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Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Confidence or concern for Pats fans?

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

Taking the temperature of emailers to the Patriots mailbag, the Super Bowl XLVI matchup against the Giants isn't inspiring confidence. I'm a bit surprised at that.

The Patriots have won 10 straight games while proving to be a mentally tough team in the process. There is a lot to like about the team heading into this high-stakes type of environment, although I'm not getting that vibe from a lot of the emails.

You be the judge.

Q: Mike, I don't know how good I feel about this one. How are the Patriots going to slow down the Giants' pass rush, and stop their passing attack? I think the Giants will be able to run the ball as well. If the Patriots can't give Brady the utmost protection, or the Giants get the Patriots into too many obvious passing situations, it will be real tough for the Patriots. As big of a diehard fan I am, I don't think I can pick the Patriots in this one. Please enlighten me and give me some confidence for Sunday. -- Sami (Boston)

A: Sami, I'm surprised at how many media members I have spoken with here at the Super Bowl that really like the Giants in this game. I like the Giants as a team, and believe they are the type of squad that is a tough matchup for the Patriots with their ability to rush the passer, but I think New England has a great chance to win this game. It's going to take the full 60 minutes and defenses could fade late, as we've seen in past indoor Super Bowls. I like the fight the Patriots have shown all season and believe it will be on display again Sunday.

Q: Mike, it seems that most of the national media is focusing on the Giants and how their dominant D-line & offensive weapons led by Eli Manning should easily win the Super Bowl. Basically it seems like they aren't giving the Pats much of a chance. I know that the Giants have done exceptionally well during the playoffs, but isn't this the team that went 9-7 in the regular season? Why isn't it as likely that team shows up? -- David (Juneau, Alaska)

A: David, I think a big part of it is that the Giants have generated strong momentum in the playoffs, so they enter the Super Bowl on a roll. And while the Patriots are on a 10-game winning streak, they also lost to the Giants on Nov. 6. So combining those two thoughts, that probably explains why the Giants are viewed by many as the team with a better chance to win. I don't necessarily see it that way, but I understand the overall dynamic. I do think you bring up a good point. Often, we are influenced by what we just saw, instead of a more full body of work. It's easy to forget that the Giants had to win in the final week of the regular season just to get into the playoffs.

Q: Mike, this is a pretty aggravating matchup in my opinion. I spent part of last week in NY on business and it was exactly what I anticipated. With all the pundits laughing at our defense, saying how overmatched our o-line is, and picking the Giants, their fans are celebrating prematurely while still claiming an underdog role. To me it's having their cake and eating it too. How do you think the Pats players feel about the way they're being perceived and do you think it's good or bad pressure? -- ECF400 (DC)

A: This Patriots team has shown a lot of mental toughness over the course of the season. While teams can manufacture motivation in different ways, I don't think that will play a major role in what happens Sunday night. It will be about on-field execution. I wouldn't sleep on the Patriots' defense. It has been playing much better of late.

Q: Hi Mike, can't the Pats prevent some of the defensive schemes the Giants want to run by playing in the hurry-up offense? How do the Giants put 4 DEs on the field on third and long if you're playing in the hurry-up? The Pats can snap the ball and get a too-many-men-on-the-field penalty. By playing the hurry-up the Pats can change some of the things the Giants want to do on defense. Your thoughts? -- Jim C (Seminole, Fla.)

A: Jim, I think the hurry-up is one of the Patriots' most effective weapons. I expect to see some of it Sunday. The Patriots have to manage it wisely, though, because in a longer-than-normal game, they don't want players to fade.

Q: Mike, I was hoping that you could dig out some of your Week 9 statistics for the game between the Pats and the Giants. What I would like to know is the breakdown of the percentage of snaps played by each offensive and defensive player. In watching some of the highlights, it is clear we have upgraded on defense. -- Marty Cormier (Toronto)

A: You got it, Marty. As we can see, there are some new faces, particularly on defense. Here are the snaps -- offense and defense.

Q: Not to be negative here, but do the Patriots really have any shot of stopping the Giants' offense? The Pats gave up nearly 5,000 passing yards this season despite playing only two games against top ten QBs (Rivers, Manning). Last week they let Flacco, an average at best QB, throw for over 300 yards (and Flacco left a lot of yards on the field by missing throws and missing receivers). Now they are playing a red-hot QB playing probably the best football of his career, and are playing a team with a number of weapons and a balanced offense. Unless the Giants self-destruct, I just don't see the Pats' patchwork defense holding Eli in check. Please give me a reason to think otherwise? -- Andrew Gordon

Tom Brady and Eli Manning
Eli Manning threw for 250 yards and two TDs in Week 9 when the Giants beat the Patriots.

A: Andrew, that Giants offense does look like a tough matchup. I can understand the concern. As for the 5,000-yard mark, I think it needs more context, because the D played well inside the red zone and kept points down. If that formula continues Sunday, I do think this defense can hold the Giants down a bit. Also, we see weekly examples of how turnovers can change the complexion of a game, and the Giants have shown a tendency to turn it over at times.

Q: The Patriots targeted eight RBs for passes in the first Giants game. It was the most the Patriots have targeted RBs all season. I understand that every game is different but might this be something that they will do even more of in the Super Bowl? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)

A: Good observation, David. This could be a big Danny Woodhead/Kevin Faulk type of game, as they excel as pass-catchers out of the offensive backfield.

Q: Hi Mike, given recent performances, the Patriots defensive line should hold its own but the defensive backs are quite worrisome. Eli Manning and his receivers are sure to target them regularly, if not mercilessly, while the lack of upgrade options makes things more dire. Your thoughts? -- Jake Malone (Vancouver, British Columbia)

A: Jake, this is a matchup that has to concern the Patriots. We've seen some moving parts in the secondary and I wouldn't be surprised if there are different combinations against the Giants' hard-to-handle three-receiver set. One thought from here is that the Patriots could employ a different secondary in the red zone, maybe bringing on Antwaun Molden (6-foot-1, 198 pounds) for some more size at an outside cornerback spot. If I had to guess how the Patriots would align in a sub defense between the 20-yard lines, I think they'll go with Devin McCourty and Sterling Moore as outside corners, with Kyle Arrington in the slot. That puts Patrick Chung and James Ihedigbo at safety.

Q: Bill Belichick seems a lot more relaxed than he ever has been, and this is concerning for a fan. Having said this, do you think the team as a whole is doing a good job of focusing and preparing for the game? -- Andrew (Conn.)

A: Andrew, I do think the Patriots have had a good few days of practice (Thursday, Friday of last week; Monday this week) and have generated some positive momentum by winning 10 straight games heading into Super Bowl XLVI. I feel they will take their best shot and that they have something special going on within that team.

Q: Should we be concerned about this new relaxed Bill Belichick? This seems like the kind of relaxed attitude that one might take when they are close to moving on or retiring. I've taken it for granted that he'll stick around as long as Tom Brady does, but the abrupt change in attitude towards the media seems to indicate something else might be going on. -- PatsFanBrian

A: Brian, I don't think that's what is in play here. More than anything, I think it's a reflection of how much Bill Belichick likes this team. It's a topic I wrote on for a piece now posted on ESPNBoston.com. Expect the tone/mood to turn more serious as the week progresses and the game gets closer.

Q: Mike, is it true that Sebastian Vollmer is an "upgrade" from Nate Solder at this point? While I love Seabass, he's missed about 8-10 weeks now and he's sure to be rusty if we throw him against Jason Pierre-Paul & Justin Tuck. My memory from Week 1 is that Solder rose to the occasion against Cameron Wake. -- Tom (Boston)

A: Tom, I think Solder rose to the occasion in a lot of games this season. I also think you're right that it's asking a lot for Vollmer to step back in and go wire to wire after missing all that time. I think both would play if Vollmer is ultimately active in Super Bowl XLVI. We've seen the Patriots adopt a rotation at times along the offensive line, with one example coming when Ryan Wendell subbed in for a returning Logan Mankins on the fifth series of each half.

Q: Hi Mike, is there any chance of Solder catching any passes? How are his hands? If Vollmer is able to come back for the Super Bowl and Solder gets some more time as a tight end, it seems to me that slipping him out to catch one in the end zone might be a wrinkle that would catch the Giants off guard. I mean, he's even taller than Gronkowski, isn't he? Do you think it's possible? -- Jim from Denver (Denver)

A: Jim, this is possible, as Solder has released into pass routes a few times this year. He's 6-8 and 319 pounds, while Gronkowski is 6-6, 265 pounds. Solder's hands are good, a result of him having previously been a tight end upon his arrival at Colorado.

Q: Hey Mike, with all the talk of Vollmer coming back and the possible use of the 3-TE formation in the run game, can we get some stats posted to the blog on how good the Patriots run from that formation? Naked eye tells me they don't do it all that often or well but I tend to focus on the negative sometimes so maybe I'm missing something. -- Chris (Texas)

A: Chris, I couldn't dig up the stats on this, but one thought came to mind. The first play of the Nov. 6 game between the Patriots and Giants came out of that package and it was an 18-yard jaunt by BenJarvus Green-Ellis. They also pass out of it at times and have been effective with that.

Q: Assuming that Gronk is considerably less than 100 percent and if Vollmer is healthy and starts, do the Patriots use Solder as a TE and run the ball much more than they have in recent weeks? The Giants ranked 19th against the run and given the previous struggles of the Pats o-line protecting Brady against the Giants, wouldn't running the ball make some sense? -- Andy (New London, N.H.)

A: Andy, the Patriots had Solder on as a tight end for 23 of 78 snaps in the Nov. 6 meeting against the Giants, so it was part of their mindset earlier this year. I think part of what offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien will balance is sticking with what got them there (e.g., no-huddle, quick passing game), while ensuring there is some balance. That was one of the things that stood out to me from that early-season meeting -- the Patriots really worked hard to establish the run early. They just ran into trouble because they were playing on such a long field and had more chances to make errors.

Q: If you had to guess right now, Mike, which of these players is active and which are inactive Sunday: Vollmer, Faulk, Vereen and Ridley. Others on the fence? Surprises? -- DeansDesk (Rumford, R.I.)

A: Dean, here would be my guesses for inactive players: QB Ryan Mallett, RB Shane Vereen, RB Stevan Ridley, LB Gary Guyton, DL Ron Brace, OL Donald Thomas, OL Marcus Cannon.

Q: Hi Mike, from my point of view, the 2012 NFL season proved that the success of a team begins at the top. Mr. Kraft was a key component for ending the NFL lockout. Accountability. Doing your job. Working hard. Even spirituality. What do you think? -- Memo Alfaro (Tijuana, Mexico)

A: Memo, I believe the owner of any franchise sets the tone, and I think Robert Kraft runs a first-class organization. Here's what linebacker Jerod Mayo said about this topic Dec. 18 in an ESPNBoston.com story: "I think it starts with the coaches. As a matter of fact, it might go higher than that, to the owner. He's had a rough year. He comes in each and every day and goes to work, and we see that model. It trickles down to the rest of us."

Q: Hey Mike, do you agree with the comments about the Pats and Giants not being great teams? I mean, they did what they had to do to get to the Super Bowl, so I guess I don't understand why they are being talked about as "flawed" teams to the extent they are. With the exception of the 2007 Pats team, isn't every team flawed? Even the 2007 team was talked about as "a little old" on the defensive side. -- Rick (Pelham, N.H.)

A: Rick, I'm with you on this one. I think every team is flawed. These two teams have earned their place in Super Bowl XLVI. I'm looking forward to a good game.

Q: Mike, could you comment on a guy who I think is one of the most overlooked key players on the Patriots, Rob Ninkovich? I think he's turned himself into a really, really solid player. He does everything on the field pretty well and is not a liability in any facet of the game. I believe that championship teams need guys like Rob Ninkovich. Thoughts? -- Pat (Worcester, Mass.)

A: I agree, Pat. Ninkovich has become a four-down player in the Patriots' scheme. It's a testament to his hard work. Another consideration is that he isn't a big hit on the team's salary cap.

Q: Hi Mike. You mentioned how sincere Stephen Gostkowski was in consoling Billy Cundiff after his missed kick. What exactly did he do? -- Cortez (Oakland)

A: Cortez, the two spent time together on the field after the game and Gostkowski seemed quite affected by what he was going through. Even the next day, Gostkowski was protective of Cundiff when asked by reporters.

Q: Mike, I think Julian Edelman is a great athlete but I question why he is playing over DB Nate Jones. If Jones has fallen out of favor then why is he on the roster? We need experienced cover guys and Edelman is a huge liability. Why does Coach Belichick continue to play Edelman over Jones? -- David Ostrander (Lawrenceville, Ga.)

A: David, I think Edelman has performed better than Jones. If time permits, re-watch the Dec. 24 game against the Dolphins. Edelman looked like the better option to me in that game. Jones adds depth in the defensive backfield, as well as some position flexibility.

Q: Hi Mike, what happened to Shane Vereen this year? -- Kris (Abington, Mass.)

A: Kris, it was a quiet rookie season for Vereen, who played in five games and had just 25 offensive snaps. I think it was a combination of factors. He came to training camp late and then missed practice time with a hamstring injury. He later had another hamstring injury. I expect more out of him next season.

Q: Mike, does Ryan Mallett still exist? I've heard nothing about him all season. -- (Bangkok)

A: Yes, Mallett is still on the 53-man roster. He was active for one game, the Week 3 contest in Buffalo. Here is a "football journey" feature I put together on him.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.