Thursday, January 26, 2012
Double Coverage: Giants or Patriots?
By Dan Graziano and James Walker
One of the greatest Super Bowls in history is coming out for an encore, as the New York Giants and the New England Patriots hook up Feb. 5 in Indianapolis in a rematch of Super Bowl XLII just four years ago. There are 15 Giants and seven Patriots still left from that game, which the Giants won to spoil New England's perfect season. But this year's matchup has plenty of its own storylines without dredging up the old ones. AFC East blogger James Walker and NFC East blogger Dan Graziano will both be on hand in Indy, but in the meantime, they've joined forces to break down Super Bowl XLVI way in advance.
Vince Wilfork (right) and Gerard Warren are two key components to the Patriots' defense.
Graziano: Well, James, just as everyone predicted, the Super Bowl features the team that finished 27th in total defense in the regular season against the team that finished 31st. Having watched the Giants' last 10 games, I've seen their defense transform from one of the league's most vulnerable into a tight, cohesive, disciplined bunch that bears almost no resemblance to what they were running out there in the middle of the season. When I've watched the Patriots' defense, it's looked to me like one of the worst I've ever seen. What have they been able to do lately in terms of adjustments to limit their opponents and get this far?
Walker: Hey, Mr. Pineapple ... I mean ... Dan. I don’t know if you’re more shocked the Giants are going to Indy, based on your earlier “I’m a pineapple” statement, or that the Patriots will join them. You were pretty adamant about the Baltimore Ravens exposing New England’s defense last week -- and I can’t blame you. I have been one of their harshest critics. But it’s time to give this group some credit. New England has allowed just 30 points the past two games, and the biggest reason is the front seven. Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork and linebackers Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich have simultaneously taken their games to another level. That is what you want this time of year. They are dominating the line of scrimmage and getting pressure on the quarterback. New England has eight sacks in the playoffs. I don’t know where this version of the Patriots’ defense has been all season, but in talking with players the past two weeks, I don’t think they care. The defense is happy to finally make plays to help the Patriots win.
Graziano: So it looks as though both teams have overhauled or tightened up some things since the Giants went up there in Week 9 and beat the Pats in Foxborough. I'm curious to see what role that result will play in this game and the preparation for it. Justin Tuck told me Tuesday that he expects Tom Brady to do completely different stuff this time around, because he's got such great ability to adjust to what the defense is trying to do to him. And unlike the Giants' past two games, which avenged regular-season losses to Green Bay and San Francisco, this is a rematch of a regular-season game the Giants actually won. I can't help but think the success they had against Brady in Week 9 -- not to mention in the Super Bowl four years ago -- has to help the Giants' mental state as they prepare. If you can strip away some of that unbeatable veneer from Brady, that's a big psychological assist.
Super Bowl XLVI
Get all the news and commentary on the Patriots-Giants matchup on ESPN.com's Super Bowl Central.
Walker: I agree, Dan. I don’t see either team lacking confidence. The Giants have it from beating New England in Super Bowl XLII and the regular season. The Patriots have it from reeling off 10 straight victories. The Patriots feel they are a much better team than what the Giants faced in Week 9. I think New England took a lot from those back-to-back losses to Pittsburgh and New York in the regular season. The Patriots knew they were good, but it was questionable whether they were mentally and physically tough. That has been the case since those two losses. The Patriots have overcome a couple of big deficits in the regular season, then lambasted Denver and showed grit against Baltimore in the playoffs. But enough about defense, Dan. We can’t do a Double Coverage without talking in-depth about the quarterbacks. How do you size up Brady, who is elite, versus Eli Manning, whom many feel just catapulted into elite status with his second Super Bowl run?
Graziano: You can make the argument that Brady is the best quarterback in the history of the sport. And because of that, any other quarterback is going to have a tough time in this comparison. But I'll say these things about Eli: He's gotten better every year. Last year, the knock on him was interceptions, and he got those down. He's been smart with his decision-making and responsible with the ball. He was winning games by himself this year when the Giants couldn't stop anyone on defense and couldn't run the ball at all. His teammates trust and believe in him totally. His demeanor never changes, regardless of the intensity of the situation, and that's why he's able to excel in spots that cause other players to shrink. Every single one of those things can be said about Brady, and the fact you can also say them about Eli at this point in his career gives the Giants a huge assist in a matchup like this. Because to beat Brady, you need to have a quarterback on your side who's at least capable of outplaying Brady on any given day. Eli has shown he has that capability, and that's another reason the Giants have been able to close the psychological gap the Patriots have held over so many other teams in recent years.
Walker: Manning and the Giants certainly present a challenge that Tim Tebow and Joe Flacco did not. But if I’m choosing which of these two quarterbacks I want leading my team in the Super Bowl, I’m taking Brady every time. He just tied Joe Montana for the most playoff wins in NFL history with 16. Brady can surpass Montana for postseason wins and tie Montana and Terry Bradshaw’s four Super Bowls victories by beating the Giants. Some might point to Brady's struggles against Baltimore’s elite defense in the AFC title game. But I think that makes the ultra-competitive Brady even more focused and more dangerous in the Super Bowl. When was the last time Brady played two duds in a row? New England had some issues passing for a ton of yards against Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed and Baltimore’s big, athletic corners. But New York’s secondary doesn’t have nearly the same talent. I expect Brady to bounce back and do some damage passing against the Giants’ defense, especially in a dome and on the fast track at Lucas Oil Stadium. I think the biggest issue is the Patriots’ ability to pass protect against New York’s monster front four.
Eli Manning and the Giants beat the Patriots in Week 9. Can they do it again in the same season?
Graziano: The Giants will come after Brady. They believe that's the best way to rattle him, because they believe that's the best way to rattle any quarterback. And the Giants know that their defense really only works if it gets pressure on the quarterback with the front four. Their coverage in the secondary has improved in recent weeks, but as Vernon Davis proved, it can get exposed when the pressure is insufficient. I'm fascinated to see how they handle the Patriots' tight ends after they were able to neutralize Jermichael Finley two weeks ago and got burned by Davis last week. Do they have to worry about Rob Gronkowski, or is the ankle injury going to give them a break?
Walker: Gronkowski won’t be 100 percent, but who is this time of year? There are two reasons I’m sure he will play. First, he returned to the AFC title game in the fourth quarter. Second, he said he won’t miss the Super Bowl. Of course, there could be setbacks, but Gronkowski seemed confident it won't keep him off the field. Whether we see Gronkowski at 70 percent or 90 percent is up to how well his rehabilitation goes. But he has to be accounted for as long as he’s on the field. This could mean more chances for fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez. He’s slightly more athletic and stretches the field more than Gronkowski, which may work better against the Giants’ defense. Should we make our predictions now, Dan, or wait until next week? What say you?
Graziano: As I tell my followers every time they ask, I make my predictions on Fridays. So I’m going to wait until Friday, Feb. 3, to make my pick for this game. That gives me another week-plus to mull over whether the Giants have an answer for the Gronk, and I look forward to talking it over with you in Indy, James. See you there in a few days.