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Pats need Scarnecchia to stop Giants' D, but it's easier said than done

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Dante Scarnecchia has his work cut out for him coming up with a plan to slow the Giants. (AP)  
Dante Scarnecchia has his work cut out for him coming up with a plan to slow the Giants. (AP)  

INDIANAPOLIS -- It's not Rob Gronkowski's ankle or Lawrence Tynes' foot that will determine Super Bowl XLVI. It's Dante Scarnecchia's head.

Scarnecchia is the assistant head coach in charge of New England's offensive line, and it's his job to devise a plan to protect quarterback Tom Brady. If he's successful, the Patriots probably win; if not, they probably lose.

And, yes, it's as simple as that.

All I know is the past two times the Giants and Patriots met when it counted, New York pressured Brady so effectively that he was sacked seven times, hit on countless other occasions and produced more turnovers (four) than he did touchdown passes (three).

Oh, yeah, he also lost. Twice.

"This team [the Giants] has a very good pass rush," said Brady. "I've seen it game after game this year. They can get to the quarterback. They can hit the quarterback. They can force the quarterback into some bad decisions and some bad throws.

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"We're going to try to eliminate those. We really can't afford too many of those on Sunday. We had too many of those the last time we played them, and we're not going to be able to win the game making mistakes."

I don't question that. What I do question is how New England's offensive line handles the Giants' front four when it couldn't four years ago and couldn't three months ago.

That's where Scarneccchia comes in.

It's his job to figure out who to block, how to block and where to block to keep Brady upright. Because if the Giants hammer him as they did the past two times, it's over, folks.

"You have to absolutely be at your best every down," Scarnecchia said of the Giants' pass rush. "If you're not, somebody's going to catch an edge, and they're going to be on top of your quarterback. They're exceptional. They have talent. And they [are] really well-coached."

They're also hot. In their past four games -- three of them in the playoffs -- the Giants have 15 sacks, 11½ by their front four, including Osi Umenyiora, whom they summon from the bench on obvious passing downs.

The object, of course, is to get to Brady, and New England was so concerned about protecting him in its Nov. 6 loss that it kept in tight ends to block, ran more than usual and threw off play-action. The result: After three quarters New England had three points and wound up losing 24-20.

Now let's go back to Super Bowl XLII. After three quarters there, the Pats had seven points and wound up losing 17-14. Do the math, people: In the first three periods of their past two starts vs. the Giants, Brady and New England have a grand total of 10 points ... and that's a problem.

"I can see Dante haunted by that game [Super Bowl XLII]," said a coach who knows Scarnecchia. "He's really good at what he does, and it means a lot to him, and he didn't have an answer for them. And you know what? He still doesn't.

"If you look back at that game in November, they were running the ball and running play-action, and that's great. But it's not what they do."

No, what they do is pass, pass, then pass some more. Brady this season threw for 5,235 yards -- one of two quarterbacks to break Dan Marino's single-season record. By keeping one or both tight ends in to block, the Patriots sacrifice one the league's premier tandem of receivers -- with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combining for 169 catches.

That must change. To win, the Patriots will have to find a way to get them off the line and into the passing game. But that leaves somebody ... a running back, a sixth offensive lineman, someone ... to stay in and block, and here we go again with Scarnecchia.

"The Giants play a lot of post-safety defense," said an AFC defensive coordinator, "and the Patriots must find a way to win outside. Somehow, they have to slow them down -- be it through cadence or no-huddle or quick passes -- but they can't allow those guys to get the best of the matchups ... because it's a bad matchup for them."

It was in Super Bowl XLII, when Brady was hammered again and again, sacked five times and blanked on seven of nine possessions.

If that sounds familiar, it should. Brady has struggled in his past three starts vs. Baltimore, with three touchdowns and seven interceptions and a performance so ordinary in this year's AFC Championship Game that Brady characterized his performance in two words.

"I sucked," he said.

There's a theory out there that Baltimore is in the guy's head, and, frankly, I buy it. The Ravens have experienced, smart and productive players in guys like Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, and they hold up well vs. Brady. But so do the Giants, and I'm beginning to believe they might be in his head, too.

"Trust me," said one coach who played Brady this season, "they are. There are certain teams that get to guys, and the Giants are one of them."

The record would seem to support him, but stay tuned. Brady has one game left to prove people wrong. So does Scarnecchia, and please don't remind him what happened the last time these two teams met in a Super Bowl. "Were you haunted by that experience?" I asked.

"I would never use the word 'haunt,'" Scarnecchia said. "Hey, look, we're all here as a result of what's happened in our past, good and bad. And you always have to look at things in a philosophical sense.

"Give them credit. They did a great job, and leave it there. Now is now, and this is a whole new set of problems. There's a great familiarity to it because of the two teams, but 'haunted?' Nah.

"That's the past. This is the present. Our focus goes to these guys and this day and getting better this day and getting better tomorrow and putting our best effort out there on Sunday."

Good luck.

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