick Chung. The Patriots have a golden opportunity to plug all these holes in the offseason.

There are some good defensive players already in place in New England. The linebacking corps of Mayo, Spikes and Rob Ninkovich is solid. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is still going strong, and defensive end/linebacker hybrid Mark Anderson is the team's best pass-rusher. But the Patriots could use upgrades to support these players..

Most importantly, New England needs big-time playmakers and game-changers on defense. That was never more evident than in the final minutes of Super Bowl XLVI.

"Obviously it's disappointing, but it's temporary," Mayo said. "We have a young team, great coaches. The core guys will be back and hopefully we can make another run. I know it takes a lot of work to get to this point, and hopefully we can get back. "

This Patriots were too incomplete and too one-sided. But expect this season's runners-up to be more balanced next season thanks to aggressive improvements on defense. Sunday's experience in the final minutes should also serve as fuel going forward.

"We will just remember this moment and remember how it felt," Spikes said. "We will be motivated by it. We can’t look back. ... It just wasn't our year."


INDIANAPOLIS -- Some initial thoughts on the New York Giants' 21-17 victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI:

What it means: The Giants indeed have the Patriots' number. New York cost New England another shot at winning a fourth Super Bowl. New York has beaten the Patriots three times in a row, dating back to Super Bowl XLII. This also ruined the chance for quarterback Tom Brady to tie Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most Super Bowl victories by a starting quarterback. The Patriots were good enough to be the best team in the AFC, but they have to make some improvements and upgrades on their roster, particularly defensively, to win it all.

Defense can't hold: The Patriots' defense had a chance to hold a two-point lead with fewer than four minutes remaining. But the Giants drove 88 yards, capped by a game-winning touchdown by tailback Ahmad Bradshaw. Eli Manning completed a great, 38-yard pass to receiver Mario Manningham on the sideline to get the drive started. New England's defense played hard, but it's not an elite group that can close out games. That's something the Patriots have to improve in the offseason if they want to be a championship team.

Sloppy start: The Patriots were their own worst enemies to start the game. New England was uncharacteristically sloppy to start. Brady’s first pass was called for intentional grounding in the end zone, which led to a safety. The Patriots also had 12 men on the field on defense, which negated a fumble and eventually led to a Giants touchdown. But the Patriots fought back and took a 10-9 lead at intermission.

Brady bouncing back: The Patriots didn't win the game, but it wasn't because of Brady. You knew Brady wasn't going to have back-to-back bad games. He promised Patriots owner Robert Kraft as much. Although the start wasn't what he envisioned, Brady got hot in the second and third quarters and reeled off 16 straight completions in the second and third quarters. He finished 27-of-41 for 276 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He had a 91.1 passer rating. A key missed connection with Patriots receiver Wes Welker late in the fourth quarter might have sealed the game, but Welker failed to make a challenging catch.

What’s next: That’s it for the 2011-12 season. It turns out the Patriots were the second-best team in the NFL this season. What's next for New England and every other team is preparing for free agency and the NFL draft. Every team, including the Patriots, has holes to address. New England has plenty of cap room and high draft picks to improve the team. It will be a busy offseason in the division, so keep it locked on the AFC East blog for constant news, updates and analysis.

Patriots start fast in second half

February, 5, 2012
2/05/12
8:33
PM ET
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Bill Belichick halftime simulations in practice paid off.

The New England Patriots started the third quarter fast, driving down the field for 79 yards in eight plays to take a 17-9 lead over the New York Giants. The drive took fewer than four minutes.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is on fire. He’s completed 16 straight passes and led New England to back-to-back touchdowns, going back to the first half. All week Brady has been under fire. The Giants have made several comments questioning Brady, who has thrown for 201 yards and two touchdowns thus far.

Patriots, Super Bowl halftime notes

February, 5, 2012
2/05/12
7:53
PM ET
INDIANAPOLIS -- The New England Patriots lead the New York Giants, 10-9, at intermission.

Here are some notes on the Patriots at halftime:
  • New England did not look mentally sharp early in this game. The first offensive play was an odd one. New England ran just three receivers out and no one was open. So quarterback Tom Brady threw the ball about 30 yards downfield from the endzone to no one and received an intentional grounding call and a safety. That gave the Giants early momentum and a 2-0 lead. On the next drive, the Patriots had 12 men on the field, which negated a fumble recovery and helped the Giants score their first touchdown. New England is making rare mental errors in the biggest game of the season.
  • Credit New England for hanging tough. The Patriots probably played their defensive game in the first half, considering the mental errors and lack of execution. But the fact they lead the Giants by a point at intermission is considered a bigvictory. New England running back Danny Woodhead caught the go-ahead touchdown inside the final minute.
  • Patriots Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski (ankle) is not moving well. But Gronkowski did get one big reception for 20 yards late in the first half. The Patriots most likely need more contributions from other receivers to win this game.
  • New England's run defense has been lagging. The Patriots are not protecting the edges well and have allowed some decent gains inside. The Giants have 71 rushing yards in the first half as a team and are averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Here are the players you won't see in Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVI for the New England Patriots, according to the team:

Patriots (15-3)

Two key players not on this list are Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski (ankle) and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back, foot). Both were battling various injuries.

Welcome to Lucas Oil Stadium

February, 5, 2012
2/05/12
3:27
PM ET
INDIANAPOLIS -- After two weeks of hype, analysis and over analysis, it's time to play Super Bowl XLVI.

The AFC East blog is stationed inside Lucas Oil Stadium for Sunday night's game between the AFC champion New England Patriots (15-3) and the NFC champion New York Giants (12-7). We've heard what both teams had to say. Now, the time for talk is over.

Indianapolis has been a gracious host, and Lucas Oil Stadium looks ready for immense spotlight of the sporting world. Fans are all over downtown Indianapolis. A few have made it into the stadium early.

Keep it locked on the AFC East blog as we provide live coverage and observations before and during the game here. Feel free to also make your final predictions on Super Bowl XLVI in the comment section below.

Countdown Live: Super Bowl XLVI

February, 5, 2012
2/05/12
2:44
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts for the game we've all been waiting for: Super Bowl XLVI between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants.

Contribute your thoughts and questions at 4 p.m. ET. See you there.

Video: Bill Belichick conversation

February, 5, 2012
2/05/12
1:30
PM ET

Bill Belichick sits down with Keyshawn Johnson to talk about his star quarterback and his legacy in the NFL.

Patriots: Five Super Bowl X factors

February, 5, 2012
2/05/12
11:30
AM ET
INDIANAPOLIS -- It's almost time for kickoff in Super Bowl XLVI. Therefore, the AFC East blog wants to leave some final thoughts on under-the-radar X factors for the New England Patriots who could make an impact in this game.

Hernandez
1. Aaron Hernandez, TE

Analysis: We're going to start with the easiest X factor. With Rob Gronkowski limited by a left ankle injury, Hernandez needs to step up his game in the event "Gronk" struggles. Hernandez is a top-10 tight end in the NFL, although many wouldn't know it because he plays second fiddle in New England. Hernandez also is nifty and has the ability to play some running back when called upon. The Giants will be watching Gronkowski. But they probably should keep their eye even more on Hernandez, who is healthy and has big-play ability.

Spikes
2. Brandon Spikes, LB

Analysis: Spikes described the past two weeks as being "caged." The high-energy linebacker is psyched to get back on the football field and play in his first Super Bowl. Spikes is New England's home-run hitter on defense. In only his second season, Spikes may not be the most consistent Patriots defender, but he makes plenty of big plays, which is needed on the big stage. Spikes led the Patriots with nine tackles and a big fourth-quarter interception in the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens. He's a big hitter who stays around the football. Spikes will be key in stopping New York's running game, led by the dual threat of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs.

Green-Ellis
3. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB

Analysis: It's no secret the Patriots will attack the Giants' secondary with the arm of future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady. But there will be times in this game when the Patriots have to run the ball to keep New York's pass rush honest. Green-Ellis has been the most consistent Patriots running back this season, and particularly in the playoffs. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry in the AFC Championship Game against a tough Ravens defense. New England needs similar production from Green-Ellis in the Super Bowl. Green-Ellis won't get a ton of opportunities, but he needs to make his carries count.

Vollmer
4. Sebastian Vollmer, OT

Analysis: Vollmer hasn't played a game since Nov. 27 due to back and foot injuries. But the Super Bowl against the Giants is the perfect time for Vollmer to return. New York will bring a giant pass rush. Vollmer is listed as questionable, but he is expected to play. He will pair with rookie Nate Solder as a solid one-two punch at right tackle. Sometimes the pair could play together on the right side to provide max-protection for Brady.

Gostkowski
5. Stephen Gostkowski, K

Analysis: Remember Adam Vinatieri? Patriots fans had the utmost confidence in the playoffs when it was time for Vinatieri to make a clutch kick. The confidence was for good reason. Vinatieri was money during New England's three Super Bowl wins. But how do Patriots fans feel about Gostkowski? It's tough to say. There's no way of knowing how Gostkowski will respond until he's in these pressure situations. He's been good so far, but Gostkowski has never kicked in the Super Bowl. We saw in the conference title games how important field goal kicking is. Gostkowski needs to be ready if his number is called.

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