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It's All on the Line
PETER KING
February 04, 2008
When the underdog Giants meet the unbeaten Patriots in Arizona on Sunday, history will hinge on a brawny battle between New York's pass rush and New England's protection. Can the league's most fearsome defensive front knock Tom Brady off his game? NFL perfection hangs in the balance
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February 04, 2008

It's All On The Line

When the underdog Giants meet the unbeaten Patriots in Arizona on Sunday, history will hinge on a brawny battle between New York's pass rush and New England's protection. Can the league's most fearsome defensive front knock Tom Brady off his game? NFL perfection hangs in the balance

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IN THE Super Bowl XLII matchup between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots, there is one overriding truth: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady must go down, and he must go down hard. ¶ "Pressure, pressure, pressure," says Super Bowl XXIII QB Boomer Esiason, now a CBS analyst. "The Giants have to pressure Tom Brady to have a chance to win." ¶ "Without a doubt," says Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, "how much pressure we put on Brady will be the biggest factor." Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan concurs: "How the Giants handle Brady is the whole game." So we go to the videotape—actually a DVD of the coaches' tape—from the game that offers the best clues as to whether New York can rattle Mr. Perfect enough to end New England's march to 19--0 and football history.

For the Giants, the news is not encouraging.

Rarely has a defeat been as uplifting as New York's 38--35 Week 17 loss to the Patriots. With nothing at stake in the standings, the Giants played so gallantly that night in the Meadowlands that NBC analyst John Madden later called coach Tom Coughlin and told him, "What you did was great for your team and great for football."

The euphoria of Dec. 29 has given way to the sober reality of Feb. 3. Yes, New York played competitively for a long stretch with the league's first unbeaten team in 35 years. But in the most important game-within-the-game, the battle between the Giants' pass rush and the Pats' protection, New York failed. Brady threw for 356 yards. He completed 76% of his passes. He controlled the clock for 36 minutes. He led seven scoring drives. The Giants sacked him once in 43 dropbacks. They did not intercept him.

Even on the 12 occasions when New York got significant pressure on Brady—a solid hit on him a split second after he threw, or enough pressure that Brady had to hurry a pass or move in the pocket—the New England quarterback was coolly efficient. He was sacked once, by unblocked linebacker Reggie Torbor on a fourth-quarter blitz; that was one of only two times in those 43 dropbacks when a Giants pass rusher wasn't at least deflected by a blocker. The unit that led the NFL in sacks with 53 this season got only two jailbreak rushes on Brady.

That performance is a testament to the efficiency of a Patriots line that was playing without right tackle Nick Kaczur, right guard Stephen Neal and 280-pound blocking tight end Kyle Brady, all of whom will be back for the Super Bowl. Not including the single sack, of the plays on which Brady faced significant pressure, he completed 8 of 11 passes for 57 yards and one touchdown, hitting wideouts Randy Moss and Wes Welker as well as safety valves such as running back Kevin Faulk and tight end Ben Watson.

It was a masterly performance by Brady, made even more impressive by the fact that, amid the noise from a Giants Stadium crowd cheering for a miracle, he couldn't engage in as many of his usual at-the-line ploys. Miami defensive end Jason Taylor estimates that when the Dolphins played in Foxborough this year, Brady used what Miami calls a "double cadence" on about 80% of the snaps. "He'll call two plays in the huddle," Taylor says. "He'll go to the line, the linemen will get in their stances, Tom will look around, and he'll call out something like, 'Red 80! Red 80! Set, hut-hut!' But there won't be a snap, and no [Patriots] will move. [Brady] will stop for a second and get a quick mental picture. He does that so he can see what you're trying to disguise on defense. Then he'll either call that first play again, or he'll call the second play, and they'll snap it."

"He did that against us too," says Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck, "but I get more frustrated with his quick snaps and quick counts."

Brady is able to make presnap reads with or without the double cadence. In a 27--24 win against the Ravens on Dec. 3, he engineered a vital third-down touchdown by taking a mental picture during the middle of a cadence, according to then Baltimore coach Brian Billick. On third-and-one from the Ravens' three, Brady saw cornerback Chris McAlister setting up to cover Randy Moss without safety help. When the ball was snapped, neither safety went to help, and Brady took only a split second to find Moss, who had a step on McAlister. Touchdown.

Brady can also simply draw from experience. One of the most stunning sequences in the win over the Giants came in the fourth quarter, when Brady threw two consecutive, identical "go" routes up the right sideline to Moss. On the first, Moss badly beat cornerback Sam Madison, but Brady underthrew him. On the second, though it was third-and-10 and New England trailed 28--23, Brady went to the same well against a different coverage. "That's our 2-High look," says one New York defensive starter. "Anything over 15 yards, the safety takes over the coverage. And we made a mistake." A big one. The ball was snapped at the New England 35-yard line. As Moss sprinted up the sideline, the corner left Moss near the Patriots' 48 to help on Welker in the right slot. But safety James Butler was still beckpedaling at midfield and didn't move to cover Moss until Butler was at the Giants' 45. Too late. Brady's bomb—his NFL-record-setting 50th touchdown pass of the season, Moss's record-setting 23rd touchdown catch—settled into the hands of the receiver, who jogged into the end zone four yards ahead of Butler.

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