Super Bowl XLVI Giants vs. Patriots: Five Questions

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (L) scrambles for a first down against the New York Giants in the first half of their NFL football game in Foxborough, Massachusetts November 6, 2011. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

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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Four overrated factors for Super Bowl XLV

Green Bay Packers running back James Starks (44) turns upfield during the first quarter of their NFC Championship playoff game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago on January 23, 2011. The Packers defeated the Bears 21-14 to advance to the Super Bowl. UPI /Mark Cowan

Is anyone else sick of hearing about these so-called factors as it pertains to Super Bowl XLV? It’s enough to make someone stab their own neck with a soldering iron.

1. The Steelers have more experience.
Talk to someone who believes the Steelers will beat the Packers and one of the first things out of their mouths is “the experience factor.” Pittsburgh has it – Green Bay doesn’t. So mark it down: Steelers 52, Packers 3. Experience, baby. But ask the Colts how “the experience factor” worked out for them last year. Peyton Manning had won the Super Bowl four seasons prior and Drew Brees had never played in the big one so naturally, Indy would win. Only they didn’t. When the Patriots beat St. Louis in 2001, the Rams had the experience and they also walked out of the Superdome losers that night. The Bills had more Super Bowl experience than the Cowboys in 1992 and Dallas beat Buffalo 52-17 that year. Experience counts when it comes to making travel arraignments, acquiring enough tickets for family and friends, and dealing with the media. But when the ball is finally kicked off on Sunday, the only thing that matters is which team executes. Everything else – including previous experience – flies out the window.

2. Starks gives the Packers balance.
Over the past month, I’ve written several times on this blog about how running back James Starks has given the Packers’ offense balance, which he has. But when it comes right down to it, I’m not sure how much of an impact Starks will have for Green Bay on Sunday. You don’t attack the Steelers on the ground – you attack them through the air. The Packers’ strength offensively is their passing game and Mike McCarthy should want the ball in Aaron Rodgers’ hands and not Starks’. That’s not to say that Starks won’t be used because he will. But let’s not make him out to be the X-factor when everyone knows that the Steelers can be had through the air. I expect to see plenty of four-and-five receiver sets for the Packers and for them to get Pittsburgh in its nickel and dime sets early and often. There’s no reason to keep the Steelers’ base defense on the field when that’s how they can beat you. If/when the Packers build a lead in the second half, then I expect to see Starks.

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Freeney misses practice, listed as questionable

Injured Colts’ defensive end Dwight Freeney was hoping to test his injured ankle on Friday during practice, but it didn’t happen as he was unable to hit the field. He didn’t practice once during the last two weeks and is listed as questionable on the Colts’ injury report for Super Bowl XLIV.

On Tuesday, Freeney told the media that the pain in his ankle was subsiding and that it felt better each day. Although he hasn’t practiced, it doesn’t mean that he won’t suit up on Super Bowl Sunday and he still has two more nights to treat the ankle so you never know how he’ll feel in two days.

That said, I highly doubt that he’ll play in Indy’s base defense and will likely be limited throughout the game. The best case for him and the Colts is if he’s able to play in obvious passing situations and provide a decent rush on Drew Brees but even then, it’s doubtful that Freeney will be that effective given that he’s a speed rusher and his ankle won’t be 100%.

As I’ve written all week, if Freeney is limited the Saints have a huge advantage because they can concentrate on slowing down Robert Mathis and won’t have to worry about keeping an extra blocker in. They can use their full complement of offensive weapons, which is dangerous considering how explosive their offense can be. Brees might have a field day on Sunday if the Colts can’t figure out a way to drum up some pressure without Freeney.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Super Bowl XLIV Preview: Breaking down the Saints’ pressure

It’s an understatement to say that the Saints have battered opposing quarterbacks this postseason. In fact, reports that in two games, New Orleans put 11 hits on Kurt Warner and Brett Favre in its wins over the Cardinals and Vikings over the past two weeks.

Per the report, six of the hits came through the middle of the line, with the other five coming around the ends. Five of the hits were from unblocked defenders, three were from defenders beating blocks and three were coverage sacks where the quarterback held the ball for over five seconds.

What’s interesting is that seven of the 11 hits came when the Saints had five or more defensive backs on the field, meaning Gregg Williams isn’t necessarily putting his cornerbacks on islands when he sends pressure. Also, five of the 11 hits came in the first quarter, but just two hits came in the fourth, which obviously suggests that Williams is willing to take more gambles earlier in the game but not in crunch time when scores are vital.

In last weekend’s AFC Championship, the Jets pressured Peyton Manning with some success early in the game, but the Colts neutralized New York’s aggressiveness towards the end of the first half when they switched to the no-huddle. Manning is highly skilled at getting the ball out of his hand early and putting the ball in the air before his receivers are out of their breaks. That’s part of what makes him so effective and how he burns opponents with the passing game.

By looking at the stats, it appears that Williams is aggressive but isn’t reckless with his pressure. He’ll send multiple defenders at the opposing quarterback, but will blanket coverage over the top so that his defensive backs won’t get beat deep. No quarterback likes defenders in his face, so if the Saints can drum up pressure up the middle they might have success against Manning early on. But the key is whether or not they can produce stops in the second half when Williams isn’t as aggressive. The Jets couldn’t and that’s why they’ll be at home next Sunday instead of in Miami.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Super Bowl XLIV Preview: If healthy, Shockey could play key role for Saints

In safeties Antonie Bethea and Melvin Bullitt, the Colts have two players in their defensive backfield that are steady, underrated and are strong against the run.

But the takeaway from the above sentence is “strong against the run.” That doesn’t mean that Bethea and Bullitt are key factors in pass coverage and in fact, they’re not. They’re adequate against the pass at best, which is why some teams have had success attacking the seams of the Colts’ defense with their tight ends.

The Saints have a playmaker at tight end in Jeremy Shockey, a player that, when healthy, is a mismatch in coverage because of his size, speed and pass-catching ability. He would definitely be a mismatch in coverage against Bethea and Bullitt, especially considering that the two safeties also have to defend the run and the rest of the weapons that New Orleans has in its arsenal.

But the problem is that Shockey can never stay healthy and at least for the moment, he isn’t healthy now. Over the past month, he’s battled toe and knee injuries and hasn’t been 100%. In fact, head coach Sean Payton said that Shockey was on a limited snap count in last Sunday’s NFC Championship Game and that’s why the tight end caught just one pass for nine yards.

If Shockey can get healthy over the next two weeks, he could be the kind of X-factor that the Saints will need to beat the Colts. David Thomas is a fine replacement at tight end of Shockey is limited again, but he’s not the type of game-changer that Shockey is when he’s playing at full strength. If he’s at 100%, Drew Brees might have success attacking the middle of Indy’s defense with Shockey being the main weapon in the Saints’ passing game.

But if he resembles the one-legged man again like he did last week, then the Colts will catch a break and will likely turn their attention to stopping Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and the rest of New Orleans’ outside pass threats.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

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