This was an exciting, tense, well played and well coached game filled with interesting midgame adjustments and tactics.
The Patriots defensive strategy was sound and, even though they lost the game, was successful and did a very good job at limiting the Giants offense. Bellichick correctly assessed the Giants as a big play offense, with dynamic WRs and a strong armed QB who could get the ball down field. The Giants running game was decent, but the OL was spotty against the run and he wanted to take away the Giants obvious strength. In some ways, this was similar to the strategy that Bellichick and Parcells used in their Super Bowl win after the 1990 season against the Bills. In that game, Bellichick said Giants will win if Thurman Thomas runs for 100+ yards, because that means that the Bills will be diverted from their passing game. In that game, the Giants flooded the passing lanes with 8 or sometimes 9 pass defenders and ignored the pass rush. Giants smacked around the Bills WRs and successfully held down the powerful Bills offense. In this game, Bellichick's strategy was the same - hold down the Giants passing offense - but the tactics were different. The Patriots played a lot of man underneath with cover 2 on top and kept their safeties very deep, making sure that there would never be a deep ball going over their head. This makes decent but-not-great safeties (which the Patriots have) play very effectively. All they do is see who is running deep on their half of the field and run to the man. Patriots also doubled the outside WRs, Nicks and Cruz often, limiting greatly their deep play capability. It meant that when Giants had Manningham in the game in their 3-WR sets, Patriots added another DB or two to cover him, but he was in single coverage. Eli took advantage of that a few times - hitting Manningham deep 3 times - once when he dropped a perfect ball he should have caught on the post that hit him right in the hands; once on a sideline pattern where he caught the ball but could not keep his feet in bounds; and once in the 4th quarter on the winning TD drive for 38 yards which Manningham actually caught When Manningham was not in the game and the outside WRs were double covered, it meant that the TEs and the FB were covered by a LB and Eli took advantage of that several times with easy throws to wide open TE/FBs. (Note for next year's team: imagine how much more productive the Giants offense would be next year with an athletic, play making TE.) This strategy by Bellichick also required them to switch to a 3-4 for the entire game, and made it a little easier for the Giants to run block. The OL had a very good game run blocking, as did FB Hynoski who is becoming a very good player, but more about player performance in a later post - this one is about coaching. This strategy worked well for the Patriots, because even though the Giants passed for nearly 300 yards, Eli's yards per pass attempt was lower than it usually is and the Giants scored only 21 points. They moved the ball well with underneath throws but could not get into the end zone and twice had to settle for FGs.
The Giants defensive strategy was similar to the Patriots - Fewell did not want to allow big plays to the Patriots explosive offense. Giants played man underneath but because the safeties played conservatively, they did not cover tightly and therefore allowed a free release to the slot receiver and the TE. I thought this strategy was misplaced by Fewell - Patriots have a very productive offense, but it is based on short throws between the numbers to the ultra-quick Welker and to the very capable Patriots TEs. They rarely throw deep or to the outside and Fewell should have defended them like he played against the Packers, trying to disrupt the short throws, not so much worrying about deep balls. When the Patriots lined up with Welker, two TEs and a back coming out of the backfield, the Giants were forced to put a LB on one of these sure handed short range receivers and Brady was easily able to get the ball out of his hands quickly and pick out the one match up that he liked against the slower LB. When the Patriots offense stared clicking, they moved it for a TD at the end of the half and another TD on the first drive of the second half. After that, Fewell made the very obvious adjustment, which I was screaming for from the stands. (You get a very clear view of what the pass defense is doing from up in the stands and this was really easy to see.) The adjustment was simple - line up someone right on top of the slot receiver to play a little tighter man to man. This could not be done with the LBs on the field, they also got a little more speed in at the LB position in Jacquian Williams to get a better match up against those quick receivers. This worked great, because the Patriots did nothing on offense after that second TD. Brady was forced to hold the ball longer and the Giants pass rush forced him out of the pocket. Brady was able to make some very quick moves to elude the pass rush several times but the defensive adjustment worked. It forced Brady to throw down field more and he did not complete any of them, going 0-5 on deep throws. One of the throws was the INT by Blackburn and that throw demonstrated clearly that the adjustment was correct and that the Giants should have challenged Brady to throw deep all game, because he could simply not get the ball down field to his TE. Gronkowski drifted down field being covered by Blackburn who at one point took his eye off his man and let the TE get 5 yards behind him. A good throw by Brady is a sure TD, but Brady could not get the ball down field far enough. The ball was underthrown so badly that it looked like Blackburn was calling a fair catch on the INT.