Super Bowl XLVI preview

The big game will be won by the team who knows how to plug its leaks

Updated: February 1, 2012, 5:09 PM ET
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

Super Bowl weaknesses and strengthsIllustration by Sean McCabeOn Super Bowl Sunday, the key to the trophy will be covering weaknesses.

This story appears in the Feb. 6, 2012, "Recruiting Issue" of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

LET'S START WITH THE OBVIOUS: No matter what you hear during the hype of Super Bowl week, the inarguable fact is that the Giants and Patriots are not great teams. True, Super Sunday's matchup could have been much worse. Consider yourself fortunate to have been spared a game pitting Joe Flacco's dump-offs against Green Bay's alleged pass coverage, or T.J. Yates against Alex Smith, which basically would have been a 60-minute dissertation on why fifth-rounders might be better than No. 1 overall picks. And Tebow? Four words: Thank you, football gods.

But make no mistake, the Giants and Pats are seriously flawed. Both seem at once capable of defeating the best teams and losing to the mediocre ones. Opponents outscored the 9-7 Giants 400-394 during the regular season -- the same Giants who beat the 13-3 Patriots, who didn't defeat a team that finished above .500 until the AFC championship game.

Together they feature the two most porous defenses ever to play on Super Sunday. Call it the Romney Bowl, in which the finalists appear strong only because the rest of the field is so weak. But on Feb. 5, somehow, one of them will hoist the Lombardi trophy, and the winner will have followed an obvious but mysterious tenet common to all successful teams: masking their deficiencies better than their opponents. "Winning this time of year is about keeping teams off your ass," says Charles Woodson, whose Packers failed to keep the Giants off theirs. "Teams try to cover up their holes in preparation because they know whatever can be exploited will be exploited."

The Patriots defense, for example, was so bad during the first half of the season that defensive guru Bill Belichick now has former first-round cornerback Devin McCourty playing safety on many downs, former Raiders practice-squad member Sterling Moore at corner and college quarterback-turned-pro slot receiver Julian Edelman as a key defender in the team's nickel packages. Add it all up and you have a defense that gave up more first downs than any other team in the NFL this year playing for a championship -- and Tom Brady earning every dime of his $18 million paycheck.

You'd think that such gaping holes would have undone a team long before Super Sunday. But in 2011, more than any other recent season, fatally flawed teams ended up in the playoffs. The 8-8 Broncos, with a quarterback whose phenomenon far eclipsed his passing ability, won a playoff game by throwing relentlessly on Pittsburgh's (cough, cough) top-ranked defense. The Texans reached the divisional round with Yates under center -- in August, he'd been a third-string rookie. Four of the six NFC playoff teams allowed 350-plus points during the season; last year, only two did. Even the Packers, who flirted with a 16-0 season, never seemed invincible, mostly because their defense couldn't stop anyone, whether it was Chiefs QB Kyle Orton making his first start for his second team of the season or Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks snagging a Hail Mary as obvious as any play all year.

As much as coaches talk about playing to their strengths, they're mostly obsessed with what their players can't do. And players tend to divide their leaders into two groups: "we can't" coaches and "we can ... if" coaches. The former group fixates only on the worst-case scenario.

Think Mike Mularkey, Atlanta's former offensive coordinator who was just hired as Jacksonville's head coach. In the wild-card round, it was no secret that Atlanta's offensive line couldn't pass-block the Giants' front four. But instead of devising ways to keep the rush at bay, Mularkey choked up, calling only runs and short passes. His worries became a self-fulfilling prophecy: The Giants loaded the line, unafraid to blitz a team too scared to fight back. That's why dismayed Falcons receiver Roddy White complained to the media afterward that Atlanta had played right into New York's hands.

The Giants, meanwhile, attacked the Falcons defense despite having an average offensive line and running backs. New York followed that 24-2 rout of Atlanta by going after the Packers and the 49ers. It was classic risk-taking by a "we can ... if" coach in Tom Coughlin. He and Belichick, cut from the same Bill Parcells coaching cloth, tell their teams that they're not good enough to win on pure talent alone, before explaining that they can win if they play fast and smart. It's a motto of sorts: As long as we recognize we're screwed, we might be less screwed. The Pats help aging left tackle Matt Light by throwing a lot of quick passes. That's how Brady ended up with 2,966 yards passing on throws of 10 yards or fewer. No wonder New England has struggled when teams take away its short game. The Packers and Saints -- both of whom masked awful defenses with a barrage of blitzes -- subscribe to the same philosophy. "The remedy for covering up is playing fast," says Packers cornerback Tramon Williams. "Even if you don't know what you're doing, if you play fast, it will cover it up."

While every team tries to hide weaknesses, the Giants and Patriots are in the Super Bowl because they often turn those weaknesses into strengths. For example, Pats receiver Deion Branch is no longer a deep threat, but he can bust long against the right defender at the right time. Against the Broncos in the divisional round of the playoffs, Brady faked the run, and safety David Bruton drifted toward the middle of the field. At the same time, Branch sped upfield, and Brady hit him for a 61-yard score. "Most playbooks have so much, you can adapt it to your players," says Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. "You just have to pick your spots."

But in the end, football is a zero-sum game. Coaches can patch up defects for only so long. The Lions and Saints exited the playoffs when their defenses finally did them in. The Bengals, Texans and Broncos went as far as they could with inexperienced quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers spent all season successfully covering for his leaky offensive line with his nimble feet -- until the Giants completely collapsed his pocket in the playoffs. By the conference championships, the Ravens defense could no longer bail out its offense and kicking game, and the 49ers, with a roster largely unchanged from last year's 6-10 squad, reached the end of the overachieving line.

The final two teams may not be great, but they're the best of the good enough, and that's nothing to apologize for. After all, Lombardi trophies don't discriminate.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.

Seth Wickersham

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs. Email him and follow him on Twitter at @sethwickersham.