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After reviewing the New England Patriots' 24-20 loss to the New York Giants from Nov. 6, here's a look at some of the biggest takeaways as they relate to how the Patriots are currently playing leading into Super Bowl XLVI:
1. Personnel was fairly complete. Except for injured defensive end Andre Carter, almost all the players who started and played big roles in the game figure to do so again in Super Bowl XLVI. Both linebacker Brandon Spikes and safety Patrick Chung played -- Spikes had a solid hit on tight end Jake Ballard in the first quarter just short of the first-down sticks -- but both left with injuries (Spikes early in the third quarter, Chung late in the fourth). Second-year man Brandon Deaderick made his first start of the season at left end in the base defense (he drew a holding penalty) and has been there since. One of the biggest changes is at nickelback, where Phillip Adams played. He's no longer on the team. It was also defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth's last game with the team.
2. If Brady duplicates this performance, it's trouble. This was one of Tom Brady's shakiest games of the season. He never truly got into a groove, a result of solid pressure applied by the Giants' defensive front while safety Deon Grant, playing a linebacker-type role at times, was disruptive. The Giants' front seven also did a solid job getting hands up in the passing lanes, and the size and athleticism of the Giants' linebackers dropping into coverage made it hard for Brady to find open windows in which to throw.
|Tom Brady had one of his worst games of the season against the disruptive Giants defense.|
3. Vollmer's presence alters "big" package. The Patriots had 2010 second-team All-Pro Sebastian Vollmer in the lineup at right tackle, which allowed them to use rookie offensive tackle Nate Solder as an eligible receiver/big tight end on 23 of 78 snaps (29.4 percent). The Patriots opened the game with that look after starting deep in their own territory, lining Solder up next to left tackle Matt Light, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran toward that side before cutting inside for 18 yards. This shines a spotlight on how the presence of Vollmer, who has missed the last seven games with back and foot injuries, could be big in Super Bowl XLVI. If Vollmer doesn't play, the Patriots are less likely to go big with rookie Marcus Cannon coming on at right tackle when Solder moves to the eligible position.
4. Field position was an issue. Drives in the first half started at the 5, 6, 17, 20, 11 and 9-yard lines, with the Giants doing a nice job of making the Patriots work on a long field (0 points in the opening 30 minutes, snapping a streak of 74 straight games in which they had scored points in the first half). On 10 of the Patriots' 12 drives, they started at their own 21 or deeper. Seven of those drives started after a punt, as the Giants' Steve Weatherford had a solid day. On the Patriots' side, kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a 27-yard field goal at the end of the second quarter, his shakiest kick of the season.
5. Brown no longer in defensive mix. The Giants' game-winning march, which covered 80 yards in 1 minute, 21 seconds, was aided by a 20-yard pass interference penalty by safety Sergio Brown at the 1-yard line. Brown came onto the field to replace Chung, who left with an injury, and it was his only snap of the game. Brown has since slipped even further down the depth chart, not playing in six of the final 10 games on defense. He's unlikely to be a factor on D this time around.
6. Turnovers were a killer. The Patriots had four turnovers in the game -- two interceptions and two lost fumbles (Brady and Julian Edelman). The first interception was a result of impressive athleticism from the Giants' linebackers, not biting on play-action and then dropping into the zone where Brady was trying to fire the ball into Deion Branch (linebacker Michael Boley tipped it to Mathias Kiwanuka as both dropped). Brady slammed a water bottle on the sideline afterward, as the offense was as sloppy as it has been all season (e.g. a 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty, delay-of-game penalty in third quarter).
7. Defense has evolved. At that point in the season, the defense was running more of a pure 4-3. The unit is much more multiple now, featuring more 3-4 looks. The Patriots also only showed the Giants a nickel sub package (five defensive backs). In the second half of the season, they have introduced more of the dime (six DBs), with Edelman, Nate Jones and Sterling Moore being integrated into the mix. Edelman hadn't played defense at that point of the season, Moore was on the practice squad and Jones had yet to be signed.
8. Rotation at center. On the fifth series of each half, the Patriots replaced center Dan Connolly with backup Ryan Wendell. Connolly had a high shotgun snap in the first half and was replaced on the next series. Given the history between these teams and how the Giants attacked the interior of the offensive line with Justin Tuck in Super Bowl XLII with the idea of moving Brady off the spot, the center position bears watching. Connolly has been solid since returning from injury to start the team's past four games.
9. Solid tackling by both teams. The Patriots' offense is at its best when pass-catchers are making plays after the catch, but the Giants did an excellent job limiting that damage. On the other side, the Patriots also tackled fairly well. This was a game where if it was third-and-9, the defense was making the sound tackle at 8 yards. These are two fundamentally sound, disciplined teams.
10. Very few empty packages. The Patriots like to empty the backfield on offense, but in doing so, it puts more pressure on the offensive line to hold up with little help. Perhaps in a show of respect to the Giants' defensive front, they seldom went empty in the Nov. 6 meeting, instead running more compact formations (and the Giants' front still had its way through the first three quarters). Will they let the Giants' personnel dictate that approach again in Super Bowl XLVI? Or will the Patriots look at how the Giants' attacking defense tired at the end of the game and up the tempo out of their empty sets, hoping the line holds up? That's a good strategy question to dissect in the coming week-plus.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.