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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Patriots Report Card: Divisional Round

With over 75 percent accuracy, masterful two-minute offense and a playoff record-tying six touchdown passes, Tom Brady gets an "A+" in this week's report card. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The Book of (2) Timothy states: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”

The Book of Tom states: “Good for you. I just whomped your ass.”

Any comparisons between Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos and Tom Brady and the New England Patriots died following Saturday’s divisional-round playoff game. Brady tied the NFL postseason record with six passing touchdowns, the defense squished Tebow under hundreds of pounds of linemen and linebackers, and the Patriots cruised to a 45-10 gelding of the Broncos.

With a victory as complete as the Patriots’ over the Broncos, did anyone not earn academic honors? Here’s my first report card of the playoffs.

Quarterback: A+

Brady set a first-half playoff record with five touchdown passes, then tied the single-game record with a sixth in the third quarter. He completed over 75 percent of his passes, averaging better than a first down per reception. He finished the game with 363 passing yards, six touchdowns and an interception. He orchestrated a masterful 58-yard drive with a minute left in the half, needing just five plays to hit Rob Gronkowski in the end zone for a 35-7 lead with 5 seconds left in the half.

Brady’s best touchdown pass came with just under two minutes left in the first half, when he hit Deion Branch perfectly in stride after Branch ran past cornerback Andre’ Goodman. Not needing to slow down to catch the ball, Branch easily got to the end zone for the 61-yard score and a 28-7 lead.

Brady also executed the best quick-kick I’ve ever seen.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 16

He wasn't perfect, but Tom Brady's gritty second-half performance – including two rushing touchdowns – carried the day against the Dolphins. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The Miami Dolphins narrowly avoided disaster Saturday against the New England Patriots. Somehow a group of talented, motivated football players broke into their locker room, knocked everyone out, stole their uniforms and took the field for kickoff. The “Dolphins” went into halftime up 17-0.

Luckily, the true – and truly terrible – Dolphins regained consciousness and took back their uniforms for the second half. The Patriots scored 27 points in a row and held on to win, 27-24.

The Patriots clinched a first-round bye, and the Dolphins continued their mission of destroying the legacy of a once-great franchise.

Which Patriots graduated with honors, and which will have to take summer school classes? Here’s this week’s report card.

Quarterback: A-

Tom Brady couldn’t do much in the first half, what with all the Dolphins constantly in his face. Whatever happened at halftime, the protection improved in the second half, and Brady came alive. Brady’s second-half line: 20-27 for 217 yards and a touchdown, finishing 27-46 for 306 overall. Brady continues to play with guts, QB-sneaking not once but twice for rushing touchdowns in the second half.

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Patriots Clinch First-Round Bye, Overcome 17-Point Deficit Against Dolphins

Tom Brady's second rushing touchdown proved the game-winner Sunday afternoon against the Dolphins at Gillette. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

The New England Patriots took every punch the Miami Dolphins threw at them in the first half of Sunday afternoon’s game at Gillette.

In the second half, the Patriots came out swinging, and the Dolphins went down for the count.

The Patriots scored 27 points in the second half, overcoming a 17-point deficit to beat the Dolphins, 27-24, and clinch a first-round playoff bye.

Brady Comes Alive in Second Half

The Patriots entered halftime down 17-0, dispirited and disheveled. Missing Matt Light and losing Logan Mankins early in the game, the Patriots’ offensive line had crumbled under the Dolphins’ pass-rushing onslaught, leading to three sacks. Tom Brady could never sit comfortably in the pocket, completely derailing the passing game.

The Patriots went three-and-out four times in the first half, and Stephen Gostkowski badly missed a 51-yard field goal attempt in the waning seconds before halftime.

Whatever Bill Belichick said to his team, they exited the locker room with renewed energy and resolve. Brady began the second half with an 11-play drive – highlighted by a 15-yarder to Chad Ochocinco – that ended with a 45-yard field goal and put the Patriots on the board.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 14

Rob Gronkowski's record-setting two touchdowns and career-best 160 yards Sunday earns him an "A+" in this week's report card. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

To beat the New England Patriots, a team must play perfectly for 60 minutes. Even when Tom Brady is so out of sorts he gets into a screaming match with his offensive coordinator, the Patriots still score so much that anything short of error-free football won’t cut it.

The Washington Redskins made two mistakes Sunday: one within the opening three minutes, another in the final 30 seconds. That was all it took for the defensively incompetent, offensively inconsistent Patriots to secure a 34-27 victory in Washington.

Can the Patriots defend their thesis any better than they defended against the Redskins? Here’s this week’s report card.

Quarterback: A-

Brady can scream at Bill O’Brien all he wants, but throwing a softball to a well-covered and very inexperienced Tiquan Underwood was a stupid decision. The Patriots only needed a field goal for a two-possession lead with six minutes left in the game. Instead, Josh Wilson intercepted Brady, and the Patriots’ linebackers had to save the game. The interception highlighted just how out of sync Brady was with his receivers.

Brady completed less than 60 percent of his passes Sunday, and his receivers’ ability to get yards after catches accounted for many of his 357 passing yards. But Brady still threw three touchdowns; a third-quarter 24-yarder showed Brady’s impressive mobility, with him ducking and dodging tacklers before hitting Wes Welker in the end zone. Brady went 8-for-10 in the third quarter.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 13

With two more touchdown catches Sunday, Rob Gronkowski needs just one more this season to break the NFL record for most by a tight end. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The Indianapolis Colts gave the New England Patriots a late-game scare Sunday afternoon, but ultimately all the Colts could do was lose with dignity. The Patriots beat the Colts, 31-24, continuing the Colts’ winless season and for now moving the Patriots into first place in the AFC.

Who’s using this game for college credit, and who needs to repeat Calculus 101? Here are this week’s grades.

Quarterback: A

Tom Brady has shown more mobility in the last few games than he ever has before. Given his line’s vulnerabilities, he’s pretty much had to. But whatever the reason, Brady’s agility has become his best pass-protection, helping him elude tackle after tackle while he waits for his receivers to inevitably get open.

Brady completed over 75 percent of his passes Sunday, hitting seven different receivers for 289 yards. One one drive alone he went 7-for-7 for 77 yards. That drive ended in a touchdown pass, the first of two for Brady. Brady passed Johnny Unitas and is now tied with Warren Moon for sixth-most career regular-season touchdown passes.

Running Backs: B+

Stevan Ridley led the team with eight rushes for 33 numbers – paltry numbers that reflect just how ineffective the Patriots’ running game was Sunday. Ridley’s agility and flash isn’t so useful when he’s just trying to run up the middle, and his performance suffered because he tried to dance when he should have just barreled. BenJarvus Green-Ellis knows how to barrel, taking advantage Donald Thomas‘s bulk at fullback to force his way into the end zone for the 1-yard touchdown run in the second.

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Pariots Hope to Right Ship Against NFC East-Leading Giants

Eli Manning is having a fantastic 2011 season, and that's bad news for the Patriots, who have the worst pass-defense in the NFL. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

It’s been almost four years since the New York Giants’ ended the New England Patriots’ bid for an undefeated season. That’s far too long ago to call Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium a “revenge game.” Instead, this game will simply be an opportunity for the Patriots to pull their pass defense out of the gutter.

What better way to make a statement than against the streaking, 5-2 Giants?

Eli Manning’s Giant Arm Against the Patriots’ Giant Defensive Gaps

The Patriots enter Sunday’s game with the dead-worst passing defense in the league. Seriously: they allow 323.1 yards per game, ranking them 32nd in the league. And while New England’s nine interceptions are somewhat impressive, remember that two picks belong to Vince Wilfork. Beyond the defensive line, the team’s potential for turnovers is just middle-of-the road.

The Patriots’ terrible pass-defense makes Sunday’s game a potential for total disaster. The Giants have the fourth-best passing attack in the NFL, and Eli Manning is one of the best quarterbacks this season. His numbers season are almost identical to Tom Brady‘s: Brady completes 67.6 percent of his passes, Manning completes 64.8. Brady throws 2.25 touchdowns per interception, Manning throws 2.6. Brady has a 104.4 QB rating (second in the NFL), Manning has a 102.1 rating (third).

Even their protection has been similar: Brady’s been sacked 14 times, Manning 15.

Manning has been nearly as good as Brady this season, but Manning will be throwing against a far inferior Patriots secondary. If Miami’s Chad Henne can throw for 416 yards, Manning’s final numbers could border on obscene.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 6

Andre Carter's two sacks highlighted a strong performance from the New England Patriot defensive line against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

For the first 25 minutes the New England Patriots had the ball against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6, they played sloppy, uncreative football. But down three points with 2:31 left in the game, Tom Brady led a precision air-strike that culminated in Brady’s 8-yard bullet to Aaron Hernandez in the end zone, completing yet another comeback in the saga of Tom Terrific. Coupled with a Buffalo Bills loss to the New York Giants, the Patriots enter their bye-week in first place in the AFC East.

Who qualified for the AP class and who’s taking Remedial English? Here’s one analyst’s opinion.

Quarterback: A-

Brady played B/B- football for most of the game, struggling to solve the Cowboys’ complicated defense before their bloodthirsty pass-rushers could reach him. On his final drive, however, Brady’s play became immaculate. Brady went 8-for-9 on that drive, averaging nearly 10 yards per completion. The Cowboys never knew who Brady would throw to next: he targeted his tight ends three times, Wes Welker four times, and Danny Woodhead twice. He also converted a third-and-1 from the Dallas 29 with a QB sneak, capping a 17-yard rushing day to go with his 289-yard and two-touchdown passing day.

Brady’s only truly boneheaded play came in the fourth quarter, when he threw to Hernandez in double-coverage and linebacker Sean Lee easily picked him off. That interception – Brady’s second – killed a drive that had already entered field-goal territory, but better protection might have prevented the snap-judgment throw.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 4

Stevan Ridley's 97 yards, 9.7 yards per carry and first NFL touchdown made him the top performer of Sunday's Patriots victory over the Raiders. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Welcome back to Goose’s Gabs’ weekly report card for your New England Patriots! The Patriots did what they always do the week after a loss: win. Specifically, they beat the Oakland Raiders, 31-19. And with losses by the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, the Patriots are once again tied atop the AFC East (though the Bills still have the tie-breaker). For one week, equilibrium is restored in Foxborough.

Quarterback: A-

Tom Brady was not quite his usual, crisp self, completing just 53.3 percent of his passes after completing nearly 70 percent through the first three weeks. Brady seemed slightly out of sync with his receivers Sunday, always overthrowing them. Perhaps Oakland’s pass rush affected his timing more than normal. Still, Brady followed a four-interception game with a zero-interception game, throwing for 226 yards and two touchdowns. He did far, far more to help the team than to hinder it. How odd, however, to see Brady take a back seat to his running backs. Speaking of which…

Running backs: A

Three Patriots running backs ran for 185 yards and two touchdowns, including the first ever by Stevan Ridley, who also led the team with 97 yards and 9.7 yards per carry. Ridley finally showed the full measure of his speed and athleticism, spinning, whirling and leaping his way to three first downs. The Patriots wanted to take the pressure off Brady, who defenses will focus on more and more as the season progresses, and the running backs stepped up. BenJarvus Green-Ellis did the lion’s share of the rushing with 16 carries, gaining 75 yards and a touchdown in the process. Ridley and Green-Ellis have the kind of complimentary skills that could finally rebuild the Patriots’ running game. Green-Ellis has the strength to chew up yards through the middle, whereas Ridley has the speed to get around the corner and up the sidelines.

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