By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) In many ways, the Super Bowl should be the easiest game of the season to analyze. The outside factors that impact most games are nearly the same for both teams. Both teams are under the most intense media glare and that means that all decisions made during the game will be scrutinized to the Nth degree.
Motivation is the same for both teams and the pressure should be the same for both teams, even though Las Vegas has made the Patriots a 3-point favorite.
Coaching strategy will also play a role, as Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick will try to come up with plays that the other is unprepared to face. But don’t expect either side to get a huge edge. This is not Super Bowl XXXVII, when Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden eviscerated the Raiders, his former employer. Gruden knew his old team so well and that allowed him to school the Bucs on all the Raiders’ individual tendencies. Tampa Bay came away with a 48-21 victory for their only Super Bowl triumph.
Individual matchups will likely capture this game and here are four from each side’s perspective that should determine who wins Super Bowl XLVI:
New England’s Key Matchups
Patriots OLT Matt Light vs. Giants DRE Jason Pierre-Paul – The Patriots have to keep quarterback Tom Brady upright and the Giants have great pass rushers up and down the defensive line. However, Pierre-Paul may be the most explosive of the group, after recording 16.5 sacks this season. But it’s not the numbers that should concern Light. Pierre-Paul is a superior athlete at 6-foot-5 and 278 pounds who has a super quick first step. Light can’t match up in that area. At 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, Light will have to get his hands on Pierre-Paul and not let go if he is going to win the matchup.
Patriots QB Tom Brady vs. Giants FS Antrell Rolle – Brady’s ability to diagnose what the defense is doing is unquestionable. He can easily figure out who is covering each receiver and who is going to be coming on the pass rush. However, Rolle (team-leading 96 tackles, 2 interceptions) will be able to adjust on the fly. In order to keep his primary receivers from getting double-covered, Brady (39 TD passes, 5,235 yards) will have to look off Rolle consistently in an attempt to open up the field. Rolle is smart and experienced and this will be a difficult challenge for Brady.
Patriots WR Wes Welker vs. Giants CBs Corey Webster and Aaron Ross – This would have been an important matchup under any circumstance, but with Patriot TE Rob Gronkowski battling a high ankle sprain, Welker (122 receptions, 1,569 yards, 9 TDs) becomes even more important in the Patriots gameplan. Welker’s greatest strength is his ability to get off the line of scrimmage and get open. Both Webster and Ross (10 combined interceptions) excel at physical play. If they can keep Welker from getting free as much as 30 percent of the time, Welker will not be able to dominate this matchup.
Patriots RBs BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and Stevan Ridley vs. Giants LBs Michael Boley and Greg Jones – This matchup (Pats have 20th-ranked rushing offense; Giants have 19th-ranked rushing defense) won’t get much attention from the analysts studying this game because both teams have high-powered passing games. Green-Ellis is a resourceful runner who is quicker and stronger than the Giants may think. Woodhead has guts and great quickness while Ridley is a surprising tough runner. Boley and Jones are honest and hard working, but the Pats may have the ability to keep the clock moving in the late stages if they have a lead because of this running game.
New York’s Key Matchups
Giants OG Chris Snee vs. Patriots DT Vince Wilfork – While the Patriots have one of the most generous defensive teams to appear in the Super Bowl in terms of yardage allowed, they know how to rise up in the red zone and play effective defense. They have improved in that area over the second half of the season and the rotund Wilfork (52 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) has keyed that resurgence. He can ruin the interior running game and collapse the pocket. Snee is tough and effective, but the matchup appears to favor Wilfork.
Giants QB Eli Manning vs. Patriots MLB Brandon Spikes and FS Sergio Brown – Manning (28 TD passes, 4,933 passing yards) is an excellent quarterback but he is not in the same category as Brady or his brother Peyton. Manning reads defenses well, but not as impeccably as some and he can be goaded into mistakes. Unfortunately for the Patriots, neither Spikes nor Brown are quite sharp enough to take advantage of Manning’s exuberance and force those mistakes.
Giants WRs Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham and Victor Cruz vs. Patriot CBs Devin McCourty and Leigh Bodden – The Patriots (31st vs. the pass, 293.9 yards allowed per game) will also use nickel backs Antwaun Molden, Ras-I Dowling and Kyle Arrington in an attempt to slow down the Giants’ receivers (fifth in passing offense, 295.9 yards per game), but this will be a difficult challenge. The only hope the Pats have of slowing down this trio is if they get a consistent pass rush. That’s not likely and the Giant wideouts should have a field day.
Giants RBs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs vs. Patriot OLBs Rob Ninkovich, Jerod Mayo and Tracy White – The Giants’ running game (32nd, 89.9 yards per game) was awful during the season but has shown signs of life in the postseason. Bradshaw and Jacobs may no longer be “Thunder and Lightning”, but they can have a huge impact if they get started early. Ninkovich and Mayo are sharp and aggressive and they should be able to keep the Giants from getting their ground attack going.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.