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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

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.

That's one play the Giants know they can execute better. And they probably won't alter their defensive game plan noticeably from the first meeting. New York sent three- or four-man rushes at Brady on 22 of his dropbacks. The Giants had 18 one-man blitzes (five rushers), two two-man blitzes (six rushers) and one all-out attack in which they sent three blitzers and seven total rushers against six Patriots blockers.

Why, you ask, wouldn't New York send the house at Brady more often? It's simple. He handles pressure superbly, as his efficiency against the Giants showed. His final pass of that game came midway through the fourth quarter, deep in New York territory, when the Giants sent their only seven-man rush of the night. Brady saw the pressure coming, stood calmly and fired a near-lateral to Moss. Gain of five.

It has to be frustrating to be a pass rusher facing Brady, who has been sacked only 24 times in 663 dropbacks this season—once every 28 times he has set up to throw. Strahan, who will be matched against right tackle Kaczur, and fellow defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who'll face All-Pro left tackle Matt Light, did not often see just one blocker in the first game. The Patriots would either "chip" them with a second blocker (a guard who'd move to help the tackle, or a tight end or back who'd get a shot in as he went on a pass route) or feign a double team and then not follow through with it.

Even when the protection broke down, Brady was deadly. On the Giants' four-yard line, the Pats QB took a shotgun snap. Strahan fired past backup tackle Ryan O'Callaghan into the guard-tackle gap. Running back Laurence Maroney should have picked up Strahan, but he missed the block, and Strahan steamed in. Brady threw a jump ball to Moss in the end zone. Touchdown.

"We hit him a good lick on that pass to Moss," linebacker Antonio Pierce says. "And he still threw the touchdown. But our philosophy is going to be the same as it was last time: Keep hitting him, keep harassing him. We hit him long enough, hard enough, and good things are going to happen."

Says Umenyiora, "Split seconds turn into sacks. We'll get there. We need to find a way to get the chip-blocks off us and be one-on-one with the tackles."

That can be done by blitzing Pierce and Torbor a little more than in the last game, forcing the backs or tight ends to stay home and pick them up. "The Giants can do it," says ESPN's Ron Jaworski, who has watched coaches' tape of every New England game. "They've got to mix the bull rush with the speed rush, and Strahan and Umenyiora are good at that. Kaczur and Light sometimes have trouble with good edge rushers. But you've got to get to Brady. He can do a lot of things back there. He's a chameleon."

The four keys for the Giants if they are to disrupt Brady:

Continue to mix rushes and show multiple looks.
"You can't be afraid to really change things up against Brady," Rex Ryan says. "We'd run a straight three-man rush, then rush five guys from one side. Get him thinking." Easier said than done, especially in an environment more conducive to Brady's line calls than Giants Stadium. Super Bowl crowds are notoriously quiet; the fans who can afford the $700 seats (which were going for upward of $10,000 on ticket sites) aren't all shot-and-a-beer leather-lungs.

Play Tuck every snap, and move him around.
The third-year player, who just signed a new five-year, $30 million contract, is New York's most versatile defensive lineman. "Put him over the center [second-team All-Pro Dan Koppen]," suggests Philadelphia Eagles tackle Jon Runyan. "I'd like to see how New England would block that. Centers aren't used to blocking shifty guys." The 274-pound Tuck had 10 sacks this season playing end and tackle, and one of the most impressive images from the Giants-Patriots tape was a play—negated by penalty—on which Tuck swatted aside a one-on-one block from second-team All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins to get a hard hit on Brady. Tuck blew up a couple of runs that night, and against Green Bay in the NFC title game he and Pierce made it impossible for the Packers to get the screen pass working. "Once he gets going in the middle," says Umenyiora, "it makes our job easier."

Even when you don't hit Brady, make your presence known.
"You've got to get Brady to where he feels the flybys," Ryan says. "Move him off his spot. Every pass play, even if you don't hit him, get close. Swat at him. Bump him. It adds up."

Risk the offside penalty.
If Brady's on a roll, it's a good gamble to have Strahan and Umenyiora try to gain a split-second edge on reaching the backfield unblocked. "Umenyiora's good at jumping the snap count," says Runyan. "Sometimes, by the time the tackle turns to block him, he's already got a step and a half on him."

ALL THIS is fine advice. Executing it against linemen who've been together for three years, with tight ends who block well and backs conscious of their duty, is another story. And who knows what Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have been cooking up in the Patriots' science lab since the AFC title game? Says Runyan, "We learned the hard way [in New England's 24--21 Super Bowl XXXIX win over the Eagles] what happens when they have two weeks to prepare. We were preparing to face a 3--4 all week, and they showed up in a 4--3. I'm sure they'll do something New York won't expect."

It adds up to a Giant task. If New York finds a way to hold Brady in check and win this game, it'll be one of the great accomplishments in NFL history.

The Dec. 29 game offers the best clues as to whether New York can rattle Mr. Perfect. For the Giants, the news is NOT ENCOURAGING.

The Giants probably won't alter their defensive game plan noticeably from the first meeting They know they can EXECUTE BETTER.

"You've got to get Brady to feel the flybys," says Ryan. "Even if you don't hit him, get close. Swat at him. Bump him. IT ADDS UP."

The environment will be more conducive to Brady's line calls than Giants Stadium was. Super Bowl crowds are NOTORIOUSLY QUIET.

All the advice is fine, but who knows what Belichick has been COOKING UP in the Patriots' science lab since the AFC title game?


Indelible Images

In-progress photos of Super Bowl XLII, plus Andrew Perloff's live game blog.



Photograph by Rich Kane/US Presswire

ON WATCH Brady will draw from his extensive bag of tricks to deal with the threat from Umenyiora and the rest of Big Blue's baddies.



NEAR MISS Strahan (92) and the Giants got some touches on Brady in their Week 17 matchup, but Mankins (70) and his mates mostly kept their quarterback clean.



[See caption above]





INSIDERS Watch for the versatile Tuck (91) to help Pierce (58) push in the middle.



CENTER STAGE Koppen will have his hands full when he sets up for the snap.



CHIPPING IN Torbor (53) and the 'backers must provide more pressure to limit the chip-blocking on the Giants' ends.



COOL HAND Despite the Giants' efforts in Week 17, Brady completed 76% of his passes, for 356 yards, with no picks.