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Super Bowl Preview

   by Bryan Leonard - 01/28/2008

Let’s show some sympathy for the Packers. After all, the story line was there: Veteran Brett Favre leading the youngest team in the NFL into the Super Bowl. However, you have to get it done on the field, not in a Hollywood script. The Packers had never lost a playoff at home in their first eight decades of existence, but have now been toppled three times in the last six years. Ouch.

They lost at home to Atlanta in 2002, to Minnesota in 2004 and then Sunday to the NY Giants, 23-20 in OT.

Before we move on to the Patriots/Giants Super Bowl battle, looking back at the Conference Championship tilts provide some insight into how to win. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin's plan was to exploit mismatches in the NY secondary and throw despite the subzero temperatures.

A huge weakness was the lack of a running game to set up play action. The Giants shut down hot running back Ryan Grant by keeping someone on the backside so Grant had no cutback lanes, as well as blitzing to clog up the line of scrimmage. The Packers came up big on a play-action pass that sucked in the linebackers and resulted in Donald Driver scoring a 90-yard touchdown. But after that they ran just five times in their next 19 plays, giving the Giants little reason to bite on play action. The Packers wound up converting just one of 10 third downs after ranking 8th during the season.

On defense, the Packers' two starting cornerbacks, Al Harris and Charles Woodson, would have their backs to the play while playing man-to-man coverage. So NY QB Eli Manning underthrew passes, knowing WRs Ami Toomer and Plaxico Burress would come back for the ball with the Green Bay defensive backs not watching the QB. The Packers never backed off their bump coverage to take away those passes.

Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride came up with a brilliant game plan for combating the Packers' stubborn man-to-man defense. He had Manning come to the line of scrimmage, read the coverage and then signal to his receivers whether he was going to throw the back-shoulder route. Burress, at 6 feet 5 inches, continually beat Harris with fades, comebacks and back-shoulder routes, piling up 154 yards in 11 catches. WR Amani Toomer contributed four catches for 42 yards, mostly against Woodson.

Green Bay defensive coordinator Bob Sanders could have ordered his cornerbacks to play off the receivers in a soft zone, but that never was a consideration. "You play basically one way all year, it's like you don't get to the ninth inning and change," CB Charles Woodson said. I would disagree, Charlie. Winning football is about flexibility and adjustments. One can’t have a game plan for EVERYTHING in practice, because different things will pop up during the game. A good coaching staff is able to identify those surprises and make adjustments at halftime or during the game.

A case in point is the AFC Championship game. The Chargers athletic defense, combined with the cold, windy conditions, essentially took away the Patriots top ranked passing attack. Tom Brady threw three picks after throwing 8 in 17 previous games. So what did the Pats do in the second half, leading just 14-12? They adjusted, bringing in two and three tight end sets and running the ball often. The running game was devastating down the stretch. San Diego punted with just over nine minutes left, and their offense never touched the ball again.

Early in the game, the Pats went with their standard spread package in hopes of creating mismatches with Charger linebackers as they did in their Week 2 meeting, a 38-14 rout. But after halftime, when it became apparent that the outside receivers weren’t getting off press coverage, they changed. RB Laurence Maroney rumbled for 106 second-half yards. If knocking your head against the wall isn’t bringing down the house, try a different approach.

Despite the impressive showing in Green Bay, this Giants’ secondary is vulnerable at cornerback with aging R.W. McQuarters and Sam Madison. They contained the Packers second-ranked passing attack, but have an even tougher test with New England’s top-ranked passing unit.

It’s clear what the first half game plans will be. Manning directed a 14-play, 71-yard drive for an opening field goal against the Packers. That drive is indicative of their offensive style: ball control. They have excellent wideouts and a nice one-two RB punch of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, who combined for 130 yards in 37 carries in the NFC title game. They will look to do the same to keep the football away from the Patriots offense (though in their Week 17 meeting the Giants had just 79 yards rushing, despite holding a double-digit second half lead).

New England will do the opposite, coming out with 4 WR-sets early, likely even a hurry-up offense to attack the Giants secondary. Brady torched the Giants on December 29 (32-of-42 passing, 356 yards, 2 TDs and no picks), and this game will be in much warmer, nicer weather in Arizona. The Pats won 38-35, but the Giants got the cover. This is the first Super Bowl for Tom Coughlin, the fourth in the last seven years for Belichick and Brady. Let the big game begin!

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