By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) And then there were two.
The 2011 NFL season has come down to an epic clash of eastern seaboard supremacy, Boston vs. New York. Baked beans vs. bagels. Brady vs. Manning. Red Sox vs. Yankees. Wait, wrong sport.
There’s certainly no shortage of storylines leading up to Super Bowl XLVI, which is exactly what the NFL hoped for. Cast all that aside, as what I’m most excited about is the quality of football we will see on Sunday when the Patriots battle the Giants for the right to hoist the Lombardi hardware.
Much will be made of the fact that these two teams squared off in the 2007 Super Bowl, but the rosters look much different this time. In fact, a mere 23 players remain from the 2007 rosters. Gone are names like Moss, Burress, Harrison, and Strahan. In are names like Welker, Nicks, Chung, and Pierre-Paul. The fact that both of these teams have undergone such radical overhauls in four years’ time and are once again playing in the Super Bowl is a testament to shrewd scouting, and even more astute coaching. Why don’t people spend more time talking about the Bill Parcells’ coaching tree?
The Giants are peaking at the right time. A few weeks back, I drew a parallel between the 2011 Giants and the 2010 Packers. Teams that endured some injuries early in the season that affected their running game, went through a bit of an identity crisis and became a pass-first team, found themselves in a do-or-die situation at end the season, met the challenge, then hit the gas pedal in the playoffs.
Eli Manning has elevated his game to a new level in 2011. The Giants want the ball in Manning’s hand in crucial moments – third downs and in the fourth quarter – and he’s rewarded them handsomely, setting an NFL record with 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes. Granted, he’s been surrounded with talented playmakers, but that becomes a chicken and egg argument. As certainly, nobody predicted players like wide receiver Victor Cruz or tight end Jake Ballard to emerge the way they have this year. Whether it’s Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham, Cruz, or Ballard, Manning has shown more awareness and confidence in the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield amidst the rush, anticipating routes, and accurately delivering his passes.
Lost in the Giants prolific passing attack is their running back tandem of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. At the outset of the season, most experts painted the Giants as a ground-and-pound style team, feeding the hot hand in the backfield to set up play-action shots down the field. Over the course of the season, they flipped the script, which again speaks to the willingness of Tom Coughlin and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride to adapt their philosophy during the season to maximize effectiveness.
Defensively, the Giants can pressure the quarterback with just their front four better than any team in football. Credit general manager Jerry Reese for accumulating a group of mammoth and versatile athletes on the defensive line, then credit defensive coordinator Perry Fewell for designing schemes to take advantage of their versatility. Fewell often uses hybrid line combinations with four defensive ends, then twists and stunts them to successfully confuse opposing blocking schemes.
Look for the Patriots to line up in a lot of two tight end sets this weekend to counter and stymie the Giants front four. 70% of the Patriots offensive snaps came out of two tight end sets this season – granted, some of these had tight ends split out wide – and the Giants were the second worst team in the NFL at generating sacks against two tight end formations.
Keeping tight ends in to block is a double-edged sword. While it may provide extra protection for your quarterback, it also gives you less eligible receivers out in routes. This is one of the many schematic chess matches to follow this weekend. As effective as the Giants are at pressuring the quarterback – they sacked Patriots quarterback Tom Brady five times in their 24-20 win in Foxboro earlier this season – the Giants still have lapses in their defensive secondary which the Patriots will surely exploit from time to time.
Brady’s performance last weekend against the Ravens was as poor as I’ve ever seen him play, so it’s hard to imagine him having back-to-back clunkers. I’ve previously referred to Brady as a football robot, as he shows flawless mechanics and typically doesn’t make crucial mistakes. However, two weeks ago, he nearly cost his team the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
While we’re on the topic, I’m still not sure how the Lee Evans’ catch in the end zone wasn’t a (game winning) touchdown. By the letter of the law: “If a player controls the ball while in the end zone, both feet, or any part of his body other than his hands, must be completely on the ground before losing control, or the pass is incomplete.” To me, once Evans’ second foot hit the ground with possession of the ball, the zebra’s arms should have gone to the sky in a pointing motion to signal touchdown. Alas, that’s a topic for another time, as the NFL officiating has been spotty at best throughout the playoffs. I digress.
While the Patriots are a pass to set up the run team, they will need more balance this weekend if they expect to win. Simply dropping back and throwing the ball all over the field won’t get it done against the Giants.
It’s incredible to think about how much the twist of a left ankle has left me torn about how this game will work out. But Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has been simply dominant all season long, and it’s impossible to discount the impact his health will have on the outcome of the game.
Whether split out wide for a jump ball opportunity, or sent over the middle of the field – where he’s most effective – Gronkowski is a physical mismatch for any defender on the field, who has bullied his way to 21 touchdowns this season. His presence commands bracketed coverage – linebacker underneath with a safety helping over the top – which creates single coverage opportunities for his teammates. If Gronkowski is unable to play on Sunday, the Giants will be able to pick and choose who and when they double team based on pre-snap alignments.
Make no mistake about it, Gronkowski isn’t the only weapon on the Patriots offense, as wide receiver Wes Welker, and fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez can also create restless thoughts for opposing defensive coordinators. Recall if you will Welker’s start to the season, when he compiled 785 receiving yards and six touchdowns through the first six games of the season. Hernandez also carried the load at times, and his versatility has earned the trust of coaches to give him carries at running back. The concussion he suffered in the divisional round against the Broncos most likely has the coaches re-thinking that strategy.
The much maligned Patriots defense has come together over the past three weeks, particularly along the defensive line. Anchored by defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, the defensive line has been stout at the point of attack, allowing linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jerrod Mayo to flow to the ball and blow up running lanes. My doubts about the Patriots defense have always been due to their secondary. You can certainly expect to see the Giants line up with four wide receivers early in the game to see if Julian Edelman lines up in coverage, and if he does, that’s a match-up problem the Giants will capitalize on.
As difficult as it is to pick against a team quarterbacked by Tom Brady and coached by Bill Belichick, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. In my estimation, the Giants are simply the more complete team.
Start spreading the news, New York‘s winning Sunday.
My pick: Giants 24, Patriots 23
Season Record: 176-90
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.