Thursday, February 2, 2012
Updated: February 3, 10:44 AM ET
Who should be Super Bowl favorite?
By John Clayton
Did Las Vegas get it wrong?
Vegas installed the New England Patriots as three-point favorites for Super Bowl XLVI, but the feeling you get in Indianapolis is that the New York Giants should be the favorites. They've won the last two meetings, one in the regular season and the other in Super Bowl XLVII. Eli Manning has been as hot a quarterback as Tom Brady. The Giants' defense has been destroying quarterbacks lately while the Patriots' defense has been completely beatable.
It's been argued that this is clearly the worst defense coach Bill Belichick ever brought to a Super Bowl. The best coverage players in the Pats' secondary were undrafted. The pass rush has been spotty at best. Brady has shown problems with teams that can cover and have a great pass rush.
The regular season seems forgotten. The Patriots won 13 games. The Giants are trying to be the first 9-7 team to win a Super Bowl. But the Pats' regular-season schedule was easy. They didn't beat a team with a winning record until the AFC Championship Game.
Still, the Pats have Brady's passing and Belichick's mind along with an extra week of preparation. The Pats go into this game feeling they are the underdogs even though Vegas gives them the edge over the Giants.
Here are the 10 things to look at during the Super Bowl.
1. You can't spell elite without E-L-I: In Indianapolis, a city dominated by Peyton Manning, Eli Manning continues to grow as an elite quarterback. He's vying for his second Super Bowl ring, which would give him one more than his brother, a future Hall of Fame QB. Giants coaches rave about how Manning continues to evolve as a leader. Head coach Tom Coughlin notes that Manning schedules a receivers-only meeting each Friday to show them tape and recommend how he wants routes run. Brady does that, and it's one of the reasons he's one of the game's best quarterbacks. Eli took some unfair criticism before the start of the season for saying -- while answering a direct question -- that he believes he is an elite quarterback. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said Manning expands his knowledge of offenses each year. He threw for 4,933 yards and 29 touchdowns and was the best fourth-quarter thrower in football this year. He had an NFL-record 15 TD passes in final quarter.
2. Differences from the slot: Super Bowl XLVI features the game's best slot receivers -- Wes Welker of the Patriots and Victor Cruz of the Giants. Normally, good slot receivers catch 80 to 100 passes and average 11 yards a catch. Welker used his quick, elusive underneath moves to catch 122 passes this season with a 12.9-yard average. Cruz caught 82 passes but averaged an incredible 18.7 yards a catch. Welker's game is cutting underneath coverage and getting separation from defenders. Cruz, who has better speed, cuts his routes deeper. Both receivers are great at run-after-the-catch. The slot receiver has always been important in a Gilbride offense. That goes back to the days when Gilbride ran the run-and-shoot, an offense that required great slot receivers. Gilbride isn't ready yet to say Cruz is the best slot receiver he's been around. In fact, he mentioned that management wanted to cut Cruz before the season; the coaches had to campaign to keep him on the roster. During the season, there were times Cruz would follow a great play with a bad one because he's still learning the position.
3. The Gronk factor: As everyone knows, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has a high ankle sprain. Those normally require 4-6 weeks to heal, but Gronkowski was able to get back on the field for the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game. Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said the Giants will have several contingency plans for dealing with Gronk. The Patriots also will have several plans, because Gronk plans to play. It might be too much to ask him to run seam routes down the field, given his injury. He can still be effective in the short zone and in the red zone, where he towers over defenders. More of the receiving load will fall on Welker and tight end Aaron Hernandez. Part of the contingency plan for the Patriots revolves around how Gronk will respond in the first half and what to do in the second. It was fitting that the Patriots practiced a 31-minute halftime break during Wednesday's practice because Gronkowski will have to deal with his ankle injury at the half. Normal halftimes are 12 minutes. As Dwight Freeney of the Colts found out in Super Bowl XLIV, you can play a great first half with a bad leg injury, but the pain medication wears off and injured legs can stiffen during a long halftime. The Pats might have to get the most out of Gronk in the first half.
4. Will the "big nickel" cash in? Because the Giants are thin at linebacker, Fewell often replaces a linebacker with a third safety, Deon Grant. Any defense using three safeties is called "big nickel." The big nickel could match up well against the Patriots' two-tight end sets because it uses a cover player in place of a linebacker, who might struggle to cover. Fewell loves Grant because he's so smart. Grant has been around the league a long time as a safety -- he can play weak side or strong side, help with communication and quickly recognize how plays are unfolding.
5. How important will be the Giants' running game be? Ahmad Bradshaw continues to get healthier as he recovers from a broken bone in his foot. Brandon Jacobs is running harder and tougher. After a horrible regular season, the Giants' running game is coming back. As bad as the Patriots' defense is stopping the pass, it is pretty good at stopping the run. Because of defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, the Patriots match up pretty well against the Giants' offensive line. The interior of the Giants' O-line has struggled this season. Only eight holding penalties have been called during the 10 playoff games, and the Giants have six of them. The Giants can't let Wilfork dominate.
6. Slowing down the Giants' pass rush: This is the last game for Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, who leaves for Penn State on Monday. His biggest concern Sunday is stopping the Giants' pass rush, which had 34 sacks using four or fewer defenders, according to ESPN Stats & Information. To combat this, O'Brien has at least two tools in his toolbox: He can slow down the pass rush by throwing screens, and Brady can tire out the Giants by going no-huddle, which might exhaust the legs of the Giants' defenders by the sixth or seventh play of a drive. O'Brien acknowledges that he didn't use the screen as much as he could have this season. "We changed things up a little bit and we went to the two tight ends more," O'Brien said. "Probably with hindsight being 20-20, we could have used it more."
7. Understanding Bill Belichick's defense: Gilbride has been going against Belichick's defenses for years. The O-coordinator knows how creative Belichick is and knows to expect the unexpected. But Gilbride also knows Belichick's philosophies. Ultimately, Belichick runs a two-deep safety scheme. The last two weeks, Gilbride has been studying Belichick's blitzes. Gilbride said Belichick has an incredible sense of when to call the right blitz, so the O-coordinator has broken down tape of types of situations and the types of blitzes Belichick might use. That's part of a great chess game.
|Deon Grant is vital to New York's "big nickel" defense. Will the Giants cash in?|
8. The Patriots don't expect all man-to-man: Looking back at the Giants' regular-season win over the Patriots, O'Brien saw plenty of different looks. "It's more of a spin-the-dial scheme," O'Brien said. "There is some man, some zone, some man pressure, zone pressure, split-safety coverage, some post-safety zone coverage. It's hard to lock in and say, 'This is what they're going to do.'" Because Gronkowski is less than 100 percent, the Giants may play a little more man.
9. Brady's revenge: This game means a lot for the legacy of Brady. He's going for his fourth Super Bowl ring, and winning this game would put him with Joe Montana as the two greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Even though Brady would like to play 4-6 more years, he also realizes this might be his last chance for a Super Bowl ring. After going 18-0 and feeling on top of the world, Brady lost to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. It's taken him four years to get back to the Super Bowl. Rosters change significantly in four years, and Brady knows he comes in with an inferior defense. If it takes another four years to build the defense, the Patriots might not be a Super Bowl team again before his retirement.
10. Will the Patriots run to win? The Patriots take to the air for 59.5 percent of their offensive plays, but they might try a few more running plays to test the Giants' run-stopping ability. The Giants give up 121.6 rushing yards per game and allow 4.5 yards per run. From the no-huddle, Brady might try more shotgun handoffs to BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the other running backs. If it works, the Pats might have a more balanced offense than they've shown this season.
|Rob Gronkowski's injury may prompt the Giants to play a little more man-to-man coverage. |
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.