By Eric from BigBlueInteractive.com
Approach to the Game: Three down; one more to go.
It’s been the Giants’ motto all season. Finish off your opponent in the 4th quarter. The origin of this battle cry was undoubtedly the Giants-Eagles meltdown in the Meadowlands last season that cost the Giants the division title. For much of the season, without us knowing the full magnitude at the time, New York’s playoff life rested on their ability to respond to this challenge. If the Giants had lost any one of their five 4th quarter comebacks, they would be sitting at home. Instead, they swept the Cowboys, beat the Jets, pretty handily whipped the Falcons and Packers, and survived against the 49ers. Now they have just one more game to play.
I think when we look back on the 2011 playoff run, we’ll point to the game against the 49ers as the Giants’ most significant challenge. The Patriots? Superb coach. Superb quarterback. But I think the Giants are the better team. The Giants have the better quarterback. They have the better (and healthier) receivers. They have the better defense. The Giants are not intimidated by Belichick or Brady. And the fast playing surface will be an advantage for the Giants both on offense and defense.
But the best team does not always win. Talent matters, but so does preparation, focus, intensity, intelligence, and above all, execution.
Finish. Finish every play. Finish the game. Finish the season.
Giants on Offense: The Patriots are extremely well-coached on defense and they don’t make a lot of mental mistakes. But they are not a very talented group. NT/DT Vince Wilfork is their best player and he can be handful for anyone, as clearly demonstrated in the playoffs. S Patrick Chung has returned to the lineup and has helped the secondary. The linebackers are decent, but not standouts.
The Patriots finished 31st in the NFL in terms of yardage allowed and a much more respectable 18th in the NFL in terms of points allowed. But they lost one of their best pass rushers in DE Andre Carter for the season and now most of their pressure comes from DE/LB Mark Anderson and LB Rob Ninkovich. To get heat on the quarterback, the Patriots often have to out-scheme their opponent through confusing blitz packages rather than playing it straight up. The Patriots will play both the 4-3 and 3-4 and they will move players around – everything being designed to confuse the opposition. They play more of a 3-4 look now, but that can still change.
No one can imagine the Patriots’ playing the Giants’ straight up with the secondary they have. They would get killed. So do the Patriots risk putting more stress on the secondary and blitz a ton, or do they play more in coverage? My guess is they play more in coverage and try to catch the Giants off guard with an occasional blitz they haven’t seen before. If I’m Belichick, I make the Giants dink and dunk me down the field and/or beat me with the run. I don’t give up the big passing plays, especially the long runs after the catch. The Patriots will constantly change their looks in the secondary in an effort to confuse Manning and his receivers. Remember, both the quarterback and the receivers have to be on the same page in the Giants’ offense.
I think there are five big keys for the Giants’ offense in this game:
(1) Eli can’t get too caught up on the mind games. With all of the latitude that the Coughlin/Gilbride offense gives Eli at the line of scrimmage, it many ways, this game will become a chess match between Eli and Belichick. Eli’s brother used to fall victim to that trap. The Patriots would show Peyton one look and then change it with only seconds before the ball was snapped, knowing Peyton would want to change the play again to the ideal response. Eli tends to use all of the clock as it is, so there is a real danger here for penalties, being rushed/feeling out of sorts, and general confusion. The Giants’ offensive personnel is better than the Patriots’ defensive personnel. The perfect play does not have to be called on each and every play. There are no style points here. Don’t get out of your comfort zone. Run the play that is called. If there is time to change it, fine. If not, see if you can beat them regardless. Above all, BE PATIENT. If the Patriots’ are going to give up the short pass and run, take it, and don’t make mistakes.
(2) The offensive line needs to rebound from the bad NFC Championship Game. The Patriots don’t rush the passer like the 49ers. They don’t have the same weapons. But the Patriots do have 40 sacks on the year. Ten of those came from Carter and he won’t be playing, but the Patriots have demonstrated an ability to get to the quarterback. In the first meeting between these two teams in November, the Giants did a good job of protecting Manning. They need that same kind of performance again. In addition, if the Patriots play more defenders back and dare the Giants to beat them with the running game, the offensive line, tight ends, and fullback MUST be able to win those advantageous match-ups up front. In particular, they need to get Wilfork blocked. If the Patriots want to dare Manning to make Bradshaw the game’s MVP, then the blockers must give Bradshaw those holes.
(3) Don’t turn the football over.
(4) Finish (there’s that word again) drives with touchdowns. The Patriots give up a lot of yardage but generally stiffen in the red zone. Score touchdowns, not field goals.
(5) Have fun. This is serious business. It’s the Super Bowl. But the Giants are the better team and if they play loose and execute, they will win. Don’t worry about being perfect. Do the best you can do on every single play and that will be good enough.
Giants on Defense: The Patriots are where they are because of coaching, Tom Brady, and an exceptionally-difficult to defend underneath passing game centered around slot receiver Wes Welker and two tight ends: Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Everyone and their mother knows that what the Giants really want is a repeat of Super Bowl XLII when the Giants battered and bruised Brady all day long. However, the 2007 Patriots relied heavily on a downfield passing game. The 2011 Patriots use a quick, short passing attack that often allows Brady to get rid of the football before the pass rush can get to him. Even more so than usual, against this offense, pass rush and coverage must work hand-in-hand. The Patriots’ offense is a timing-based offense. Disrupt that timing and Brady will hold onto the ball longer than he wants. To disrupt the timing, the defenders must hit the receivers (this includes the tight ends) as they come off the line of scrimmage. The Patriots will try to counter some of this by putting guys like Welker or Hernandez in motion (Gronkowski will probably be more limited because of his ankle injury and used more as a blocker in this contest).
I think the Giants match-up fairly well with the tight ends as both Michael Boley and Jacquian Williams are athletic coverage linebackers. To me, the first key is defending Welker out of the slot. The Giants really don’t have anyone who is ideally suited to covering him. The second key is to not let WR Deion Branch (or any other outside receiver) do any significant damage outside. The Giants have to count on Corey Webster and Aaron Ross to shut down the outside guys so they can focus their attention on Welker and Hernandez.
Belichick is also going to force the Giants’ pass rushers to think by running the ball (especially out of the shotgun), employing screens (something the Patriots have gotten away from but still can do), and using misdirection. Watch out for the trick play too with a guy like Julian Edelman being able to throw the football.
I can see the Patriots approaching this game one of two ways. I could see them coming out trying to attack on full cylinders, using the hurry-up/no-huddle to keep the Giants out of their situational pass rush packages and tire and confuse the defenders. Paul Dottino mentioned this week that the Giants were often late getting their defensive signals in on more than a few plays. I can see the Patriots forcing the Giants to respond both physically and mentally to the up tempo challenge. On the other hand, I also could see the Patriots trying to shorten the game and keep the explosive Giants’ attack off the field through the short passing game and, yes, even running the football. Don’t underestimate BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. The Giants will have to prepare for either strategy and adjust accordingly.
Lastly, there will come a moment or two in this game where the defense will have to stand up and make a game-winning play. It may come on a 4th down conversion attempt or a last-minute drive by Brady. But some defender – hopefully playing within the overall discipline of the defense – is going to have to save the day by making a play and crushing New England’s hopes.
Giants on Special Teams: We saw in both the NFC and AFC Championship Games just how much special teams can decide a game – and a season. Danny Woodhead’s longest kickoff return this season has come in the playoffs (41 yards). Both Julian Edelman and Wes Welker return punts.
The Giants must remain vigilant for trick plays on field goals, punts, and even returns.
The Giants have gotten so tantalizing close to blocking a punt…