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|Craig Morton never saw Harvey Martin -- or the Cowboys' defensive game plan -- coming in Super Bowl XII.|
When the New York Giants and New England Patriots square off next Sunday, it will mark the 12th time that teams have met in regular season and then played a rematch in the Super Bowl. But it is only the second time that teams have played in the Super Bowl after facing each other in the regular-season finale.
The first time it happened was in Super Bowl XII, when Dallas defeated Denver just a few weeks after playing the Broncos to close out the 1977 regular season. The big difference between then and now is that when Dallas played Denver in the regular-season finale, it was a meaningless game. Both teams had clinched home-field advantage for the playoffs, so neither showed much in the Cowboys' 14-6 victory.
When they met again in Super bowl XII, the Cowboys did several things they had not shown before.
The first was a version of the nickel defense called "10 Man Free," with safety Cliff Harris being the "man free." Randy Hughes served as the fifth defensive back, while Harris had no responsibilities other than watching Broncos quarterback Craig Morton. At the same time, the defense implemented a new blitz look called "Wanda 48" -- "Wanda" signified weakside and D.D. Lewis was the blitzer.
The net result? Dallas registered four interceptions and four sacks, holding Denver to 8-of-25 passing for 35 net yards -- still a Super Bowl record.
On offense, one of the wrinkles Dallas had was a halfback option pass by left-handed running back Robert Newhouse. It had been two years since Newhouse threw such a pass, and it resulted in a 29-yard TD to Golden Richards to close out the scoring in a 27-10 triumph.
Dallas had an even greater need to mix things up in that Super rematch, because Morton had been with the Cowboys for nine-plus seasons, and he was familiar with the Cowboys' defensive personnel. Tom Brady and Eli Manning may not be as familiar with the opposition in this case, but the fact that both teams went all out in their memorable Week 17 game on Dec. 29 certainly helps.
Which begs the questions: What will we see different this time? And what can each team learn from reviewing tape of the Week 17 game?
After looking back at the tape, here are some key observations:
Run to darkness:The Giants ran the ball only 19 times, and there was no Ahmad Bradshaw, the suddenly hot rookie who was injured at the time. The Patriots probably expected New York to run more; that's usually the strategy to control the clock against a high-powered offense like New England's. For that reason, the Patriots played their "quarters" system, where players are responsible for quadrants of the field, and safety Rodney Harrison was frequently up on the line to support the run.
It worked. The Patriots allowed just 18 rushing yards in the first half -- 11 of which came on a Manning scramble. Of course, it also helped Manning throw two TD passes in the first half. The Patriots adjusted in the second half to focus more on stopping the pass.
Diggin' the deep ball: While the Patriots hit the play of the game on a 75-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter from Brady to Randy Moss (Video: Why the play worked), they really only took a couple of shots downfield. They were having a hard time because New England had reserves at right guard and right tackle in place of injured starters Stephen Neal and Nick Kaczur, both of whom had shoulder injuries. This time, with both starters back, the Patriots will be more comfortable thinking that Kaczur can block Michael Strahan without needing consistent help. That will allow tight end Ben Watson to potentially be more of a factor in the passing game. And on the fast track of University of Phoenix Stadium, look for New England to take more shots downfield.
Passing on the run game: In Week 17, New England ran the ball 26 times and passed 42 times. That was nothing new at the time, but the Patriots have been much more balanced in their two playoff games.
The only reason for, I would argue, has been the wind and cold they faced in January. I fully expect the Patriots to go back to a pass-happy attack in Super Bowl XLII. Not only will that benefit them on the scoreboard, but the Patriots would love to get an early lead and -- if the Giants are planning to run the ball and control the clock -- take them out of their game.
Putting on the blitz: Both teams brought a lot of blitzes and pressures the last time they played. Expect them to do it again -- but in different ways. Look for the Patriots to do more A-B blitzes, coming from the middle of the line. Look for the Giants to try more corner/slot blitzes, which is what the Eagles and Ravens did with some success against New England this season. Normally the Giants aren't afraid to try zone blitzes, but if they look at what New England did against Pittsburgh's zone blitz, they will pass on that idea.
Super X-factor: Giants rookie receiver Steve Smith was not a factor early in the Week 17 game -- really, he wasn't a factor all season long -- but he caught three passes late against the Patriots and seemed to be open all the time. He might be a factor in the Super Bowl, and New England will likely take notice. Smith caught just five passes in the first 16 weeks. Since then, he's caught 12 for 131 yards in four games.