Patriots Report Card: Super Bowl XLVI

For converting their only field goal and committing no penalties, Stephen Gostkowski and the Patriot special teams unit get an "A-" for Sunday's Super Bowl XLVI. (REUTERS/Jim Young)

Well… crap. Just like four years ago, the New England Patriots came up just a couple plays short of beating the New York Giants and claiming their fourth Lombardi Trophy Sunday in Super Bowl XLVI. Instead, Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning once again bested Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, with Manning executing yet another fourth-quarter comeback highlighted by an improbable reception. Brady’s quest to tie Joe Montana and Bradshaw continues.

The Patriots under-performed on their last test of the season. Which Patriots will get credit and which are now on academic probation? Here’s the last report card until September.

Quarterback: B

Brady wasn’t terrible, completing just over 65 percent of his passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns, but he definitely wasn’t at his best. His line gave him all kinds of protection, but he still had trouble hitting his receivers. Wes Welker should have caught that second-and-11 late in the game, but Brady could have thrown a much easier pass, one that didn’t require Welker to simultaneously spin around, leap into the air and haul in a ball barely within his range.

Brady occasionally gets lost inside his own mind, seeing diagrams of plays instead of the actual field. His deep-ball interception is a perfect example. On paper, Rob Gronkowski would out-jump a linebacker every time. But the real Gronkowski couldn’t run or jump with that high-ankle sprain Sunday, yet Brady tried to bomb it to him anyway. Chase Blackburn hauled picked it, squandering yet another second-half drive that could have extended the Patriots’ lead beyond one possession.

Brady only played above-average football (including the bone-headed if oddly penalized safety), while Manning played spectacular football, especially in the second half. The better quarterback took home the title.

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Super Bowl Preview

Unless Vince Wilfork or another Patriot can disrupt Eli Manning, Manning will pick the Patriots apart in Sunday's Super Bowl. But the reverse holds for the Giants' pass-rush and Tom Brady. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Each conference’s representative in the last two Super Bowls have been identical. Both the Colts and Saints were pass-heavy offenses without much defense. Both the Steelers and Packers liked to build big leads early, then rely on opportunistic defenses to force turnovers in the second half. And this year, the Patriots and the Giants have incredible quarterbacks backed up by dominant receiving units.

Both teams try to run just enough to ease up the pass-rush, and both rely on pressure up front to bail out bad secondaries. Whichever team better executes their identical strategies will will the game.

Here’s my Super Bowl preview.

The Battle for the Line

Super Bowl XLVI will be won at the line of scrimmage. The Giants will try like hell to either hit Tom Brady or force him to throw before Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski inevitably get open. Even with the ankle injury, Gronkowski’s physical size makes him particularly tough on the Giants’ defensive backs, the biggest of whom are still four inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than Gronkowski.

The Patriots’ offensive line will face quite a challenge themselves, because not even the Ravens could match the pass-rush onslaught of the Giants’ linemen. Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Osi Umenyiora can all get to the quarterback, as can linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka. If the offensive line can control those four, Tom Coughlin may have to pull an extra linebacker out of coverage, freeing up one of the Big Three receivers, who are all lethal in single-coverage.

The Patriots have the personnel to counter the pass-rush, with Logan Mankins and Matt Light healthy again. Whether they can do so without drawing holding penalties is another question entirely.

Flipping things, Vince Wilfork has had a monster postseason on the Patriots’ defensive line, but he’ll need help to shut down Eli Manning. Some combination of Mark Anderson, Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich will have to step up. If they can get to Manning early, they might rattle the sky-high confidence he’ll feel, having already beaten the two best teams in the NFC and beaten the Patriots in a Super Bowl.

A confident Manning is dangerous, because receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz are very, very good. Even if the Patriots double-team them, either one could break away for 15- to 20-yard receptions without much difficulty. And considering the tackling problems the Patriots had with the Ravens, a 20-yard reception could easily become a 40-yard reception.

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Patriots Report Card: AFC Championship

Vince Wilfork's terrific individual effort of six tackles – three behind the line – a sack and a key fourth-down hit on Ravens QB Joe Flacco earns him an "A" in the AFC Championship report card. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

The Baltimore Ravens shut down the New England Patriots’ receivers in Sunday’s AFC Championship, rattled Tom Brady and held the Patriots to their fewest points since October. And they still didn’t win.

The Patriots beat the Ravens, 23-20, advancing to their fifth Super Bowl of the new millennium when Ravens place-kicker Billy Cundiff badly missed a game-tying 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds left. The Patriots will face the New York Giants in Indianapolis in two weeks.

The AFC Championship was the last test before the final. Who’s ready, and who’ll be pulling an all-nighter? Here’s the penultimate report card of the season.

Quarterback: B+

Brady’s successes Sunday came on seven, eight, nine-yard passes – the bit-by-bit passing attack that’s won three Super Bowls. Brady only got into trouble when he got greedy and tried for more too quickly. Given the ball following a Brandon Spikes interception, Brady could have slowly marched the Patriots 50 yards, scored a touchdown and probably clinched the game. Instead he tried an unconvincing play-action bomb to Matthew Slater, who’s caught one pass this season. The Ravens sniffed it out, sent two deep and picked him off.

Every so often, Brady forgets to use common sense when selecting targets. Against a good pass-rush, Brady barely completed 60 percent of his passes, throwing for just 239 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. In typically gritty fashion, he did rush for a touchdown on fourth down in the fourth, putting the Patriots ahead for good.

Brady won’t have to be perfect to out-score the Giants in two weeks. He just can’t get lost inside his own head as much as he did Sunday.

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