What to expect in Super Bowl XLVI
Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Mike: We've been doing these breakdowns for three seasons here on ESPNBoston.com, and this is the first time we're dissecting a Super Bowl. Let's start with what a victory would mean for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. They are the first head coach/starting quarterback tandem to advance to five Super Bowls.
Tedy: I think this highlights the competitive drive that both of them have. One championship isn't good enough. Two three it's just not enough. They've had incredible win streaks here, but it's always about "next," "What more can be done?" and "How much better can it get?" It's that way until it ends. They'll never reflect until it ends. Who knows when it's going to end with these two, this partnership? Until it does, they'll always be thinking forward, not back. When it's over and the dust has settled, that's when they'll look back and hopefully for them say, "Man, that was pretty good." That's how competitive Tom is, and Bill never lets you settle for anything -- any victory, any championship. It's always about the next one.
Mike: It seems like that is one of the storylines that will be discussed a lot leading into this Super Bowl: what a victory would mean for the legacies of both Belichick and Brady. I'm not big on legacy talk while it's going on -- I feel like we often rush that discussion -- so here are my main thoughts on both. I think a championship would mean a lot to Belichick because this is a new group of players. There are no more Bruschis, Vrabels, Seymours and Harrisons out there, so this would represent a new era of winning. And for Brady, I think he'd appreciate this one as much as the others, if not more, because it is post knee injury. That theme sort of came across in his interviews throughout the week -- how much he was embracing this experience.
Tedy: Specific to Coach Belichick, I think back to that 2001 championship team and some of the young players that were there, and how it turned them into consistent championship players. If they defeat the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI, you see the potential of that happening with this group. Yes, you have veterans like Brady and Vince Wilfork leading the way, but then you think about Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty a player like Patrick Chung, is he your Lawyer Milloy/Rodney Harrison? The potential for another run is there.
Mike: If that's one of the top storylines from a Patriots perspective, the other is how this is a rematch from Super Bowl XLII. The Patriots have been quick to dismiss any talk of that game, saying it's a new team. Left tackle Matt Light joked that he wasn't around that year. Left guard Logan Mankins took a more direct approach, saying, "That was four years ago. Next question." You were on that team, and one of the questions you're likely to be asked is if a victory this year would ease the pain from the loss in Super Bowl XLII.
Tedy: It's probably one of the toughest losses in the history of the NFL. To be 18-0 and going into that game against the Giants, how do you deal with being at the cusp of the top of the mountain, of being considered the greatest team in the history of the NFL, 19-0? It would be better than the '85 Bears, better than the '72 Dolphins. But then you lose the game. That's something that took a while to get over mentally. So here we are again, with another Patriots versus Giants Super Bowl. You heard it coming out of the locker room over the past two weeks that the game isn't being relived in there. On the question, "Would a win in Super Bowl XLVI fix what happened in 2007?" I don't think it would. That's a crushing defeat that's tough for anyone who was a part of it to forget. It doesn't matter if the Patriots win or lose this Super Bowl. That '07 team will always be 18-1.
Mike: While the Patriots aren't looking back to that Super Bowl, how much do you think they are focusing on the Nov. 6 meeting between the teams earlier this season? The Patriots had four turnovers in that game.
Tedy: You can take a lot away from it. Coaches and players will watch that game over and over again in terms of "This is what we were thinking" and "This is what they were thinking in that situation." For example, the Patriots gave the ball to running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis on the first three plays to get things started. Maybe that was a theme they were thinking, "Slow down the pass rush, let them think that you're trying to establish the running game, and that gets in the minds of pass-rushers." If you run that YY formation, with the two tight ends at the end of the line, does that slow the Giants down a bit? Those are the things you take from that Nov. 6 game, and you process it and then prepare to make adjustments accordingly.
Mike: Before we get into some of the specifics of the matchup, let's retrace our steps. The Patriots have been through a lot this season and they've been rewarded for their mental toughness. There were times we watched the defense and wondered if they could stop anyone, yet here they are. The unit is playing its best football at the right time.
Tedy: I didn't see this coming, with the young defense. The development they had over the last month of the season was what started to turn my opinion on the team. I remember saying in the preseason, "A big part of this season is going to be the development of the young defense," and watching that AFC Championship Game, it was right there in front of my eyes. One play, in particular, was linebacker Brandon Spikes' fourth-quarter interception. That was a great play. I remember criticizing Spikes about always biting on play-action and not being a good coverage player in the past. That was his reputation across the league -- you can exploit him with the pass. But to see that type of play made in a championship moment, when everyone is watching, it reflects the overall development of some of these young players that I'm talking about.
Patriots offense vs. Giants defense
Mike: The Giants' 4-3 defense is backboned by its line, which comes at opponents in waves. That was the way it was back in 2007. At times, they put four defensive ends on the field and turn them loose -- Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Dave Tollefson.
Tedy: I don't know if there is any drop-off from 2007. The way Jason Pierre-Paul has played, he's been a force like Michael Strahan was. I know on the depth chart, Justin Tuck is listed as the left defensive end, but really it should just be DL, in terms of D-lineman. They'll line him up over anyone -- guard, tackle, it doesn't matter. The unique things he can do from that position is not just beat a player one on one, but run "games" with either the nose tackle, or another interior defensive lineman, or the outside defensive end.
Mike: You've mentioned this a couple of times over the season. Explain further, if you will.
Tedy: These are called pick stunts and they're sort of in vogue now in the NFL. So you have two defensive linemen and one of them runs at the opposing offensive tackle, who is blocking your teammate. Basically, you pick him and stay on his inside shoulder as your teammate loops under. What it does is put the other player, the offensive guard, into a bind where there are two people who have position on him and he has to make a choice to block while the other guy is still picking on the other lineman, pushing him out of the way. Now it's a two-on-one and that's where you have the problem. Even if the offensive linemen pick it up, what it does is drives them back and puts them into the lap of the quarterback.
Mike: So we know this is a big test for the Patriots' offensive line. The Giants are a tough matchup for them because they've proven they can generate pressure with the standard four rushers, giving them seven to play in coverage. The return of Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who has missed the past seven games with back and foot injuries, would be a big boost. If he's healthy, he probably would split time with Nate Solder. In the Nov. 6 game, Vollmer played at right tackle and Solder was used as an eligible tight end on 23 of 78 snaps.
Tedy: In the AFC Championship, you saw Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger beat Solder to the outside and then Terrell Suggs got him to the inside. I think the Giants will be watching that closely and they will be asking "Where is the weakest link?" I'm not saying he is, but if someone is struggling out there, that's where they put their best. Maybe you put Justin Tuck over there and run some pick "games" on Solder. Can he get the communication straight? You test him early and see if that could be a problem, and maybe work to your advantage.
Mike: We've seen it before, if Tom Brady doesn't have time, the offense can quickly lose its rhythm. Brady was disappointed in his performance in the AFC Championship and promised Robert Kraft he'd play better in the Super Bowl.
Tedy: You don't want to see Brady making those types of decisions and those types of throws. The Patriots have lost the turnover battle in the past two games and sometimes those miscues can be contagious. The decision to throw deep into double coverage against the Ravens was a bad one. It came immediately after the Spikes interception, and that's what is called "sudden change," when you unexpectedly have to run out there. The one thing you say as a defense when you run out there in situations like those is "Watch the shot," especially at the plus-50 area (think about the logo in the middle of the field). I can understand what the Patriots' offensive coaches are thinking right there, but when you see two players deep -- one under your receiver, one over the top -- that's a throw you don't make. Those are the types of decisions Brady can't make in the Super Bowl.
Mike: Another big question is the health of tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski usually plays every snap. With no backup on the roster, the Patriots would have to turn to more three-receiver sets and players like Chad Ochocinco, Julian Edelman and/or Tiquan Underwood could be thrust into a larger role.
Tedy: Gronkowski is tough. He'll be there, but how effective he will be is the question. This is the biggest game of his life and I'm sure he will tell everyone who is willing to listen that he is ready to go. In the end, coaches must decide if he can help the team or if he will be a liability.
Mike: The Giants have a big nickel package with safeties Kenny Phillips, Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant to combat the Patriots' two-tight end attack. Grant was all over the field in the Nov. 6 meeting. The linebackers also seem like they cover some ground. But in the end, it starts up front.
Tedy: The Giants are coming after Brady, you can be sure of that. Brian Waters and the big guys up front have to succeed early so Brady can get comfortable. Early shots on your quarterback get him thinking about pressure. You want to protect him early so he can get into that groove. Also, with that three-safety package, it's like the Giants will be daring the Patriots to run the ball. It's a smaller defense and can be taken advantage of with a power running game. Can and will the Patriots attempt to commit to the run?
Patriots defense vs. Giants offense
Mike: Let's start with some thoughts on quarterback Eli Manning.
Tedy: I thought the Super Bowl XLII win was his breakout, him saying, "This is what I can do in pressure situations." Now, he really has taken it to the next level this year. At times, he's played just as good football as, if not better than, Tom Brady. You look at the fourth-quarter comebacks, everyone knows the numbers. He's been incredible. This is the best quarterback the Patriots saw all year.
Mike: Manning completed 65 percent of his passes in the fourth quarter this year, with 15 touchdowns and a passer rating of 110. He had the most pass attempts of any quarterback in the NFL in the fourth quarter --120-of-182 for 1,715 yards. Look at the quarterbacks around the league and no one is really close to those numbers.
Tedy: Let's also give him some props for his intangibles. The mental toughness he's shown throughout his career, being Peyton Manning's little brother, the No. 1 pick, being in New York, dealing with all the criticism. That 49ers game two weeks ago, as many times as he was hit and on the ground, that mental toughness shone through. He took every hit and was still delivering quality throws late in the game, accurate throws. If I'm ranking quarterbacks, I'd put Tom Brady on the top in terms of mental toughness and I'd put Eli Manning No. 2.
Mike: High praise, for sure. One of the big matchups in this game is the Giants' receivers (Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham) against the Patriots' secondary. The Patriots could try a few different combinations to slow them down, but it's an attack that has looked lethal at times. Nicks didn't play in the Nov. 6 game.
Tedy: I'll focus on Cruz, who lines up in the slot. Coverage wise, who do you put on him? Is it going to be Julian Edelman? Do you have him play outside leverage and have a coverage linebacker like Jerod Mayo play inside leverage? You can do certain combo and bracket techniques on slot receivers. Then there's Manningham and Nicks. There are going to be times in the game where these corners are going to have to win one-on-one battles. Attention will be given to Cruz and Nicks, which could open opportunities for Manningham. That's going to be difficult to do. Of course, they'll mix up zone, mix up man and they'll have two safeties deep so they don't get beat down the field. That's the matchup to watch because that's where I see the Giants having the advantage. They have to feel their receivers can outmatch this Patriots secondary.
Mike: Those receivers make it go, and tight end Jake Ballard also contributes. From a general sense, how do you counter that?
Tedy: I think it's great timing that Vince Wilfork is playing the way he is right now. Another reason they majored in that 3-4 front against the Ravens is because it gave them that presence right over the center, and I'm sure they told Vince, "Just line up over him and drive him back right into the lap of Joe Flacco and that will get him off his spot and uncomfortable and he'll be less accurate." I think that will be something similar with Eli Manning, although Eli Manning is better in the pocket than Flacco is. I still think getting that pressure with Wilfork has to be huge again. That was a signature game, the AFC Championship, and he said "This is my moment," and he took over.
Mike: In the Nov. 6 game, running back Ahmad Bradshaw didn't play. The Giants finished last in the NFL in rushing offense during the regular season, but that seems deceiving. They can be tough in that area.
Tedy: Brandon Jacobs was the main horse in the backfield that day. You saw players like Spikes and Brandon Deaderick hitting him and Jacobs (6-foot-4, 264) was still able to fall forward for 5 yards sometimes, 4 yards sometimes. This is the type of running back this guy is. Which Brandon Jacobs will show up? The bull that he can be, or the antelope who pitter-patters and runs to the edge.
Mike: The Patriots are a better defense than when the teams met Nov. 6. One could argue the Giants' offense is also better.
Tedy: You remember the pass-interference penalty on Sergio Brown on the Giants' final drive. Those are the plays They either end your season or continue them. From that pass-interference penalty, which was a huge advantage for the Giants, to Sterling Moore making that play in the AFC title game against the Ravens, that's what championship football is all about. There is the moment. There is the throw in the air. Are you going to make the play on the ball or not? Coaches have so much film to watch. Players, they know they've played this team before, so they know what to expect. Eli Manning is smart. Bill Belichick isn't going to come up with some new defensive scheme that Manning hasn't seen before. He'll figure out where to put the ball. He'll find the single coverage or thread it into a small window into tight coverage. When you're in coverage, and the receivers are running the route, here comes the ball and one of the players will have a Giants helmet, the other will have a Patriots helmet, and it will be who makes that play.
Mike: The Patriots are also playing a different style of defense than when the teams met in early November.
Tedy: It shows how they've evolved. They start the year in a 4-3 base front and that's what they're "majoring" in. Albert Haynesworth is on the team, his presence highlighting how the defense had players who adopted a penetrating style of play. Over the course of the year, they started mixing in some 3-4. So you'd see some 3-4 looks, some 4-3 looks and it switched liberally. During the AFC Championship Game, what I saw was alignments that showed one set and then right before the snap of the ball, shifting to another and playing from there. An example of that was Wilfork getting penetration and making a play in the backfield. Now, all the players in the front can do that. So it's evolved now to the point where they can be multiple on a down-to-down basis, changing pre-snap to post-snap at times. That's something they couldn't do early.
Mike: It helps that they've had 108 practices. That's a lot of time to build if it's used wisely.
Tedy: You can't put that on players who are young, or new to your system, right away. You need to start somewhere and say "Let's be good at this first before we try anything else." It takes time to get to a level where you can say, "OK, we look good there, let's throw in another front." That's how it progresses from 4-3 to 3-4. Now you've been here for a little while and we have more comfort to play 4-3 on first down and let's shift it on second down to play 3-4, and mix up some coverages. Then you take it even further, we're going to show you one look, and then either right before the snap or right after it, we're going to show you something different. Now we're talking advanced football.
Special teams and predictions
Mike: We saw two weeks ago in the AFC and NFC Championships how important special teams are for clubs. Giants punter Steve Weatherford helped control the Nov. 6 game as the Patriots were consistently pinned deep in their own territory. One other point to make is that this will be the Patriots' first indoor game of the season (not including preseason). That helps explain why Bill Belichick had the team practicing inside the past two weeks.
Tedy: Being in the dome I don't think the kickoff or kickoff return game will be much of a factor (although, we have seen surprise onside kicks in the Super Bowl). I anticipate lots of touchbacks. So let's focus on the punting aspect of the game. This postseason there have been multiple mistakes in terms of fielding punts and ball security. We all feel for 49ers punt returner Kyle Williams, who fumbled the NFC Championship away, and the AFC Championship could've been much different if Wes Welker's botched punt stayed in bounds instead of bouncing out of bounds. These will be pressure-packed plays in this game. I always remember my old special-teams coach Brad Seely saying, "Good ball security and no penalties." We'll see which unit plays that way.
Mike: Let's get to the predictions. This reminds me of the Nov. 13 game at the Jets, a contest in which many predicted trouble for the Patriots but the team came through. I think they do it again. While there is respect for the Giants' pass rush, it's not like opponents have been completely shut down by the unit. I expect some points from a faster-paced attack and quarterback Tom Brady to play better and limit mistakes. On the opposite side, the improved defense limits the run and forces Eli Manning into some long-yardage situations and that's when the Patriots can dial up some pressure. Promises to be a good one, Patriots 30, Giants 20.
Tedy: I see this game going down to the wire. Both of these teams are playing great football. There are matchup advantages for both teams in all three phases. In the end, I see New England winning. Throughout this year there have been breakout players that have established themselves as championship caliber. Gronkowski, Hernandez, Spikes, Mayo, Chung, just to name a few. Stephen Gostkowski will add his name to the list. Adam Vinatieri will no longer be the only Patriots kicker to say he kicked a game winner with a world championship on the line. It's good. Pats 27, Giants 24.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.