Next stop on the Redemption Tour '11 -- the Super Bowl.
It's been a great ride and now we have two teams that have generated impressive momentum at the most important time of the year -- the Patriots and the Giants. These are two of the NFL's class organizations. They do things right.
Before getting to the questions, let's set the agenda for players.
They don't return to the practice field until Thursday, so these next two days are good for them to take care of personal business and get those matters in order, with the idea that they can fully focus on football leading into the game. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski joked that he had 35 text messages on his phone after the AFC Championship Game and he wasn't sure he even had 35 friends.
The team is scheduled to depart for Indianapolis on Sunday. The Giants are planning on leaving Monday.
Q. Hey Mike, you have called this playoff run "Redemption Tour" and I think that is very appropriate. The Patriots have a chance to get revenge on every team that has beaten them in the playoffs since the last Super Bowl -- Broncos ('05), Giants ('07) and Ravens ('09). Not to mention, they beat Bernard Pollard, stopped the Jets from getting to the playoffs ('10) and will be playing Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis ('06). That's all of them! All with a season dedicated to Myra Kraft. My two questions: 1. Are the players talking about this storyline of redemption tour; 2. How fun is this for you as a sportswriter when you get these sort of storylines? -- Dave (San Francisco)
A. Dave, just for fun we should get some "Redemption Tour '11" T-shirts printed up. It could be similar to defensive lineman Ted Washington and his "Homeland Defense" theme from the 2003 championship season, when he was handing out T-shirts and winter hats to his teammates with those words on them. To answer your questions, players aren't talking about the idea of redemption. Maybe it's something in the back of their minds that will come out when it's all said and done, but for now I sense a shorter-term focus from most of the players. They're locked in on the task at hand each week. As for how fun this is from the sports writing perch, what's not to like? It's a bunch of solid guys in the locker room who play the game at a high level. So it's a daily double.
Q. In 2001, we lost the regular season game to the Rams in Foxborough, 20-13, to go 5-5 on the year. The Patriots then proceeded to win their last six games of the regular season, two games in the AFC playoffs, and then beat the last team to beat them in the regular season, the Rams. This year, we lost to the Giants in Foxborough, 24-20 to go 5-3 on the year. We ended the season with eight straight regular season wins, two games in the AFC playoffs, and now we play the last team to beat us in the regular season, the Giants. Just saying -- Paul (San Diego)
A. Paul, some neat linkage there. Maybe we can use it as a tie-in to the "Redemption Tour '11" theme.
Q. Hey Mike, I brought this up last week and have to do it again: What do you make of Tom Brady's postseason INT rate? Accuracy issues are one thing, but the two interceptions this past Sunday were very poor decisions that could have easily cost the team the game. They are similar to the playoff game against the Broncos (Champ Bailey) in 2005, and the Panthers Super Bowl (could have gone up 2 scores, end zone INT, next play 80 yard TD pass to Muhsin Muhammad). It seems best just to throw it away, an easy play to make, no? Too amped up?? -- KB (Hyannis, Mass.)
A. KB, Brady's decision-making was what stood out to me in the AFC Championship Game. He is probably still kicking himself for those two interceptions. He needs to play cleaner, and I think he knows that.
Q. Hey Mike, I know Tom Brady said he sucked, but come on, was he really THAT bad? -- Tom (Foxborough, Mass.)
A. Tom, based on his high standards, it was a down game. But from a big-picture standpoint, Brady still made some big plays against a tough defense (that QB sneak at the goal line was huge; other third-down throws were on the money), which balanced off his missed connection with tight end Rob Gronkowski on a would-be touchdown, and his two interceptions. He's so mentally tough. Finishing 22-of-36 for 239 yards, Brady still did his part (rushing TD, plenty of emotional fire). It just wasn't as big a part as we expected.
Q. Hi Mike, congrats on your crystal ball prediction of the Pats and Giants in the Super Bowl. My crystal ball was of the Patriots coming up big in their first playoff victory and it giving them the momentum to go to Indy. Now my ball is cloudy. It's gonna be a tough game. I know one thing: Tom Brady is going to have to come up big. I like our chances. -- Lonster (Southern California)
A. Thanks Lonster. Brady is such a great competitor that I wouldn't pick another quarterback to lead the team into this big game. One thing you can expect to hear a lot about over the next two weeks is how the Patriots had four turnovers in the Nov. 6 loss to the Giants. Coming off a game in which Brady was more sloppy with the ball than the norm, he knows he'll have to make better decisions and be more accurate with the football for the Patriots to win.
Q. Mike, I think the biggest change between these Pats and the 2007 Patriots is that the 2011 version does not have the hubris that did us in four years ago. In 2007, we relied on the second and third level passing game that required Brady to set deep in the pocket and get roughed up by the Giants' great D-Line. The thinking seemed, no one can stop Brady to Moss, so just keep doing what got you here. In contrast, this year's team just won the AFC Championship game thanks to steady hand of the Law Firm and a commitment to take what the Ravens gave them. Do you see the Patriots game planning around the great Giant pass rush as I do or do you think this will be a business as usual? -- Benny O (Harrisville, N.H.)
A. Great point here, Benny. I think getting the ball out of Brady's hands quickly is going to be a significant part of the Super Bowl plan, and this offense is tailored nicely to that type of approach. The other point I'd make about differences between 2007 and 2011 is momentum. I really felt that '07 team had taken so many teams' best shots over the second half of the season that they weren't surging to the finish line as much as this year's team, which has built some stronger momentum leading into this game. It's easy to forget that now, because the '07 team dominated so much early in the season, but I felt some teams had caught up to them late that year.
Q. Mike, one of the main storylines going into the Super Bowl is going to be how the Patriots offensive line will hold up against a vaunted Giants defensive line, and certainly we all remember how that worked out in 2007. But an overlooked aspect, in my mind, is how the Giants are going to hold up against a revitalized Patriots front seven. That unit has been playing extremely well over the last two weeks. Your thoughts? -- Neil (South Boston)
A. I agree, Neil. It's a physical front seven that has looked strong in its run fits and aggressive against the pass. The Patriots are getting a lot out of Vince Wilfork, who was terrific in the AFC Championship in playing 70 of 73 snaps (including penalties). He's the heartbeat of that group and the overall defense in my view. The front seven really answered the challenge against both the Broncos and Ravens, but now this is a different type of challenge where we could see more of a front six and the Patriots subbing out one lineman/linebacker for an extra defensive back because of the Giants' ability to attack with three receivers. I like the Patriots in base better than sub, and this highlights some of the chess match we could see in the Super Bowl.
Q. Mike, I think the availability of Sebastian Vollmer is a real underrated key to the game's outcome. In order to combat that Giants' pass rush, I think the Pats need to use Solder creatively in the blocking schemes -- put him on the line at TE and motion him around depending on what the Giants show. That should give Brady more time and leave Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and some combination of Deion Branch/BenJarvus Green-Ellis/ or Danny Woodhead to find openings in the Giants' weaker back seven. Protecting Brady is the key to winning this game. -- Mike (Hoboken, N.J.)
A. Mike, I'm glad you mentioned Vollmer. He's missed the past seven games with back and foot injuries in an overall year that has been frustrating for him, but the Patriots obviously felt he had a chance to return depending on how far they advanced in the playoffs. Well, you can't advance any further than this, so one would assume he has a chance. The Patriots used Nate Solder as an eligible receiver/big tight end on 23 snaps against the Giants on Nov. 6, so I agree with your point, that could be big in the Super Bowl.
Q. Hey Mike, give a Patriots fan some hope. Why should I hope that this game will be any different in outcome than the one the Patriots lost to the Giants earlier this year? We were full strength in that one (+ Andre Carter too) and the Giants were without Hakeem Nicks and Ahmad Bradshaw, two key playmakers. I'm just not sure how we can keep up with their passing game. -- Alex (Wakefield, Mass.)
A. Alex, it's a fair concern. There is also an easy answer when it comes to the hope you're seeking. Just consider last year's playoffs and how few felt the Jets could keep up with the Patriots' passing game, because they were beaten 45-3 by them about six weeks earlier. The Jets showed how one regular-season game doesn't translate into a playoff game. It's a completely fresh slate.
Q. Mike, I've been very critical of Belichick and the defense that he put together over the past few years, and so far in the playoffs I'm eating my words. Their defense is finally "gelling", and it was great to see the Pats win games again when Brady doesn't have his best game. It's very encouraging for the future. Your thoughts? -- Marcus (San Diego)
A. Marcus, you're not alone. I was critical of Belichick and his defense after the Steelers loss on Oct. 30. I think what this has proven is that Belichick knows what he's doing. He's showing why he's considered one of the greatest coaches in the history of the NFL, if not the best. Doubt him at your own risk.
Q. Hi Mike. The Ravens game was very difficult, and could have gone either way. But it surprises me that so many ESPN analysts argue that Baltimore lost the game more than the Patriots won it. When you put everything that happened on that game on a balance (three Patriots' red-zone trips without a TD, Brady's sporadic performance and a negative turnover differential), it seems you can make the same argument for the Patriots had they lost. I question myself if I'm watching the same game or they just judged the final minutes. -- Thomas (Puerto Rico)
A. Thomas, I thought the Ravens played a better overall game than the Patriots (particularly controlling time of possession and winning the turnover battle), but fell short in one crucial area -- rising up in the one or two critical plays that often determine the outcome. You still have to close the deal on those critical plays, and that's how the Patriots won this one in my view. They were the more clutch team and, in a close game, that was the clincher.
Q. I was thinking about that last drive for Baltimore. Before the Lee Evans drop and the missed field goal, Joe Flacco was finding Anquan Boldin regularly down the field. Why was Julian Edelman on him? Why was he on the field? Should the Pats take their chances with Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Antwaun Molden, Patrick Chung, James Ihedigbo and Moore? I know that would mean we have three safeties on the field, but if we keep Edelman as our nickel corner, doesn't Eli Manning just have four-wide and pick on him all game long? -- Anand (New York, N.Y.)
A. Anand, the Patriots were in their dime (6 defensive backs -- Moore, Arrington, Edelman, Chung, Ihedigbo and McCourty) on the final drive and the Ravens found that mismatch nicely. That's a tough spot to put Edelman, who played 27 snaps on offense and 27 snaps on defense in the game, and I would expect the Patriots to make an adjustment on that in the Super Bowl. I think it's a fair point.
Q. Hey Mike, no matter how it looked, an AFC Championship is still a trip to the Super Bowl last time I checked, and nobody will take that away from this team. I must say, what a showing Big Daddy Wilfork had on the biggest stage of the year!!! Can you explain to me a couple things, why didn't BB toss the challenge flag on the Gronk catch near the sideline that was clearly 2 feet with possession; it was a first down in the red zone instead of a field goal. Secondly, after the Brandon Spikes interception, why would the Pats and Brady come out with a deep pass with 7 minutes to go in the game, up by 3, on the 50? Any insight? -- Peter (Virginia Beach, Va.)
A. Peter, in retrospect, these looked like two plays the Patriots would like to have back. I think part of Belichick's non-challenge was that the play was on the opposite end of the field, he didn't have a great view, so he's relying on the upstairs view and there just must not have been conviction from Ernie Adams up in the coaches' booth. Watching it live, Gronkowski looked out of bounds to me, but the replay seemed to show he was in. I bet he'd like to have that one back. As for the Brady deep pass, that was overaggressive. While the Ravens made a great play, I think it's fair to criticize that decision. It wasn't smart football, sort of the opposite of kneeling on the ball at the end of the second quarter.
Q. Mike, who decides who gets a Super Bowl ring? Is it just the players and coaches on the team that day? Or are teams allowed to decide? It would be remiss to forget that had it not been for some of the guys now on injured reserve (Andre Carter for one), many of the Patriots would be headed to Hawaii, not Indy. Also, does a longer run in the playoffs affect a team's draft preparations? While other teams can focus on their draft prospects, BB has to game-plan for the Giants and not study college film. -- Lee T. (Gloucester, UK)
A. Lee, the Patriots ultimately decide who gets Super Bowl rings and usually it includes players on injured reserve like Carter, center Dan Koppen & Co. They're all a big part of this, too. As for draft preparations, this is why director of player personnel Nick Caserio, director of college scouting Jon Robinson & Co. play such a key role in the organization. Bill Belichick knows that side of the organization is in good hands and he can play catch-up after the Super Bowl quests ends. As Robert Kraft sometimes says, "That's a high-class problem to have."
Q. Hi Mike, the key for the Patriots offensively in the AFC Championship game was establishing the ground game, which offset their struggles through the air. The Law Firm outperformed Ray Rice. Enough said. I think they'll need a similar performance in the Super Bowl. If the Law Firm gains 75-100 yards on the ground, the Giants' ferocious pass rush is kept at bay and the Pats win. This is precisely what did not happen in Super Bowl XLII, with Laurence Maroney gaining a mere 36 yards on 14 carries. That being said, why do they continue to run Green-Ellis outside the tackles when he is clearly at his most effective inside? -- Chris (Toronto)
A. Chris, I thought the running game was underrated in the win. They got some hard yards in the red zone, where the Ravens are particularly tough. BenJarvus Green-Ellis looked like he had fresh legs. Everything about his performance was sudden, from the way he ran to the way he got up and sprinted off the field when there was a substitution. The Ravens ranked second in the NFL in rush defense (both yards per game and average per carry), with opponents averaging 92.6 yards per contest and 3.5 yards per attempt. While the Patriots' numbers don't jump off the page (96 yards, 31 carries, 3.1 yard avg.), I thought they were effective in this aspect for the most part. On Green-Ellis, I agree that he's more effective inside and is better suited to those types of runs.
Q. Mike, do you think that Josh McDaniels will have a bigger role in the game plan against the Giants? I think he got a lot of criticism for not making adjustments in Super Bowl XLII. -- Sami (Boston)
A. Sami, I think McDaniels' presence is really important right now and that he'll have significant input in the plan. With Bill O'Brien spending the early part of the week at Penn State, it highlights how nicely things have fallen into place for the Patriots to be able to bring back McDaniels. I wouldn't read too much into Super Bowl XLII in terms of McDaniels' adjustments and how that will affect this year's Super Bowl. To me, McDaniels' presence can only be viewed as a positive this time based on the transition Bill O'Brien is making during this Super Bowl run.
Q. Hey Mike, hope you're enjoying the ride as much as we are. First, I just want to say how happy I am with the victory and how lucky we all are to be Pats fans in this era. I'm 26, and my early years with the team were rough, so it is easy to appreciate the greatness of this franchise. To go back to the Super Bowl with a completely different team is amazing. My only question for you is this: Who do I need to talk to about making sure Mr. Belichick does NOT opt for the red hoodie this time around? -- Dan C. (Melbourne Beach, Fla.)
A. Good one, Dan. It's a great perspective, and as for the red hoodie, I'm told we won't have to worry about that one. Belichick would get tackled before he made it onto the field if he ever tried to slip that red hoodie on again.
Q. Do you think Chad Ochocinco will have any impact or playing time in the Super Bowl? -- Dottie D. (Cambridge)
A. Dottie, I think Ochocinco's status will be determined by how good the Patriots feel about Rob Gronkowski's health. If there are doubts that Gronkowski can handle his full load, which usually means playing the entire game, then that probably puts the Patriots in more groupings of three receivers, one tight end and one running back. In that case, Ochocinco could be important depth behind Deion Branch, Wes Welker and Julian Edelman. That's how I view Ochocinco (one snap versus Broncos, inactive versus Ravens) right now -- a depth option.
Q. Mike, I know it's difficult to do your "3 up and 3 down" after each game, but I'd like to offer up that Stephen Gostkowski be added to the up column. He was the leading scorer in the game and each field goal was right down the middle. His kick-offs were each touchbacks and helped the Pats win the field-position game. He came through, big time, in the clutch. -- Dave (Berlin, N.H.)
A. Dave, those "3 up, 3 down" blog entries are tough to do so quickly after the game. I had Gostkowski as a strong consideration for an "up" and he was just on the edge. Vince Wilfork and Sterling Moore were locks, so it basically came down to a third spot. I leaned toward BenJarvus Green-Ellis because I thought he was the Patriots' best player on offense. So then a point was made to circle back to Gostkowski's impact on a special teams "spotlight" the next morning.
Q. Mike, I think Gronkowski's ankle injury highlights an area of our team that I am very concerned with in the long term. Clearly, our best offense package has two TEs, yet unlike RB, WR, OL or even QB, we have no one to back up Gronk or Aaron Hernandez if they get injured. Do you think the Pats have to acquire a TE next year to back these guys up? -- Kartal (Denver, Colo.)
A. Absolutely, Kartal. The Patriots thought they had two nice developmental prospects in Lee Smith (fifth round) and Will Yeatman (rookie free agent), and they would have liked to keep at least one of them on the practice squad this year. But there just wasn't room for them on the 53-man roster and both got claimed on waivers after showing some promise in training camp. It's easy to second-guess now. At the same time, there is no telling whether Smith or Yeatman would have developed enough to rise up in a critical moment like this or if they'd simply be blocking types, which is a role Nate Solder has filled well as an eligible receiver.
Q. How come Matthew Slater has been used in the long bomb passing plays? Is it because he is the fastest receiver? Why not use Deion Branch or Tiquan Underwood? Slater does not have enough experience at receiver. -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)
A. Ashley, it comes down to speed. Slater can fly and is their best option to attack the deep third on a designed call like that. The Patriots have hit Deion Branch deep -- he had the long touchdown against the Broncos in the divisional round -- but he doesn't have the pure speed Slater does for a route like that.
Q. The crowd noise at the playoff game was great. Can we finally put to rest that the Patriots fans at Gillette Stadium aren't loud and are spoiled by the success of the team and don't really care? -- David (North Attleboro)
A. David, those two playoff games at Gillette were some of the best football environments I've ever seen. Special stuff. It's a credit to the fans, whom Tom Brady made sure to reference after the AFC Championship.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.