The meeting of the Patriots and Giants in Super Bowl XLVI will be a rematch of the teams’ title-game faceoff four years earlier. The Giants spoiled the Patriots’ bid for a perfect season in that game, 17-14, in Glendale, Ariz.
And while many of the names are different, some of the problems the Patriots will face in the Giants are similar to the ones they encountered in their loss four years ago.
The Boston Globe looks at five key factors in the Patriots’ loss that day and how the teams that will suit up for Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis will be different.
1. What went wrong: The Patriots couldn’t protect Tom Brady
An offensive line that surrendered just 21 sacks in the regular season (fifth best in the NFL) collapsed in the Super Bowl. The Giants’ stiff pass rush hit Brady nine times, sacked him five times and kept him off balance seemingly all game. Brady was 32-for-42 for 356 yards with two touchdown passes when the teams met in Week 17. In the Super Bowl, he was 29-for-48 for 256 yards and one scoring pass. But most significantly, Brady was rattled throughout the game as his protectors were unable to provide him a bubble to work out of.
How it’s changed: Much of the Patriots’ offensive line has been overhauled since that game, and it’s provided strong results this season. The starting five in Super Bowl XLII were LT Matt Light, LG Logan Mankins, C Dan Koppen, RG Stephen Neal, and RT Nick Kaczur, with TEs Kyle Brady and Ben Watson mixed in. Neal, Kaczur and Kyle Brady have all retired. Watson is gone, and Koppen was lost for the 2011 season in the opener due to a leg injury. Light and Mankins are still rock steady on the left side, while free agent Brian Waters stepped in at right guard this season and earned a Pro Bowl invitation. Dan Connolly moved in ably for Koppen, and first-round pick Nate Solder -- while spelling the ailing Sebastian Vollmer -- has performed well at right tackle. The unit tied for ninth-best in the NFL with 32 sacks allowed this season, and has allowed just one in the playoffs. It is up against a ferocious Giants pass rush that, while losing Michael Strahan since 2007, has added Pro Bowler Jason Pierre-Paul and his 16.5 sacks. The task of protecting Brady is just as difficult, and the Patriots must be on guard not to get bowled over the way they were in Super Bowl XLII.
2. What went wrong: Running game was a non-factor
The Giants locked down the Patriots’ running backs four years ago. Laurence Maroney, coming off his best season, was the leading rusher with 36 of the team’s 45 yards. That forced Brady to rely on his passing game -- even with the pocket seemingly always crashing around him. Kevin Faulk was most effective as a pass catcher, with seven receptions for 52 yards and just 7 yards rushing.
How it’s changed: The Patriots still don’t have a truly balanced offense or a premier running back, and they actually rushed for fewer yards this season (1,764) than in 2007 (1,849). But they have a pair of running backs in Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis in whom they have confidence. Both are capable of finding holes to surprise defenses. And the Patriots rushed for 106 yards against the Giants in November. The key will be to use the tailbacks effectively against New York’s big line and to keep the Giants from overloading the backfield. While the Patriots may have been hoping to have the dynamic Stevan Ridley pick up some of the load, he was benched last week and probably has proved too unreliable for such a big game after a string of late-season fumbles. Faulk has not been a factor late in the season, and may be suiting up for his final game.
3. What went wrong: There was too little diversification in the passing game
Wes Welker had a team-high 11 catches for 103 yards in the Super Bowl. (No change
there.) But Brady was unable to develop a rhythm with Randy Moss -- which was especially apparent on the Patriots’ doomed, last-gasp drive in the final minute. Moss had a touchdown in the game (which, with 2:42 left, looked like it could have been a game-winner), but the Giants otherwise kept him from being the terror who caught an NFL-record 23 touchdowns during the regular season. Of the tight ends, only Kyle Brady had a catch (for 3 yards).
How it’s changed: While Welker is a mainstay, the offense is otherwise almost entirely built around tight ends now. Tight ends catching the ball. Tight ends running the ball. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez do everything but throw it ... so far. But Brady also lacks the deep threat that Moss gave him in 2007. Gronkowski (whose ankle injury is not expected to keep him out of the Super Bowl) and Hernandez combined for 12 catches for 136 yards and two touchdowns in the November game. If the Patriots run into problems on Feb. 5, it’s not likely to be because of Brady’s group of receiving options.
4. What went wrong: The defensive backs were ineffective
The secondary ranked sixth in passing yards allowed during the regular season and had stalwarts such as Asante Samuel and Rodney Harrison. But in crunch time, the Patriots’ defensive backs failed to do their jobs. The Giants drove 83 yards in 2 minutes, 7 seconds for the game-winning score, and 81 of those yards came on passes from Eli Manning. Samuel failed to come down with a catchable would-be interception that could have cemented a win. Harrison somehow allowed David Tyree to haul in his improbable, saved-by-the-helmet 32-yard third-down catch with 59 seconds left. And then Hobbs was left frozen by Burress as the Giants receiver made the game-winning catch in the corner of the end zone with 35 seconds left.
How it’s changed: In the four years since that game, the Patriots’ secondary is probably the area where the team has made the least progress. They’ve finished 30th and 31st in pass defense the past two years, respectively. Yet the unit has shown some flashes in the playoffs, and free-agent pickup Sterling Moore may have saved the season when he dislodged a would-be game-winning touchdown by Baltimore’s Lee Evans in the final minute of the AFC title game. Still, the Giants’ impressive receiving trio of Hakeem Nicks (who didn’t play in the regular-season meeting), Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham presents probably the best corps the Patriots have faced all season. (Don’t discount TE Jake Ballard too, who scored a Burress-like game-winning touchdown at New England in November.)
5. What went wrong: The pressure of chasing the perfect season was too great
The drumbeat about 19-0 started as early as Week 2 and didn’t relent until the Giants danced on the grave of perfection 20 weeks later. The Patriots carried huge targets on their backs after completing the first-ever 16-0 regular season. The Giants even arrived at the Super Bowl dressed in black undertakers’ suits -- because they knew they were coming to bury the Patriots. Some members of the 1972 Dolphins, the NFL’s only undefeated champions, were openly deriding the Patriots. There were also the allegations that the Patriots had videotaped the Rams’ Super Bowl walkthrough six years earlier, which broke a day before the game. It was a level of expectations that most Super Bowl participants don’t have to deal with.
How it’s changed: The dream of perfection is gone, as the Patriots went 13-3 in the regular season. They’ve also lost some of the aura that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, who were 3-0 in Super Bowls entering the game four years ago, carried to Arizona. And now seven years removed from his last championship, Brady can hear whispers about whether he’s still capable of carrying a team to victory in a big game. Those changed expectations can be positives, if Brady and Belichick can play the underdog card to redefine their legacies with a fourth title; or they can be negatives, if the questions about the team being too offense-driven and having a weak defense prove true on the NFL’s biggest stage.