The Patriots' loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII was due in large part to the Giants' ability to put pressure on Tom Brady. For that reason, much of the buildup this week has centered around the battle in the trenches.
However, the real X factor could do most of his damage in the second level of the New York defense.
Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez has been dynamic all season. And although his entire 245-pound frame hasn't quite garnered the attention that fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski's ankle has this week, the Florida product could prove to be the difference-maker on Sunday.
The most logical case for such is that Hernandez's responsibilities will be heightened if Gronkowski is unable to play as many snaps — or if Gronk is less than 100 percent physically, which is inevitable. But aside from more opportunities to leave his mark on the game, Hernandez will also prove to be a difficult matchup for the Giants' defense.
No matter how many comparisons can be made between now and four years ago when the G-Men upset the Pats at The Toaster in Super Bowl XLII, there is undoubtedly plenty of differences, especially when it comes to New England's offense.
Randy Moss was still in the fold back then, meaning the Pats looked to go over the top of the safeties early and often. That approach has since given way to one more focused on short and intermediate routes — an offense better equipped to cope with the vaunted New York pass rush. The Giants' primary focus remains putting pressure on Brady, meaning he'll need to get rid of the ball quickly. While that's still going to be a tough task, Brady's in much better position to do so now because of the nature of the weapons at his disposal — particularly Hernandez.
During that 2008 Super Bowl matchup, Brady had Benjamin Watson and Kyle Brady lining up at tight end. The current tight end duo is better in all facets of the game, and it could be problematic for the G-Men on Sunday. Hernandez, who often looks more like a slot receiver than a tight end because of his quickness and ability to run after the catch, could turn into a major safety valve for Brady as the quarterback faces the heat of Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Co.
Gronkowski put up the numbers this season, but in a game in which he could be relied upon as more of a physical force at the line of scrimmage, Hernandez's quickness and ability to stretch the field should be on display. If the New England's offensive line can hold off the pass rush just long enough, we could see a lot of balls thrown in Hernandez's direction on short routes. He holds the advantage when matched up with linebackers, and it shouldn't be too surprising if Hernandez puts up a hefty total in the YAC (yards after catch) column on Sunday.
The Pats could also look to establish the run early, which in turn could open up even more opportunities on the second level for Hernandez and Co. Former Patriots fullback Heath Evans noted on Wednesday that the initial game plan in 2008 was to run at New York's defensive ends and jam it down their throats, an approach that then-offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels quickly abandoned. Perhaps McDaniels is emphasizing a similar tactic in the New England locker room this week, one the Pats might not deviate from so early this time around.
If that's the case and the Patriots look to pound the ball off the edge, we could see a bit of creativity from Bill Belichick's group (think Hernandez out of the backfield). It's a formation that caught Denver off guard in the divisional round, and while it was as much effective for the element of surprise as it was for its actual difficulty in stopping, Hernandez lining up in the backfield in the midst of a run-heavy series could create all sorts of question marks for the Giants' defense.
"Honestly, I'll say the responsibility we've got all starts up front, and the game is going to be won out of the front four," Pierre-Paul said on Wednesday. "We've got to get to Tom Brady and put pressure on him and give our defensive secondary a little more [opportunity] to cover. The game is going to be won up front. That's all I can really say."
Pierre-Paul could be right. After all, that proved to be the case four years ago. But if New England wins that battle up front, like they're more than capable of doing, Hernandez could be on the receiving end of Brady's exploits.
Gronkowski's ankle is — and will be — the talk up until game time and throughout the contest, but expect the other half of the "Boston TE Party" to be the talk of the town when all is said and done.