With kickoff of Super Bowl XLVI rapidly approaching, what are some of the bigger questions surrounding Sunday’s title game?
1. Can Brady shake out of his Giant funk?
There are just some teams that Tom Brady doesn’t play well against. Entering this year’s AFC championship game, Brady’s completion percentage in five career outings against the Ravens was 55.9, which was his lowest against any team in the league. So it wasn’t any wonder while he compiled a 57.5 QB rating in a lackluster 239-yard, two-interception performance versus Baltimore two Sundays ago. Now he faces a New York team that, again, for whatever reason, he’s had trouble beating. From a passer-rating standpoint, Brady had his worst performance of the season in a Week 9 home loss to the Giants. His quarterback rating of 75.4 in the 24-20 loss was only slightly worse than his 82.5 rating in Super Bowl XLII back in 2008. Save for his 356-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Giants in Week 17 of the ’07 regular season, Brady has struggled to beat this New York team. Following his poor performance, he reportedly told owner Robert Kraft in the locker room following the AFC title game that he would play better in Super Bowl XLVI. For a quarterback that has largely been viewed as cool, calm and collected, it’s not a stretch to think that Brady is feeling the pressure of potentially losing yet another game to the Giants.
2. Can the Patriots slow the Giants’ pass rush?
These two teams have met three times since December of 2007 and during that span the Giants have sacked Brady a total of eight times (including five times in their Super Bowl victory in February of ’08). New York uses four defensive ends in passing situations, which is something no other team can boast. Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks), Justin Tuck (5 sacks), Osi Umenyiora (9 sacks in just nine games) and Dave Tollefson (five sacks) can line up at the same time because Pierre-Paul and Tuck have the ability to play inside. The Giants also have the option of playing a combination of three of those ends with Mathias Kiwanuka (3.5 sacks), who is a highly versatile role player. It’s no coincidence that Brady struggled in New England’s 24-20 home loss to New York in Week 9 considering that was one of the games Umenyiora was healthy for. When the Giants can dress all five of their pass rushers they’re a completely different defense – a defense that the Patriots and their usually solid group of pass blockers has had trouble with in the past two meetings with New York.
3. Can the Pats’ defense slow down all of the Giants’ weapons?
The Giants’ offense doesn’t receive nearly enough attention for how explosive it is. In a lot of ways, that’s a direction reflection of how some view Eli Manning, who also doesn’t receive the recognition he deserves for being a quarterback that can put pressure on a defense with his playmaking ability. For all of the attention that the Giants’ pass rush has received lately, without Manning’s outstanding play the Giants wouldn’t have won nine games this season. They wouldn’t have made the playoffs, upset the Packers at Lambeau, or have an opportunity to make it two-for-two against the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Granted, Manning has had help. Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz have been outstanding for a New York passing attack that stacks up to any offense in the league outside of maybe New Orleans, New England and Green Bay. Mario Manningham is also a weapon in the vertical game because he can attack a defense along the seam, which is important seeing as how New York doesn’t have a Jimmy Graham-type at tight end. Throw in Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs (who both have awoken from their season-long slumber) and yes, the Giants offense is that good. That said, New England’s red-zone defense has allowed just two touchdowns in seven opportunities throughout the playoffs, as Denver went 1-of-3 inside the 20 in the Divisional round and Baltimore went 1-of-4 in the AFC title game. Statically speaking the Patriots weren’t very good defensively this season. But they’re starting to come together on that side of the ball so it’ll be interesting to see who wins the Giants’ O vs. Patriots D matchup come Sunday.
4. Will Belichick continue to make sound second-half adjustments?
Baltimore has been the only team in the past seven weeks that has matched New England after halftime. The Ravens and Patriots each scored 10 points apiece in the second half of last Sunday’s AFC championship game, but other than that New England has killed teams in the final two quarters. The Pats have allowed an average of 5.7 second-half points in their last six games, which is an indication that Bill Belichick and his coaching staff are making sound in-game and halftime adjustments. In fact, New England has outscored opponents 111-34 in the second half over their past six games so it’ll be interesting to see how Sunday’s game plays out. If the Giants build a first-half lead, can they sustain it?
5. How effective will the “Gronk” be?
At this point the question isn’t whether Rob Gronkowsi will play but rather how effective will he be. This isn’t the same situation as last year with Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey, who never really had a realistic shot of playing in the Super Bowl after suffering a high ankle sprain in the AFC championship game, because Gronk is going to play. But remember two years ago when Colts’ defensive end Dwight Freeney tore a ligament in his right ankle late in the AFC title game versus the Jets, played in the Super Bowl but was largely ineffective? Will Gronk be the same player he was for the Pats during the regular season or will he serve as merely a decoy in passing situations? We already know that Gronkowski will likely need his left ankle scoped following Sunday’s game so it’s not unrealistic to believe he could be severely limited. Granted, the Pats do have Aaron Hernandez, who not unlike Gronkowski is a weapon from the slot or tight end position. But the “Gronk” was nearly unstoppable this season and is a major mismatch against defensive backs and linebackers. The Patriots need him to be as healthy as possible if their offense is going to fire on all cylinders.
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Tags: 2012 Super Bowl, Bill Belichick, Dave Tollefson, Eli Manning, Hakeem Nicks, Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, New England Patriots, New York Giants, Osi Umenyiora, Patriots vs Giants, Rob Gronkowski, Rob Gronkowski ankle, Rob Gronkowski injury, Super Bowl Preview, Super Bowl XLVI, Tom Brady, victor cruz