- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- On what he considered a bad day in terms of his performance, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady got his wish.
Super Bowl XLVI will give Brady a chance to rectify his only Super Bowl loss, the 2008 edition in which Eli Manning bested Brady with a game-winning fourth-quarter touchdown drive that featured numerous big or clutch plays. It was in that game the New York Giants took the fear factor away from the three-time Super Bowl champs.
The Giants tipped off to the rest of the world that the Patriots can be beaten. The Giants slowed New England's offensive weapons with man-to-man coverage. They got pressure around the feet of Brady to make him uncomfortable in the pocket. The Giants were able to crack holes in the Patriots' defense.
What followed was a three-year run in which the Patriots failed to win a playoff game. Though the Pats breezed through a 2011 schedule in which they didn't beat a team with a winning record until the AFC Championship Game, they will go to Indianapolis knowing how difficult it is to win playoff games and Super Bowls, something they were starting to take for granted.
"It's hard to win these games,'' Brady said. "It's hard to win games in the NFL because every team is very talented. We did enough here the last 10 weeks to win these games. I'm sure this next game is going to come down to the end and hopefully we have enough plays.''
What's great about this Super Bowl is both teams might be considered the hottest going to Indianapolis. Despite a 9-7 season, the Giants got healthier during the playoffs and played their most complete football. The Pats enter with a 10-game winning streak and the chance to be favorites in the Super Bowl -- again.
But as the Giants proved four years ago, being the favorites doesn't mean much when the game starts. It's how you finish that counts.
1. What is the history between these franchises? Including the Super Bowl, the Patriots lead the series 5-4, but the Giants have won the past two games. They shocked the world by beating the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, but they also won the regular-season game this season -- 24-20 in New England.
That game was classic Brady-Manning, almost like a Peyton Manning-Tom Brady game. The game was scoreless at the half. The Giants led 10-3 after three quarters. Then each quarterback exchanged scoring drives. Brady threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez to tie the game and led a field goal drive to take a 13-10 lead. Manning completed an 83-yard drive with 3:03 remaining by hitting Mario Manningham with a touchdown pass to give the Giants a 17-13 lead. Brady needed 90 seconds to drive 64 yards and hit Rob Gronkowski with a 14-yard touchdown pass to put the Pats ahead. With 1:36 left, Manning executed an 80-yard, eight play drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jake Ballard to win the game with 15 seconds left.
2. Which team has the most urgency? Without question, it's the Patriots. Brady qualified for his fifth trip to the Super Bowl by beating the Ravens 23-20 on Sunday, but his response to Patriots fans after the game was, "I sucked pretty bad today.'' Brady will be on a mission for the next two weeks. He felt badly he threw two interceptions. Against the Ravens, he wasn't particularly sharp, completing 22 of 36 passes for 239 yards and a horrible 57.5 passer rating. Brady and the Patriots settled for three field goals on drives and Brady didn't have his pinpoint accuracy.
"You beat yourself up,'' Brady said. "I've been doing this for quite a while. I'm glad we won, I'm glad we're moving on. Hopefully I can go out there and do better in a few weeks. I think offensively we can do better and that's what it's going to take."
When Brady is serious, his team is serious. He felt his last Super Bowl opportunity slipped away from him when the Pats lost to the Giants after the 2007 season. Brady tied Joe Montana with his 16th playoff victory Sunday. He and Bill Belichick became the first quarterback-coach duo to go to five Super Bowls. This time, though, he wants his ring.
3. What is the injury situation? As they were in the championship games, the teams are in good shape. The Patriots listed 14 players as questionable last week, but the only player who missed the Ravens game was tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who has back and foot problems. The extra week off, though, could give him a chance to play. The Pats had a scare in the third quarter when it appeared TE Rob Gronkowski he suffered a bad ankle injury. Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, who ended Brady's season in 2008 when he fell on Brady's knee, fell on the ankle of Gronkowski, who was taken to the locker room and had the ankle taped. He returned and finished the game.
Cornerback Kyle Arrington missed a couple of series with an eye injury, but he returned and finished the game. There will be questions about Brady maybe missing a practice or two, but he is fine. Weeks ago he suffered a slight left shoulder separation. His rehab caused him to miss practice on Wednesday, but he was off the injury report by the end of the week. He's fine.
The Giants suffered about five minor injuries in their 20-17 overtime victory over San Francisco, but most of the players were able to return. Linebacker Chase Blackburn re-injured a shoulder and could be a question mark. Safety Tyler Sash suffered a concussion Sunday. Center David Baas suffered a minor abdominal injury but was able to return. Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks banged up a shoulder but finished the game. Wide receiver Victor Cruz was banged up several times but played through the injuries.
4. How will the Giants try to contain Patriots TEs Gronkowski and Hernandez? Believe it or not, they won't be as successful as the Ravens. Brady threw 19 passes to Gronkowski and Hernandez on Sunday and completed 12 for 153 yards and no touchdowns. Against the Broncos, the tight ends combined for 14 catches, 200 yards and four touchdowns. Hernandez and Gronkowski caught 12 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns in the Giants' win over the Patriots earlier this season.
In some ways, the Giants won't have what the Ravens had in matching up against the two tight ends. What the Ravens did was try to match a cornerback, sometimes 6-foot-2 Jimmy Smith, against either Hernandez or Gronkowski. The Giants' corners are 5-foot-11 or 6-0, so they don't have the one big corner to take away the tall Pats tight ends. Instead of matching up in man, they may try to bracket the tight ends with a linebacker or corner underneath and a safety on top.
Teams almost have to concede Hernandez and Gronkowski are going to get 12 to 15 receptions. The key is not letting them get touchdown receptions, which the Ravens did Sunday.
5. Will the Super Bowl be a high-scoring game? Maybe not. In fact, you get the feeling both teams will be in the low 20s like they were earlier this season. Brady was mad at himself Sunday for settling for three field goals in the red zone.
"Offensively, I wish we would have done a little bit better in the red area; certainly not throw interceptions,'' Brady said. "I'm glad we won, glad we're moving on. We've won 10 straight, hopefully we can make it 11.''
The Patriots were the second-best team in football in the red zone during the regular season. They scored 47 touchdowns in 72 red-zone trips. The Pats were average with their red-zone defense, ranking as the 11th worst, giving up 34 touchdowns in 61 trips. They've improved in the playoffs, however, giving up two touchdowns in seven trips. The Giants also gave up 34 touchdown drives in 61 trips into the red zone. Offensively, the Giants were the eighth-best red-zone team with 32 touchdowns in 56 trips.
6. What is the toughest challenge for the Giants? It will be hard to run the football against the Patriots. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork is playing at his absolute best during the playoffs. Despite giving up 117 rushing yards a game during the regular season and 4.6 yards a carry, the Patriots have improved their run defense during the playoffs. They limited Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos -- who led the league in rushing --to 3.6 yards a carry in the divisional round. Ray Rice of the Ravens was held to 67 yards on 21 carries and the Ravens averaged only 3.7 yards on 31 carries.
"Vince was so on top of his game,'' linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "He was pointing to the ground before plays when he knew they were running plays and pointing to the air when he knew they were passing plays.''
Wilfork, who weighs in excess of 350 pounds, was unblockable against the Ravens. He consistently stuffed the run and either made the tackle behind the line of scrimmage or set it up for linebackers Mayo and Brandon Spikes to make tackles for short gains.
"I think, to be honest with you, on the run they just cut me loose,'' Wilfork said about a couple of key run stops late in the game. "I'm always taught when someone doesn't block you, it's a set-up. I don't know if they just just missed a block or if it was a set-up block. I just beat it.''
The Pats' run defense also improved in the past couple of weeks because Spikes is healthy along with safety Patrick Chung. Spikes and Chung each missed eight regular-season games.
7. What is the Giants' biggest concern going into this game? Blocking. In the Giants' victory over the 49ers, Manning was sacked six times, hurried 11 times and knocked down 19 times in 64 dropbacks. Giants coach Tom Coughlin has done a great job of patching the offensive line, and you knew there were going to have problems against the 49ers' tough front seven. Manning wasn't sacked in the first Patriots game but he was hit eight times. The Giants will have to control Mark Anderson, who is the Patriots' top remaining pass-rushing defensive end. He had 10 sacks during the regular season. They will problems handling Wilfork, whom the Ravens couldn't control. To have success, the Giants might have to pound big running back Brandon Jacobs into the line to wear down the Patriots, who run a 4-3.
8. Will the "let them play'' officiating trend continue? Probably. Officials have kept flags in their pockets. Early word is the league is considering John Parry as the Super Bowl ref. He was the ref for the 49ers-Saints playoff game and called only three penalties, including no holding calls. During the regular season, his crew averaged 15.8 flags a game, fourth-most among the 17 crews. His 2.7 holding penalties a game were among the highest.
But officials have let teams play during the postseason. Officials called an average of 8.1 penalties a game during the postseason and had only eight holding calls in 10 games. A Parry-officiated game tends to be exciting. His 47.3 points a game during the regular season was the fifth-highest total among the crews. The Giants have had six of the eight holding penalties, so they probably will be flagged. Remember, in Super Bowls, they use all-star crews.
9. Which coach has the biggest concerns? Go with Belichick, a defensive head coach who has major problems with his defense. The Patriots are the first team in Super Bowl history to go to the Super Bowl with a defense that gave up more than 360 yards a game in the regular season. The Patriots gave up 411.1 yards a game, but the 4,703 passing yards surrendered by the Pats during the regular season were the second worst in NFL history, second only to the 2011 Green Bay Packers.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco exposed more of those problems Sunday. Belichick's secondary looks like a frayed bandage on a big wound. Against the Ravens, the Pats used undrafted cornerback Kyle Arrington and former Pro Bowler Devin McCourty, who was the third-most burned cornerback this season (66 completions for 1,115 yards and six touchdowns). When the Pats go to three cornerbacks, McCourty moves to safety. His problem is press man coverage. He's not very good at press coverage and seems to work better in zone. On Sunday, Belichick moved safety Sterling Moore to cornerback and he played well even though he was beaten in the first quarter for a 42-yard completion by Torrey Smith. However, Moore made the "Immaculate Deflection'' when he stripped a potential game-winning pass from the hands of Lee Evans with 22 seconds, saving the victory. The problem? He didn't know the defensive call.
"I still don't know the call,'' Moore said more than an hour after the game. "When I saw Evans run the fade, which surprised me, I just covered him in man.''
There was serious confusion during the Ravens' final drive in the fourth quarter. Flacco was able to isolate slot receiver Anquan Boldin on Julian Edelman, a receiver helping out at corner. Boldin caught three passes on Edelman for 51 yards and then beat Nate Jones for a 9-yard pass when he filled in for Edelman on one play. Belichick uses receivers and undrafted players in his secondary and will be rebuilding the secondary after the Super Bowl, trying to find better talent.
10. Who's going to win Super Bowl XLVI? Though I write this without conviction, I'd give the edge to the Patriots. You just get the feeling there is a touch of destiny with this team that is tied to owner Robert Kraft, whose wife passed away last year. Players and the entire organization dedicated the season to her. Longtime Patriot followers believe it was Myra Kraft who somehow made Billy Cundiff miss his 32-yard field goal in the fourth quarter and helped Moore strip a potential game-winning touchdown pass from Evans.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
17hEric D. Williams
2dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo