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Posted at 05:25 PM ET, 02/02/2012

Tom Brady must be at his best for Patriots to beat Giants

Can the Patriots’ offensive line neutralize the Giants’ fierce pass rush? Will Rob Gronkowski be as effective on a bad ankle? Will the Patriots’ young secondary hold its own against the likes of Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz?

All good questions, all important factors when it comes to breaking down Super Bowl XLVI. But at the end of the day this game is Tom Brady’s to lose.

New York fans might take my saying that as yet another media member focusing on Brady and the Patriots when “Big Blue” has earned the right to be the focal point of this game. But that’s not my intent.

Everything points to another New York victory on Sunday. The surest way to beat an elite quarterback is to pressure him with your front four and drop everyone else into coverage. The Giants have four defensive ends that they can line up at the same time in passing situations, which gives them a distinct advantage that no other team in the league possesses. And thanks to Cruz, Nicks, Eli Manning and Mario Manningham, the Giants also have the most underrated passing attack in the league.

Yes, the Giants should be the focal point in this matchup. We should be discussing whether or not New England can beat New York instead of the other way around. After all, the Giants ruined the Patriots’ perfect season back in 2008 and went on the road during the 2011 regular season and beat them again. When you really break down the matchup, it’s a wonder why New England is even favored.

No, this isn’t another Patriots-centric article. What I’m saying is that if Tom Brady isn’t Tom Brady on Sunday then the Patriots will lose because quite frankly, they’re a rather ordinary team when he’s not superhuman.


New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, left, talks with head coach Bill Belichick during practice on Thursday. (Mark Humphrey - AP)
The Pats didn’t exactly face a gauntlet of quality opponents in the second half of the season, which certainly contributed to their 8-0 finish. While the Jets, Eagles and Broncos all finished with 8-8 records, respectively, the Patriots didn’t play one team with a winning record in their final eight games. The last time they faced consecutive opponents with a win percentage over .500 was in back-to-back losses versus the Steelers (Week 8) and Giants (Week 9).

Want to know how Brady fared in those two games? He completed 52 of his 84 pass attempts for 540 yards, with four touchdowns and two interceptions. He certainly played well enough for his team to win but the Patriots didn’t, and you could make a case that Brady didn’t do enough despite his strong numbers.

Is that fair? Certainly not. The Patriots rely on Brady too much when you think about it. His position is the most important on the field and he’s certainly compensated for his play with both fame and fortune. But this isn’t the best team that Bill Belichick has constructed during his time in Foxboro and yet the Patriots have yet another opportunity to hoist the Lombardi Trophy with a win on Sunday. Guys like Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Matt Light, Brian Waters, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich all deserve credit for New England’s success this season. But I go back to those two mid-season losses to Pittsburgh and New York and wonder if the Pats can win this weekend if Brady is anything but great.

Granted, the Patriots did beat the Ravens two weeks ago when Brady was lackluster, but Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff also cost Baltimore a golden opportunity at victory. But I don’t expect New England to pull off a similar feat if Brady doesn’t put together one of those this-guy-is-unreal performances. I’m talking about one of those 370-yard, three-touchdown games where the defense couldn’t stop him from reaching the end zone in the fourth quarter if they were allowed to play with 30 men.

Anything less and I fully expect a solid New York team to win its second title in just five years.

More from Washington Post Sports:

Sally Jenkins: Eli Manning is tougher than you think

No running game, no problem for Patriots, Giants

Jason Reid: Cruz, Nicks, Manningham, give Giants triple threat

On Leadership: Why Tom Brady is a better leader than Eli Manning

On Leadership: Why Manning is a better leader than Brady

The League: If Patriots win, are Brady, Belichick best ever?

Protecting Brady could be difficult for Pats line vs. Giants rush

Photos: Scenes from Super Bowl week in Indy

By Anthony Stalter  |  05:25 PM ET, 02/02/2012

 
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