As much as we like to pull the Super Bowl matchup apart piece-by-piece and haul each one under the microscope, this is a quarterback-driven league, and the bottom line is that these two men are likely to determine the outcome of the game between them. The man with the better game, or the one who can avoid the key error is going to go a long way towards tipping the balance toward his side.
With that in mind, we’re going to take a look a little deeper into the recent form of both players, trying to move beyond simply their season statistics and see at how each is playing as their teams have made their runs to the Super Bowl. Who enters the game in the better form? Who is more likely to carry his side to the Lombardi Trophy and win himself a trip to Disneyland and an MVP award in the process?
Coming in Hot
Our focal point has been set fairly clear by Eli Manning and the Giants as they began their improbable run to the Super Bowl with the beat-down administered to the New York Jets on Christmas Eve–a meeting that was really a microcosm of the Giants’ season to that point. The game had been a back-and-forth of little but ineptitude before the final few minutes and a sudden realization from the Giants that it really was now or never. The win kick-started the G-men who were at the time sitting at just 7-7 and playing ‘away’ to the Jets, themselves fighting to save their season and stay alive in the playoff race. The Giants rescued their season, buried the Jets’, and haven’t lost a game since.
Tom Brady and the Patriots were also fighting hard all the way to the end of the regular season, but unlike the Giants, they were doing so for seeding and home field advantage, not simply to stay alive. They finished at 13-3 and earned the top spot in the AFC before taking Denver to pieces and surviving a squeaker against Baltimore. Let’s take a look at the base statistics from each QB over that time span.
Those numbers reflect broadly what you would expect to see from the pair. Brady completed a better percentage of his passes, but with Eli’s hot streak, he’s thrown fewer picks and their QB ratings are nearly identical. The disparity in the numbers comes from the PFF grade at the end.
Solving the Onslaught
Despite very similar numbers across the board, Eli’s PFF rating is nearly double that of Brady due to the circumstances in which those numbers were earned. While Tom Brady has been playing behind one of the league’s better pass protecting offensive lines, the Giants’ line has been hemorrhaging pressure at an alarming rate, and yet Eli has managed to continue to excel and, if anything, only improve in the face of the onslaught. From Week 16 onward, the Giants have played only 38 more passing snaps than the Patriots, but their line has surrendered 52 more pressures and three times the number of sacks.
Somehow, the Giants’ offensive line and their woes in containing the opposition’s pass rush is flying under the radar because their quarterback is putting on a clinic despite near constant pressure in his face. If Manning had been faltering and throwing interceptions, the level of pressure the Giants have been giving up would be headline news. Instead, we see articles peddling the farcical notion of David Diehl as a ‘Non QB/RB MVP’ candidate.
Between avoiding the pressure and making throws off-balance and under duress, Eli Manning is shifting the focus away from the pressure and towards the positive end of the play. Three of Manning’s best four PFF grades of the season have come in the past four games. By contrast, Brady’s best game in the same stretch was his Divisional Round performance against the Broncos, and that was only his sixth-best-graded game of the season, with all of the better five coming before Week 13.
During the postseason Manning is completing 53.5% of his passes under pressure, compared to only 33.3% for Brady. That number actually rises to 66.7% if we factor in passes that Manning had dropped but were in the hands of his receivers. The problem for Eli and the Giants is that in those postseason games, he has been pressured on a staggering 39.1% of all dropbacks. Brady has been pressured on 18.1%, and so, proportionally, is dealing with much less pressure.
The sheer volume of pressure that Manning is facing at the moment only increases the difficulty of his job and makes it ever more likely that at some point the hot streak will run cold and he will make the costly mistake. People like to pretend that only sacks impact the opposing passing game, and that anything else is a nothing play, but in reality all pressure has a demonstrable negative impact on the opposing quarterback and while he can escape the negative effects for a while, over the long haul it always catches up. The pressure, though, has yet to catch up to Manning, and it may not do so before the Super Bowl finishes, but it’s hanging over him by a thread–like a Sword of Damocles–and that thread could snap at any time.
On the other side, though Brady is facing significantly less pressure, he is not dealing with it nearly as well. So, if the Giants can ramp up the heat he feels on Sunday, they could have a much bigger impact on the game.
Of course, things can’t be looked at purely as abstract numbers, and just because that data is true for the past few games, doesn’t mean that we will see the same born out in the Super Bowl. Each team is different, and provides unique strengths and weaknesses that will influence matchups and the distribution of the football. Tom Brady has been at his best this season when he has had a clear route through to Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. We’ve already shown you earlier this week the three ways Hernandez can kill the Giants, but he isn’t the only one of those three that can.
The Giants have been particularly vulnerable this season to slot weapons, and have been forced to try and cover the slot with various defenders over the course of the year. In the Super Bowl, the responsibility will again fall to safety Antrel Rolle, who has a PFF coverage grade of -14.5 this season as he tries to make the best of his out-of-position job in the slot. Teams haven’t been too quick to pick up on this weakness, and the Giants have only seen 28% of passing targets go towards the slot; a hair above the NFL average.
The Patriots, however, average 43% of their targets towards slot players, and are among the league’s best teams at picking out an opponent’s weak spots and going to town on that perceived weakness in their game plan. If they can effectively target Rolle and the Giants’ troubles in covering the slot, they’ll make Brady’s job a lot easier and create a tougher task for the Giants’ pass rush to get home before the ball is already gone.
On the other side of the field, the matchup to watch is deep down field. While the league average for throws this season was 8.8 yards down field, teams throwing against the Patriots and their patchwork secondary averaged 9.7 yards in depth. The Giants, though, threw deep more than any team in football this season and averaged 10.2 yards downfield on their throws. They are inherently and perfectly set up to attack the Patriots’ biggest weakness on defense.
The numbers all point to this being an incredibly intriguing matchup of impressive passing offenses (for even more detail of the numbers, check out this post by PFF Fantasy’s Mike Clay). Eli Manning enters the game on a better run than Brady, despite some very similar base numbers over the past few games, but both sides are set up to take advantage of their opponent’s biggest weakness innately with their offense’s biggest strength. This could be a shootout of major proportions, and only an increase in pressure from either defensive front seems capable of derailing the freight trains.