Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Super Bowl XLVI Preview

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* Congratulations to this year's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award finalists: Matt Birk, Philip Rivers, and Charles Tillman.

* Did you see Brandon Spikes hit Marshall Yanda from behind, then dive when he got a light push in retaliation? I think Spikes would be more comfortable playing soccer.

* Nice job by CBS and its camera crew capturing the Patriots' and Ravens' reactions to Billy Cundiff's missed field goal. A picture tells a thousand words.

* The Colts fired Jim Caldwell this week. He did fine when the team was good, but seemed totally lost when things started going wrong. The choice of who replaces him may be an early clue about Peyton Manning's future.

* Special teams is the most under-emphasized part of pro football. Games are routinely won or lost on field goals, blocks, returns, and well-placed punts. And fumbles.

***

Say what you will about the uneven quality of play in this weekend's games, they weren't short on drama. It's rare that any NFL game has an obvious goat, the guy who blew it seemingly by himself, but that was the case in both conference championships. First, Baltimore's Billy Cundiff missed a chip-shot field goal, then Kyle Williams of the 49ers just disintegrated, with a pair of punt return fumbles that led to 10 points for the Giants, including the game-winning field goal in overtime.

The snap and hold on Cundiff's kick were less than perfect, but that play is something close to automatic, and to lose a shot at the Super Bowl — my heart breaks for Cundiff. I have a lot less sympathy for Williams, who basically appeared to lose his mind on Sunday. More on this below.

Conference Championship Roundups

Patriots 23, Ravens 20

New England got back to its roots for this game. After switching to a 4-3 defense and faltering to a 31st-place ranking, the Patriots used a 3-4 most of the way against Baltimore, with the result that Vince Wilfork turned into Bob Lilly. After passing 49% more than they ran during the regular season, the Patriots used a balanced offense to keep the Ravens off-balance, and scored both their TDs on the ground when Tom Brady had his worst game of the season. It's this kind of open-minded coaching that has established Bill Belichick as the greatest strategist of his generation.

That said, both teams made questionable decisions that could have turned the tide in this razor-close contest. The Ravens kicked a field goal on 4th-and-1 from the 2-yard line. I understand feeling like you need to come away with something, but a touchdown and extra point are worth more than two field goals. You've got to give your offense a shot at that. In the third quarter, the Patriots did the same thing from the 6-yard line, which is more understandable but still a pretty conservative call. The touchdown is huge there. Neither team really made the most of its red zone opportunities, and in a close game, that's huge.

I was also surprised to see New England kneel out the first half. With :58 and two timeouts, you believe the chances of a turnover and a Baltimore score are higher than your chances of getting into field goal range? When did Belichick turn into Marty Schottenheimer? And what kind of first half is it where BenJarvus Green-Ellis (50 yds, TD) out-rushes Ray Rice (21 yds, 2.1 avg) and Joe Flacco (162 yds, TD) outdoes Brady (146 yds, INT)? Has the world gone mad?

Credit Baltimore's defense for making Brady uncomfortable. Bernard Pollard was particularly impressive, with solid tackling, a tipped pass that led to Brady's second interception, and the hit that may have injured Rob Gronkowski. Pollard, whom no one has ever charged with dirty play, is nonetheless the player who injured Brady in the first week of 2008, Welker at the end of 2009, and now maybe Gronk on the eve of Super Bowl XLVI.

Wilfork was the clear defensive star for New England, but defensive back Sterling Moore, whose blown tackle led to Baltimore's only touchdown, redeemed himself by breaking up a potential game-winning TD pass to Lee Evans with :27 remaining. The Patriots overcame a -2 turnover deficit by stifling Rice, who is visibly a gifted runner even when he doesn't have a big game, and forcing the Ravens to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns. Huge game for Wilfork, in particular. I'd like to see New England stick with the 3-4 as its base defense going forward.

Giants 20, 49ers 17

No question: Ted Ginn's absence was the difference in this game. Kyle Williams did fine as a kickoff returner, but his punt returning was a disaster the likes of which I can't remember. His average (8.8) was okay, but Williams also fair caught two balls with no one near him, and he committed two inexcusable turnovers to cost San Francisco the game. First, Williams attempted to field a bouncing punt, then nonchalantly pretend the ball hadn't bounced off his knee. Dude, I don't know if you've ever noticed this, but footballs are oval. You can't predict the bounce, and you can't secure them easily in tricky weather.

The Giants took over at the 29-yard line and scored the go-ahead touchdown six plays later. Williams' bone-headed play — high school kids know you don't try to field that ball — totally changed the momentum of the game. That was the Giants' fifth consecutive punt, second straight three-and-out, and the Niners were winning and about to take over in good field position, with only half a quarter left in the game. When San Francisco battled back to send the game into overtime, Williams stepped in with another fumbled punt return to give New York possession at the 24-yard line, already very makable field goal range.

Credit the Giants for making plays on special teams, but Williams gave away the game almost single-handedly. This isn't even the first time it's happened. In his final game at Arizona State, the Territorial Cup against Arizona, Williams muffed a punt that set up the game-winning field goal. San Francisco's coaches should have pulled Williams off of punt return duty well before overtime. He seemed rattled, and it was clear that his decision-making was off. Even if he's your most explosive returner, it's not worth the risk that he'll create another turnover. Too late now.

Victor Cruz looked like he was playing through pain in the second half, but he was amazing in the first 30 minutes, with 8 receptions for 125 yards. Most of those catches came against Pro Bowl cornerback Carlos Rogers, whom Cruz beat over and over again. The difference in this game, apart from Kyle Williams' shenanigans, was third down percentage. The Giants converted more than half their third downs (5/9) in the first half, while the Niners converted only one all game (1/13) — a meaningless play as time expired in regulation.

Following Alex Smith's breakout performance against New Orleans last week, the 49ers for some reason used a Tim Tebow-style offense against New York on Sunday. Alex Smith ran often and effectively (6 att, 42 yds) and completed only one pass to a wide receiver (Michael Crabtree, for 3 yards). Even with a great receiving tight end like Vernon Davis, I just don't know if you can beat a good team without getting your wideouts more involved than that. Speaking of Davis, is he ever going to grow up? Both penalty calls against him were questionable, but he also had to know the potential for a flag was there. You can't draw 30 yards worth of penalties in a game like this.

This just wasn't a day on which things broke San Francisco's way. Twice, 49er defensive backs collided to break up their own interceptions, once causing a scary injury to Tarell Brown. And how do you give up a touchdown pass on 3rd-and-16 from the 17-yard line? You know your opponent is throwing to the end zone!

The Crystal Ball

Super Bowl XLVI: New England Patriots vs. New York Giants
Indianapolis, Indiana
February 5, 2012

The obvious angle in this game is the Super Bowl XLII rematch. With the 18-0 Patriots looking to complete an undefeated season, the Giants, who went 10-6 and didn't win their own division, won an upset victory in what I feel was the greatest Super Bowl ever played.

There's a parallel to be drawn this year. The Patriots were the top seed in the AFC, an obvious contender from Day One. The Giants barely snuck into the playoffs, overcoming a 4-game losing streak and a sweep by Washington, while benefiting from the Cowboys' collapse and an inexplicable officiating decision that gave them a Week 4 win against Arizona. But when the playoffs started, the Giants came to play. They're a very real threat to New England, and I suspect most of the Patriots would have rather faced the 49ers in Indianapolis.

These teams met earlier this season, in Week 9, with the Giants winning 24-20 at New England. Turnovers and red zone efficiency were critical to the outcome.

NEW ENGLAND ON OFFENSE

Green-Ellis ran very well on Sunday, but the Patriots live and die with the pass. They can't beat the Giants if Brady has another off day. This matchup revolves mostly around two things:

1. The Giants' pass rush
2. Rob Gronkowski's ankle

Gronkowski creates matchup problems for every team in the league. He had 8 catches, 101 yards, and a touchdown the first time these teams met, and he was the only New England receiver to give the Ravens serious trouble. If he's unable to play or seriously limited, that's a major, major blow to New England's chances on Super Bowl Sunday. Even if Gronk is healthy, though, the Giants can still neutralize their opponent's offense with the kind of pass rush they brought four years ago.

The Giants' defense has played at a very high level over the last month, but it hasn't faced this kind of offense. I don't believe the Giants can cover Wes Welker and Gronkowski. But if they can get to Brady quickly enough, they won't have to. When the Giants get pressure with their front four (or five, including Mathias Kiwanuka), that puts any offense in a tough spot. The Patriots' ability to protect Brady may well determine the outcome of the game.

I'd look for the Patriots to mix things up on the ground, keeping the Giants off-balance, slowing down their pass rush, and setting up play-action. I think they'll be more aggressive than they were against the Ravens, taking more deep shots and keeping the offense on the field for fourth and short. But Brady has got to make better decisions than he did in the AFC Championship Game. The Giants have an explosive offense, and turnovers can quickly lead to points.

NEW YORK ON OFFENSE

Eli Manning played by far his best season in 2011, and he's looked great in the playoffs. The Giants are no longer a run-first team, and they look their best when Manning is connecting downfield with Hakeem Nicks and Cruz. The Patriots' secondary is not what it was nine or 10 years ago, so shutting those guys down probably is not realistic. Like the Giants, New England has to bring a nasty pass rush.

The Giants scored at least 20 points in all of their wins this season. In Week 15, Washington sacked and intercepted Manning three times each, held the Giants to 10, and won. In Week 11, the Eagles sacked Eli three times and picked him off once — Philadelphia 17, Giants 10. In the season opener, Washington sacked Eli four times, intercepted him once, and won 28-14. Manning's Achilles heel has always been turnovers. Put pressure on him, get him making decisions too quickly, rushing throws, and eventually he'll make a mistake. Vince Wilfork was a monster against the Ravens, and the Patriots need a similar performance two weeks from now. Mark Anderson is another guy to watch, the pass rusher who stepped up when Andre Carter got hurt.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The edge here has to go to New England. I don't like their return game, but they have good coverage units, Stephen Gostkowski is a solid kicker, and Zoltan Mesko was my choice for All-Pro punter. The Giants have pretty good special teams, too — just ask San Francisco — but the Patriots aren't going to give a game away with mistakes the way the 49ers did. I expect this matchup to be about positive plays, and the Patriots might make a couple more than the Giants do.

THE FORECAST

No one likes a broken record, but with two offenses this explosive, it's logical to think this game will come down to turnovers and red zone efficiency. You've got two pass-oriented offenses with dangerous, diverse receiving corps and Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. You can't stop them, you can only hope to contain them near the goal line and force some mistakes along the way.

Who's more likely to win the turnover battle? Probably the Giants. Maybe I'm overreacting to Brady's poor game against the best pass defense in the NFL, and overlooking Eli Manning's historical fondness for throwing interceptions, but I don't see Manning giving this game away. In the red zone, however, I like New England. The Patriots threaten you so many ways, and this a team which is conditioned not to accept field goals. The goal is a touchdown.

Thus, the Giants win by forcing turnovers and succeeding in the red zone. The Patriots win by avoiding turnovers and limiting the Giants to field goals. This all comes back to pressure on the quarterback. Give Brady time to throw and he'll embarrass you. Let Manning get comfortable and you can't win. When everyone is healthy, the Giants have a better pass rush, and that gives them an edge. The Patriots' defensive failings have been overstated a bit, but this is not a dominant defensive team. The Giants, on their good days, play awfully good defense, and not just against Tim Tebow.

The Giants win this game by harassing Brady, forcing a couple of turnovers, and protecting the end zone. On offense, they get a couple of big runs from Ahmad Bradshaw or Brandon Jacobs, and keep the chains moving with Cruz and Nicks, at least one of whom goes over 100 yards. Eli stays calm, doesn't take sacks, and plays with controlled aggression, going after the big play when it's there but always protecting the ball.

The Patriots win with offensive fireworks. Brady plays his best Super Bowl yet, as the Giants struggle to cover Welker, Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Deion Branch while still maintaining some semblance of a pass rush. New England absolutely cannot win without a good game from Brady. Green-Ellis will get his carries, and he'll have to make some plays, but the passing game is the difference-maker. Special teams impart an advantage at some point, the Giants never get their run game going, and a relentless pass rush forces Manning into several key mistakes.

Either scenario is plausible, and this is a game that could go either way. Momentum is with the Giants, and they take the rematch, 27-20.

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