Saturday, February 4, 2012
Updated: February 5, 5:23 PM ET
Things to watch: Super Bowl XLVI
By Mike Reiss
INDIANAPOLIS -- After two weeks of hype leading into Super Bowl XLVI, let's narrow it all down. Sometimes the game can be this simple.
"We have to go out there," New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said, "and play a very clean game."
Brady wasn't clean in the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens, his two interceptions putting a black mark on his overall performance. And the Patriots certainly weren't clean in a 24-20 loss to the New York Giants on Nov. 6 in which they turned the ball over four times.
In a high-stakes environment such as the Super Bowl, the margin for error often is razor-thin. Every play counts. Every mistake is magnified.
From Brady to defensive lineman Vince Wilfork to long snapper Danny Aiken, the hope is to play air-tight football. After two weeks of preparation, coach Bill Belichick said he thought the team was ready.
On Sunday night, after what has seemed like an eternity, we'll find out how ready.
Here are some areas that project as key for the Patriots:
1. No-huddle attack. The Patriots have been lethal when stepping on the accelerator at times this season. They could be ready to unleash on the Giants, which they didn't do much of Nov. 6.
"We used it some in that game, with varying degrees of success," Belichick said. "Overall, it's been a change of pace for us. I think it forces the defenses to play at a different tempo where they can't fall into a natural rhythm.
"It just puts a little more stress on our defensive opponents to prepare for more things, more personnel groups, faster pace, change of formation, communication, things like that," Belichick continued. "If we can do it better than they can, it's an advantage. If it slows us down or if it hinders us in some aspect in being able to attack our opponents, we won't use that and will do something else."
With the game being played indoors and with a longer-than-normal halftime break, the conditioning of each team will be key.
Could the Patriots be planning to tire out the Giants by going up-tempo?
2. Pass protection. This can't be a repeat of Super Bowl XLII. The Patriots like the empty set and figure to spread out the Giants at times, which can put more pressure on the offensive line. The Giants controlled the line in XLII, but one could make the case the Patriots are better equipped to control it this time around, with stronger personnel up front.
3. Start with the run on defense. Although the Giants had a poor season on the ground statistically, this still figures to be the area on which the Patriots' defense focuses first. The idea would be to limit the running of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, with the hope of turning the Giants into a one-dimensional attack so the defense can scheme to limit some of the matchups that could hurt the Patriots in obvious passing situations. This is where it helps that eight-year lineman Wilfork is playing some of the best football of his career. His performance will go a long way toward determining whether the Patriots can control things up front.
4. Staying out of second-and-long and third-and-long situations. The Giants' defense can be lethal when pinning its ears back in obvious passing situations. Belichick made the point this week that if the Patriots' offense is in second-and-long and third-and-long situations, it's probably going to be a long night. Thus, winning on first down is crucial to keeping the offense on schedule. It's an area in which the Patriots excelled during the regular season, ranking fourth in the NFL by averaging 6.39 yards per first-down play.
5. Winning the field position game on special teams. The Giants were excellent in this area in the 24-20 win over the Patriots on Nov. 6. Consider that in the first half, Patriots drives started on their own 5, 6, 17, 20, 11 and 9 yard lines, which starts to explain why the offense was held scoreless. With more field to drive, there was more margin for error. That contributed to the Patriots' not playing clean.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.