Ten Observations from Week 11 in the NFL

1. Losing Gronkowski is a killer for Patriots.
Bill Belichick always finds a way. When Randy Moss became a nuisance in 2010 and the Patriots eventually decided to trade him, Belichick revamped his offense to feature rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Instead of attacking teams vertically with Moss, New England started going down the seam to its tight ends while mixing in a variety of screens (a staple in the Pats offense). So losing Gronkowski for 4-6 weeks due to a broken forearm isn’t going to completely derail the Patriots. They’re going to win the AFC East and they’ll probably wind up hosting a playoff game come January. But make no mistake: losing Gronkowski changes a lot for New England. Including Sunday’s 59-24 win over the Colts, “Gronk” had 37 touchdowns in 42 career games. He’s solidified himself as one of the most dangerous red-zone threats in the game and is perhaps the best player at his position. Indianapolis didn’t have an answer for him on Sunday and most teams usually don’t. He’s too fast for tight ends and he’s too big for safeties or cornerbacks. Double him and you’ll leave Wes Welker open in space, or create holes for New England’s shredding running game. The Patriots didn’t just lose a playmaker – they lost the most productive player on their roster not named Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr. Again, Belichick will find a way to keep his offense firing on all cylinders (the return of Herndandez will help). But he just lost one hell of a piston.

2. The blueprint on how to beat the Falcons has been revealed.
Coming into this week, the most interceptions Matt Ryan had thrown in one game was three. He matched that total in the first quarter of the Falcons’ fortunate 23-16 win over the Cardinals on Sunday, and threw two more interceptions before the completion of the game. It’s fair to point out that one interception went off Roddy White’s hands while two more were tipped at the line of scrimmage. But the other two picks were all Ryan, who perhaps had the worst game of his career. Ray Horton put together a brilliant game plan, dialing up a heavy array of blitzes while bringing pressure up the middle. Arizona only sacked Ryan once, but the Atlanta QB was constantly under duress and had someone in his face all game. With Julio Jones limited due to an ankle injury, the Cardinals were also smart to play bump and run on the outsides. Ryan threw for 301 yards but Arizona turned his five interceptions into 16 points. If the Cardinals had something even remotely resembling a NFL quarterback on their roster, they would have won the game easily. Instead, Horton handed other defensive coordinators a blueprint on how to corral the Falcon offense. Pressure Ryan up the middle, play physical on the outsides, and bracket Tony Gonzalez in coverage and you’ll limit what Atlanta can do. Granted, that’s easier said than done but thanks to the cemented-footed Michael Turner, it’s not as if the Falcons can lean on their running game in efforts to mix things up. Considering they may face aggressive defenses like San Francisco and Chicago in the playoffs, the one-dimensional Falcons have legitimate concerns despite being 9-1.

3. Manning is now the clear choice for MVP.
Save for his disastrous five-interception effort on Sunday, Matt Ryan has been phenomenal for the Falcons this season. He’s having a career year and if the MVP award were to be handed out tomorrow, one could easily make an argument that he’s deserving of the honor. But if you were looking for an MVP favorite right now, it would have to be Peyton Manning, who is having a career year statistically for the Broncos. The Chargers sacked him three times on Sunday and constantly pressured Manning inside the pocket. But he still wound up completing 25-of-42 passes for 270 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He has a 21-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his last eight games and he’s put Denver in position to challenge for one of the top two seeds in the AFC. Thanks in large part to his production and the play of Von Miller (who’s a beast), the Broncos have now won five straight. And considering he missed all of last season due to multiple neck/back surgeries, what he’s been able to accomplish this season has been nothing short of remarkable. While his statistics have been impressive, you can’t measure what he’s been able to do for Denver this season. He’s going to make the Broncos a very tough out in the postseason.

4. At some point, the Rams need more from Bradford.
With how bad Sam Bradford was on Sunday, Brian Schottenheimer must have thought he was still calling plays for Mark Sanchez. Bradford completed just 23-of-44 passes for 170 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in the Rams’ 27-13 loss to the Jets. He completed just 52 percent of his passes for a dismal 3.9 yards per attempt and also lost a fumble while looking uncomfortable by what the Jets were doing defensively. One week after shredding San Francisco’s outstanding defense, Bradford put together a forgettable performance against a reeling Jets team that was without its best defender. Granted, the excuses for Bradford are still viable. He’s playing in his third offense and for his third offensive coordinator in three years. But at some point the Rams are going to have to see signs of sustained progress from their third-year QB. Right now the formula is too easy for opposing defenses: Contain Danny Amendola, shut down Bradford and the St. Louis passing game. There’s no question Bradford needs a better supporting cast and it’s not as if he hasn’t improved. At times this season he’s played with more confidence and has looked more poised than at any point in his career. But one major flaw that he lacks is the ability to create on his own. That’s what the best do. And while the New York loss shouldn’t solely be laid at his feet the Rams need more from their franchise player or the team’s success will remain sporadic.

5. The Bucs are legit playoff contenders.
There’s something special brewing in Tampa Bay this year. Down 11 points late in the fourth quarter, the Bucs mounted an impressive comeback to beat the Panthers 27-21 in overtime. It was the fifth straight game in which Tampa scored at least 27 points and over the last six weeks, Josh Freeman has thrown 16 touchdowns with just three interceptions while averaging 285.8 yards per game. Granted, it wasn’t all good for Freeman on Sunday. He threw a mind-numbing pick-six to Captain Munnerlyn at the end of the first quarter while displaying shoddy footwork for much of the game. But with everything on the line late in the fourth, he threaded the needle to Vincent Jackson between two defenders and with one Panther hanging on him to put the Bucs within a 2-point conversation of tying the game. He then found Jackson again on the 2-point attempt before orchestrating an 8-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in overtime to put Carolina out of its misery. After what they’ve been able to accomplish over the past four weeks, don’t for a second think that the Bucs can’t beat the Falcons next week. Atlanta has had major issues in Tampa for the better part of a decade, including last season when the Bucs beat the Falcons, 16-13. They also can’t stop the run (hello, Doug Martin) and they’re banged up defensively (Sean Weatherspoon missed his third straight game due to an ankle injury, Asante Samuel hurt his shoulder and John Abraham came up limping several times on Sunday). That said, the biggest thing holding Tampa Bay back right now is its pass defense. And while Atlanta has proven to be one-dimensional offensively, the thing the Falcons do well is throw the ball. Next week will be the Bucs biggest challenge to date. Beat the 9-1 Falcons and all of a sudden they’re in the driver’s seat to secure one of the two wild card spots in the NFC.

6. The Steelers are in trouble.
Following the most athletic play of his career, Byron Leftwich did a very Byron Leftwich-type thing: He tripped over his own two feet with nobody around him and somehow hurt his shoulder in the process. He went on to complete just 18-of-39 passes for 201 yards with one costly interception in the Steelers’ 13-10 loss to the Ravens on “Sunday Night Football.” To be fair, it was a gritty performance by the former Jaguar, who stayed in the game despite taking hit-after-hit from aggressive Baltimore defenders. But the same progrems that plagued him as a rookie continue to plague him in his 10th year. He holds onto the ball too long, his elongated release welcomes turnovers, and he’s too erratic as a passer. Pittsburgh’s defense played well enough to win but Leftwich couldn’t sustain drives and special teams let the Steelers down when Jacoby Jones returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown in the first half. Leftwich should be good enough to beat Cleveland next Sunday but two weeks from now the Steelers will have to travel to Baltimore to play the Ravens again. If they lose that game, they’ll almost certainly lose the division and will then have to compete with Indianapolis and Cincinnati for a wild card berth in the AFC. With Leftwich under center, there are no more “gimmies” on the schedule.

7. The Eagles have no choice but to hand Reid his walking papers.
The sensible thing for the Eagles to do is fire Andy Reid right now in order to get a jumpstart on finding his replacement. Why delay the inevitable? But considering he’s been one of the finest head coaches to not win a Super Bowl over the past two decades, Philadelphia may decide to let Reid finish out the season. Either way, the Eagles need to make a move. Following their 31-6 loss to the Redskins on Sunday, it’s apparent that there will be no miracle in Philadelphia this year. Despite having all of that talent, the Eagles don’t do anything well on either side of the ball. They can’t tackle. They don’t start fast. They don’t finish strong. No matter who’s under center they generate too many turnovers from the quarterback position. They don’t play with urgency, their game plans are often puzzling and injuries have decimated the offensive line. They’re just a bad football team, perhaps one of the worst in the NFL. And when a team has that much talent and is playing this bad, the head coach must go. It’s not as if the game has passed Reid by. The players have just stopped responding and when that happens, it’s best for all involved if there’s a change at the top. Reid will surely find work after this season, or in two years if he decides to take a year off. But his time in Philadelphia is coming to an end. It simply has to.

8. The Packers have very quietly won five in a row.
Last year the Packers sprinted through the regular season while lighting up opponents along the way. But they’ve traded in style for grit this year and they’ve very quietly put together a five-game winning streak. In their 24-20 win over the Lions on Sunday, Mason Crosby missed two field goals, Aaron Rodgers spent most of the day not being on the same page with his receivers, and Mike McCarthy questionably stuck with a running game that simply wasn’t working. It was the second time in three games that the Packer offense struggled, although Rodgers remains on a pretty good tear. He now has 24 touchdown passes in his last seven games and was clutch Sunday when it mattered most, hitting Jermichael Finley for a 40-yard pass play to set up the game-winning 22-yard touchdown to Randall Cobb. Green Bay is far from being the juggernaut that it was last season but just like in 2010 when they won the Super Bowl, they’re having to grind out victories. That could serve them well down the road.

9. The Bengals still have a pulse.
Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have revived a Bengals team left for dead two weeks ago. At 5-5 there’s still time for Cincinnati to mount a comeback in the AFC, especially with Ben Roethlisberger likely to miss sufficient time due to injuries. With games versus Oakland, San Diego, Dallas and Philadelphia coming up, it’s realistic that the Bengals could be 9-5 heading into Pittsburgh on December 23. The key is whether or not Dalton continues to play with the confidence that he’s exhibited over his past two games. Following his four-touchdown, zero-interception performance versus the Giants, the second-year QB completed 18-of-29 passes for 230 yards with two touchdowns and no picks in Cincinnati’s 28-6 win over the Chiefs on Sunday. Green also caught a touchdown pass in his ninth straight game, leaving him one TD shy of tying Carl Pickens’ franchise record. At some point they need to prove that they can beat Baltimore and Pittsburgh if they want to be taken seriously. But suddenly the Bengals are in position to compete for that sixth and final wild card spot in the AFC.

10. Quick-Hits from around the league…
Even though they eventually lost the game, Jaguar fans had to be thrilled with their team’s effort on Sunday. That said, big picture-wise it’s not good that Chad Henne lit Houston up for 354 yards and four touchdown passes while once again being forced into action because of an injury to Blaine Gabbert. Henne was exposed in Miami as a full-time starter and he’s not the long-term answer in Jacksonville. But through a season and a half, Gabbert doesn’t appear to be either…Speaking of Houston, what a day for Matt Schaub (43-of-55, 527 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs). On a rare day when he had to pick up his defense, Schaub and Andre Johnson (14 catches, 273 yards, 1 TD) were sensational…The Cowboys are in trouble if they’re barely squeaking by the Browns at home. How can anyone in Dallas be confident that the Cowboys will make the postseason when Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Seattle New Orleans and Minnesota are all playing better?…The Colts proved in New England that they’re not quite ready for primetime but Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton are starting to become a nice little duo. Hilton now has three 100-yard games this season and has emerged as a true deep threat in Indy’s offense. And while New England took two of Luck’s interceptions back for touchdowns, the rookie QB continues to show great pocket presence and toughness. He’s not afraid to stand in the pocket and deliver a strike in the face of charging defenders…. Mike Mularkey did wonders for Roddy White’s career in Atlanta and he could do the same for Justin Blackmon in Jacksonville. While receiving a team-high 13 targets as the focal point of the Jaguars passing game, Blackmon broke out with a seven-catch, 236-yard performance. He also caught an 81-yard touchdown pass while snatching the ball in triple coverage. It was the game Jacksonville fans have been waiting for since April…If Matthew Stafford ever decides to go back and review his performance from this season, he won’t like what he sees. Too many times this year he would be careless with the football, including on Sunday when he threw a side-armed interception just before halftime, killing whatever opportunity Detroit had to sustain momentum versus Green Bay. He’s also taken some bad sacks in crucial moments of games, hasn’t always secured the ball properly and often halted drives with poor decision-making. After throwing for over 5,000 yards in 2011, this season has been a bust for the fourth-year QB…Forget the Cardinals’ record – Ray Horton is going to be a hot name this offseason when it comes to coaching vacancies around the NFL. On most Sundays, his defense has played well enough to win games, even though Arizona’s offense constantly puts his players in horrible situations…The Saints’ victory over the lowly Raiders was impressive, but their playoff hopes firmly ride on the next four weeks: vs. 49ers, at Falcons, at Giants, vs. Bucs. If they can win three of four they can make the playoffs with a two-game sweep of the Cowboys and Panthers to close out the regular season…There’s not much going right for the Chargers these days, including a reckless Philip Rivers. But former Ram Danario Alexander is making the most out of a second chance. Limited by a hamstring injury in training camp and preseason, having five weeks off to heal up did wonders for Alexander’s career. He now has 15 catches for 291 yards and three touchdowns in his last three games.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

Sunday Morning NFL Quick-Hits

Every Sunday morning our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will provide his “quick-hits” from around the league. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyStalter.

+ The Miami Dolphins might be on the verge of making a mistake by signing Chad Ochocinco, who reportedly lacked football I.Q. to survive in New England. Said Boston Globe’s Greg Bedard: “The Patriots would literally tell him to run a route a certain way, and a minute later he would run it the other way. It happened all the time.” Ochocinco made six Pro Bowls, led the NFL in receiving yards once (2006), and led the AFC in receiving yards twice (2003, 2005) in Cincinnati because he was allowed to freelance, which is one of the many things that frustrated Carson Palmer. So why would the Dolphins want someone like Ochocinco on their roster when there’s a strong possibility that they’ll start a rookie at quarterback this season? Teams need to put young players in position to succeed, period. It makes no sense to start Ryan Tannehill and then throw Ochocinco into the mix when the idea is not to stunt the rookie’s development. If Tom Brady couldn’t work with Ochocinco, why would anyone believe that Tannehill could?

– Smart move by the Patriots to lock up tight end Rob Gronkowski to a six-year, $54 million extension through 2019. Only $13.17 million is guaranteed, which is quite the bargain for the most dominate tight end in the league. This move also indicates that the Patriots have zero concerns about Gronk’s offseason ankle surgery and neither should anyone else.

+ Jets receiver Santonio Holmes is being made out to look like a baby following his meltdown at the team’s OTAs on Thursday. But keep in mind he had missed voluntary workouts while in Germany on a USO trip, so receivers coach Sanjay Lal could have done a better job easing Holmes back into action. After all, it’s June – not August. There will come a time when Holmes needs to ratchet up his workouts so that he’s prepared for the season but it does the Jets no good for Lal to burn out his receivers or risk injury three months before the season. That said, Holmes could have also acted like a professional. There was no need for him to toss his helmet and make a scene. His unpredictable attitude is one of the reasons why the Steelers felt compelled to trade him despite the fact that he was their Super Bowl MVP in 2009.

Brandon Weeden has better size, a bigger arm, and has reportedly outperformed Colt McCoy in OTAs this spring. But it still doesn’t benefit Pat Shurmur to name a starter before or during training camp. Teams should strive for competition at all positions, especially at quarterback. Players become awfully content when they’re making a ton of money and know that nobody is breathing down their necks for their starting job. Even if it’s a foregone conclusion that Weeden will be the starter, it behooves Shurmur and the Browns to make him work for it all summer.

+ It’s great to hear that Michael Vick has been the first player in and the last player out during Eagles’ practices this offseason. It also pisses me off thinking about how undedicated he was in Atlanta. Did he want to win? No doubt. But you never read reports about him being the first one to the practice facility in Flowery Branch when he was quarterbacking the Falcons. Part of the blame falls on owner Arthur Blank and former coach Jim Mora, whom allowed Vick to come and go as he pleased. But considering the Falcons paid him franchise money to be the leader of their team, one would think he would have taken more pride in his work instead of continuously trying to get by on his talent alone. It’s a shame when you read that Vick is now finally dedicated to his craft 11 years after he was drafted but then again, it’s better late than never.

– From a defensive standpoint, one team that might be significantly improved this season from 2011 is the Arizona Cardinals. The team looked lost throughout the first half last year trying to learn new defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s defense and as five-time Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson admitted, there were plenty of times where players didn’t even know if they were in the right position. The Cardinals also started a rookie at cornerback in Patrick Peterson, who suffered plenty of growing pains before coming into his own in the final six weeks of the season. One area the Cardinals must improve on is their interception total. They had just one pick in the final six weeks of the season and they went eight games in which they had zero interceptions. Assuming they’re more comfortable in Horton’s defense in year two and they can hang onto the ball when they have opportunities to make a play, Arizona should show marked improvements from 2011. Now only if they had a quarterback on the other side of the ball to lead them to the playoffs…

+ Asante Samuel is already paying dividends in Atlanta. After lining up opposite Matt Ryan four times throughout his career, the Pro Bowl cornerback has been giving instructions to his new teammate on how the quarterback can become more difficult to defend. Samuel has also reportedly brought a ton of energy to the practice field and fellow cornerback Dunta Robinson is thrilled that the presence of his new teammate will allow him to kick inside to the nickel position. Robinson is at his best when he can get his hands on a receiver and be physical at the line of scrimmage. The past two years he struggled in former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme because he was forced to play off the ball. But with Samuel and Mike Nolan now in Atlanta, Robinson will play inside where he thrived early in his career as a member of the Houston Texans.

– All signs point to Chris Johnson having a bounce back year in Tennessee. It’s public knowledge that he showed up to camp out of shape last year following his contract dispute and the lockout. But Dan Pompei of the National Football Post has been told by sources that Johnson has rededicated himself this offseason. Of course, it doesn’t matter how good a shape Johnson is in if his offensive line doesn’t open up holes for him in the running game. Eugene Amano, David Stewart and Leroy Harris all struggled in run blocking last season and Johnson often found himself bottled up. It’s great that he’s committed to offseason workouts but without a better effort from the Titans’ front five, he won’t be rushing for over 2,000 yards again anytime soon.

+ Despite a messy contract situation, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Matt Forte doesn’t report to training camp. Forte wants a long-term deal from the Bears, who seemingly want to go year to year with their star running back. But at the end of the day Forte is a perfect fit for the Bears’ offense and he’s such a competitor that I don’t see him holding out all season. Plus, he has no leverage. He’s coming off a season-ending knee injury, he’s a running back in a passing league, and the Bears signed Michael Bush earlier this offseason as insurance. For Forte to hold out during one of his prime years doesn’t make sense. Plus, as long as he signs his franchise contract before the July 16 deadline he’ll make $7.7 in guaranteed money. Nobody is going to pass up that kind of cash, no matter how angry they are at their team.

– If the reports out of Seattle are any indication then the Seahawks might be in store for another rocky year at the quarterback position. Despite landing a three-year, $26 million contract, Matt Flynn has yet to distance himself from neither Russell Wilson nor Tarvaris Jackson. Everyone has been cautious when it comes to predicting Flynn’s success in his first year with the Seahawks, which is smart given his lack of experience. But it’s not like the Hawks gave him chump change – they paid him starter’s money. Thus, it’s a little surprising that Flynn has yet to emerge from a pack that also consists of a rookie third-round pick and one of the most underwhelming quarterbacks in the league.

It’s official: The Giants still own the Patriots.

For the second time in less than five years the Giants defeated the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Here are reactions from the G-Men’s 21-17 victory over the Pats in Super Bowl XLVI.

New York Giants quarterback and Super Bowl XLVI MVP Eli Manning celebrates on the podium at Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 5, 2012 in Indianapolis. New York beat New England 21-17 to win Super Bowl XLVI UPI/Kevin Dietsch

– In order to fully appreciate how far the Giants came in order to be crowned Super Bowl champions, you really have to go back to the preseason when the franchise was a mess. The fans were upset because the front office didn’t have the cap space to make a splash signing during the offseason, all while the Eagles built what appeared to be a division-winning roster. Players were also dropping like flies because of a rash of injuries and then the team goes out and loses to the Redskins in Week 1. The defense stunk, the running game was non-existent, and it appeared as though Tom Coughlin was back on the hot streak. But Eli Manning put this team on his shoulders, the defense finally got healthy and then the Giants just caught fire down the stretch. I thought it was rather arrogant that the New York media talked about how this Giants team compared to the 2008 squad that upset the Patriots but lo and behold, they were absolutely right. Team of destiny? Maybe. But then again I just think that this was a very good team that knew what it was capable of if it could reach the postseason. And now once again, the Giants are Super Bowl champions after one of the better in-season turnarounds in NFL history.

– There’s really no debate any more: Eli Manning deserves to be called elite. What more do you want him to accomplish? He may not break NFL passing records like Tom Brady, Drew Brees or his brother, but this dude is just clutch. He was excellent tonight and once again proved that you can’t faze him, I don’t care what the situation is. He deserved another moment like this, especially given how good he was during the regular season. As I’ve written several times over the last month, without him the Giants wouldn’t have won nine games this year. Without his pinpoint throw to Mario Manningham in the fourth quarter the Giants probably don’t win tonight. And without him outplaying the likes of Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, the Giants don’t hoist their second Lombardi Trophy in less than five years. Is he kind of aloof? Yeah, but aloof now has two Super Bowl rings and two Super Bowl MVP trophies. New York fans will take aloof all day long and twice on Sunday.

– There’s not much more I can say about Mario Manningham’s catch that Cris Collinsworth didn’t already cover during the broadcast. Given the situation and the stakes, you won’t see a greater catch than that. While David Tyree’s helmet grab in Super Bowl XLII was more unbelievable, Manningham’s catch was still spectacular in its own right. The coverage was tight and yet Manning was able to put the ball in a spot that only Manningham could catch it, which he did – all while getting two feet in bounds and holding onto the pass as he crashed to the ground. What an incredible, incredible pass and catch.

– This win once again reaffirms how good of a coach Tom Coughlin is. He coaches in the toughest media market in the league, where he’s constantly criticized for every mistake he makes and has been on the hot seat too many times to count. But the Giants do things right and that’s in large part because of the work that Coughlin does. This team plays hard, is usually prepared and it never cowers to its competition. After two Super Bowl victories, Coughlin now writes his own ticket in my opinion. He’s bought himself another three or four years where people should just shut up and trust in his coaching ability. After all, the man has gotten the best of Bill Belichick not once, but twice in the Super Bowl.

– As a football fan I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed following the game. It’s hard to complain when a Super Bowl isn’t decided until the final play but it was a lackluster first half and both of these teams essentially dinked and dunked their way up and down the field. (Outside of Manningham’s big catch, that is.) But the more I thought about it, the more impressed I was with the play of both defenses. Brady and Manning had to dink and dunk because the defenses took away the big play. It looked like the Giants were going to run away with the game early on but the Patriots deserve credit for taking away New York’s excellent passing game until late in the fourth quarter. The Giants pass rush was also as good as advertised, especially on the Pats’ first offensive play from scrimmage (when Brady was called for intentional grounding in the end zone) and on New England’s final drive of the game. While the Patriots’ tackling was piss poor throughout, there were plenty of big hits throughout the game as well. Have I seen better games? I think we all have, especially from an excitement standpoint. But you have to tip your hat to both defenses, especially when you consider how explosive both of these offenses were throughout the year.

– Although he got outplayed by Manning, it’s hard to criticize Tom Brady for his performance. He made a bone-headed decision the Pats’ first offensive play from scrimmage and it cost his team two points, but he caught fire in the middle of the game and played well enough for New England to win. Due to Rob Gronkowski being a non-factor, keep in mind that Brady didn’t have a dynamic threat in the passing game. I thought that in order for the Pats to win this game Brady would have to put together one of those Tom Brady-type performances. While he was certainly good, he wasn’t good enough as he once again played second-fiddle to Eli.

– That was definitely a drop by Wes Welker midway through the fourth quarter, but Brady deserves at least partial blame for the pass. Should Welker have caught the ball? No question. But if Brady hits Welker in stride that play may have gone for six and the Patriots probably win. It’s not like Welker was blanketed in coverage: he was wide open. No one play determines the outcome of a game but that was a costly misfire by Brady and a bad drop by Welker, who usually makes that catch nine out of 10 times.

– Some will call the Patriots gutless for allowing Ahmad Bradshaw to waltz into the end zone on what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown. They’ll say that Bill Belichick gave up and will probably spew hypotheticals about how the Giants may have turned the ball over had the Pats played things straight up instead of clearing a path for Bradshaw to score. But I thought it was a smart move on Belichick’s part to preserve as much time as possible for Brady and his offense. Could the Giants have turned the ball over or missed the field goal? Yes, but it was doubtful that the Patriots got lucky like that for the second game in a row. How many times does a team drain the clock down to nothing and kick a game-winning field goal anyway? Granted, the move didn’t work out for the Patriots in the end but at least Belichick gave Brady a shot to put together one more magical fourth-quarter comeback. I liked the move, regardless of the outcome.

– Boy was I wrong about Rob Gronkowski or what? I thought he was healthier than the media led you to believe and that his ankle wasn’t going to be a factor. I even thought he would have a pretty big game. But it was clear that he couldn’t cut and move like he normally does and that made a big difference in New England’s passing game. Brady essentially didn’t have his best playmaker, even though Aaron Hernandez stepped up in Gronk’s “absence.” I’m not suggesting that the Patriots would have won had Gronk been 100-percent but when you think about how big of a weapon he was during the season, there’s no question that his injury factored into the outcome of the game. He basically limped around the field for three and a half hours.

– No matter what team you root for, it’s hard not to feel for Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft. That was a sad scene of him standing by himself watching the final play unfold knowing that his team just lost the Super Bowl. He just stood there in complete shock as the Giants began to celebrate. After losing his wife last year, my heart went out to him in that moment.

– I think Madonna could have used a couple of more minutes of stretching before she went on stage. She looked stiff in her first song and nearly fell off the back of those freaking bleachers in her second set. You’re not 25 anymore Madonna – make sure those hamstrings aren’t tight before you go hopping up and down on metal seats, woman!

– My vote for the best commercial was the NFL safety piece that went through the different years of equipment. That was very well done and the graphics were awesome. Outside of that, the pixy-dust ad was pretty good and Doritos made me laugh a couple of times. Overall the commercials weren’t that funny though and I think I’ve had my fill of babies and dogs being in every other Super Bowl spot…

Outside of Gronkowski, injuries shouldn’t be a factor heading into Super Bowl XLVI

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) talks with reporters on Media Day during Super Bowl week on January 31, 2012 in Indianapolis. The Patriots will face the New York Giants on February 5 in Super Bowl XLVI. UPI/Brian Kersey

For all intents and purposes, the Giants and Patriots will both be healthy when Super Bowl XLVI kicks off on Sunday.

Rob Gronkowki’s ankle remains the biggest injury concern for the Patriots, as the team has officially listed him as questionable. But the Pats also list nine other players as questionable and none are in danger of missing the game.

Safety Patrick Chung, offensive tackles Marcus Cannon and Sebastian Vollmer, linebackers Dane Fletcher, Rob Ninkovich, Tracy White and Brandon Spikes, receiver Wes Welker, defensive lineman Kyle Love, and guard Logan Mankins were all limited in practice this week but are expected to play. Outside of Gronkowski, all of those players were also listed as questionable for the AFC championship game and they all played.

As for the Patriots’ counterparts, the Giants are relatively healthy as well. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw, receiver Hakeem Nicks, defensive end Osi Umenyiora, cornerback Corey Webster, and linebacker Jacquian Williams were all limited in practice this week but are expected to play. Bradshaw is perhaps the team’s biggest concern as he skipped the Giants’ final practice because of soreness in his right foot, but again, he’ll play.

Getting back to Gronkowski, at this point there’s no doubt that he’ll play. How effective he’ll be is another question, especially after halftime when he’s been off the ankle for 15-plus minutes.

Super Bowl XLVI By the Numbers

Helmets of the New England Patriots and New York Giants rest on both sides of the Vince Lombardi Trophy before a press conference at the media center 2 days before the Giants and Patriots meet in Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, IN on February 2, 2012. UPI /John Angelillo

1 – Number of Super Bowls that Eli Manning has won. Ironically, it’s also the same number of Super Bowls that Tom Brady has lost.

3 – The opening point spread at most sports books of this year’s Super Bowl. (Patriots –3, that is.)

3.5 – Number of sacks that Osi Umenyiora has compiled this postseason, which ties him for the most along with Houston’s J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed.

4 – Number of defensive ends that the Giants can lineup at the same time. (Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Dave Tollefson.)

9 – Combined number of Pro Bowls that Manning and Brady have appeared in.

12.5 – The number that the Patriots were favored by the last time they played the Giants in the Super Bowl.

16 – Number of top-seeded teams from the AFC that have made the Super Bowl since 1977. (Only four were crowned champions, although the Patriots were one of those four in 2003.)

18 – Number of touchdowns Rob Gronkowski compiled during the regular season, second only to Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy (20).

20 – Teams that fail to score 20 points in the Super Bowl are 1-22 since 1977. The only team since 1977 to score less than 20 points and still win? The 2008 Giants, who beat the Patriots, 17-14.

46 – Well, this one is pretty obvious…it’s the number of passes Brady attempted in the Patriots’ Week 16 win over the Dolphins.

55.5 – The total that most sports books opened at for this year’s Super Bowl.

75.4 – Brady’s passer rating against the Giants in the Patriots’ 24-20 loss in Week 9 of the regular season.

199 – The pick that the Patriots used to select Brady in 2000.

335 – Number of receiving yards Hakeem Nicks has compiled this postseason (best in the NFL).

3,982 – Average price, in dollars, of one Super Bowl ticket.

13,000 – Hotel rooms in Indianapolis. All are booked for the weekend and some at a 1,700% higher price than the conventional fee.

68,000 – Capacity at Lucas Oil Stadium after it was expanded from 63,000 for the big game.

3,500,000 – The cost of a 30-second commercial for this year’s Super Bowl.

50,000,000 – Estimated cases of beer consumed by fans on Super Bowl Sunday.

1.25 Billion – Apparently this is the number of chicken wings that will be consumed on Sunday. God we’re fat…

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