Super Bowl Preview

It’s time for the final football preview of the season, as TheSportsNotebook dives into Super Bowl XLVI, kicking off at 6:30 PM EST on NBC. We broke down the Patriots and Giants individually here yesterday. Now let’s see how they match up through four different windows…

New England Rush Offense: The best way to slow a pass rush is to make the defensive lineman hesitate a split-second at the snap to respect the run. Whether New England can get that running game going is another matter entirely. The Patriot offensive front is finesse-oriented, and when you look at the key one-on-one matchup with center Dan Connolly against Giant defensive tackle Chris Canty, you have to give a big edge to Canty. Where the Giants have some problems is at linebacker, where no one is a true run-stuffer.

If New England can get its backs to the second level, they can do some damage. The main back we’d have in mind here would be BenJarvus Green-Ellis, whose physical style is tailor-made to go up the middle and break tackles by the linebackers. During the playoffs, the Pats also made effective use of tight end Aaron Hernandez coming around on a gimmick running play. It’s a sign of weakness that New England has to resort to such in order to run the ball, but it’s a sign of a coaching staff dealing with reality that the Pats implement these tactics. I also wonder if we might see shifty third-string running back Stevan Ridley running some traps and misdirections aimed at taking advantage of an aggressive pass rush.

New England Pass Offense: The big battle is the one up front, with the good Patriot pass-protection unit going up against the tough Giants’ pass rush. Four years ago in the desert New York won this battle decisively and with it won the Super Bowl. Tom Brady is going to need time to throw the ball, because the New York defense is well-built to stop the quick-hitter throws that Brady executes so well. The linebackers cover well, strong safety Kenny Phillips covers well and Canty is 6’7” and adept at using his long wingspan to disrupt the passing lanes. All of these factors make it tougher for Brady to find tight end Rob Gronkowski—whom I’m assuming well be healthy—and Wes Welker on short notice.

New York’s corners are not great, but Corey Webster and Aaron Ross are still pretty good and both play the ball very well. Fast defenses that can get turnovers have caused Brady problems in the past—notably Baltimore the last few meetings, as well as San Diego, at least through 2008. I won’t say the Giant defense is as fast as those two, but they’ve got the ability to get a couple interceptions. An opportunity spot for New England could be hitting someone over the top on a post, where Antrel Rolle can be vulnerable, particularly if he’s spent most of the day and most of his film room time watching short passes coming in underneath. The Patriots have no one with great speed, but Deion Branch is a receiver savvy enough to find the deep post if the safety gives up position. Maybe Chad Ochoinco will even have a showing in this role as well.

NY Giants Rush Offense: This area promises a great battle in the trenches. The New York offensive line is physical and talented all the way across, but New England defensive tackle Vince Wolfork, coming off a superb effort in the AFC Championship Game, is the key of a Patriot front seven that is physical enough to match up. Linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo are effective at playing the run and the corners are solid in run support.

Tom Coughlin’s offense has an effective complementary running back combination, with shifty Ahmad Bradshaw and muscular Brandon Jacobs. If New England really commits to the stop the run, they can handle this duo, but does anyone really expect the Patriots to sell out on run defense and give Eli Manning room to beat them? If the New York rush attack can simply win in situations where the linebackers are leaning back on pass coverage and beat the front four head-on, then you have to think they’ve done their job.

NY Giants Pass Offense: The potential mismatch of the Giant receivers against the Patriot secondary has been a key theme this week for anyone who doesn’t want to talk about Peyton Manning or argue about Eli vs. Brady. While New England has two good cover corners in Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty, the lack of depth means receiver Julian Edelman has to come on when New York spreads the field with three receivers. This means #3 target Mario Manningham will likely get plenty of chances at a big game. We’ll have to see if New York gets tight end Kevin Boss involved in the offense. This is a more receiver-oriented passing attack, so if the tight end is not a factor, the New England linebackers will be able to take deeper drops, which in turn improves turnover possibilities. One option New York has is to target little-used tight end Travis Beckum, who has tremendous speed for his position and keep the linebackers honest.

New England has relied on sacks and turnovers to get stops against opposing passing games this year. Mark Anderson is the best defensive end, but there’s no reason to think the Giants can’t handle him one-on-one with tackles Kareem McKenzie or David Diehl. The safeties for the Patriots are also a weakness, but the corners do play the ball well, making it likely that McCourty or Arrington are going to have make some pure athletic plays at some point here on Sunday.

New England’s Potential Victory Scenario: The Pats need to control the middle, and get Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker running over the middle early, and GreenEllis reaching the second level. If you accomplish that you can draw up  Rolle and create an opening behind the free safety that Tom Brady can exploit. Defensively, you’ve got to stop the run with your front  four, allow the linebackers to take deeper drops and then rely on your corners to make 2-3 game-changing plays.

New York’s Potential Victory Scenario: Spread the field and expose the lack of depth in the New England secondary all day long, simply targeting whichever receiver poor Edelman is stuck lining up on. Keep the Patriots’ honest on defense by establishing the run with Jacobs and Bradshaw and working some throws to the tight end underneath. Defensively, stay in Brady’s face with your defensive front four, disrupt the passing lanes, and use sure tackling underneath to make sure no big plays happen.

To me, the New England scenario looks way too narrow. New York has a much bigger window of opportunity, and if their scenario all comes together we’re looking at a blowout. Even if New England gets everything to fall their way and wins, it’s probably a close game the whole way through. The Giants are hot, they’ve done well in this head-to-head matchup (including a 20-16 win in Foxboro earlier this year) and everything points in their direction here. As a fan I’m rooting hard for the Patriots, but as an analyst that one looks perilously close to a mismatch right now, as silly as it seems to say that about a 9-7 team taking on a 13-3 team. But I’ll call it New York 34-20.