When the Patriots landed in Indianapolis on Sunday, kicking off Super Bowl week, they were greeted by mild weather and harsh questions about what the game means for the franchise's two most prominent faces. It seems ridiculous to ask whether Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the only quarterback-coach tandem to appear in five Super Bowls, belong on football's Mount Rushmore. But there are some who think each needs a victory on Sunday to erase any doubt. Brady would join Joe Montana of the 49ers and Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks to win four Super Bowls; Belichick would match the record of Chuck Noll, who coached the Steelers to four Lombardi trophies.
The challenge before them is significant. The Giants ended New England's quest for a perfect season in 2007 with a shocking 17--14 victory in Super Bowl XLII, and three months ago they beat the Patriots 24--20 in Foxborough on two fourth-quarter touchdown passes by Eli Manning, the last with 15 seconds to play.
When such evenly matched teams meet again, the adjustments they make weigh heavily in the outcome. For instance, when the Giants played at San Francisco on Nov. 13, their focus was on stopping the 49ers' ground game. They committed a safety to run support and protected against the deep pass by having their corners play soft in coverage and retreat quickly at the snap of the ball. Result: Niners quarterback Alex Smith passed for 242 yards, his fourth-highest total of the season, and San Francisco put up more points than all but one of New York's previous seven opponents in the 27--20 win.
When the teams met 10 weeks later for the NFC title, the Giants completely altered their defensive game plan. They had their corners play tight and took away the short and intermediate routes that hurt them in the first meeting. San Francisco's wideouts went from eight catches for 121 yards to one catch for three yards. New York won 20--17 in OT.
A critical question heading into the showdown on Sunday is what kind of offensive adjustments the Pats will make from that November loss to New York. An offensive coordinator who watched that tape believes Brady, who did not lead a TD drive until the fourth quarter, was overeager on some occasions and gullible on others. "The Giants do a great job of inviting you to throw balls up the seam, then undercutting the route," says the coordinator. "They'll play a single-high safety, so you think, 'Let's go four vertical on them.' But what they do is play outside the slot receiver or tight end, and once that guy gets to 10 to 12 yards, they come underneath him to take away the passing lane." That coverage resulted in two picks of Brady as he was looking for receivers in the seam. On the first the pass was batted by a linebacker, and on the second safety Deon Grant undercut a throw to tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Grant played roughly a third of the game at linebacker in what the Giants call their Buffalo or Bison package, often when the Patriots went with two tight ends. New England's passing game revolves around Gronkowski and fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez, so managing them is the key to slowing Brady and the offense. When not matched in man coverage, Grant could be found lurking in zone, such as when he nearly picked off Brady again on a short throw to the middle of the field.
Belichick is regarded as one of football's top strategists—his game plan as defensive coordinator in the Giants' 20--19 victory over the Bills in Super Bowl XXV was so ingenious it's on display at the Hall of Fame—so it will be intriguing to see what wrinkles he and his staff come up with (page 40) to counter the Buffalo package. And what if New York employs a completely different scheme? Games within the games.
The most intriguing matchups will take place when the teams' two strongest units face each other. An offensive coordinator who game-planned against the Giants analyzed their D and offered this view: "The first thing you have to take into account is their line, no question. You can only block them for so long before someone is going to break free. End Jason Pierre-Paul is the difference-maker in their front four. He's got it all—power, length, strength, instincts. He's starting to understand the game better. He's a physical presence. Justin Tuck, the other end, is slippery, cagey in passing situations—but you can run right at him. The two inside guys, tackles Chris Canty and Linval Joseph, are solid, and as for end Osi Umenyiora, if you're not ready, he'll get you.
"Michael Boley is playing well, but the other linebackers aren't real athletic. They're just tough, hard-nosed players. New England can take advantage of them. You can throw it to the running back in front of their guys and make positive plays. The secondary is more bend-but-don't-break. When they play man coverage, cornerback Aaron Ross is the one to go after. He's not going to be as good as the other corner, Corey Webster."
A defensive coordinator who faced New England this season says the Pats offense must keep New York off-balance: "The tempo [the Patriots] set when they go no-huddle is like nothing you've seen before. It takes the play-calling out of your hands because you can't sub or make calls the way you want.