December 28, 2007 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version

Pressuring Brady Is Only Way Giants Can Prevail

December 28, 2007




In truth, it's a season finale with no playoff implications. But with the Patriots one win away from a perfect season, their game with the Giants this weekend is the most anticipated NFL matchup in years. The game will be broadcast on the NFL Network and simulcast by both NBC and CBS. It's the first time an NFL game has aired on multiple networks since Super Bowl I in 1967.

The Patriots are poised to become the first team to finish an NFL season undefeated since the 1972 Dolphins, who posted a 140 regular season record and went on to win Super Bowl VI. There are also some significant individual records at stake. Tom Brady has thrown 48 touchdown passes, one short of Peyton Manning's single-season record. Receiver Randy Moss has 21 touchdown catches, one short of the mark set by Jerry Rice in 1987.

Since both the Patriots and Giants have clinched playoff spots, some would suggest that both teams would be better off resting their star players and those who are nursing injuries. If you win this game and lose in the playoffs, it's that final loss that everyone will remember. Both head coaches were peppered with questions this week, with the press asking whether they intended to play their starters; and both coaches gave coy answers, attempting to suggest that they were treating this game just like any other. The question of whether this game lives up to its hype hinges largely on whether either team and particularly the Giants go all out to win, or whether they simply try to escape intact.

The latter strategy seems to make more sense for the Giants, who have been ravaged by injuries in the last month. While NFL fans might be angry if the team didn't pull out all the stops to derail the Pats, the reality is that folks in New York are more interested in seeing Big Blue make a playoff run than in being a footnote to history. Plaxico Burress has been hobbled all season, both starting safeties are banged up, and four other key players are on the injury list this week.

But can the Giants win this game? Sure, and the game plan to do so is relatively straightforward. Who's the one player the Patriots can least afford to lose? Brady, of course. And what's the one thing the Giants do best? Pressuring the quarterback. A sustained pass rush can disrupt the Patriots' offense, and maybe even force head coach Bill Belichick to consider yanking Brady early.

PATRIOTS (150) at GIANTS (105)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m., NFL Network (with simulcast on NBC, CBS, and WWOR)

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL The Patriots' offense is built around its passing game, and it has become explosive this year because of Moss. Teams are forced to double-cover Moss, and even that isn't always enough to keep him from making big plays. When an opponent commits to stopping Moss, Brady is content to shoot the ball underneath to the elusive Wes Welker. That's what happened in the Dallas game, when the Cowboys shut Moss down, but let Welker catch 11 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns. This also happened during New England's win over Philadelphia.

Of course, the Patriots can run the ball when they have to. Inclement weather made it difficult to get their passing game going in each of their last two games. Each time, the team relied on running back Laurence Maroney, and each time he rushed for more than 100 yards.

The Giants lead the league in sacks, thanks largely to the defensive line rotation of Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, and Justin Tuck. The trio has combined for 32 sacks in 15 games and has helped the team to overcome injuries and inconsistent play in the secondary.

Brady was picking defenses apart early in the season because he had such great pass protection. In his first 10 games, he was sacked just 10 times. The Patriots' offensive line did their share, but part of the reason he wasn't getting sacked was that teams were afraid to blitz. They focused most of their attention on covering New England's receivers, and clearly that was a strategy that didn't work. The Eagles tried a different approach, unleashing a relentless pass rush and forcing Brady to make quicker decisions. While it didn't result in a Philadelphia win, it clearly made a difference. In subsequent weeks, opposing teams have blitzed Brady more often and focused on generating pressure. While the Patriots have kept winning, they've dropped from an average of 44 points per game to 28, and Brady has been sacked twice as often.

WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL The biggest issue for the Giants to address heading into the postseason is the enigma that is Eli Manning. He hasn't had a two-touchdown game since mid-October, and he has played poorly for five straight weeks. The Giants might be able to win this game (and playoff games) by just relying on their ground game, but both tasks would be substantially easier with improved play from their quarterback. They don't need a spectacular performance just some consistency.

The Giants ran the ball very well last week, due in part to their willingness to commit to the ground game. Their offensive line is built to wear opponents down, and a back such as Brandon Jacobs is going to get better as the game goes along. Recent opponents have demonstrated that the Patriots are vulnerable to a power running game, and that's perfect for the Giants. They can play the smashmouth game as well as anyone.

Because the Patriots have scored so many points on offense, they've forced their opponents to take to the air just to keep up. It's a deadly trap. New England has the league's second best pass rush with 46 sacks, and they rank eighth in interceptions. One of the keys to the Patriots' defense is their veteran linebacker corps. Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Adalius Thomas, and Junior Seau have combined for 16 Pro Bowl appearances. Their versatility is what makes them so good. Each is effective both against the run and in pass coverage, and they're all effective blitzers.

New England's defense has also been opportunistic, willing to take chances when they've had a lead in order to make big plays. Six different Patriots defenders have scored touchdowns on interception or fumble returns.

KEY TO THE GAME Everything suggests that the Patriots will keep their foot on the gas pedal while the Giants coast, resting their starters for next week's playoff game. But if the Giants want to make a game of it, they've got to hit Brady early and often. They also must pound the ball at the heart of the New England defense, from the opening series until the final gun. Physical play is the only way to beat the Patriots and end their quest for a perfect season.

Lahman's Pick: Patriots 2810

December 28, 2007 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version