Super Bowl XLVI: Three keys to victory for the Patriots

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady points on the line of scrimmage before a play against the Baltimore Ravens during their NFL AFC Championship football game in Foxborough, Massachusetts, January 22, 2012. REUTERS/Adam Hunger (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

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.

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Flynn nearly leads Packers to shocking win over Patriots

Here are five quick-hit observations on the Patriots’ narrow 31-27 win over the Packers on Sunday night.

1. Flynn’s outstanding effort falls short.
In the end, Matt Flynn’s inexperience cost him as he couldn’t get his offense lined up for the team’s final play. One of the broadcasters said it perfectly when they noted that Aaron Rodgers would have had the play, gotten his team lined up and not wasted nearly 20 seconds (or what-have-you) of the clock. And because of Flynn’s inexperience, he was sacked on the final play instead of heaving one towards the end zone to give the Packers a chance to win. That said, nobody can knock the youngster’s effort. He completed 21-of-33 passes for 229 yards and three touchdowns and while the one interception he threw was costly (the Patriots returned it for a touchdown to take a 21-17 lead early in the third quarter), he never seemed rattled. His performance was a stark contrast from his effort last Sunday in Detroit, when he looked befuddled and lost. He showed tonight that with a full week of preparation, he can certainly give the Packers a quality start. He was impressive to say the least.

2. Teams will be less scared of the Patriots after this.
If the Packers can waltz into Foxboro with their backup quarterback and nearly beat the Patriots on their home turf, opponents will have more confidence against New England heading into the postseason. Everyone was ready to crown the Pats Super Bowl champions coming into this game but their play on Sunday night (particularly on defense) reminded everyone that they have weaknesses, too. ESPN will make this out to be another dazzling fourth quarter comeback by Tom Brady but the fact is that the Patriots were on their heels for most of the game. Credit the Pats’ offense for making plays when they had to but this team was largely on cruise control because they knew they were facing a backup quarterback who stunk the week before. From the opening kickoff (a successful onsides kick by the Packers) to the final whistle, the Packers were the more inspired team. The Patriots just made more big plays.

3. The Patriots’ defense still needs some work.
The Patriots’ offense is incredibly scary but their defensive effort was a joke. This was a Green Bay team that couldn’t gain two yards on the ground if you spotted them one and yet they managed to rush for 143 yards. Furthermore, you’re telling me that Bill Belichick couldn’t come up with a better game plan to stop the Packers’ underneath passing game? Flynn was impressive but it must have been easy for him to wait for his receivers to clear out the secondary and dump the ball off to one of his backs or tight ends for seven yards every time he needed it. Belichick won’t enjoy watching the film from this game because he’ll see plenty of poor tackling and shoddy execution from his defense.

4. Putting Connolly’s return into perspective.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching New England guard Dan Connolly truck down the field right before halftime, carrying the ball like a loaf of bread on his way to the end zone. I also thoroughly enjoyed the three replays they showed following the play and I’m going to enjoy watching the 52 highlights tomorrow of it on SportsCenter. But looking back, Connolly’s 71-yard kickoff was more than just an a knee-slapper that has surely already gone viral. It was a huge play in the landscape of the game, too. Green Bay had just taken a 17-7 lead and they had stolen the momentum. Maybe Brady runs the Pats’ two-minute drill to perfection and they score anyway, or maybe the Packers’ defense continues to stifle New England and Green Bay takes a 17-7 lead into halftime. But thanks to Connolly’s return, the Pats were set up at the Green Bay 4-yard line and wound up punching it in for an easy six. That made the score 17-14 at half and all of a sudden, New England was right back into the game. It was a great play by Connolly and a brutal one by Green Bay’s kickoff team, which somehow failed to lay a hand on the offensive lineman for nearly 60 yards.

5. The Packers are still very much alive.
This loss hurts but the Packers are still alive in the NFC playoff hunt thanks to Tampa Bay and New York’s losses earlier in the day. Green Bay hosts the Giants and Bears over the next two weeks and if they win out, they’re in regardless of what the Bucs do. The Pack are in control of their own destiny and after a season of severe ups and downs, that’s all they could ask for at the moment.

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