On Wednesday I discussed the three keys to victory for the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI. On Thursday, it’s the Patriots’ turn.
1. Brady has to be Brady.
We can talk until we’re blue in the face about whether or not New England’s defense will continue to play well. But the fact of the matter is that when Brady isn’t throwing for 400-plus yards and turning in one of those Tom Brady-type performances, the Patriots have looked very beatable this season. The week before the Pats lost to the Giants during the regular season, they lost to the Steelers 25-17 in Pittsburgh. In that game, Brady completed 24-of-35 passes, threw for two touchdowns and compiled a passer rating of 101.8. But he threw for just 198 yards as the Steelers kept everything in front of them and made more plays in the end. A week later Brady threw for 342 yards and two touchdowns but he also tossed two interceptions in a 24-20 loss to the Giants. Now, it’s not far to pin either of those losses solely on Brady and I’m not. But my point is that when he’s not Superman flying around in his red cape, the Pats look rather ordinary. Thus, this is Brady’s game to lose. He turned in a very lackluster performance two weeks ago in the AFC championship game versus the Ravens and privately promised owner Bob Kraft that he would play better in the Super Bowl. He better, because while the Patriots rely on him too much, if he isn’t Tom Brady then there’s a good chance that the G-Men will once again get the best of New England.
2. Pass protect or fall.
While they did allow two sacks, the Patriots’ offensive line actually did a very good job keeping the Giants’ front four in check when these two teams met during the regular season. (Jason Pierre-Paul had one sack but the other came from outside linebacker Michael Boley.) The Giants are most effective when they can generate pressure from the interior of their defensive line. When they get a push from up the middle, they don’t allow the quarterback to step up in the pocket and thus avoid pressure coming from the outside. The biggest concern for the Patriots is center Dan Connolly, who has struggled in pass protection all season. If he can’t raise the level of his play then the Patriots could have a mess on their hands when it comes to keeping Tom Brady upright. The other concern is Sebastian Vollmer, who was arguably the Pats’ best offensive lineman in that Week 9 loss to the Giants. Sidelined since Week 12 with back and ankle injuries, Vollmer is expected to be active this Sunday but how effective will he be? And will he start or will he serve in more of a swing role? New England can’t juggle its offensive line throughout the game and expect perfect results – especially inside a dome where noise could be a factor. That said, the Patriots have a top-10 line when it comes to pass protection so if Connolly can hold his own with Logan Mankins and Brian Waters in the middle, then New England might be able to neutralize New York’s fierce pass rush. Or at least they better play well or else the Pats’ offense could struggle all game.
3. The Pats must be solid on the back end.
For all intents and purposes, Kyle Arrington, James Ihedigbo and Patrick Chung struggled in coverage two weeks ago versus the Ravens. And while Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin are certainly respectable receivers, they don’t bring the same skill set to the field as Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. The thing that New England’s defense does best is stop the run. But the Giants aren’t coming into this game thinking that if they can just get Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw going that they’ll win. No, they’re going to throw the ball in the climate-friendly dome that the Colts call a home because that’s what they do best and that’s where they can take advantage of potentially mismatches. Thus, if the Patriots don’t play well on the backend then they’re going to be in trouble. Nicks and Cruz are serious vertical threats on the outside but Mario Manningham is also a danger to work the seam. Thus, all three levels have to be good in pass coverage on Sunday or else the Pats could be victimized through the air. Their pass rush has been inconsistent this season and if they can’t generate pressure then it’ll be up to Chung and Co. to step up. Granted, guys like Devin McCourty and Sterling Moore have played well throughout the season. But to borrow that old phrase: You’re only as strong as your weakest link. New England’s defense has steadily improved from the second half of the season up to this point. Now it’s time for them to put together their best performance of the year.