Introducing The AFC Champion New England Patriots

The SportsNotebook’s Super Bowl preparation today consists of an in-depth look at each team’s starting lineups. Click here to check out the New York Giants. Below is an analysis of the New England Patriots. Each player’s age is in parentheses…

Quarterback: Tom Brady (34)—I trust we don’t need to do an extended introduction here, but we’ll at least recap the basics. Brady threw for over 5,200 yards this year, completed over 65 percent of his passes and had a TD-INT ratio of 39-12. And that’s in a year that wasn’t as good as 2010. Win or lose, Brady is the best quarterback of my lifetime, measured since 1976.

Running Backs: BenJarvus Green-Ellis (26), Danny Woodhead (27), Stevan Ridley (23), Kevin Faulk (35)—There’s no  one true go-to back in this offense, although Green-Ellis, known as “The Law Firm” for his extended first and last names, led all rushers with 667 yards. Green-Ellis is a very physical runner who can pound you inside the tackles and can also catch the ball out of the backfield. He won’t burn you in space, but he’s a reliable 4-5 yards. Woodhead is a similar player, just not quite as good. Ridley and Faulk represent a little tactical intrigue. The former is a shifty young back out of LSU who can pop some big plays. The latter is an aging veteran who’s a reliable pass-catcher. It’s easy to see the New England offense working either into a bigger part of Sunday’s gameplan.

Wide Receivers: Wes Welker (30), Deion Branch (32), Julian Edelman (25), Chad Ochocinco (34)–All of these players rely on savvy and disciplined routes to get themselves open and then rely on a machine-like quarterback to deliver them the ball on cue. Welker caught 122 passes, while Branch caught 72. However, I think it’s safe to say that in all cases, it’s Brady who makes these receivers productive, rather than vice-versa. Welker and Branch are ideal to be #2 receivers alongside a legitimate deep threat, but the Patriots lack anyone who can stretch the field. Ochocinco’s another interesting X-factor for Sunday. He’s been a non-factor all year after his publicized signing in August. Is this a spot where Brady suddenly targets him for four or five big catches?

Tight Ends: Rob Gronkowski (22), Aaron Hernandez (22)–Recently, in arguing Brady’s merits with a friend on Facebook, I put Gronkowski in a group with the four receivers as being just a byproduct of the quarterback’s excellence. That was a dumb-ass statement. “Gronk”, as the Pats fans call him, is an All-Pro tight end with anyone. He had 90 catches this year, offers an imposing target and while he’s not a deep threat in the way a younger Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates might have been, Gronk can move in the open field. The health of his ankle has been the biggest story of Super Bowl week outside Peyton Manning, and correctly so. New England will not win this game if Gronk’s not healthy. Hernandez is a solid pass-catcher in his own right. He’s a little more of a finesse player than his teammate, being more effective if you line him up as an H-back, and he’s been worked into the running game on occasion. With 79 catches, Hernandez is the third-best receiver on this team after Gronk and Welker.

Offensive Line: Dan Connolly (C, 29), Logan Mankins (LG, 29), Brian Waters (RG, 34), Matt Light (LT, 33), Nate Solder (RT, 23)—This is a line uniquely constructed to the offense. They are not great in terms of exploding off the ball and moving bodies to create running room. All of them win the praises of ESPN’s Scouts Inc for their technical soundness and lateral movement. Light has the job of protecting Brady’s blind side and the veteran gets high marks from the scouts for his movement and ability to react and adjust after the snap. Mankins and Waters are similarly sound, but a concern in the scouting reports is that Mankins can be beaten with a straight bull-rush from a defensive tackle. Solder is a player to watch—at 6’8” 319 he’s got the physical tools to handle the Giant defensive front, but he’s also a 23-year old kid on the world’s biggest sporting stage. How’s he going to react? Overall, we can sum this unit up as a group as being fundamentally sound and more oriented to pass-blocking rather than run. For a quintet that plays under one of the best coaches of all time and with one of the best quarterbacks of all time, I guess that’s about what you’d expect.

Defensive Line: Shaun Ellis (DE, 34), Mark Anderson (DE, 28), Brandon Deaderick (DE, 24), Kyle Love (DT, 25), Vince Wolfork (DT, 30)—Wolfork played the game of his life in the AFC Championship Game, taking away Baltimore’s Ray Rice up the middle and pressuring Joe Flacco in some key spots. Wolfork was the most valuable player in that game. The stout run defense is par for the course, but he’s not really a pass-rusher. Anderson is the best at pressuring the quarterback in this group, with ten sacks, but this is still a group better at defending the run than collapsing the pocket. Deaderick is more a run defender, something that’s unusual in a 4-3 scheme where the ends are relied on for the pressure. A line like this is well-suited for late-season games in cold and blustery weather, but I question how they’ll fare in a climate-controlled environment if the field opens up.

Linebackers: Rob Ninkovich (OLB, 28), Brandon Spikes (MLB, 24), Jerod Mayo (OLB, 25)–I like this trio here. Spikes and Mayo are good young players with athletic ability. Like the defensive line, they’re a little better against the run than the pass, but Spikes did come up with a huge interception in the AFC title game. Ninkovich is a fundamentally sound third piece, who can be beaten in space, but is reliable at taking care of his assignment and stopping the run.

Secondary: Devin McCourty (CB, 24), Kyle Arrington (CB, 25), Patrick Chung (FS, 24), James Ihedigo (SS, 28)—The corners are a solid rising duo. McCourty has is good all-around player who’s got the athleticism to match up with receivers, the ball skills to make plays and the physical style to defend the run. Arrington isn’t quite at that level, but he does have good quickness and with more balls coming his way, he took advantage and grabbed seven interceptions. I’m less optimistic about the safeties. Ihedigo is good in run support, but on a defense where the front four and linebackers are all solid in that same area, the Pats could use a better cover man. Chung is improving, but still beatable. One of the key stories this week has been when the Pats go to the nickel and they bring Edelman in. It was a problem against Baltimore and it will be worse in the perfect passing environment of Lucas Oil Stadium.

Special Teams: Stephen Gotkowski (K, 28), Zoltan Mesko (P, 25), Woodhead (KR), Edelman (PR)—Don’t underestimate how solid New England is in the kicking game. Gotkowski got three field goal tries against Baltimore, the same as Billy Cundiff. Because Gotkowski went 3-for-3, while Cundiff had the fatal miss at the end, the Patriots are in the Super Bowl, and that sort of consistency is what NE fans came to expect all year long. Mesko averaged a solid 46.5 gross average and the cover teams do a solid job, keeping the net over 41. The returners are above average, while not spectacular.