INDIANAPOLIS -- Here are 46 things we’ll be keeping an eye on in Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVI between the Patriots and the Giants.
1. The coin toss: The Patriots have either deferred or lost the toss on a fairly consistent basis over the last four years. According to ESPN, including playoff games, New England has chosen to defer the last 29 times it has won the opening coin toss. The last (and only) time New England chose to receive the opening kick since the rule change was Week 1 in 2008 against the Chiefs -- the game Tom Brady suffered a knee injury and missed the rest of the season. (ESPN also notes that from Week 1 of 2008 to Week 13 of 2011, the Giants chose to receive on every opening coin toss they won. That’s 30 straight regular-season and playoff games in which they chose to receive.) Presuming the Patriots either lose or defer, that sets them up for one of their traditional moves -- putting themselves in scoring position at the end of the first half and getting the ball to start the second half. That seven- to 10-point swing has been a big factor for them over the course of the regular season.
2. Tom Brady against a phantom pass rush: New York’s Jason Pierre-Paul intimated this week that the quarterback was rattled in their first meeting this season by a pass rush “that didn’t exist and he was just throwing the ball places that there wasn’t a receiver there. So imagine us just getting there even faster and we’re actually doing out jobs and getting there and getting hits on him.” Watch Brady’s feet in the pocket on Sunday -- if he’s shuffling and missing open receivers without pressure, then there’s something to Pierre-Paul’s claim.
3. Keeping Brady upright: The biggest factor in this game will be whether or not the New England offensive line will be able to contain the Giants’ pass rush. The Patriots, who have played most of the season with backups at center (Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell and Nick McDonald) and right tackle (rookie Nate Solder) will face a New York pass rush that is one of the best in the game. If the Giants can get consistent pressure with their front four and drop seven into coverage, it will cause problems for the New England pass game. However, in stark contrast to the three consecutive postseason losses heading into the divisional playoff game against Denver (a three-game stretch where Brady was hit 19 times), the Patriots have been able to neutralize a pair of better-than-average pass rushing teams over their first two playoff games: Against the Broncos, Brady wasn’t sacked, and hit twice, and against the Ravens, he was hit three times and sacked once. (Brady was hit three times in a November loss to the Giants.)
4. Redemption for Logan Mankins and Matt Light: While the talk of revenge for Super Bowl XLII is mostly artificial hype, it’s a very genuine feeling for the two New England offensive linemen who played that night and are back again in this game. A proud bunch, that line was humbled by the Giants’ pass rush in Super Bowl XLII, and the image of that group not being able to keep the New Yorkers away from Brady was a damning indictment of their play. Mankins and Light would dearly love a chance to rewrite the script on Sunday.
5. Brady the second time around: The quarterback has had good outings when facing a defense for the second time in the 2011 season. In those four games, the Patriots are 4-0 against teams when they face them the second time, and Brady has an average line of 26-for-39 for 334 yards, with three touchdowns and 0.5 picks, numbers that are a slight improvement on his season-long average. For what it's worth, the first time around against the Giants, Brady went 28-for-49 for 342 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions in a Nov. 6 loss to New York at Gillette Stadium.
6. Trying to defend Hakeem Nicks: Nicks wasn’t in the lineup for the first meeting of the season between the Patriots and Giants, which allowed the Patriots’ pass defense to focus the majority of its efforts on trying to slow down Victor Cruz. Now that Nicks’ is back, New England will have to defend against two receivers that have big-play capability in Nicks and Cruz. Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty (when McCourty is working as a corner) will likely see the bulk of the duty here when the Patriots are in man coverage.
7. Eli’s escapability: It’s not like he can keep plays alive with his feet like Michael Vick, or that he’s hard to bring down like Ben Roethlisberger. But Manning has a certain escapability that has served him well in years past. Mark Anderson said that a big point of emphasis for the New England defenders is to maintain gap discipline and their rush lanes against Eli, because he has a unique ability to extend plays that few other quarterbacks have.
8. The NASCAR package: The Giants occasionally utilize a defensive front that has four defensive ends on the field, called the NASCAR package. It’s something they go to on third down and other passing situations, and New York will almost certainly go with it on some occasion Sunday. If the Patriots recognize the formation, look for them to try and either max protect or have Brady check down into a draw or screen pass.
9. Vince Wilfork against the New York offensive line: Wilfork is playing the best football of his career, and was dominant in the first two postseason games this year. The Patriots will likely need another massive effort from the Pro Bowler up front -- if Wilfork can get pressure up the middle (commanding two and three blockers in the process), that will give outside rushers like Mark Anderson and Rob Ninkovich to be single-blocked, which will almost certainly allow them free access to the quarterback.
10. Trick/gadget plays: The Patriots have been occasionally vulnerable to weird plays this season, almost getting beaten twice on end-arounds where a wide receiver tried to deliver a pass. (Once, against the Redskins, it worked. The second time, against the Broncos, the only time it didn’t work was because it was a poorly thrown pass.) It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Giants try something out of the ordinary at least once on the evening.
11. Deion Branch in the Super Bowl: As colleague Kirk Minihane wrote, it’s easy to dismiss Branch, but when you consider his Super Bowl performances of the past, combined with the fact that Rob Gronkowski may not be at 100 percent, could mean that the veteran is in for a big evening against the Giants.
12. Kevin Faulk in what might be his last roundup: The veteran running back, who is the last of the Pete Carroll Patriots on the roster, could call it a career after Sunday’s game. If it is his last contest, Belichick could try and do something memorable with him. He’s done it before with well-respected veterans like Doug Flutie and Vinny Testaverde, and if it’s within the overall context of the game, they could run something like a direct snap to Faulk on the goal line, a favorite play of the New England running back.
13. The no-huddle: This is well-trod ground, to be sure, but it bears repeating: The Seahawks told anyone who would listen that they were going to run no-huddle against the Giants earlier this season, and then went out and dropped 36 points on them in an October win with Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback. The Patriots love to use the no-huddle (they’ve run it roughly 25 percent of the time this season), and will likely have plenty of opportunities to use it on Sunday.
14. If the Giants decide to pull an Al Czervik: New York rightfully drew the ire of several people around the league earlier in the season when the Giants faked injuries in an attempt to try and slow down the St. Louis offense. It will be interesting to see if they try to do the same thing on Sunday against the Patriots, who are masterfully efficient when it comes to running the no-huddle.
15. How much the Patriots use Edelman as a defensive back: New England will likely need to call upon the services of Edelman as a defensive player on occasion throughout the night, but if they need to press him into service for more than a handful of snaps, the Patriots will be in trouble. If he’s out there, expect Manning to go right after him.
16. The inactives: If we had to hazard a guess, the following six would make up the majority of the inactives for the Patriots (you need to have seven on each team): quarterback Ryan Mallett, running back Shane Vereen, guard Donald Thomas, defensive lineman Ron Brace, linebacker Gary Guyton and either cornerbacks Antuwan Molden or Nate Jones.
17. Turnovers: The Patriots were good at taking care of the ball over the course of the regular season and into the postseason, but Brady threw two picks the first time these two teams met this season. The quarterback cannot afford to be so careless with the ball this time around, especially when it comes to giving up the ball in the Patriots’ side of the field. The New England defense simply cannot be asked to defend on multiple occasions on a short field. The same is true on the other side of the ball: In their history, New York is 1-16 in the playoffs when they have more turnovers than takeaways.
18. Fast starts: The first time these two teams met, it was a scoreless first half, part of a run for the Patriots where they had issues scoring points early. New England needs to get a fast start to seize the tone and tempo of the game. For what it’s worth, the Patriots have not scored in the first quarter in any of their four Super Bowls in the Belichick era, but they have either led (three times) or been tied (once, against the Giants) at halftime in all four.
19. Halftime, and we’re not talking about Madonna: The break between the second and third quarters is twice as long as it is during the regular season, and in years’ past, guys who have gone into the game injured have stiffened up with the extended break. Keep an eye on some of the players who came into the game with injuries in the early stages of the second half to see if there’s any slippage in play.
20. Rob Gronkowski’s ankle: We had to go there, but it’s going to be the focal point, at least in the early going. How the big tight end responds right out of the gate -- as well as early in the second half after the extended halftime -- should give us some idea of how much he’ll be able to contribute. Gronkowski has been on the field for more than 95 percent of the snaps this season, and as someone who has such a vital role as a pass catcher and blocker, his presence is key.
21. If Gronkowski is limited, can Aaron Hernandez step up? When Gronkowski has been quiet this season (either being used more as a blocker than a pass catcher or shut down by opposing defenses), Hernandez has responded nicely. The high point of his season in that regard came in a December win over the Broncos in Denver. With Gronkowski taken out of the passing game, Hernandez flourished, catching nine passes for 129 yards (to that point in the season, a career-high for the young tight end). If Gronkowski is limited, he’ll be asked to raise his production level once again.
22. The effectiveness of Ahmad Bradshaw: The Giants leading rusher with 659 yards on the season, Bradshaw missed the practice Friday because of a sore right foot. Coach Tom Coughlin listed Bradshaw as probable for Sunday’s game, and said he expects him to play. Bradshaw has a broken bone in his right foot and it was sore after two days of practice at the University of Indianapolis’ practice bubble. If Bradshaw is limited, expect Brandon Jacobs to get more reps.
23. The Giants tight ends: They don’t garner the headlines like the New England tandem of Gronkowski and Hernandez, but the New York tight ends are a key part of the Giants’ passing game, and have come up with some well-timed big plays to help lift New York in key moments. Bear Pascoe had a 6-yard touchdown grab in the NFC championship game. Travis Beckum has seven catches in the postseason. And starter Jake Ballard led Giants tight ends with 38 catches for 604 yards and four touchdowns during the regular season. In addition, Ballard scorched the Patriots late in their November contest, when he had a big 28-yard catch with 51 seconds to play to keep a Giants’ game-winning drive alive. Then, he caught a one-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds left to seal the victory.
24. The Josh McDaniels effect: McDaniels was the offensive coordinator for the Rams this season, and had some success against the Giants when the two teams met this season with a few interesting looks. While New York’s talent level ultimately proved to be the difference, it will be interesting to see how much the Patriots dip into that game plan on Sunday.
25. Indoors: The Patriots didn’t play a single regular-season game indoors all year. (They had one preseason game inside, a loss to Detroit.) While it’s not a dramatic difference, the logistics of playing indoors after a full season outside can take some getting used to -- things like sightlines and lighting. That will likely be mollified by the fact that it’s at Lucas Oil Stadium, a place where the Patriots have played in the past.
26. Taking out the trash: There was plenty of pregame talk from the Giants, but in this one it’s also worth keeping an eye on what happens during the game. In Super Bowl XLII, there was a TON of in-game yapping between New York and New England.
27. How the Patriots use Rob Ninkovich: Ninkovich has been shuffled around a lot this season, moving from outside linebacker to defensive end and back again, setting the edge, rushing the passer and dropping into coverage. No Patriots’ defender has been asked to do more, and he has responded nicely to the challenge, especially over the second half of the season. Look for him to be asked to do several things on Sunday, whether it’s get after Manning, prevent the New York running backs from bouncing outside or dropping into coverage against tight ends and wide receivers.
28. Following the flags: The Patriots started the season on an uncharacteristically bad note when it came to drawing penalties, but were able to cut way back on the flags over the course of the season, and in the two postseason games, penalties haven’t been an issue for New England, which has played smart playoff football to this point.
29. Lots of opportunities for BenJarvus Green-Ellis: The Giants are going to be focused on stopping the New England passing game before anything else, and that will give the Patriots a real opportunity to run the ball. Green-Ellis is as healthy right now as he’s been in months, and much like he did on several occasions against the Ravens in the AFC championship game, could be asked to run some draws, taking advantage of a defense that’s thinking pass first.
30. How frequently the Patriots use Nate Solder in three-tight end sets: The rookie bounced outside on several occasions over the course of the regular season, serving as the third tight end when the Patriots were looking to get some extra protection. (He was in that role for 23 of the 78 snaps against the Giants in the first game between these two teams.) It’s also worth keeping an out for Solder as a possible pass catcher -- he was originally recruited to Colorado as a tight end, and according to the coaching staff, never lets them forget about the fact that he can catch passes.
31. The return of Seabass: Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia told me Tuesday that Sebastian Vollmer will play in some fashion on Sunday. After an extended time on the shelf because of back and foot problems, if he’s truly healthy enough to give the Patriots significant snaps, has he earned the right to return to the starting lineup? Not sure at this point, but his presence will allow New England to run more three tight-end sets using rookie Nate Solder, which would help out big when it comes to run and pass blocking.
32. How are the Patriots going to use Devin McCourty? While still getting steady work as a cornerback, McCourty has stepped in nicely as a part-time safety (on third down and other passing situations) with the Patriots at the end of the regular season and into the postseason, and it would seem to be a safe bet that he’ll do the same on Sunday. When he’s a corner, look for him to be lined up in coverage against Hakeem Nicks, but as a safety, he’ll be playing a deep center field, looking to limit the big-play possibilities of Victor Cruz.
33. Will Bill Belichick and the Patriots treat Victor Cruz like they did Marshall Faulk in Super Bowl XXXVI? It’s an intriguing thought, one first raised by the brilliant Greg Cosell of NFL Films. Cosell suggests the New England will use Rob Ninkovich in much the same way it did Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel that night in New Orleans, pounding him and trying to be physical in hopes of disrupting his routes. One thing is for sure -- the Patriots can’t hope to try to defend Cruz in the slot with Julian Edelman. That will blow up in their face.
34. Zoltan Mesko: Mesko has become a key figure for the Patriots, as he’s having one of the best seasons of any punter in the NFL. On several occasions, he’s managed to get New England out of some bad spots when it comes to field position, and has played a sizable role in making sure that opposing offenses do not have a short field to work with. (For what it’s worth: Neither Mesko or New York punter Steve Weatherford has had a punt blocked in each of the last two seasons.)
35. Is Danny Aiken more Lonie Paxton or Brian Kinchen? Patriots long snappers in he Super Bowl have an interesting history. Paxton was the long snapper for New England in Super Bowls XXXVI, XXXIX and XLII, and executed each situation flawlessly, including the game-winning field goal in the first Super Bowl win. Kinchen, who was brought in as a replacement for Paxton prior to Super Bowl XXXVIII, was a bit shaky, botching a couple of snaps before eventually delivering a clean one on the game-winning field goal from Adam Vinatieri. In his first year in New England, this is Aiken’s first career appearance in the Super Bowl.
36. Stephen Gostkowski on the big stage: This is the second Super Bowl for the kicker, but to this point in his career, he’s been pretty steady in the postseason. He went 3-for-3 on field goal attempts from 40 or more yards during the 2006 postseason, including the Patriots’ only postseason make from 50-plus. Sine then, he’s attempted only one kick from 4-plus in the playoffs, and failed on that attempt. Over the last two regular seasons, Gostkowski and the Patriots are 12-for-15 from 40-plus yards, a respectable 80 percent conversion rate, above the league average of 73 percent.
37. Return to sender: The Patriots have gotten better-than-average performances out of their punt and kick return units this season. Two weeks ago against Baltimore, Danny Woodhead returned a kickoff 41 yards. It was the longest kickoff return of the season for the Patriots. (This was the first regular season since 1994 in which the Patriots failed to return a kickoff at least 40 yards as their longest was 37.) Overall, New England has had pretty good starting field position this year, thanks in part to their returners: The Patriots ranked eighth in the league in average starting field position this regular season, averaging their drive starts at the 29.3-yard-line. They were also in the top 10 in drives started in their opponents’ territory (i.e. past the 50-yard-line) with 26.
38. Ochocinco: At this point, anything is possible, really. He has fallen off the radar screen completely -- he was a healthy scratch in the AFC championship game -- and he’s been pretty much a nonfactor for the last month or so. At the same time, his playing time could be dictated by Gronkowski’s status. That’s not to suggest that he would gain a significant amount of snaps if the tight end is at less than his best. It’s only to say that he could stand to benefit with some more snaps and possibly more targets in Gronkowski’s ankle is so bad that he’s sidelined.
39. The battle of the slot receivers: This could be the best matchup between slot receivers in the history of the game. Wes Welker, who has been so dependable for Brady and the Patriots since he arrived in New England prior to the 2007 season, against Cruz, a dynamic young star out of UMass who has given a jolt to the New York passing attack. We’ve already covered how the Patriots might defend Cruz, but Welker, who had nine catches for 136 yards in the first game between the Patriots and Giants, will almost certainly demand extra coverage from New York on Sunday.
40. Shaun Ellis: It has been a long and occasionally difficult season for Ellis, who was brought in from New York to help bring a jolt to New England’s defensive line. When he’s been healthy, he’s performed relatively well, but those instances have been few and far between. A solid performance against the Giants (not unlike the one he put on the Patriots in last year’s postseason) would go a long way toward redeeming the season for him.
41. Brandon Spikes’ impact in the middle: The second-year linebacker out of Florida has given a spark to the New England run defense since returning from a knee injury at the end of the season, and despite occasional lapses in coverage, is also close to becoming a three-down linebacker. Described by Greg Cosell as a “violent” presence in the middle, a healthy and steady performance from Spikes could go a long way toward slowing down the New York running game.
42. New York running in the red zone: According to Nuggetpalooza, while the Giants had the NFL’s lowest rushing average during the regular season (3.47), they were pretty effective on the ground where it mattered -- inside their opponents’ 10-yard-line. When sniffing pay dirt, Giants runners averaged 2.09 yards per rush, fourth-best in the league. They were efficient down there as well, scoring touchdowns on 39.4 percent of their rushing plays inside the 10, also fourth highest in the league.
43. How much the Patriots relaxed attitude this week translates to the field: Bill Belichick and the rest of the franchise have been about as laid-back as you could possibly imagine this week, with Belichick throwing off one-liners and charming much of the national media in the process. It remains to be seen how much effect it will have on Sunday, but this group is clearly more relaxed than it has been before playoff games in previous years, including last season’s playoff loss to the Jets, and it will be interesting to see how that comes across on the field.
44. Tom Brady and his legacy: If Brady wins on Sunday, he will etch his name on a very short list of quarterbacks who have won four Super Bowls. And while Terry Bradshaw’s postseason performances cannot be overlooked, he doesn’t have near the same regular-season numbers as Brady. Ultimately, if Brady wins on Sunday, it’s him and Joe Montana who are standing together at the top of the mountain.
45. Bill Belichick and a shot at history: The Patriots coach would become just the second head coach in NFL history with four Super Bowl titles if New England is able to come away with a victory, joining Chuck Noll. Like Brady, it’s difficult to measure his body of work and where he fits in among the greats while he’s still coaching, but four Super Bowl rings would leave no doubt that he is one of the best coaches in the history of the game.
46. The final score: This will be one of the more dramatic Super Bowls in recent memory, with two teams that match up very well with each other. However, I think that in the end (even with a hobbled Gronkowski), the Patriots have just enough on the offensive side of the ball to outlast New York, 27-23.