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The Pro Game

Giant express set to derail

About the Author

Tom Danyluk

Danyluk1@yahoo.com
Contributing writer

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Posted Feb. 02, 2012 @ 11:15 a.m. ET
By Tom Danyluk

I knew a guy who moved into a condo by the rails, and every eight minutes the train would sail past his bedroom windows, the ceaseless clicking and clattering and quaking. Finally I asked him if he thought it was still such a good bargain, and his words carried big dark circles under them when he said, "Oh, well, you get used to it."

A year or so later, they hammered up the sign: Unit For Sale.

Bill Belichick has too much pride to confess, but he hasn't had a real deep sleep in four years. The tracks still run right past his window, the ones that carried those New York pass rushers though his line and into his Hall of Fame quarterback and wrecked his unbeaten dream and Super Bowl XLII to pieces.

Tom Brady took five sacks that day. The Giants swarmed him and made him dance and smashed into him as he let it go. In one of the great acts of coaching obstinacy, Josh McDaniel, New England's young offensive coordinator, refused to muscle-up his pass protection, instead clinging to the fancy three- and four- and five-receiver setups that carried the Pats to 18 consecutive wins that year. And once there was a mule so stubborn that he ignored the smoke and went up in flames with the barn.

"It was nothing the [Giants'] secondary did," Pats WR Randy Moss mouthed after that game. "They didn't pick any balls or anything like that. It was just the pass rush that really set the tempo for four quarters."

The identical theme has surfaced for this Super Bowl, the Payback Bowl. It's a whole different New England team personnel-wise, but it still will be Brady and his three-, four- and five-receiver sets going up against a surging, violent New York front four. Whichever group prevails, as before, should decide the outcome.

You have to dig up the roots to find people who favor the Pats here; forget they're a three-point favorite to the bettors. Their only hell-raiser on defense has been NT Vince Wolfork, who has been out dynamiting dams and bridges in these playoffs. The rest of the defense gets by on the unspectacular. It allowed the most first downs in the league this season. You want a stat with those fries? OK, no defense that has given up the most first downs has ever won a Super Bowl. New England lets its opponents roam the field. I don't see how Eli Manning can't sock 'em for 350 yards or more, munching up territory between the 20s.

But somehow the Pats keep the scoreboard under control. Only one club — Buffalo — managed more than 27 on them this season. This was back in September (Week Three), when the coach was borderline frantic, whisking people in and out, strays off the street, in a search for some sort of functional combination. And yet opposing kickers rarely even get FG opportunities against this team (23 in regular season). Hard to explain.

I remember when the Super Bowl Colts finally rediscovered their rush defense, late in the '06 season, and everyone pointed to the insertion of a little-known middle linebacker named Rob Morris as the reason. Jacksonville had just hit them for 375 on the ground. Then, in a dramatic reversal, the Colts suddenly were destroying everything on legs.

Why? Umm, Morris, I guess. Getting S Bob Sanders back from the hospital bed also meant something; don't forget him. Meanwhile, former pro Brian Baldinger provided a heavy technical breakdown to The Sporting News on the subject, nearly detailing the very movement of the planets along with it.

"They are in the gaps, they have someone establishing the edge, they have kept leverage so no one is getting blocked straight up where they might get overpowered." On and on with the details.

I got through a third of it and zzz-ed off. Like listening to Salk detailing the polio cure. "You see, the immunogen, via the use of an infectious agent …"

Summary: Sanders and Morris were better than the two guys who were filling in for them. And with these Patriots there is no writeup like that out there. You can't point to one or two insertions to explain how they've lasted this far. So, you look over at Belichick and say, OK, football Mensa.

New England's big crisis is Rob Gronkowski's ankle. One confirmed report said he ran from the airplane to the team bus in Indy. That's good. Another said he ran from the hotel down to Shapiro's on South Meridian for a late-night pastrami and rye. This one is unsubstantiated.

Gronk's best routes are the simplest ones — the go patterns, the streaks. These require straight-ahead running then simply turning back to look for the ball. If he's even 60 percent healthy he'll be able to at least manage some of these, granted the Giants allow him a clean break off the line. Likely they won't. If he's 80 percent, then it should be business as usual.

But the ultimate issue will be protection of Brady. ORT Nate Solder, a rookie, gave up the only Brady sack of the playoffs, a wide power rush coming from Ravens OLB Paul Kruger. Terrell Suggs, the AFC leader in sacks, did nothing in the game. Otherwise, there were no real killers to worry about in their postseason.

There are now. In their early November tango (in Week Nine), the Giants dumped Brady twice, but that was with a wounded defensive line … Tuck, groin. … Umenyiora, knee, etc. They're all better. That little trick where the Pats put TE Aaron Hernandez at fullback? It broke for fancy yards against Denver, and they messed around with it some more against Baltimore. Watch them bring it out against the Giants, too, signaling run, but this time keeping Hernandez at home … for extra blocking support.

In fact, I think the Pats will load up enough sandbags around Brady to keep him dry and pull out this game … tight ends, extra backs, whatever. Anything to avoid the deadly mistake of '07 — underprotection. I see those veteran tackles and guards — Logan Mankins, Brian Waters, Matt Light, Sebastian Vollmer, if he's healthy … you know the names — mustering up a pride-driven performance.

Yes, the Giants' receivers will race up and down the dome floor, and Eli Manning will find them, but I keep thinking about that 20-points-per-game ceiling of the New England defense. Belichick thinks about it, too.

He has been unusually light this week. Strangely loose. He knows the world loves New York here. And the Giants have been mouthy all week. That's OK. The last time Belichick was a Super underdog, in 2001, he ended up swimming in roses.

As he gives his club the final tuneup, you see the smirk of revenge … you hear his mock whistle around town, an old Johnny Cash number.

"I hear the train a comin', It's rollin' 'round the bend …"

Prediction: Patriots 27, Giants 23

Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.

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