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Super Bowl can't be a replay for Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  January 27, 2012 12:35 PM

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There will be ad nauseam rehashing of the Game That Got Away. It's both tempting and torturous, like figuring out how much money would be in your 401K if the economy hadn't tanked.

Nothing the Patriots do is going to stop David Tyree from pinning the football to his head like a high school graduate securing a mortar board, or reverse an all-out blitz call that left gimpy cornerback Ellis Hobbs in man-to-man coverage with Plaxico Burress.

If we must make the rematch/revenge angle relevant for the Patriots matchup with the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI we don't have to revisit Super Bowl XLII four years ago. We can hit rewind and go back to Nov. 6, when the Patriots lost, 24-20, to the Giants at Gillette Stadium.

That was the last loss the Patriots suffered this season, and if they want it to stay that way then this rematch can't be a replay.

In that game the Patriots were using the long-since departed Phillip Adams as a cornerback in their nickel package. Albert Haynesworth was still just misunderstood, Josh Barrett was a viable option at safety.

Those guys won't be playing for the Patriots on Feb. 5, and neither will injured defensive end Andre Carter. Meanwhile, a trio of Giants offensive starters who missed that game -- wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, who had 1,192 receiving yards this season, leading rusher Ahmad Bradshaw and center David Baas -- will be.

Defensively, the Patriots are going to have to be judicious in their use of man-to-man coverage and blitzes because their defensive backs do not match up well with Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham. Manningham, New York's third receiver had a touchdown in the first meeting when the Patriots blitzed and he beat Kyle Arrington, the Patriot's best corner, one-on-one.

But this game is going to be won at gridiron ground zero, the line of scrimmage. The key to Super Bowl XLVI is for the Patriots to be able to protect Tom Brady against the Giants' pass rush with five- and six-man protections, so they don't comprise the strength of their passing attack -- its wealth of targets.

The Giants are one of the few teams in the NFL with a tried and true formula for beating the Patriots. They used it in Super Bowl XLII, and they used it in November.

They're able to harry and harass Brady with their front four and then cover with seven. Those have always been the teams that give Brady the most trouble. It's what the Miami Dolphins did for years. It's what the San Diego Chargers did to him in the 2006 AFC Divisional playoffs, when he threw three interceptions and completed 52.9 percent of his passes.

It's how the Giants forced Brady into three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble) and held the Patriots to three points through three quarters in November.

New York played most of the game with four defensive lineman, two linebackers and five defensive backs. The versatility of safeties Deon Grant and Antrel Rolle allowed the Giants to vary their looks. Rolle spent time covering Wes Welker one-on-one in the slot, and Grant, who was like a hybrid safety/linebacker, was often matched up with Rob Gronkowski.

New York also used a three-man line look that featured leading-sacker Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks) at nose tackle and Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora as defensive ends to provide the kind of interior rush that bulldozed the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

New York made the line of scrimmage look like a congested New York subway platform, crowding 10 men around it and putting only a single high safety (Kenny Phillips) deep. The Giants showed zero respect for the Patriots ability to beat them down the field outside the numbers.

National anthem singers have spent more time on the field than Ochocinco in these playoffs, but if there were ever a game he could earn that $6 million paycheck this could be it. There was a reason that the Patriots targeted Ocho five times (zero catches) in the first matchup. They needed someone who could win outside the numbers. They're still going to need that in Super Bowl XLVI.

Perhaps scarred by their demise in the desert four years ago, the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick were so concerned with the Giants' ability to rush the passer that they abandoned their spread attack in the November game.

Rookie right tackle Nate Solder played 20-plus snaps as an extra tackle/tight end eligible and the Patriots kept Gronkowski in to pass protect more frequently than normal.

The result was better pass protection -- Brady was sacked twice, compared to five times in Super Bowl XLII -- but a worse offense because the Giants were able to smother two-and three-man route concepts with seven pass defenders.

Both of Brady's interceptions came with Solder on as an extra blocker. Brady's first pick came with just a two-man route concept, the second on a three-man look. His third-quarter fumble came with the Patriots using a protection that had both Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in to block.

The Patriots didn't start putting points on the board until they began pass protecting with five or six.

Starting with the Patriots initial touchdown drive, which began with 2:09 left in the third quarter, the Patriots ran 20 pass plays, 16 of them they had four or five receivers available to Brady. Only once did they have a two-man route concept, which resulted in a 28-yard gain to Wes Welker when the Giants were frozen by play-action.

The Patriots scored 17 points in the final 17:09 of action.

Sounds simple, but the Patriots tried handling the Giants defensive line this way in Super Bowl XLII, and Brady saw more of the turf at University of Phoenix Stadium than the groundskeeper. That's the dilemma for Brady and Belichick.

No one said revenge was going to be easy.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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