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Palmer: Pats have work cut out against tough Giants

Jesse Palmer
2/1/2012 8:41:42 PM
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The New England Patriots have their work cut out for them if they are to win their fourth Super Bowl title in a decade on Sunday. Facing the vaunted New York Giants pass rush, the Pats will have to come up with some creative ways offensively to slow down the charge of Pro Bowler Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and others. Thanks to an additional week off, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien will have had plenty of time to devise an attack strategy for Sunday, but no matter what he chooses to come up with, one thing is for certain: the Pats must be able to run the football effectively, particularly early.

The Pats were ranked as the 20th-best run offence during the regular season, but that can't stop them from trying to establish a ground game versus the Giants, since one of the best ways to slow down a good pass rush is with an effective running game. I'm not saying the Pats have to pound the football 40 times on Sunday. They can be an effective running team, however, by not being predictable (i.e. not always running on first down, running out of different formations and personnel groupings). The Giants cannot be allowed to pin their ears back and get up field, and by establishing a ground game, the Pats offensive line has the opportunity to dictate and establish their own physicality at the point of attack.

Make no mistake about it, the New England Patriots are going to throw the football. Often. Tom Brady and the passing game are the biggest reason why the Pats have won 10 games in a row after all. But Benjarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead are going to have to carry the football to keep the Giants honest on D. Factor in TE Rob Gronkowski's uncertainty in this game, and it makes the run game that much more of a priority for head coach Bill Belichick and the Pats. If I'm Bill O'Brien, I'm making use of screen passes, draw plays, three-step drops in the passing game, and I'm moving the launch point for Brady in order to slow this great Giants pass rush down as much as possible. If Brady ends up nine yards behind the center on each and every pass attempt, it's going to be a long night for the future Hall of Famer. At the end of the day however, the running game will be Tom Brady's best friend on Sunday, and it is a critical element in the Patriots formula to win Super Bowl XLVI.


Difference Maker

Rob Gronkowski has been getting a lot of attention these past two weeks, both from team doctors and the media alike. After suffering a high ankle sprain in the Patriots AFC Championship victory, his status is uncertain for Super Bowl XLVI. If Gronkowski were unable to go on Sunday it would be a huge blow for the Pats. He was the Patriots best weapon on offence this season, catching 90 passes for a NFL tight end-record 17 TD receptions. His 6'6" , 265 lb frame made it very difficult for opposing defenses to match up against him. Gronkowski is too fast for linebackers to cover, and he's too big and physical for smaller defensive backs to handle. His rare combination of size and speed has made him a massive threat in the red zone this season, and the Patriots have capitalized on their scoring chances due in large part to him. Because of the headaches he creates for opposing defensive coordinators, the Patriots paired him with fellow second year TE Aaron Hernandez often on the field at the same time.

In fact, the Patriots utilized a two tight end set over 80 per cent of their offensive snaps this season, easily the highest percentage of any team in the NFL. The two tight end sets were therefore a massive part of the Pats offensive attack, and without Gronkowski, Brady and company become much more limited. Wes Welker easily led the NFL with 122 receptions this season, but without Gronkowski, the Giants will be able to mix up their coverages on Welker, using different people in different combinations to try and take away the speedy slot receiver. Hernandez's role would have to increase, as he has been a good answer this season for Brady working the middle of the field, particularly on third downs.

I have a hard time imagining Gronkowski not suiting up for the biggest game of his life on Sunday, even if isn't 100 per cent healthy. An 80 percent healthy Rob Gronkowski is probably still better than 80 per cent of the tight ends in the NFL. His health will continue to be a major storyline all week here in Indianapolis, and I wouldn't be surprised if Gronkowski becomes a game time decision right before kick off. Stay tuned.


Memory Lane

Super Bowl Sunday is a cherished tradition by many around the world each and every year. The largest single-day sporting event in North America is celebrated by fans and families, bringing an end to yet another football season. Everybody has a favourite Super Bowl memory. I have several. I can remember growing up as a kid in Nepean, Ontario, watching "The Game" with my family and friends each year. I remember Scott Norwood wide right in SB XXV. Joe Montana's game-winning drive to beat the Bengals in SB XXXIII (I used to hate Montana because he knocked my Chicago Bears out of the playoffs a couple of times). Doug Williams's four TD passes in SB XXII. In college, my teammates and I watched John Elway finally win his first Super Bowl in an epic duel with Brett Favre in SB XXXII. In Turks and Caicos, my best friend Chris Theodossiou and I watched Brady and the Patriots upset Kurt Warner and the Rams in SB XXXVI. I stood in the stadium tunnel with my fellow TSN colleagues Rod Smith and Chris Schultz as Eli Manning found Plaxico Burress in the waning seconds to upset the undefeated Patriots in 2007.

So many great memories, from so many great games. Surely, Super Bowl XLVI will deliver even more to millions of fans around the world this Sunday. I can't wait. 


Feeling Eli

The New York Giants are a very confident football team right now. They've won five games in a row and their defence is playing great. Eli Manning is the biggest reason, however, for this newfound confidence. Unlike in 2007 when the Giants defeated the Patriots in the Super Bowl, there in an unwavering faith surrounding the eighth-year veteran QB. The organization, the coaching staff and players all have the utmost belief in their franchise player, and the confidence is warranted.

This season, Manning has led the Giants to seven fourth quarter comebacks or game-winning drives. He has played virtually flawlessly in the post season, having thrown eight touchdown passes versus only one interception. In the NFC title game versus the 49ers, Eli attempted 58 passes in bad throwing conditions versus a tremendous defence, and didn't turn the football over once!  No wonder Tom Coughlin believes in his QB.

Normally, teams must run the football in order to achieve balance on offence, but I think the Giants would feel 100 per cent comfortable with Eli throwing it another 50 times on Sunday. After all, the Patriots were the second-worst pass defence in the NFL during the regular season (although they have greatly improved this post season, thanks to a strong pass rush). Eli now has a mastery of the Giants offence and understands where all of his answers are on the field. He has developed a tremendous chemistry with wide receivers Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham. He is more comfortable in the pocket, because he knows the strong point of each protection, and always knows where his check down throws are. He gets guys lined up pre-snap, he changes protections at the line of scrimmage, he audibles to different run plays, and changes routes when the coverage allows for it.

Eli Manning is playing the best football of his life, and it's because he is in total control. It is important that Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs touch the football on Sunday, but the Giants will win or lose because of Manning. Very seldom would I ever side with the opposing QB to Tom Brady, especially in a game like the Super Bowl. I'm siding with Eli Manning. For whatever reason, he always seems to play well versus the Pats. Of course he beat them in SB XLII, and beat them again this year in the regular season. He even threw four TD passes in a loss at the end of the 2007 regular season. Tom Coughlin needs to put the ball in Eli's hands on Sunday and let him win the game.

For the first time in his career, Eli is the Giants best player, and their difference maker. He'll have to be the difference in Super Bowl XLVI.

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