Perhaps chameleonic isn't a great word for the 2007 Patriots. Through the year, the team has stood at or near the top of just about every major statistical measure. Brady and Moss have had their own statistical achievements, the most indelible (most touchdown catches in a season and most passes for a touchdown in a season) occuring simultaneously, late in the season-ending "Super Bowl XLI½" against the Giants in December.
It was in that game that their chameleon qualities were most apparent. Through the season, they had been able to force opponents to unexpected the expected as they would continually engage in hurry-up empty-backfield drives in the dwindling minutes of decided games. They also had an ability to play conservatively on defense, allowing opponents to chase the prolific Pats offense with gambling speed-oriented schemes, chewing up yardage until stumbling into an interception or (quite often) being forced to settled for a chip-shot field goal.
When circumstances have dictated it, the Patriots have showed a legit power-running offense. They showed incredible patience, frequently going to the run in the last quarter in a struggle against the Ravens. Despite having no healthy starter in the Tight End position and missing the left side of the offensive line, the Patriots were able to shift to a protect-and-pass approach when the run wasn't working.
The bottom line is that the Patriots have gathered talented players to execute just about anything in the playbook, and the coaching staff has leveraged their situational intelligence so the chameleonic transformations can come at any time. That's a lot to prepare to for. And that is the Giant's task. But as usual, we'll look at the keys to a Patriots victory.
The key to a Patriot victory is to increase the number of possessions. The Giants will try to score quickly by going to the play-action on short second-down situations. They'll try to manufacture those situations by sustaining stabbing first-down runs with Jacobs and Bradshaw. Before the meeting at the Meadowlands, Jacobs was dominating NFC opponents with 140 yard+ running performances. The Patriots limited him to 60. Bradshaw was out due to a calf injury that game.
If the Pats can stuff the run often enough, the Giants won't enjoy the unpredictability and inherent pass-protection that comes from the play-action. That will mean more incomplete passes and more long yardage situations that favor the Pats linebacking strengths. (Tedy still does not have an interception this year.) That will mean short possessions for the Giants and more opportunities for Brady to look for Moss and KO the Giants in short order.
Manning still strikes me as a unreliable quarterback. Burress is questionable for the game—sure to play, but possibly slowed in his patterns or vulnerable to reinjury. However, Plaxico remains the primary x-factor for the Giants. If the Patriots fail to neutralize him and he's able to put his team into position to score more than 21 points it could be anyone's game with one possession to go. So Plaxico will need to be chipped and his injuries tested.
A lot has changed since the Colts scored their first touchdown in the second half of the AFC Championship game. They were down by 18 points at the time and ultimately crushed the Patriots in a slow-motion train wreck where the Colts were able to move against a defense too tired to go all 60 minutes. The Patriots looked chaotic, tired.
In years past, the Colts had been the favorites and the Patriots had been cast as wonderfully disruptive underdogs who won the mind game and the actual game even as statistical measures favored the loser. This year (oddly early in the year too, as the idea of an undefeated season was floated during the preseason) the Patriots have carried a mantle of cosmos, not chaos. They've been expected to instill an orderly twenty-point blowout week after week, regardless of opponent, injuries, weather, or location. They've carried that cosmic weight well.
All the more reason for the aspect of chaos to lord over this last game. Its gaze was certainly felt when the Patriots held their ground against in Dallas and unraveled the Colts in Indianapolis. It seemed ready on the sidelines during the late season "squeakers" in Baltimore and New York. For a time its pull seemed to anchor the Patriots defense in concrete, unable to make tackles or even stay square with the play.
Defense by its vary nature is not derived from cosmos, so perhaps that is why I think we'll know pretty quickly on Sunday if that mantle can be carried for 60 more minutes or if a grim chaos will lift it away. We'll see it in the eyes of the Jarvis Green, in the shoulders of Junior Seau, and the legs of Hobbes and Samuel. The later games of the season have been oddly comforting because the Patriots defense has felt like the defense of old, reveling in the chaos, bending but rarely breaking. As a team, they have not yet broken. How far can the defense can bend again?
(The Patriots are the home team.)
Posted February 2, 2008.