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Scouting Report: Patriots Super Bowl Edition

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The Giants are one victory away from winning their fourth Super Bowl and eighth NFL championship. To do so, they must defeat the New England Patriots, the team they defeated for the title four ago, in Super Bowl XVLI. The Patriots have won 10 consecutive games since losing to the Giants in Foxboro on Nov. 6. In that game, the Giants scored two touchdowns in the final 3:03, including Eli Manning's one-yard touchdown pass to Jake Ballard with 15 seconds remaining that clinched a 24-20 victory.

The game was eerily reminiscent of the Giants' victory in Super Bowl XLII, where Manning threw a touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 15 seconds left that gave the Giants the lead for good.

The Giants are 12-7 after playoff victories over Atlanta, Green Bay and San Francisco. New England is 15-3 after defeating Denver and Baltimore following its-first round bye.

The Patriots lead the regular season series, 5-4. They had won four in a row in the series (not including the Super Bowl) until November. Total points in those nine games: Giants 167, Patriots 162. And the Super Bowl was a three-point game. Eight of the 10-Giants Patriots games have been decided by eight points or less.

Offense

New England ranked second in the NFL in the regular season with an average of 428.0 yards per game. The Patriots were second in passing (317.8) and 20th in rushing (110.3). They scored 513 points (32.1 a game), which placed them third in the league. New England was outscored in the first quarter, 87-82, but had the upper hand in each of the other three quarters by scoring 148, 141 and 142 points, respectively. In their two postseason games, the Patriots have averaged 121.0 yards on the ground, 298.5 through the air and scored 68 points. New England has scored at least 30 points in 13 of its 15 victories.

The Patriots are a big matchup team; they want to create mismatch problems and keep the opposition from getting its desired personnel on the field. Their goal is to get defensive backs covering their tight ends and linebackers on the wide receivers. To do that, they run a fast-paced offense in which they frequently line up without huddling; they huddled only 13 times in the AFC Championship Game. They use a one-back, two-tight end alignment about 80 percent of  the time, though that would likely change if Rob Gronkowski's high ankle sprain keeps him out of the game. If everyone is healthy, Gronkowski, tight end Aaron Hernandez and wide receivers Wes Welker and Deion Branch seldom leave the field.

Quarterback Tom Brady has long been one of the NFL's premier players. Since losing the Giants, Brady has thrown 25 touchdown passes and only five interceptions. He has a quick release, outstanding touch and ball placement and few quarterbacks in history have had Brady's success against the blitz and his ability to carve up a zone. His backup is Brian Hoyer.

Brady throws to an exceptional group of receivers. Welker led the NFL with 122 receptions, a total that is tied for the fourth-highest in history. He was second in the league with a franchise-record 1,569 yards. Welker is smart and savvy with a knack of finding open areas in the defense. He personifies what is largely a dink-and-dunk passing attack, though he does have vertical speed. Branch had 51 catches, his highest total since 2006. He is another knowledgeable veteran who makes sharp turns on his routes and who adjusts well on the fly when Brady scrambles. Defenses have to respect Branch's deep speed. Julian Edelman, who has doubled as a defensive back, is very good at working through traffic and has good concentration. Tiquan Underwood has a tall, lean build and some explosiveness. Brady will take an occasional deep shot to Matthew Slater, the team's special teams captain. Chad Ochocinco has played little.

Gronkowksi and Hernandez form the NFL's most lethal tight end tandem. The former set records for his position with 1,327 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. He has added a team-high 15 catches and three scores in the postseason. Gronkowski is 6-6 and a powerful 265 pounds who runs over defense backs after catching the ball. He sets up linebackers and makes tough catches in the seams and he can be a dominant blocker. But Gronkowski status is up in the air because of the ankle injury he suffered in the victory over Baltimore. He hasn't practiced, and it is not known if he will play in the Super Bowl or how effective he will be if he does. Hernandez creates his own set of problems thanks to his ability to line up all over the formation and his speed. He's more versatile than Gronkowski; Hernandez is as fast as a wide receiver and he is New England's second-leading rusher in the postseason with 70 yards. He is quick and fast, an intelligent route runner who is dangerous after catching the ball and a pesky blocker.

The Patriots have six running backs, four of who are usually active for a game. The leading rusher is BenJarvus Green-Ellis, whose workload has increased in the last five weeks. He has never fumbled in his four-year NFL career. Green-Ellis is a hard-nosed, violent runner who ran for 667 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. Danny Woodhead is a darting back who averaged 4.6 yards a carry. Kevin Faulk, a crafty 13-year veteran, has moved up to third on the depth chart. He is still productive with the ball in his hands. Rookie Stevan Ridley is the Pats' most explosive runner, but his playing time decreased after fumbling twice in the two games prior to the meeting with the Ravens. Shane Vareen and fullback Lousaka Polite see limited action. Offensive lineman Donald Thomas lines up at fullback in goal line situations.

New England has used eight different starting offensive line combinations in the 10 games since facing the Giants. Left tackle Matt Light and left guard Logan Mankins each started all but one game. Light, an 11-year pro, is an exceptionally smart player. Mankins was selected to his fourth Pro Bowl. He moved over to tackle in the one game that Light missed, but hurt his knee and sat out the regular season finale vs. Buffalo. Mankins is probably their best lineman. He has exceptional strength and toughness and plays with a mean streak. Center Dan Connolly missed four games with a groin injury. He is an athletic player who takes good angles. Brian Waters, a 12-year veteran and first-year Patriot, was selected to his sixth Pro Bowl while starting every game at right guard. He is a strong, heavy-bodied player who can make all the blocks. The right tackle is rookie Nate Solder, who has improved throughout the season, especially in pass protection. Sebastian Vollmer is actually listed first on the depth chart, but he played in only six games because of back issues. Ryan Wendell started three games and rookie Marcus Cannon has played in each of the last nine games.

Defense

The Patriots won 13 games in the regular season despite a defense that surrendered yardage in large chunks. They allowed 411.1 a game, the second-highest total in the NFL. That included 293.9 passing yards per game, a figure exceeded only by the Green Bay Packers, the other No. 1 seed in this seasons' playoffs. New England gave up 342 points (21.4 a game). In the postseason, that is down to 15.0 points per game. The Patriots have played two predominant run teams in Denver and Baltimore and have allowed an average of just 195.0 passing yards in the postseason. The Patriots were third in the NFL with a plus-14 turnover differential and third with 34 takeaways (tied with Detroit)

New England lost its best pass rusher when Pro Bowler Andre Carter went on injured reserve with a quad injury. Linebacker Jermaine Cunningham is also on IR. The Patriots have three new players in the secondary since playing the Giants – rookies Sterling Moore and Malcolm Williams and veteran Nate Jones. And Bill Belichick has used Edelman to cover opposing slot receivers.

Vince Wilfork is the only Patriots defender left from their loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. Although he is listed as a defensive tackle, he takes most of his snaps at end. Widely regarded as one of the NFL's best defensive linemen, Wilfork led New England's defensive line with 74 tackles. A disruptive player against both the run and pass, he had 3.5 sacks and two interceptions. Right end Mark Anderson led the Patriots with 10.0 sacks. He is a physical defender in the run game who is best as a pass rusher from a three-point stance. Shaun Ellis played solidly against the run and pass in his 12th NFL season. Tackle Kyle Love is playing at a high level. He moves to the nose when the Patriots switch to a 3-4. Brandon Deaderick came off the physically unable to perform list to contribute up front. Gerard Warren is a space eater who has contributed a strong inside pass rush.

Brandon Spikes is New England's best linebacker, but he hurt his right MCL against the Giants and missed the next seven games. In the last three games he has 18 tackles, a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery. Spikes is an aggressive, strong, physical player. Jerod Mayo led the Patriots with 103 tackles (67 solo). He quarterbacks the defense and is a reliable tackler in space. Outside backer Rob Ninkovich has 6.5 sacks in the last 10 games. He is a productive run defender who has the ability to stay with tight ends in pass coverage. Dane Fletcher missed six games with an injury, but he is a smart, dependable downhill player. Tracy White picked up the slack when Fletcher was out. Niko Koutouvides and Gary Guyton have contributed at times.

The Patriots mix and match their defensive backs in coverage and employ two offensive players on defense – Edelman, who often lines up in the slot, and Slater, who started three games at safety. Strong safety Patrick Chung hurt his ankle vs. the Giants and also missed the next seven games. He has also been bothered by a sore knee. Chung has good anticipation in a zone and covers ground quickly. James Ihedigbo is most effective as a run defender in the box near the line of scrimmage. Slater has been an effective safety when called upon. Sergio Brown and Sterling Moore, a rookie who was released from Oakland's practice squad, have also contributed.

Cornerback Kyle Arrington tied for the NFL lead with a career-high seven interceptions while often covering the opposition's best receiver. Devin McCourty did not play as well as he did as a rookie in 2010, but he has also filled in admirably at safety. Edelman is an exceptional athlete who brings energy and effort to the defense when he switches to that side of the ball. Moore famously knocked the ball out of Lee Evans' hands on what could have been the game-winning touchdown in the AFC Championship Game. He had two interceptions in the last three regular season games. Jones was signed on Nov. 30 and has brought a veteran presence and versatility to the secondary.

Special Teams

Kicker Steve Gostkowski was first in the AFC and third in the NFL with 143 points. He made 28 of 33 field goal attempts and had 41 touchbacks. Punter Zoltan Mesko was 16th in the NFL with a 46.5-yard gross average but was third with a 41.5-yard net average. Woodhead has become the primary kickoff returner (32.3-yard average on four postseason runbacks) and Edelman is the punt returner (10.7-yard average, including a 72-yard touchdown, in the regular season). Slater led the team with 17 special teams tackles and was selected to the AFC Pro Bowl team as its special teams player.

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