Who has the edge? What players will be most important in Super Bowl XLVI? NFL writer Greg A. Bedard examines how the teams will line up.
Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork vs. Giants center David Baas
About Wilfork: The Patriots have never asked more of Wilfork, the 30-year-old defensive tricaptain, and he’s delivered all season. Wilfork (6 feet 2 inches, 335 pounds), who led the team in defensive snaps played this season, is fourth on the team with 74 total tackles and set career-highs with 3 1/2 sacks, 2 interceptions and 2 fumble recoveries. Wilfork saved his best performance for the AFC Championship game against the Ravens. He played all but three snaps and finished with 1 1/2 sacks, 4 hurries, and 2 1/2 run stuffs.
Said about Wilfork: ‘‘Vince is a guy who doesn’t leave the field right now, and he’s playing his best football I think I’ve seen him play in his whole career.’’ — Giants guard Chris Snee.
About Baas: The Giants signed Baas (6-4, 312 pounds) to a five-year, $27.5-million contract in the offseason after parting ways with veterans Rich Seubert and Shaun O’Hara. Baas wasn’t even a full-time starter with the 49ers, the team that drafted him in the second round in 2005, until 2009. Baas missed five games (knee, head, neck injuries), including the Week 9 game against the Patriots. He’s probably the Giants’ most consistent lineman but had a rough outing against the 49ers in the NFC Championship game with a sack allowed and five hurries.
Said about Baas: ‘‘Steady player. He’s got his issues in space and having to handle quickness. Functional ..... He’s getting better. He’s real smart. Just not a gifted guy. More of a mauler.’’ — Two NFC scouts.
Tom Brady vs. Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell
About Brady: Not many have done it nearly as well in his 12 seasons. He owns a 140-40 record in the regular season and playoffs combined. His .780 winning percentage in the regular season is the best all time, and he’s tied with idol Joe Montana with 16 career postseason victories. And, oh yeah, he’s gunning for his fourth Super Bowl title, which would tie him with Montana and Terry Bradshaw. However, the Giants run the type of defense — pressure with four down rushers, ability to be multiple in coverages from down to down — that has given him trouble in the past.
Said about Brady: ‘‘I don’t know if you show Tom anything he hasn’t seen, because he’s played so many defenses and creates so many challenges. Tom is going to make some plays. We know that, but we are going to make some plays also, and we have to make more than he makes.’’ — Fewell.
About Fewell: The 49-year-old is in his second season coordinating the Giants defense, the same role he had for four seasons with the Bills, the Patriots’ AFC East rival. He worked as defensive backs coach with the Rams (2003-04) and in Chicago (05). Was a standout defensive back at Lenoir-Rhyne College. His area of expertise is the secondary, noticeable in the way he mixes coverages.
Said about Fewell: ‘‘I’m telling you the more you watch the Giants, it’s just going to be a very difficult game for us. They’ve done a great job. They’re very well coached, have excellent players. It’s more of a spin-the-dial [scheme]; there is some man, some zone, some man pressure, zone pressure, split-safety coverage, some post-safety zone coverage. It’s a spin-the-dial mentality and that’s really what’s been pretty effective against us in the past. So it’s hard to lock in and say, ‘This is what they’re going to do.’.’’ — Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.
Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington vs. Giants receiver Victor Cruz
About Arrington: When the season started, Arrington (5 feet 10 inches, 196 pounds) was the fourth cornerback behind Devin McCourty, Leigh Bodden, and second-round pick Ras-I Dowling. It didn’t take long for Arrington to become the team’s only dependable cornerback after Bodden and Dowling were injured and McCourty proved incapable of playing man coverage. Arrington led the NFL with seven interceptions and had 12 passes defended through 11 games. In the final seven games, including the playoffs, he has zero interceptions and two passes defended.
About Cruz: Also an afterthought early in the season, Cruz has developed into quarterback Eli Manning’s security blanket when he needs to move the chains. Since the third game, Cruz has averaged nearly six catches and 102 yards per game and has seven touchdowns. He’s bigger (6-0, 204) than he looks and is a terrific athlete with 4.54 speed and a 41.5-inch vertical jump. Cruz is dangerous on every part of the route tree, from the flat to go.
The skinny: We don’t know how Bill Belichick is going to defend the Giants, but taking Cruz away from Manning will probably be high on his to-do list. Arrington usually plays right cornerback, but he’s the only player with the shiftiness to hang with Cruz. Arrington would still need help.
Patriots left tackle Matt Light vs. Giants right end Jason Pierre-Paul
About Light: The 6-foot-4-inch, 305-pounder enjoyed a renaissance in his 11th season, with his statistics better in most categories, including sacks allowed (2.5) and hurries (30). Light, who yielded 7.5 sacks last season, allowed 41 total quarterback pressures in 2010, and just 30 this season. He shut out some of the best pass rushers from the end of the first quarter against the Eagles until the end of the regular season. “Matt Light is obviously a good football player,’’ said Giants end Osi Umenyiora.
About Pierre-Paul: After just one season the University of South Florida and one with the Giants, Pierre-Paul (6-5, 270, 4.71 in 40-yard dash) has blossomed into a star in his second season. Including the playoffs, ProFootballFocus.com has him leading the Giants in sacks (17), quarterback hits (15), hurries (35), and run stops (56). “He’s still learning,’’ Umenyiora said. “He has a tremendous upside and he’s going to be one of the great ones.’’
The skinny: The Patriots did a great job limiting Pierre-Paul to just one sack in the Week 9 matchup (against center Ryan Wendell and right guard Brian Waters). Pierre-Paul didn’t have a hurry, knockdown, or run stuff. Light held a similar player, Terrell Suggs of the Ravens, to a hurry and half knockdown in the AFC Championship game. Pierre-Paul had one sack, one hit, and five pressures in the Giants’ NFC title game win over the 49ers.
Patriots: Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett.
Giants: Eli Manning, David Carr.
Brady, 34, had another outstanding regular season with a 65.6 completion percentage, a career-high 5,235 yards, and 39 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. He also set career marks for completions (401) and attempts (611) as the Patriots’ offense relied on Brady’s arm more than ever. He was also sacked 32 times, the most since 2003. After torching the Broncos for 363 yards and six touchdowns in the AFC Divisional game, Brady grinded his way against a tough Ravens defense by completing 61.1 percent of his passes for 239 yards and two interceptions — his most since the Week 9 loss to the Giants. Brady, who was battling a bone bruise and tendonitis in his throwing elbow, had his worst game of the season against New York, with 13 poor throws (by subjective evaluation in accuracy or decision). He had 16 in the first seven games combined. Brady is 16-5 all time in the playoffs.
Manning, 31, cut back on his interceptions from 25 in 2010 to 16 this season and posted a career-high 8.4 yards per attempt. He was terrific in the first two playoff games against Atlanta (71.9 completion percentage) and the 15-1 Packers (10.0 yards per attempt) before battling against a standout 49ers defense that limited him to 5.4 yards on each of his franchise playoff-record 58 attempts (32 completions). Manning was sacked a season-high six times. He is outstanding at handling the rush — he was sacked just 28 times despite playing behind an average line — and has proved clutch; he set an NFL record with 15 fourth-quarter touchdowns. He beat the Patriots in Week 9 with a final touchdown drive, but wasn’t sharp in the game (51.3 completion percentage).
Patriots: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley, Lousaka Polite, Kevin Faulk, Shane Vereen.
Giants: Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw, Henry Hynoski, D.J. Ware, Da’Rel Scott.
Both teams have used the running game to set up the pass: The Giants ranked last in the league with a 89.2-yard average and the Patriots were 20th at 110.2. Green-Ellis led the Patriots with 667 yards (3.7 average) and 11 touchdowns in the regular season. His average slipped to 3.4 in the first two postseason games. Green-Ellis, who had 1,008 yards with a 4.4 average in 2010, hardly ever loses yards and stands out in short-yard situations. Despite averaging 4.3 yards per carry against the Giants in Week 9, he got just 12 carries. Ridley, the rookie third-round pick, is the breakaway threat (5.1 average on 87 carries) but was inactive against the Ravens after fumbling in each of the previous two games (one lost). Woodhead had 18 receptions to lead all running backs and has retained the third-down back role even with Faulk back. Faulk, who along with Brady and Matt Light have played in all five Super Bowls since 2001, is undoubtedly playing the final game of his invaluable career. Polite is the occasional fullback and is average. Vereen, one of the team’s two second-round picks, played in just five games while battling hamstring issues. He has been inactive the previous seven games.
Jacobs, the 6-4, 264-pound bruising tailback, is the starter in name only. Bradshaw (5-10, 214) is the workhorse and is finally at full strength after being limited to 12 games during the season. He has 200 yards on 46 attempts (4.3 average) in the postseason, and has added 14 catches for 95 yards. Bradshaw is a sensational blocker. Neither Bradshaw nor Hynoski, a rookie at 6-1, 266, played in the first matchup against the Patriots because of injuries. Ware will get the occasional carry.
Patriots: Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Deion Branch, Chad Ochocinco, Tiquan Underwood, Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater.
Giants: Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, Mario Manningham, Jerrel Jernigan, Devin Thomas, Ramses Barden, Jake Ballard, Travis Beckum, Bear Pascoe.
It doesn’t get much better inside the numbers on the field than the three-headed Patriots attack of Welker, Gronkowski, and Hernandez. Despite being 30, 5-8, and 185 pounds, Welker had his finest season with 122 catches (led NFL, fourth-highest total in league history) and set a franchise record with 1,569 yards. Welker had nine touchdowns. He had nine catches on 10 targets for 136 yards against the Giants in Week 9. In just his second season, Gronkowski had the greatest season for a tight end by setting records for touchdowns (17) and yards (1,327). He’s an outstanding blocker but has a high ankle sprain sustained against the Ravens. He had 101 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions (15 targets) against the Giants. Hernandez was still working through an MCL sprain when he had four catches for 35 yards against the Giants. He’s healthy now. Branch can’t get vertical like he once did, but makes the tough catch and is dangerous underneath coverages. Ochocinco, Underwood, and Edelman have had little consistent playing time.
Nicks, a first-round pick in ’09, battled injuries this season but had 76 receptions, 1,192 yards and 7 touchdowns in the regular season. He did not play against the Patriots. Nicks leads the team in the postseason with 335 yards and four touchdowns on 18 receptions. Cruz, the second-year undrafted free agent from UMass, led the team in receptions (82), yards (1,536), and touchdowns (9) in the regular season despite not being fully integrated until Week 4. He kicks into the slot when Manningham (8 catches, 116 yards, 3 touchdowns in the postseason) enters the game. Ballard, an undrafted rookie, is a solid two-way tight end and caught the game-winner against the Patriots in the regular season. Beckum is the Giants’ version of Hernandez. Pascoe is the blocker but caught his first NFL touchdown pass against the 49ers.
Patriots: Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, Brian Waters, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Ryan Wendell, Marcus Cannon, Donald Thomas, Nick McDonald.
Giants: David Diehl, Kevin Boothe, David Baas, Chris Snee, Kareem McKenzie, Mitch Petrus, Jim Cordle, Tony Ugoh, James Brewer.
After closing the regular season in sloppy fashion — to go with the three postseason losses the previous four years — the Patriots’ offensive line is playing its best ball of the season. Light has been terrific at left tackle and has shut out some of the league’s premier pass rushers. Mankins didn’t have as sharp a regular season as he did in 2010, when he was voted All-Pro, but he’s been stellar of late. Connolly, who replaced the injured Dan Koppen in the season opener, had one of his best games against the Ravens and has been solid. However, he had his worst game (2 hurries, half-knockdown, 2 1/2 stuffed runs and a snap over Brady’s head) against the Giants. Waters, in his first season with the Patriots after 11 with the Chiefs, has been the team’s best offseason acquisition. He tired down the stretch of the regular season but the bye weeks have him back playing at a Pro Bowl level. Vollmer, who allowed two hurries against the Giants, is expected to return for the first time since Nov. 26. If he can’t, Solder, the first-round pick, has gotten better with every snap this season.
The Giants’ line has been average. The running game has been poor and they give up a lot of pressure. Diehl and McKenzie give up the most pressure at left and right tackle, respectively. Baas, the center, is probably the top player on the unit and he didn’t play against the Patriots, which caused the unit to shuffle. Boothe and Snee are average at left and right guard, respectively. The Giants are extremely thin on the line; an in-game injury could be huge.
Patriots: Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick, Shaun Ellis, Ron Brace, Gerard Warren.
Giants: Jason Pierre-Paul, Linval Joseph, Chris Canty, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Dave Tollefson, Rocky Bernard, Jimmy Kennedy, Justin Trattou.
The Patriots’ line has played flawlessly in the playoffs after an inconsistent regular season. They are playing their best at the right time, and everyone is contributing. The bellwether has been Wilfork, who despite being 30 and about 335 pounds, has logged the most snaps of his career. He played all but three snaps in the finest performance of his career against the Ravens with 1 1/2 sacks, 4 hurries, and 2 1/2 run stuffs. He had a tackle for a loss and a hurry late in the fourth quarter. Wilfork will play end on early downs, then kick inside in passing situations. Love has played terrific on the nose but has a tendency to wear down as the game progresses. Deaderick has continued his steady improvement, and Warren, 33, plays like he’s 23 when the team needs him most. Ellis and Brace are rotational players at this point.
The Giants have one of the finest lines in the league but they are suspect against the run (19th at 121.2 yards per game). Of the team’s 48 sacks in the regular season, 86.5 percent (41.5) were generated by a line that goes seven-men deep. They also accounted for 79.3 percent of their 82 quarterback hits. The pressure from the line allows the Giants to blitz less and cover more. Right end Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks, 29 hits) is as good against the run as he is the pass and is a candidate for defensive player of the year. Canty is very good at tackle, and second-year player Joseph is ascending. Tuck, the left end, is terrific and had 1 1/2 sacks and two QB hits against the 49ers. He’ll kick inside alongside Tollefson in passing situations and will drop into coverage. Umenyiora, who has 3 1/2 sacks this postseason, will play left end in passing situations. Kennedy provides some good play against the run in his limited snaps.
Patriots: Jerod Mayo, Rob Ninkovich, Brandon Spikes, Mark Anderson, Dane Fletcher, Tracy White, Gary Guyton, Niko Koutouvides.
Giants: Michael Boley, Chase Blackburn, Mathias Kiwanuka, Mark Herzlich, Jacquian Williams, Greg Jones, Spencer Paysinger.
The Patriots have played strictly 3-4 in base defense in the postseason, and the linebackers have been nearly as good as the line. After getting gashed at times against the run during the regular season — opponents averaged 5.7 yards per attempt in the final four regular-season games — the Patriots have been nearly impenetrable in the playoffs (3.7 average). They’ve also stepped up the pass rush as the team moved away from the 4-3 they played earlier in the season, including against the Giants. The four starting linebackers — Ninkovich and Anderson on the outside, with Mayo and Spikes inside — have combined for 17 total quarterback pressures (sacks, hurries and knockdowns combined) and 5 1/2 stuffed runs in the postseason. Ninkovich has led the way with seven quarterback pressures (2 1/2 sacks), with Anderson close behind with five. Mayo and Spikes are playing their finest football at this moment.
The Giants don’t play a lot of base at this point, but when they do, Blackburn, who wasn’t signed until Nov. 29, is the middle linebacker with Boley at weak side and Kiwanuka on the strong side. Blackburn doesn’t run very well but he can drop into coverage — he picked off Aaron Rodgers in the divisional round. Boley is a very good player (17 tackles, 2 sacks, pass defended in postseason). The Giants will send him on blitzes and he can cover. Williams, a rookie, has a sprained foot. The Giants used him in passing situations against the Packers to cover some of their vast weapons. Kiwanuka will be moved to the line in passing situations and is a solid rusher. A lengthy player, Kiwanuka is also solid in coverage against tight ends. Herzlich is usually relegated to special teams.
Patriots: Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Patrick Chung, James Ihedigbo, Antwaun Molden, Nate Jones, Sergio Brown, Sterling Moore, Malcolm Williams, Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater.
Giants: Corey Webster, Aaron Ross, Kenny Phillips, Antrel Rolle, Deon Grant, Prince Amukamara, Will Blackmon, Tyler Sash, Derrick Martin.
Both secondaries can be picked apart if pressure up front isn’t good enough. The Patriots’ struggles have been well documented, although they’ve been much more assignment sure the previous six weeks. Still, the talent is limited outside of Chung, who can be a star if he can stay on the field. In a move that was an indictment of both his coverage skills and lack of capable coverage players opposite Chung, McCourty has been relegated to playing free safety in sub packages. Arrington, after tying for the league lead with seven interceptions in the regular season, has looked a little timid in the playoffs. He usually plays outside, but Arrington might move back inside with Victor Cruz in the slot for the Giants. Moore has shown a knack for timely ball skills down the stretch, but he’ll get roasted on occasion (happened twice against the Ravens before his late-game heroics). Molden, Edelman and Jones have been asked to play in nickel and dime. Whoever plays against the Giants is going to be targeted.
Webster is very good at one corner and Phillips is solid at safety, but outside of that, the Giants are hit and miss. Rolle, the eighth overall pick by the Cardinals as a cornerback in ’05, usually starts at safety and plays a lot in the slot. He had a team-high 96 tackles in the regular season. Grant will play as an extra defensive back or a linebacker depending on the game plan. The Giants used him at linebacker against Rob Gronkowski in Week 9. Amukamara will see time as the dime back. The Giants are really thin in the secondary after losing starter Terrell Thomas (knee), and reserves Michael Coe (shoulder) and Justin Tryon to injured reserve.
Patriots: K Stephen Gostkowski, P Zoltan Mesko, LS Danny Aiken, KR Danny Woodhead, PR Julian Edelman.
Giants: K Lawrence Tynes, P Steve Weatherford, LS Zak DeOssie, KR Jerrel Jernigan, PR Will Blackmon/Aaron Ross.
Gostkowski has been better on touchback percentage in the postseason (64.3 percent) than he was in the regular season (39.8). Tynes ranked last among postseason kickers with 24.6 percent touchbacks — he did have to kick on grass twice, including a sloppy track at San Francisco — after being at 43 percent in the regular season. Gostkowski has never kicked a game-winning field goal. Tynes is the only kicker in NFL history with two postseason overtime field goals (2007 and 2010 NFC Championship games). Tynes made 79 percent of his field goals to rank 23d in the NFL during the regular season (two blocked), but made just 1 of 3 longer than 50 yards. Gostkowski was 14th at 85 percent and made 1 of 2 over 50.
Mesko and Weatherford, the former Jet, both hold on field goals. On the season, Weatherford had 82 punts with a 45.7 average (tied for 15th) and 39.2 net (tied for 14th), and 30.4 percent of his punts landed inside the 20. Mesko was outstanding from start to finish on his 57 punts with a 46.5 average (11th in NFL) and 41.5 net (third), and 42 percent of his punts landed inside the 20. The Patriots were better on punt returns — for and against — and the Giants were better on kickoffs, for and against. The difference is basically negligible, but the Patriots have been more consistent.
Patriots: Bill Belichick, Bill O’Brien (offense), Matt Patricia (defense), Scott O’Brien (special teams).
Giants: Tom Coughlin, Kevin Gilbride (offense), Perry Fewell (defense), Tom Quinn (special teams).
Belichick and Coughlin, two former Giants assistants under Bill Parcells, square off again. Belichick, 59, is cementing his legacy as one of the best — if not the best — NFL coaches in league history with a possible sixth Super Bowl ring (two as Giants defensive coordinator). Belichick’s career winning percentage of 65.1 percent ranks third all time behind George Halas (Bears) and Don Shula (Colts/Dolphins). His .739 winning percentage in the postseason trails only Vince Lombardi (.900). Coughlin’s winning percentage is .555 in the regular season, and .533 in the postseason.
In head-to-head matchups, the series is tied 2-2, with Coughlin winning the only postseason meeting (Super Bowl XLII). O’Brien and Patricia both call the plays for their respective units, but Belichick has a heavy hand in game-planning and in-game adjustments. Gilbride and Fewell run their units. Both run multiple offenses and defenses. Fewell knows the Patriots well after spending four seasons (2006-09) as the Bills defensive coordinator and interim head coach after Dick Jauron was fired in ’09.
EDGE: PatriotsGreg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.