INDIANAPOLIS -- This game is going to come down to whether or not the fat guys in the blue jerseys can stop the fat guys in the white jerseys from getting to Tom Brady. The rest of it is all incidental.
Fair or not, Super Bowl XLVI will be a referendum on the New England offensive line. Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, Brian Waters and Nate Solder (as well as part-timers like Sebastian Vollmer and Ryan Wendell) have held up well over the course of the 2011 season, but their ultimate legacy as a group will be defined by the 60 minutes they play on Sunday against the Giants.
While talk of revenge for the Patriots has been bandied about -- most of which is media-driven hyperbole -- there’s no group that would legitimately love to erase the collective stain of Super Bowl XLII than New England’s offensive line. The image of Brady getting hit time and again by Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan was seen as an indictment of the New England offensive line, which yielded five sacks and a whopping nine quarterback hits in the Super Bowl upset.
This time around, it will be another set of unique challenges for the Patriots’ offensive line. The Giants have some different looks -- including one package where they run four defensive ends onto the field at the same time -- and some terrific rushers in Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks), Umenyiora (9 sacks), Tuck (5 sacks) and Dave Tollefson (5 sacks). Overall, they’ve sacked opposing quarterbacks 48 times in the regular season (third in the NFL) and nine times in the post season, which is tied for first among playoff teams.
“[There’s] a lot of challenges,” Mankins said of the Giants’ defensive front. “They’re one of the best defensive lines in the game. They’ve got a lot of speed, a lot of good players and they wreak havoc on a lot of guys. They’re all good. They all do different things good, so you got to be aware of who’s in the game, who you’re going against and what his strengths are.”
There are some things that should be different for the Patriots this time around. New England’s passing game is far more horizontal than vertical, which lends itself to quicker throws. The running game is more consistent. And the work of the two young tight ends have added an extra dimension when it comes to working as both pass catchers and blockers.
Tuck anticipates some quick releases from Brady, saying the Patriots will do whatever it takes to try and slow down the New York pass rush. He also has some good things to say about the New England offensive line.
“I think they play well together,” Tuck said. “They are a group that is very athletic, and it seems like their chemistry is tremendous. It seems like they know exactly how to help each other out, so they pose a huge problem for us as a front four group. They match up pretty well with us.”
The New England offensive line has faced some elite pass rushers over the course of the season -- six of the Top 10 sack leaders have gone against the Patriots since the start of the season, including guys like DeMarcus Ware, Terrell Suggs, Jason Babin, Tamba Hali and Von Miller -- and so for the New England offensive line, the goal for Super Bowl XLVI is clear.
“To be honest with you, [trying to get to Brady] is pretty much every team’s biggest task when they go against us,” said Waters. “We expect that from every team. Some teams just have the type of talent to get it done, and the Giants do. They have the type of individual talent and as a group to get that done, so we definitely have hard days of work ahead of us.
“We know that is a key part of being successful as a football team -- to make sure that Brady stays clean and gets an opportunity to get the ball out to those special players that we have out there in the skilled positions.”
Here are four other things we learned Tuesday in Indianapolis:
ROB GRONKOWSKI IS TAKING THINGS DAY BY DAY
When it came to the inevitable barrage of questions about the high ankle sprain he suffered in the AFC championship game, the big tight end stayed on message throughout his session with the media on Tuesday, saying several times that he was taking things “day by day.” Not wearing the walking boot that he had last week -- he said he got rid of it on Monday -- he had a slight limp on the way across the field to his podium, but didn’t appear to be in any sort of physical discomfort.
“If I am out there, obviously, I am going to have the ability to be playing and I am going to be going full speed and everything just doing as much as I possibly can,” Gronkowski said. “Like I said, we’re taking it day by day. I could be feeling 100 percent when it comes to game day on Sunday. You just don’t know.”
“He’s one of, basically the main reason why we [all] succeed so well in this offense,” said fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez. ”He’s such a huge weapon and causes so many mismatches it makes it hard for defenses to focus on one player. Obviously, if he’s a hundred percent, that’s what we need.”
Just as Gronkowski stayed on message about his ankle, the Giants held to the same theme when it comes to how they’re preparing for Gronkowski, ankle injury or no ankle injury.
“You do have to prepare yourselves for that, whether or not the personnel combinations will change,” said Giants coach Tom Coughlin. “They do play other personnel combinations -- it’s just the percentages have not quite been in the favor of some of those other combinations. I think you have to be ready for that part of the game as well, and maybe the plan will include a better part of the three tights and two receivers, or two tights and three receivers. Maybe they’ll balance up.”
CHAD OCHOCINCO CLEARLY HAS MIXED EMOTIONS ABOUT THIS WEEK
It had been a long time coming for Ochocinco -- he had attended previous Media Day sessions as a report for the Ochocinco News Network, but this was his first foray into Super Bowl Media Day on the other side of the microphone. He wasn’t at a podium, but in a session with reporters that lasted more than 30 minutes, the wide receiver provided an interesting mix of quotes, starting on an optimistic note but touching on a variety of topics.
“I’ve dreamed of it,” Ochocinco told reporters who asked about his feelings. “I’ve been playing this game a long time -- started out at 4 years old. And this is what you dream of, to come to this stage and enjoy it. So that’s what I’m going to do.”
The receiver, who finished his first (and perhaps his only season in a New England uniform) with 15 catches for 276 yards and one touchdown, admitted it had been a tough year. In the middle of a nearly 30-minute session with the media, the receiver was asked if a Super Bowl victory would salvage what has been an admittedly frustrating season.
“No, I don’t know, it just wouldn’t,” Ochocinco said. “I mean it hasn’t been tough, it’s football. It’s football, one abnormal year doesn’t negate years of success. ... After a 10-year span, I finally had a year where it didn’t go well.”
However, he also acknowledged that if he was on a different team with better personal numbers, there would have been a good chance he’d be working the game as part of the media.
“If I had 100 catches and 1,000 yards, I’d probably be home in January,” he said. “I took this as a challenge, as a lesson. I think it was a test from you-know-who upstairs, God. Will he be able to handle himself in different circumstances when he’s not that guy, if he’s not that main focal point? Will he be able to handle it? And I think I did extremely well.
“I think I’ve had a great career in general. The year wasn’t what I expected, what everyone else expected. But I did everything I was supposed to do -- work, stay quiet. I don’t know if being on this stage is a reward, but there’s nothing else I can do. I’m part of a team and I’ve done everything asked of me.”
A DECADE IS A LONG TIME FOR ANYONE, INCLUDING TOM BRADY
The Patriots have just three players remaining on their active roster that were on the team for Super Bowl XXXVI, which was held 10 years ago in New Orleans. Quarterback Tom Brady, left tackle Matt Light and running back Kevin Faulk are the only holdovers from that team that upset the Rams and began a run of three Super Bowl titles in four seasons.
Then, Brady was a 24-year-old in his first full season as a starter who guided the team to a win over the Rams in the Superdome.
“That was the 9/11 year, so there was only one week to prepare,” recalled Brady. “We went down to New Orleans and there was so much happening, not just with Super Bowl week. I had actually hurt my ankle in the previous game, so I spent a ton of time in the training room getting ready for that game. We were playing one of the greatest teams in football (St. Louis). From what I do remember, it was a pretty crazy week. There was a ton to do in a very short amount of time.”
Now, he’s a three-time Super Bowl champion with a pair of MVPs under his belt. Off the field, he’s married with a wife and two sons.
“I have a four-and-a-half-year-old who is much more interested in the Millennium Falcon and his Lego sets than football’ Brady said. “I try to keep tossing him the ball. My two-year-old, he’s definitely going to be a little athlete.
“One thing over the years that has really changed is being a parent. It’s a little different (balancing) your work and your parenting. I’m sure everyone here deals with that, as well. That’s obviously a great part of my life.”
However, when it comes to playing quarterback, Faulk said he still sees Brady as the same guy.
“He’s still that guy that’s competitive, passionate, fiery guy that wants to go out and win,” Faulk said. “He wants to make every throw, make everything the best he can so his guys can make a play.”
OH, YEAH. WES WELKER IS PLAYING TOO
With so many other compelling storylines, the Patriots’ veteran receiver and rabid mustache enthusiast has really managed to spend the first few days of Super Bowl week operating relatively out of the spotlight. (Frankly, here in Indianapolis, he’s the second-most notable slot receiver in this game, losing out narrowly to New York’s Victor Cruz.)
But as has been the case all season long, Welker, who finished first in the league in receptions with 122 and second (only to Detroit’s Calvin Johnson) with 1,569 receiving yards, remains paramount to the success of the New England passing game from the slot position.
“With Welker, you see a guy who the position seems to be have been made for,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “His outstanding quickness, his ability to win the matchups ... at that spot, with the underneath routes, and the things you can do to beat the one-on-one coverage, and if you’re good enough and quick enough to get yourself in the middle of the field when the safeties divide, you provide the quarterback with an awful lot of weaponry.”
For his part, Welker doesn’t sound too concerned about the health of Gronkowski, saying that the tight end “is a big boy” and adding that he’s “not too worried about him.” But if Gronkowski is unable to go, or is at less than his best come Sunday, it will be up to Welker and Hernandez to pick up the slack in his absence.
“I think everybody has to step up and make plays—across the board,” Welker said. ”It’s not all on Rob, and it hasn’t been all year. We have to come together and make the plays necessary to win the game, and that’s what it’s all about.”