NBA Season Review: 20 Questions, Part 2

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The Fearless Super Bowl Breakdown

The Giants and Patriots have played before, but the latest episode won't be like anything we've seen

Super Bowl XLVI is only a rematch of Super Bowl XLII in the vaguest sense of the word. While both the head coaches and starting quarterbacks will return, they’re part of a small group. Just 20 of the 106 players across the Patriots’ and Giants’ Super Bowl rosters will return, 12 of whom are starters. The overhauled Patriots defense will bring back just one player, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, from the unit that gave up 17 points to the Giants four years ago.

The changes in personnel have come with more meaningful changes in style. The downfield passing attack that drove the Patriots to record scoring levels is mostly gone, replaced by an offense that thrives on constantly picking up yards after receptions. Their star receiver, tight end Rob Gronkowski, was an 18-year-old college freshman at Arizona who was in the crowd at nearby University of Phoenix Stadium for that stunning Giants upset. He might be forced to watch Sunday’s game from the sidelines, thanks to a high ankle sprain that remains the game’s biggest question mark. New York, on the other hand, has lost the dominant rushing attack that sustained its offense in 2007, and has replaced it with a deep passing game driven by its trio of devastating receivers. The Giants’ breakout player in 2011 was Victor Cruz, who at Super Bowl XLII was two years away from starting his first game at Football Championship Subdivision Massachusetts.

In turn, expect to see a higher-scoring game than you did that February, when the two teams combined for 27 points after putting up a total of 73 in their Week 17 battle. There were only 44 points between them when the Giants narrowly defeated the Patriots in Week 9 of this season, 24-20, but that game consisted of a bizarrely score-free first half before the offenses took over. Fans won’t have to wait that long for points this time around.

You can safely expect the Giants to start with the ball first, although that prediction would have seemed more obvious a month ago. Since Tom Brady tore his ACL in the opening game of the 2007 season, the Patriots have won the coin toss 28 times and deferred their decision on whether to take the ball to the second half every single time. The Giants, meanwhile, have won the coin toss 35 times and chosen to receive on 33 occasions. Seems like a lock, right? Well, those two times the Giants have chosen to defer their own decision have occurred over the past month, as they passed on the ball against Dallas in Week 17 and then again versus the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.1 So we’ll just say that it seems likely for the Giants to begin Super Bowl XLVI with the ball and start our preview there.

Giants on Offense

The offense’s performance against the Patriots in Week 9 could end up serving as a funny little microcosm of the entire Giants season. Despite some crippling injuries, the Giants were able to get past a devastating third-quarter turnover and a late deficit with a dramatic, come-from-behind drive that allowed them to triumph at the last second. It’s a bit of a stretch, but Eli Manning did drive an offense missing four starters 80 yards in 81 seconds to win the game on the road. That’s pretty impressive.

Those four starters — center David Baas, halfback Ahmad Bradshaw, fullback Henry Hynoski, and crucial wide receiver Hakeem Nicks — should make the process of scoring points a little easier for the Giants this Sunday. Then again, when they were down to bare-bones personnel against the Patriots, Manning struck by attacking the backups in the New England lineup. On that fateful drive, Manning completed a third-and-10 pass up the seam to Jake Ballard for 28 yards and then finished it with a one-yard toss to Ballard for the game-winning score. On each play, special teamer Tracy White was stuck in coverage, thanks to an injury suffered by middle linebacker Brandon Spikes. The Giants only got the ball to the 1-yard line after backup safety Sergio Brown committed an unconscionable pass interference penalty upon Victor Cruz on a play where Manning was trying to throw the ball away. Brown was only in the game because star safety Patrick Chung had been injured earlier during the drive. Spikes and Chung missed most of the second half with assorted ailments, but each has contributed to an improved Patriots pass defense during the playoffs.

The presence of Nicks is key — both because of his innate abilities and because his presence creates mismatches elsewhere throughout the lineup. The Patriots aren’t likely to stick with one particular cornerback on each receiver, instead choosing to alternate matchups and coverages, but Nicks should see sophomore corner Devin McCourty more frequently than any other defensive back. Although he’s struggled mightily this season, after making the Pro Bowl during his rookie year, McCourty has the best pedigree and track record of any Patriots cornerback and is their closest thing to a no. 1 guy.

That leaves, um, friendly matchups for Cruz and Mario Manningham. Cruz is likely to spend most of his time in the slot. There, he should see — and this is where the stomach begins to turn for Patriots fans — Julian Edelman. Oh boy. In the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots matched up Edelman against Anquan Boldin out of the slot, hoping that Edelman could keep up with Boldin’s physicality at the line of scrimmage, but a blown coverage on a key third down late in the game produced a huge play and nearly set up the Ravens for a comeback victory. The Patriots might also try out right cornerback Kyle Arrington against Cruz, but as Boston Globe NFL writer Greg Bedard notes, Arrington would still need help.

The reality is that Cruz has become the Giants’ most important player on offense (besides Eli Manning) during what basically amounts to his rookie season.2 He caught just under 63 percent of his targets this year while averaging nearly 19 yards per catch, figures that neither Nicks (57 percent catch rate,3 15.7 yards per catch) nor Manningham (50.6 percent catch rate, 13.4 yards per catch) could match.

That was even more prevalent on third down, where Cruz was Manning’s most important target. On 40 third-down targets this year, Cruz caught 27 passes (for a 68 percent catch rate) and got enough for the first down 22 times, for a 55 percent conversion rate. Manningham and Nicks only caught 29 of their 62 targets (a 47 percent catch rate), and they picked up first downs less than 34 percent of the time. Belichick can’t structure his defensive scheme to stop Cruz the same way that the team went after Marshall Faulk and Brian Westbrook in previous Super Bowls, but don’t be surprised if the Patriots double Cruz with Edelman (or Arrington) and either a linebacker or a safety on virtually every play in bracket coverage.

Of course, among Cruz’s contributions to the playoff run are those two long catch-and-runs in Weeks 16 and 17 that pushed the Giants into the big dance. Both those plays came after missed tackles,4 which raises a question: Is a presumably well-coached, disciplined team like the Patriots less likely to miss those tackles and allow a big play?

The statistics give a murky answer. On one hand, the good news is that the Patriots don’t allow a ton of yards after the catch. Just 38.4 percent of the passing yards against the Patriots came after the catch, which was the lowest percentage in football, and the Patriots allowed a 10th-best 4.95 yards after catch per reception. On the other hand, that might only be the case because the Patriots were so friendly with allowing big plays through the air without requiring receivers to force missed tackles. Against the Patriots, 20.5 percent of the receptions went for 20 or more yards; the only team in the league that allowed big plays more frequently was Kansas City. The Giants ranked 21st in YAC5 percentage, even with those two long Cruz plays, but they went for 20 or more yards on 18.7 percent of their receptions on offense, which was good for seventh in the league.

The Niners eventually bottled up Cruz and the rest of the Giants offense in the second half by getting heaps of pressure on Manning, creating sacks, checkdowns, and throwaways that ended drives. That’s something that the Patriots would love to reproduce, but it’s hard to figure that they have the personnel capable of pulling that off. During the first game between these two teams, the Pats failed to sack Manning once, though they did knock him down eight times in 39 dropbacks. That was when the Giants were without starting center Baas and while the Patriots had Andre Carter, their top pass-rusher, in the lineup. With Carter done for the year, New England’s best hope might be another dominant game from Vince Wilfork, who blew up the pocket more than once against the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. Wilfork’s a fantastic player, but he can’t deliver that sort of impact on a weekly basis. Expect the Patriots to try to get Wilfork up against utility lineman Kevin Boothe, starting at left guard because of the injury to Will Beatty, but the Giants will double-team him with Baas no matter where he lines up. Unless they get a great game from former Texans castoff Mark Anderson, it’s hard to see how the Patriots will get a steady rush on Manning without blitzing.

Therein lies the big decision for Belichick. Ironically, he would like to execute a game plan very similar to the one that the Giants and then-coordinator Steve Spagnuolo put together against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. There, the Giants were able to get pressure on Brady from their front four without blitzing, allowing Big Blue to drop seven into coverage and take away the deep throws. By the time the Patriots adjusted (and the Giants pass rush slowed down) by throwing shorter, quicker routes, it was the fourth quarter. Of course, the Patriots don’t have Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck or Justin and Aldon Smith up front, which makes this a far more difficult task. If Belichick blitzes to create a pass rush, then his cornerbacks and safeties end up in single coverage downfield and become susceptible to big plays.

In the end, it may be a case of Belichick picking his poison. He can blitz and hope that the pass rush gets home, forcing Manning into survival mode and possibly creating turnovers in the process, while realizing that his team is likely to give up a devastating big play or two or five in the process. Alternately, he can play a conservative scheme with his young, inexperienced defense, give up the short pass up and down the field, and hope that his players can step up in the red zone and force the Giants into field goals while hoping for a gift from Manning, like the interception he threw in the end zone in the third quarter of the first game. Based on how the Patriots have played over the past couple of seasons, the latter approach seems more likely.

Patriots on Offense

In the Year of the High Ankle Sprain, it only seems natural that the biggest game of the year could end up being decided by the season’s most frustrating injury. By Sunday, Gronkowski will have had two weeks to rest the ankle injury he suffered against the Ravens, and while most observers expect Gronkowski to suit up on Sunday, there are no guarantees that he will be anything resembling the wrecking ball that scored 17 times this year.

Bill Belichick is known for keeping the wraps tight on any Patriots injuries, and Gronkowski’s ankle sprain is no exception. Both standard ankle sprains and high ankle sprains have different levels of severity, but there is virtually no history of players suffering any sort of high ankle sprain and contributing at a high level within two weeks of the injury. This year alone, we saw Adrian Peterson and Sam Bradford each expect to come back within seven days of a high ankle sprain and instead miss two or more games. Ben Roethlisberger played 11 days after suffering a high ankle sprain against the Browns and was dismal in a loss to the 49ers before skipping the following week. He was visibly worse during the final two games of the Pittsburgh season. Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey also suffered a high ankle sprain, in the AFC Championship Game last season, and was unable to suit up for the big game two weeks later.

Andre Johnson played the week after he suffered a high ankle sprain last season, but then re-aggravated the injury during the game and was forced to miss the following week’s action. The bits of hope to which Patriots fans have clung during the downtime also don’t hold up. Gronkowski was able to come back into the Ravens game and block on Tom Brady’s sneak for a touchdown, but remember that Roethlisberger made it back into the game against the Browns and still played poorly in the ensuing weeks to come. Gronkowski shed his walking boot on Monday and made it back to limited practice on Thursday, but it took Peterson two full weeks from the day he removed his boot to make his way back into even limited practices, and then nine more days from beginning practice to showing up on game day. Because of that, it’s hard to imagine that he’s really all that far along on the injury recovery process. Even if Gronkowski is able to get a painkiller injection before the game and play, he should be extremely limited and is subject to a significant risk of re-aggravating the injury.

Of course, it’s also worth considering the subterfuge angle here. The word first got out about the severity of Gronkowski’s injury when his father casually mentioned it to a Western New York television station. Then, instead of just listing the injury on their injury report as an “ankle” injury, the Patriots went out of their way to note that Gronkowski was suffering from a high ankle sprain. Would you really put it past Bill Belichick to tell the elder Gronkowski to “accidentally” mention that his son had suffered a high ankle sprain and then keep him out of practice before the Super Bowl? Heck, the Bears did this to the Vikings earlier this year out of spite. Not saying this is what’s happening, but let’s not rule it out as a possibility, either.

If you want a prediction for Gronkowski’s role on Sunday, given all the factors involved, expect him to play limited snaps and serve primarily as a blocker. Even if he doesn’t run a route, his presence at the line of scrimmage forces the defense to account for him and scheme accordingly, which can open up mismatches for the players around him. That will be crucial in the red zone, where Gronkowski has played like few others from the past ever have. His regular-season numbers in the red zone, relative to the rest of the New England roster, are staggering:

Despite the fact that teams have known about Gronkowski’s prowess in the red zone for most of the season, he’s still scored touchdowns in the red zone more than twice as frequently as the rest of his team. New England has the league’s fourth-best offense in the red zone, and much of that is result of the work done by Gronkowski. If he’s limited, New England will need somebody to step up.

In the first game between these two teams, a healthy Gronkowski was held mostly in check until the fourth quarter. He had caught just four of the nine passes thrown to him for a total of 35 yards up to that point, but finished by going 4-of-6 for 66 yards and scoring what looked to be the game’s winning touchdown on fourth down. Gronkowski is one-of-a-kind, but the Giants have had some success this year against tight ends by virtue of their defensive personnel, namely safeties Antrel Rolle, Kenny Phillips, and Deon Grant. Rolle, in particular, serves as the prototypical cover safety that teams look to acquire to guard the new generation of dominant tight ends around the league. The Cardinals drafted the 208-pound Rolle out of Miami as a cornerback, but eventually moved him to free safety because of concerns about his coverage abilities. Rolle isn’t an elite cover corner, but moving a guy from corner to safety is like moving an outfielder from center field to right; the standards are lower, and what was once an average level of skill plays up into something more effective. Rolle’s mix of size, speed, and coverage ability allows him to handle the likes of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the passing game. The Giants have also gotten solid work out of Phillips and Grant, the latter of whom has served as an excellent nickelback despite being cast off by the Seahawks after turning 30 two years ago.

The other way they can slow down Gronkowski and prevent the Pats from stretching out a relatively thin set of Giants cornerbacks is by getting a heavy pass rush on Brady, but their ability to do that is up in the air. As we mentioned in the NFC Championship preview, the Giants’ impressive run in this year’s playoffs has occurred without an improvement in their pass rush. Let’s run the same chart that we put in the NFC Championship Game preview about their defense, but update it with the numbers from the 49ers game:

The biggest difference between the Giants defense from the regular season and their current level of performance is their ability to get off the field on third down. Remember, they held the Niners to one third-down conversion on a meaningless drive as the clock ran out; otherwise, the Niners went 0-for-12 on third down. To put it in context, the Giants have gone from being a slightly-below-average defense on third down to suddenly becoming the best third-down defense in the league, by a pretty substantial margin, despite playing two of the six best teams in the league at converting third downs during the playoffs. In the Patriots, they’ll get to play the league’s fourth-best team on third downs, but one that they held to a 5-for-15 showing during their Week 9 tilt between these two.

Of course, one of the easiest ways to extend drives is to break tackles and pick up extra yardage for first downs, and that’s where the Patriots really give the opposition fits. This year, the Patriots had three of the league’s top 10 YAC producers in Wes Welker (first), Gronkowski (fourth), and Aaron Hernandez (ninth). In addition, 50.2 percent of New England’s total passing yardage came after the catch, which was the third-highest rate in the league. While the Giants got those two long plays from Victor Cruz to end the season, they finished a distant 21st on offense in YAC percentage.

Welker was the player the Giants couldn’t stop during the first game, but that’s a spot where they might be better during this second contest. In Week 9, he caught nine of the 10 passes thrown to him and gained a total of 136 yards, as the Giants struggled to find a way to cover him with one player. During that game, though, the Giants didn’t have rookie corner Prince Amukamara available, who has been an effective third corner during the playoffs for a team that was terrible against third wideouts during the season.

In Super Bowl XLII, the Giants dominated the Patriots in the trenches, sacking Tom Brady five times and creating a number of premature throws. The game served as the national arrival of Justin Tuck, then a rotation end behind Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, as he dominated Logan Mankins on the interior of the defensive line. Can the Pats slow down the Giants pass rush this time? Well, they’ve got a better shot this time around. For one, their personnel is better. The consistently subpar Nick Kaczur has been replaced at right tackle by talented rookie Nate Solder, who has the raw athleticism to match up with the likes of Tuck, Umenyiora, and Jason Pierre-Paul. The line will be without starting center Dan Koppen, but there’s been no evidence that the offensive line is struggling as the season has gone on in the way that it did in 2007. Consider the table below, which has the sack rate for the 2007 and 2011 Patriots, split for the half-season at Week 9 (coincidentally, the week of this year’s Giants game) and through the Conference Championship game:

One thing the Patriots tried in the first game that may offer some respite is to go with six offensive linemen. During the first game, they had then-starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer available, but Vollmer has missed the last six games with injuries and only returned to practice on Wednesday. If Vollmer is able to go on Sunday, they could return him to the starting right tackle spot and go with Solder as a sixth offensive lineman and quasi-tight end. The Patriots did that on 18 plays versus the Giants during their first game, including 11 times on first down. When the Patriots ran the ball with six offensive linemen on first down this season, they averaged 4.23 yards per carry; when they ran it with five offensive linemen, that figure fell to 4.08 yards.

Special Teams

Neither team shined very brightly on special teams during the Week 9 contest, as each fumbled a punt away to the opposition during a sloppy third quarter. Of course, they each also benefited from sloppy special teams in their respective Championship games. During the season, the Patriots had the league’s second-best punt team and would be up against the NFL’s fourth-worst punt return unit, but the Giants have been just slightly below average during the playoffs in that regard.

Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski also missed a 27-yarder wide left at the end of the first half in Week 9, which was his first miss inside 30 yards since 2008. If Gronkowski isn’t his usual self in the red zone, the Patriots might need perfection from Gostkowski to be able to eke out a victory.

The Prediction

In a year where there was no truly great team, the Super Bowl might end up coming down to who does a better job of hiding their weaknesses. The Patriots will need to dredge up an ambulatory pass rush, while the Giants will need each member of their secondary to keep up while remembering how to run the ball in the case that they do get a lead. The game should resemble the second half of the Week 9 contest between these two teams, with a mix of impressive offense and occasionally sloppy play on both sides of the football. Well, resemble it in most ways. New England Patriots 27, New York Giants 23.

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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