You never get much sympathy as a casual Patriots fan living in Texas, especially in Dallas where the Rovers have made our base camp. There may not be a more hated club in America than Foxboro's Finest. Other than the Eagles, the Patriots seem to be the most hated team in the nation's most popular sport.
From Belichik's sneer and suspicious strategies to Tom Brady's pretty boy looks and "league favoritism" in the rule book the Patriots cover several of Hollywood's token villain characteristics. After paying the hefty price of Spygate, the Patriots dished out an 18-1 beatdown against the rest of the league. Most fans would happily take that record.
Rivals such as the Manning Colts, McNabb Eagles, and "greatest show on turf" Rams were all TV friendly champions who went down before the sinister might of Brady-Belichik.
I don't really need to go on, most of you probably despise the Patriots and were delighted by the helmet-catch that descended Hoodie & co. into playoff football purgatory where they've languished until now. However, I've got a sales pitch that just might win you over. When I watch the New York Giants I'm reminded of an even more unlikable front-running team known for drawing favoritism.
The Oklahoma Sooners.
They run very similar schemes and operate them in very similar manners, they are both run by totally likable QB's, and they both had success down the stretch of their famous seasons that provide them with undue rewards such as championship opportunities over teams that defeated them in the regular season.
I don't care if you buy it or not but I'm going to break down this match up for you and will refer to the New York Giants as the Oklahoma Sooners until I've successfully brainwashed you into rooting for my Patriots.
When the Land Thieves have the ball:
See how I used a derisive nickname for the Sooners and applied it to the Giants? You hate them now. Accept it.
The Sooners operate best when they can run the ball and help Eli buy time to fling deep bombs to Hakeem Nicks. However, even with their inconsistent health at RB and subsequently inconsistent running game they were moving the ball well this season. Manning managed this with his eerie calm in rapidly collapsing pockets, upper-tier accuracy, and excellent cast of receivers.
The real key to the Sooner attack, besides the excellence of the QB, is Ryan Broyles Victor Cruz. Utilizing some classic run n' shoot passing concepts that get a lot of mileage out of having a waterbug in the middle of the field, The NFC champs have had an effective passing game all year. In the NFC Title game, San Fran gave up 100 receiving yards to Cruz in the first half, shut him down in the 2nd half and were then two unlucky punt-return fumbles away from victory.
How do you think Belichik will attempt to slow them down?
Can the Patriots take away Victor Cruz? Belichik uses a lot of the same fronts and run-defense tricks as Saban which I covered in my national championship preview. Indeed, he taught Saban half of what he knows. Heavy use of nickel and dime packages are another Belichik staple he passed on, as well as press coverage. The Patriots were the first to recognize the tremendous threat that a slot receiver can present to the structures of typical defensive coverages after the devastation they were able to wreck with Troy Brown, and so they adapted with the now commonplace solution of moving your best cover corner inside.
Of course with the Sooners, if you move your best inside to handle the slot receiver how do you handle Reynolds Nicks and Stills Manningham on the edge? The Patriots Cover-5 (2 deep safeties, man coverage on all receivers) presents them with their best means of making things difficult for the Crimson offense. When they blitz or mix things up with other coverages it's essential that they still blanket Cruz and hope that Eli's tight space footwork and Nicks' explosive downfield abilities don't burn them.
Even while playing a lot of 2-deep coverages, the Pats still have solid enough personnel to not be gashed in the running game. Wilfork, Spikes, and Mayo provide them with a strong interior while the renewed health of Patrick Chung at safety helps erase anything they don't cover up. Virtually every season you may notice Mel Kiper Jr. projecting the Patriots to select a DE/OLB who can aid their pass rush and then you'll watch them not do so in search of man coverage corners or other pieces.
In reality, the Patriots have lagged behind in replacing defensive stars all over the squad. They've abandoned attempting to find enough 2-gapping DE/DT's to play their base 3-4 and now employ more gap control paired with attacking schemes. This year they relied on Andre Carter and Mark Anderson for their pass rush, employing them as weakside ends, and they are now down to only Anderson which could be problematic in trying to exploit the Sooners' weaknesses in pass-protection.
Overall the Pats have to keep things in front of them and keep Manning from finding Victor Cruz on 3rd down. If they eliminate Cruz from the game then Manning's tendency to force plays under pressure while looking for the kill shot could help them end drives with some timely sacks.
Flacco had a great day against the Pats defense between the 20's but when things tightened up around the goal line and the Pats still overplayed Ray Rice, he couldn't get it done. Expect a similar approach against Manning.
When OU is on defense:
Coughlin's crew run a base Cover-2 defense that is very similar to what we see in Norman every year. They often play 3 safeties so that their underneath coverage is fast enough to cover slot receivers in the middle of the field and they prefer to play soft-zone and then jump routes and tendencies that they spot from film study. They'll play their corners and linebackers off the line of scrimmage operating under the same philosophy as Stoops, that defenders play faster coming downhill than they do backpedaling.
Coverage of this sort, despite it's conservative positioning and alignment, can be very susceptible to QB's who pump fake, look off safeties, or buy time. Such as we saw from RGIII in his glorious dismantling of the Sooner D this year.
Towards the latter part of this season, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, and Jason Pierre-Paul all became healthy in time for the playoffs. Now no one has time to pump fake or look off safeties, even against the 4-man rush. The fact that these guys are all 6-5, 265 means that the potential for zone-blitzes is a serious threat as well. In 3rd and long they add Kiwanuka to get 4 pass-rushers on their line. It's deadly.
In the back 7, their linebackers are fast and their corners are pretty big, making for an imposing underneath 5 in their Cover 2. Amongst those is our own Thorpe Award winning Aaron Ross. I'm going to need you to ignore his presence in blue though for my analogy to work.
Vernon Davis gave them a lot of trouble and he did it against safeties and corners who regularly seemed shocked by his speed. Gronkowski isn't as fast as Davis but he and Hernandez both present similar match up problems for teams who are already trying to account for Welker and Branch.
Since the Patriots have added Hernandez, Gronk, and Welker to the fold it's not really feasible to attempt to take away a single receiver and expect to control the Patriot attack.
The Ravens and Steelers were able to control the Pats by flooding the field with DB's and 2-deep safety coverages, and made the Pats earn their way down the field. This is all fine and well until they get in the red zone, where Gronkowski becomes an unstoppable menace. Another factor that enabled the Ravens and Steelers to avoid getting lit up was their pass rush, which of course the Sooners have in spades.
It's possible that Gronkowski's high ankle sprain may keep him at far less than 100%, if he can even play at all. When fully healthy, he's an easy fix to beating a "bend don't break" scheme with his red zone proficiency, but also a great way to punish such a team for using smaller personnel. The Pats 2 tight end sets with Hernandez and Gronchise bring down the double whammy by necessitating nickel personnel and then plowing over it in the running game.
If there was ever a game in which the Patriots could have finally used a feature back, this would be it.
They'll need to protect Brady from the Land Thieves just pinning their ears back every play and coming after him with a steady diet of runs, draws, and screens. But ultimately, New England needs have their patented pass protection in full gear to buy time for Brady to orchestrate his patented clock-draining drives.
In conclusion, we essentially have a game in which the Oklahoma Sooners have every matchup advantage in their favor.
Their greatest weakness? Pass protection. The New England defense's biggest deficiency? Pass rush. The Sooner defense is perfectly designed to handle spread offenses, while the Patriots have feasted on teams' who lack the personnel to handle their receiving threats.
In the one regard in which the Patriots' hold advantages over virtually all opponents -- the inability of anyone to account for Gronkowski -- they have had calamity strike them with a high ankle sprain.
Do you want to root for an underdog and against the Sooners at the same time? I present the 2012 New England Patriots. If they win, it'll be because they earned it.