NFL Nation: 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.
INDIANAPOLIS -- New York Giants punter Steve Weatherford set a Super Bowl record on Sunday night with three punts that forced the New England Patriots to start inside their own 10-yard line. Elias Sports Bureau reports that Weatherford is the first Super Bowl punter ever with three such punts. He could have had four, but a bad bounce carried his second one into the end zone before the Giants' coverage team could down it.

Now, I know some of you complain when I talk about punters, but Giants fans who remember the Matt Dodge era know what Weatherford has meant to the team. He was one of the "non-sexy" signings GM Jerry Reese talked about in the offseason when I and others were ripping Reese for inactivity, and Weatherford's performance in the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl capped an outstanding season.

A couple of other Giants set records Sunday night as well. Tom Coughlin became the oldest coach ever to win a Super Bowl, at the age of 65. And Eli Manning set a Super Bowl record for most consecutive completed passes to start a game. Manning completed his first nine.

Additionally, Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw became the fourth player to score the game-winning touchdown in the final minute of the Super Bowl (even though his team was telling him not to score it). The others are John Taylor, Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes, which means it's now been done in three of the last five Super Bowls.
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.

Photoblog: Tom Coughlin's comeback

February, 6, 2012
Tom CoughlinTom Hauck for ESPN.comTom Coughlin's Giants rattled off six wins in a row after stagnating at 7-7 in mid-December.
Justin TuckEzra Shaw/Getty ImagesThe Giants' defense, which got two sacks from Justin Tuck, shined against the Patriots.
INDIANAPOLIS -- In case you were wondering, no, the New York Giants' first choice was not linebacker Chase Blackburn covering Rob Gronkowski all alone 50 yards down the field. But as he'd done for so much of the night, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady checked to a different play when he saw the coverage on the second play of the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVI, and Blackburn was stuck.

"I had to carry Gronkowski," Blackburn said after the Giants had secured a 21-17 Super Bowl victory. "I heard the crowd go wild a little bit, and I thought we had a sack. But I continued to see Gronk go up the field, and I just tried to stay with him. When I saw him look back, I looked back for the ball, and when I spotted it, I tried to just block out and go up for a rebound like in basketball."

Sure. Basketball. In case you're wondering, Gronkowski's University of Arizona media guide bio says he averaged 18 rebounds per game during the 2006 season at Pittsburgh's Woodland Hills High School. He has three inches and 20 pounds on Blackburn, who as recently as Thanksgiving weekend was hoping to land a gig as a substitute high school math teacher before the Giants called and said hey, how about middle linebacker instead. But Gronkowski also was playing the Super Bowl on a bad ankle, which Blackburn and the rest of the Giants knew. It's why they were, at that point in the game, using their better coverage linebacker, Jacquian Williams, on the Patriots' other tight end, Aaron Hernandez. After the check, Blackburn knew he had the big guy by himself.

"I knew it was a long way," Blackburn said. "He stopped for a second and I stopped with him. I was thinking it was a sack, but then as soon as I saw him go vertical, I knew I had to run and catch up with him."

They both jumped for the ball, but Blackburn came down with it for an interception that was the only turnover of the game. The Patriots led 17-15 at the time, and had Gronkowski caught the ball the momentum might never have swung back the Giants' way. Instead the Giants secured the kind of big stop they knew they needed to make all fourth quarter to put Eli Manning and the offense in position to win.

"We're confident in our defense," linebacker Michael Boley said. "No matter who the quarterback is, we know our front four is going to get pressure and so we need to give coverage on the back end."

For much of this game, though, they weren't. Brady led easy-peasy touchdown drives at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second to turn a 9-3 Giants lead into a 17-9 New England lead. The Giants, whose game plan had been a man-coverage defense because they believed (correctly) that Brady would try to beat them with "dink and dunk" short passes instead of deep shots, had strayed from the plan. They'd been so focused, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said, on lining up quickly that they weren't lining up in the right spots. So they pulled back a little on the man-to-man and switched to more zone, only to have Brady find holes in the zone. At one point, Brady completed a Super Bowl-record 16 straight passes.

"We just couldn't get the right people in the right coverage situations," Fewell said. "They created some mismatches, so we had to get our guys together on the sideline and get them to lock in a little bit and get back to the plan, which was man."

In a lot of ways, the defense is the Giants' 2011-12 story in a microcosm. This Giants team was about patience, perseverance and a belief that everything would get better if they just kept working at it. The defense finished 27th in the league in the regular season. Their coverage units were being ridiculed on national television. But they got healthy at the end of the season. They talked their coaches into letting them play man-to-man, and they did it well. Led by that front four and the pass rush, they allowed an average of 14 points per game during their four-game postseason run.

If someone had told you that the touchdown the Patriots scored to open the second half would be their final score of the Super Bowl, you wouldn't have believed them. Not the way the game was going at that point. But the Giants are water torture. They drip and drip and drip until they finally break you. They won the NFC Championship Game by playing smart, sound, physically tough, mistake-free football and waiting for the other team to make a mistke. They won the Super Bowl the same way. Blackburn picked off Brady. Wes Welker dropped a ball he catches every time. The Giants' defense looked lost for long stretches, but bottom line, theirs was a Super Bowl-winning effort. And they were justifiably proud of it.

"At the end of the day, we knew it was going to come down to our defense," Osi Umenyiora said. "We pressured them. We sacked them. We came through victorious."

Doesn't matter what happened along the way. Doesn't matter that a substitute high school math teacher who wasn't on the team until almost December was making plays in coverage against the best tight end in the league. Doesn't matter how it looked or what came before, and it doesn't matter that this was, two months ago, one of the least likely sentences anyone would have been expecting to type on the night of Feb. 5: The Giants' defense helped win them the Super Bowl.

Patriots' defense still a step behind

February, 6, 2012
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."

Ahmad BradshawAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesAhmad Bradshaw was supposed to stop short of scoring the touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
INDIANAPOLIS -- It's easy to second-guess coach Bill Belichick because you have the best argument: the New England Patriots lost the Super Bowl 21-17 to the New York Giants.

But Belichick was right in letting the Giants score the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute of the fourth quarter. He was right in telling his defense to give Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw a clear path to the end zone from 6 yards out.

Here are the two options that the Patriots faced late in the fourth quarter:

  • Belichick's decision to give up the touchdown: Down by four points (21-17), Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense needed to go 80 yards in 57 seconds (with two timeouts) to score the winning touchdown.
  • The alternative of holding the Giants to a field goal: Down by one point (18-17), the Patriots would have had 20 seconds (or possibly less if the Giants decided a squib kick) to march about 50 to 55 yards to get into field-goal position with no timeouts.
"Bill [Belichick] has always put us in the best position to succeed no matter what. We trust him," safety James Ihedigbo said. "We want the ball in Tom's hands. That's his call. We are behind him in everything."

Belichick did put New England in the best position to win its fourth Super Bowl. It wasn't like the Patriots could bank on another Billy Cundiff moment.

As Belichick put it after the game: "[The ball] was inside the 10-yard line. A 90 percent field-goal conversion [in that territory]."

If you want to be angry with someone in the fourth quarter, it should be the receivers that dropped passes: Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Aaron Hernandez. If you want to be angry with Belichick, it should be for his decision to throw the ball on the Patriots' second-to-last possession which stopped the clock and gave Eli Manning more time for the winning drive.

Honestly, the one at fault is Bradshaw for scoring the touchdown.

As soon as Bradshaw took the handoff, Manning was telling him to go down and not to score. Bradshaw ran through the huge hole and tried to stop at the 1-yard line. He twisted around before awkwardly falling backward into the end zone.

"I tried to declare myself down and tapped down," Bradshaw said. "My momentum took me into the end zone."

Bradshaw needed to stop short of the end zone so the Giants could have run more time off the clock. He was a Hail Mary catch away from being remembered as the player who gave the ball back to Brady for the winning touchdown pass.

"They didn't score at the end and that's all I was hoping for," Bradshaw said.

The Patriots said it didn't matter if Bradshaw would have stopped short of the end zone. "We were going to drag him into the end zone," linebacker Jerod Mayo said.

New England put itself in such a precarious position after five straight Manning completions of 38, 16, 2, 14 and 4 yards moved the Giants to the Patriots' 7-yard line with 69 seconds left. After a Bradshaw 1-yard run, the Patriots called their second timeout to stop the clock with 64 seconds remaining.

The Patriots' defense then just stood up as soon as the ball was snapped and watched Bradshaw score the 6-yard touchdown. Defensive end Mark Anderson, who had never given up a touchdown like that, wasn't totally sold on the idea.

"I still wanted to try to get a turnover," Anderson said. "But the captain says what to do and I follow his orders."

Belichick's plan almost worked. Unlike his previous three Super Bowl comebacks, Brady couldn't carry the Patriots to victory this time, although his desperation pass into the end zone on the final play fell just beyond the grasp of tight end Rob Gronkowski.

"You want to let them score so you can get your offense back on the field," Mayo said. "It's situational football. We go over those situations all the time."

This isn't like Belichick's controversial fourth-down decision in Lucas Oil Stadium two seasons ago. He was right in this situation. Belichick just doesn't have the victory to support it.

In the end, the coaching decision was right. The Patriots lost because of poor execution.

Turning point: Wes Welker drops the ball

February, 6, 2012
Wes Welker Elsa/Getty ImagesDejection best describes Wes Welker's reaction following his fourth-quarter dropped ball.
INDIANAPOLIS — Reddened eyes and a hushed voice told the story for Wes Welker in Super Bowl XLVI.

The pass he dropped with four minutes remaining was a turning point against New England in the Patriots' 21-17 defeat to the New York Giants. No amount of consoling from teammates could convince him otherwise.

"That is one I'll have to live with," Welker said.

The Patriots led 17-15 with 4:06 remaining when Tom Brady dropped back to pass on second-and-11 from the New York 44-yard line. New England had driven 48 yards in nine plays after taking over possession at its own 8. Brady had Welker wide open to his left and 23 yards downfield. The pass was a bit behind Welker and high, but the receiver turned his body and got both hands on the ball.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, he makes that grab," fellow receiver Deion Branch said. "It's football. Nobody's perfect."

Welker dropped five passes during the Patriots' first 18 games of the season, none on throws traveling more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He dropped a league-high 11 passes during the 2010 regular season, with drops defined as passes the receiver should have caught with ordinary effort, and only when the receiver is 100 percent at fault. But he also topped 100 receptions for the third time in five seasons since the Patriots acquired him in 2007.

"I mean, the ball is right there," Welker said. "I just have to make the play. It's a play I've made 1,000 times in practice and everything else."

Welker kept his composure. It appeared to be a struggle.

"When it comes to the biggest moment of my life and I don't come up with it, it's discouraging," he said.

Brady might not have thrown the pass if not for a Giants breakdown.

"The man over me was playing a two-high look and the safety went to one-high and that is why it opened up for me like it did," Welker explained.

Giants safety Antrel Rolle said communication problems were at fault. The coverage was supposed to change when the Patriots adjusted their formation. The message didn't make it to everyone on defense.

"We were just on a little different page, but it happens," Rolle said. "You know, one mistake all game, we'll take it."

Will they ever.

"We just couldn't connect," Brady said of the pass for Welker. "He's a hell of a player. I'll keep throwing the ball to him for as long as I possibly can. He's a phenomenal player and teammate, and I love that guy."

Welker caught 122 passes for 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns during the regular season. He caught seven passes for 60 yards on eight targets Sunday.

Welker now has 18 receptions for 163 yards in two Super Bowl appearances for New England, both against the Giants and both in defeat. His drop wasn't the only turning point Sunday.

The Patriots still had the lead after the ball went through Welker's hands. They had a chance to convert on third down as well, but Brady's pass to Branch fell incomplete.

A defensive stand following Welker's drop also could have saved the game and spared Welker from his fate, but instead the Patriots allowed a 38-yard sideline strike from Eli Manning to Mario Manningham on the Giants' next offensive play.

Manning-to-Manningham worked again for 16 yards, and suddenly New York had first down at the New England 34 with 2:52 to play.

The Giants scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:04 left without even trying. Ahmad Bradshaw hoped to stop at the 1, which would have allowed the Giants to run down most of the clock before kicking the winning field goal. But instead they gave Brady one final possession with 57 seconds to play.

Welker would not get another chance.

Brady targeted Aaron Hernandez four times and Branch three times during a final desperation drive that ended with a 51-yard Hail Mary to the end zone.

"It's one that will take a while to shake off, that's for sure," Welker said.

Photoblog: Hands up for the Giants

February, 5, 2012
Eli Manning Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesSuper duo Eli Manning and Justin Tuck celebrate after defeating the Patriots, 21-17.

Photoblog: Brady's Hail Mary falls short

February, 5, 2012
Tom BradyAP Photo/Paul SancyaTom Brady walks off the field after the Patriots lost to the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI.

Grading the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI

February, 5, 2012
QUARTERBACK: Eli Manning completed 30 of 40 passes for 296 yards, one touchdown and a 103.8 NFL rating. He did not turn over the ball, which was huge for the Giants during their 21-17 victory. Manning's 38-yard sideline strike to Mario Manningham showed the raw arm talent that made Manning the first player selected in the 2004 NFL draft. Not many quarterbacks can make that throw. Manning made it when the Giants trailed, 17-15, with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Manning completed his first nine attempts for 77 yards and a touchdown, staking the Giants to an early lead as they dominated time of possession to begin the game. Manning made effective use of his running backs and tight ends, executing a mostly conservative game plan. But the Giants settled for field goals too frequently. Both teams had trouble striking on pass plays down the field until Manning found Manningham in the clutch. The two had failed to connect deep down the right sideline earlier in the fourth quarter. Manning's pass was a bit wide. Manningham could have done a better job getting his feet down. Grade: A-minus.

OFFENSE: The Giants came to life in the fourth quarter, a theme for them all season. They also avoided turnovers, a huge key. That excused their earlier offensive struggles, but we'll cover them anyway. New York twice committed drive-dooming penalties after crossing midfield. A first-half holding penalty against guard Kevin Boothe on a third-and-1 play proved pivotal. The infraction wasted Brandon Jacobs' 10-yard run, setting up third-and-1. The Giants went from driving toward likely points and a potential 16-3 lead to watching Tom Brady execute a 96-yard touchdown drive as New England pulled in front, 10-9. Then, with the Giants trailing 17-15 in the fourth quarter, a penalty for illegal procedure left the Giants in another third-and-10 situation, leading to another punt. The Giants did enjoy success early in the game. They were fortunate to recover their own fumbles, especially when Ahmad Bradshaw lost the ball deep in Giants territory. Losing tight ends Travis Beckum and Jake Ballard to injuries left New York with only one available tight end, Bear Pascoe. Grade: B

DEFENSE: Justin Tuck's pressure on Brady forced a safety on the Patriots' first offensive play. That was a sensational start for the Giants. Tuck closed out the game with a third-down sack with 39 seconds remaining. The Giants failed to get enough pressure between those plays, allowing Brady to shred their defense for stretches. But Brady averaged only 6.7 yards per attempt. The Giants held the Patriots to 17 points, about two touchdowns below their regular-season average. Jason Pierre-Paul was effective batting down passes. Chase Blackburn made his presence felt with a de-cleater hit on BenJarvus Green-Ellis. He also picked off a deep pass for Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots' quickness in general and Danny Woodhead's in particular gave the Giants problems, especially with Brady having time to operate. The Giants caught a break when Wes Welker got wide open and dropped a pass that would have moved New England into field-goal range while leading with about four minutes left. Grade: B-plus

COACHING: The Giants left 57 seconds on the clock when Bradshaw scored on a run up the middle to take a 21-17 lead. Bradshaw tried to sit down at the 1-yard line, but his momentum carried him into the end zone. The points were nice, but leaving that much time on the clock for Brady carried risk. The offensive plan seemed conservative and without enough play-action passing early. That was to be expected given Tom Coughlin's philosophy. That showed up when Coughlin handed off instead of taking a shot deep down the field on an early second-and-1. Grade: B

SPECIAL TEAMS: Lawrence Tynes made both field-goal attempts. The Giant did not allow a punt return. They forced New England to begin three drives inside their own 10-yard line. The Patriots never started a drive outside their own 29. No complaints here. Grade: A

Rapid Reaction: Giants 21, Patriots 17

February, 5, 2012

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.
QUARTERBACK: Tom Brady fell short of his fourth game-winning touchdown drive in a Super Bowl. He overcame a ragged start to find his groove. He set a Super Bowl record with 16 straight completions, including 15 straight on two touchdown passes. His first touchdown pass, a 4-yarder to Danny Woodhead, showed his patience to wait for the running back to break free of the linebacker. Brady's second one, a 12-yarder, was quicker recognition to find tight end Aaron Hernandez against the middle linebacker. Brady did get hit on his interception (which turned out to be a long punt) and seemed to hurt his already banged-up left shoulder. He started off the scoring but not the way he intended. His intentional grounding penalty on the Patriots' first play led to a safety, a strange mistake for a quarterback known for such great awareness. Grade: B-plus.

OFFENSE: The Patriots' receivers let Brady down in the fourth quarter with drops from Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Hernandez. The passing game was limited with tight end Rob Gronkowski less than full strength with a high-ankle sprain. He didn't get a catch until three minutes left in the first half. Hernandez picked up the slack with a 12-yard touchdown grab in the third quarter. The offensive line held up quite well against a Giants pass rush that recorded five sacks of Brady in the last Super Bowl matchup. Welker was a hot target in the passing game, although he couldn't pull down a key reception late in the fourth quarter. Grade: C.

DEFENSE: The Patriots' much-maligned defense came up big in the biggest game of the season. Playing both safeties deep to defend against the deep pass, the Patriots made it tough for Eli Manning and forced him to throw into tight windows. The New England run defense got pushed around early (70 yards rushing allowed in the first half), but fared better in the second half. The Patriots played more physical after they were sparked by Patrick Chung's hit on Hakeem Nicks along the sideline. The Patriots then allowed Ahmad Bradshaw to score a 6-yard touchdown with 40 seconds left, so they could get the ball back into the hands of Brady. Grade: B-minus.

COACHING: Bill Belichick lost his second straight Super Bowl. The Patriots had a great game plan defensively and were running an efficient offense. But it was questionable to throw on second-and-11 in the fourth quarter — which resulted in an incompletion to Welker and stopped the clock with four minutes left in the game. Then, the challenge on the Mario Manningham catch on the Giants' final drive cost the Patriots a timeout. Belichick prides himself on precision and discipline, which is why having 12 men on the field for defense was so surprising. That penalty negated a recovered fumble for the New England defense and led to the Giants' first touchdown (a Victor Cruz 2-yard catch in the first quarter). Grade: B.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 29-yard field goal. The kickoff coverage team allowed a 34-yard return early in the third quarter. The Patriots' return game was virtually non-existent. Punter Zoltan Mesko was outplayed by Steve Weatherford, averaging 38 yards per punt. Grade: C.

Rapid Reaction: Giants 21, Patriots 17

February, 5, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS -- A few thoughts from the New York Giants' 21-17 victory over the New England Patriots on Sunday night in Super Bowl XLVI:

What it means: Legacy. Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin are two-time Super Bowl champions. The Giants have won their fourth Super Bowl and completed one of the most stunning in-season turnarounds in recent sports history. They were 7-7 after losing their second game of the season to the last-place Redskins but won six in a row to claim their second Super Bowl title in five years. It’s a run that at least rivals and may even top their 2007-08 run, which also culminated in a Super Bowl victory over the Patriots.

The quarterbacks: Early on, it looked as though Manning and the Giants might run away with it. The Giants' pass rush forced Patriots quarterback Tom Brady into an intentional grounding penalty in his own end zone on his first throw of the game and were rewarded with a safety and a quick 2-0 lead. Manning got the ball back off the free kick and went down the field in nine plays, hitting Victor Cruz for the touchdown that put the Giants up 9-0. They were being physical with the Patriots, dominating time of possession and more or less doing anything they wanted. Then, the pass rush dried up and Brady got hot, at one point setting a Super Bowl record with 16 consecutive pass completions as he orchestrated a touchdown drive to end the first half and one to begin the second. The quarterback play in this Super Bowl was expected to be stellar, and Manning and Brady lived up to the hype. In the end, though, it was Manning who led his team on the game-winning fourth-quarter comeback drive -- the third time in a row he’s done it to Brady and Bill Belichick. Brady had a shot at the end, but the Hail Mary didn't get answered.

The two tight end thing: The question all week was whether the injured ankle of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski would limit him in the game, and it clearly did. But it appeared as though the Giants took a while to adjust to that knowledge. They devoted much of their coverage early on to Gronkowski and not enough to the Patriots' other outstanding tight end, Aaron Hernandez, who had five catches for 40 yards in the first half and caught the touchdown pass on the Patriots' opening drive of the second half. The Giants adjusted in coverage and were able to slow down Brady better as the third quarter went along and the fourth quarter opened. Meanwhile, the Giants couldn't keep their own tight ends on the field. Travis Beckum left with a knee injury in the second quarter and Jake Ballard did the same in the fourth.

Turnovers kill: The Giants won the Super Bowl by beating the three best turnover-ratio teams in the NFL -- the Packers, 49ers and Patriots -- and winning the turnover battle in each game. Chase Blackburn's second-half interception of Brady was the only turnover in the game.

What's next: Free agency begins next month, and the Giants will triumphantly pick 32nd in the NFL draft in April. It looks to me as though offensive line might be a good target area, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Photoblog: Boxing out Gronk

February, 5, 2012
Chase BlackburnGregory Shamus/Getty ImagesChase Blackburn boxed out Rob Gronkowski to intercept this Tom Brady pass.