The storyline of a football game can change a number of times before its conclusion. It’s part of what makes the sport so captivating. Heading into the 4th quarter, the storyline for Super Bowl 46 looked like it would be that of a cleanly and efficiently played game by two teams with the Patriots pulling out a win due to the Giants overall inability to capitalize on chances in the red zone while dominating other aspects of the game.
Like all good stories, this one had a few plot twists toward the end.
Cue plot change #1: Early in the 4th quarter up 2 points, Tom Brady throws an ill-advised pass intercepted down-field. Momentum shifts to the Giants giving Eli Manning a chance to drive for a TD and overcome those red-zone challenges. The momentum gained grinds to a halt as the Giants need to burn two timeouts due to formation confusion and they punt back to the Pats putting the original story line back on track.
Cue plot change #2: After running about 5 minutes off the clock on what is looking like a game sealing drive, the unthinkable happens: Wes Welker drops a pass (and/or Brady’s pass isn’t as accurate or perfect as we’ve come to expect) after running open in a terrible defensive breakdown by the Giants. One play later the Pats have to punt, and Eli gets another crack at a comeback victory. The storyline now shifts to whether Eli can add to his remarkable stack of 4th quarter comebacks already under his belt this season.
Cue plot change #3: In a bit of game strategy that likely was being explained across North America by football fanatics to casual viewers, the Patriots (up 2 points) basically allow the Giants to score a TD to go ahead. The Pats elected to play the odds: they’d rather get the ball back with about a minute left being down 4 (or 6) points with a chance to come from behind to win versus trying to protect the lead and allowing the Giants to attempt a game winning FG as the clock would expire. This kind of end game happens maybe a couple of times a year. This gives the story a cliffhanger extension as now Brady has a chance to win his record tying 4th Super Bowl.
Cue plot change #4: As the Pats are driving for an attempt at a game winning TD, Patriots receivers drop 2 easy catches that would have helped them get in better position for a final TD attempt. Even with those mistakes, the final hail-mary pass comes very close to being completed, but falls to the ground sealing the win for the Giants.
There have been better games this season with more exciting plays, but nothing comes close to the drama and stakes that played out over the last 12 minutes of the 4th quarter considering what was at stake.
Here’s what I saw as a few of the turning points and keys to the game:
1. Eli Manning – A simply stellar game. His pinpoint 38 yard pass to Manningham on the game-winning drive was brilliant. Everyone snickered before the season started when he stated he believed he was an elite QB like Tom Brady and a few others. No one is laughing now. As an Eagles fan, I hate that this has happened.
2. End-game strategy – I think Belichick made the right call playing the odds at the end of the game. If the Giants, down by 2, don’t score the TD that the Patriots effectively gave them to go ahead, they get to kick a game winning FG with no time left on the clock that’s the same length as an extra point. Those are made about 99% of the time. The Pats had better odds intentionally giving up the lead and trying to score a TD with :57 left. Those odds weren’t great, but they were better than 1%.
3. Patriots lack of down field threats in the passing game – One of the only offensive weaknesses the Pats have is the lack of a deep threat. Knowing this, the Giants DBs were able to crowd the line of scrimmage and force short throws. Brady was 0/5 in deeper passing attempts in the game (including the Welker drop and his one interception).
4. The Gronkle: The Giants benefited from not having to worry about a clearly injured Gronkowski. His high ankle sprain reduced him to a shell of his explosiveness. That allowed the Giants to only play single coverage on him and thereby dedicate an extra DB to other aspects of pass coverage – a luxury other Pats opponents haven’t had this year.
5. Patriots secondary weakness haunt them – With only marginal talent at the corner back and safety positions, the Pats played a lot of deep zone coverage that effectively allowed the Giants to take small low-risk passing gains underneath the coverage. The Giants kept patient and took those yards which helped them control the clock. It doesn’t really show up in the game stats other than Eli’s low yardage per attempt but this was a key factor that allowed the Giants to win.
6. Giants punting – I have a weak spot for special teams performance and the three downed punts inside the 10 was an “off stat sheet” reason the Giants were able to win. The Pats had long fields to drive all night and had trouble sustaining drives (with the exceptions of the two that bracketed half-time).
Not a barn burner type of Super Bowl, but to the hardcore fan, the game was a chess match for 4 quarters and a fitting end to a great season. Now what to do for the next 28 or so Sundays?