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The Ram Factor: Steve Spagnuolo, Josh McDaniels and Super Bowl XLVI



St. Louisans don't generally give a whole lot of thought to the Super Bowl. Oh, sure, we'll all watch it — as upstanding St. Louisans we'll jump at pretty much any opportunity to stuff our faces and TiVo big-budget commercials, but as far as the game itself goes, we just don't much care.

Can you blame us? We have the Rams. Owners of the first or second overall draft pick three of the last four years. Non-entity in January year after year. You know, the Rams.

This year, though, is kind of different. There's a very interesting sideshow going on in this particular Super Bowl, and it has Rams connections in the starring roles.

The Big Rematch
The ink was barely dry on the conference-champ T-shirts and already Super Bowl XLVI is being billed as the Rematch of the Century, a chance for the New England Patriots to exact revenge against the team that deprived them of a perfect 2007 season.

When the New York Giants took a mighty dump on the Patriots' 19-0 dreams, the defensive coordinator of that New York team was...Steve Spagnuolo. He was the architect of a fearsome pass-rushing attack that allowed the Giants strangle the Patriots' record-setting offense. The Giants' 17-14 win immediately shot Spagnuolo's name to the top of the list of up-and-coming head-coaching candidates, and following another successful season in New York, the Rams signed him to a four-year deal, reportedly worth nearly $12 million. And the rest, as they say, is history. Or Spagnuolo is, anyway, having been fired after only three seasons.

Meanwhile, on the opposite sideline, New England's offensive coordinator was...Josh McDaniels. Over the course of the sixteen-game regular season, McDaniels' squad had been nigh unstoppable, as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady set a new NFL passing mark for touchdowns. On the strength of that attack, the Denver Broncos wooed McDaniels' west, hiring him as head coach a week before the Rams hired Spagnuolo. McDaniels lasted only a season and a half in the Rocky Mountains, but Spagnuolo and company brought him onboard to lead the Rams' offense in 2011. We all know how that turned out.

But after St. Louis axed Spagnuolo, New England snagged McDaniels just in time for the Patriots' first postseason game (which happened to be against the Broncos) and signed him to replace current offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, who will take over the reins at Penn State.

New York might not have Spags any more (he just filled the defensive-coordinator vacancy in New Orleans), but his fingerprints remain all through the Giants' defensive playbook. The defensive line he was so instrumental in building remains intact, with the exception of the retired Michael Strahan, who has been replaced by Jason Pierre-Paul, a 16.5-sack monster in the regular season. It has been the front four of Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora, Chris Canty and Justin Tuck, running virtually the same stunts and blitzes Steve Spagnuolo engineered, that was instrumental (along with some very timely quarterbacking) in the Giants' late-season resurgence.

A Tale of Two QBs
It just might be Tom Brady's lot in life: Every time he reaches an important crossroads, he looks up and there's a Manning staring at him. The paths to his greatest accomplishments have nearly all led through Peyton Manning, while his Waterloo came at the hands of Eli — who now stands between Brady and his fourth career Super Bowl triumph. (Well, Eli and that defensive front four.)

Brady had yet another incandescently brilliant season in 2011. He may never again approach the heights of '07, but this season he came closer than anyone had a right to expect. For years detractors have called Brady a system quarterback, and it may be true — in which case he's the best system quarterback ever to play the game. Poise. Accuracy. Quick release. Tom Brady possesses the perfect elements required to run the Patriots' offense, and the experience to know how best to utilize it. Baltimore was able to hassle Brady enough, and knock his receivers around enough, to limit the New England passing game. But in the end Brady did what he nearly always does: enough to win.

Eli Manning's ascent to the ranks of the NFL's quarterbacking elite has been somewhat more turbulent. Manning arrived with the draft pedigree Brady lacked — he was the first overall pick in 2004, while Brady had sat by the phone in 2000 while 198 players were drafted ahead of him — but he could not outshine his easygoing and smooth-throwing big brother, Peyton, the first overall pick in 1998. His mistake-prone early years led to one sentiment above all others: "Eli Manning? He's not bad. Hell of an arm. But he sure ain't his brother."

In retrospect it should come as no surprise that it took a year without Peyton for Eli to properly step out of his brother's shadow. While the Indianapolis Colts were sinking like a concrete canoe, Eli was captaining his ship through rough waters, keeping the wobbly Giants in contention all season long.

Manning hasn't quite shed his gunslinger tendencies; you can pretty much count on him to force a throw once or twice a game. But he no longer heaves the ball downfield under pressure, having learned to move in the pocket, buy time and, if no opportunity presents itself, throw the ball away or make for the line of scrimmage. He has always had the talent; cutting down on his mistakes has taken Eli's game to a higher level.

Still, if you have to choose between the two quarterbacks, you'd have to go with Brady. Manning got the upper hand four years ago, but Brady has punched his ticket to Canton and shows no sign of hanging up his jockstrap anytime soon. The distance between the two has narrowed, but Brady unquestionably remains at the top of the heap in the NFL.

Brass Tacks
Offense The Patriots have the edge on offense by a fair margin. Rod Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are elite players, and New England has more than enough talent around them to force defenses into uncomfortable, and often untenable, situations.The Giants have a remarkable combination in Eli Manning and Victor Cruz, but the offense as a whole simply doesn't boast the kind of weapons as New England. Advantage: New England

Defense The Giants have the advantage on defense, and it might be the biggest plus of all. Their front four may well be the most explosive unit in the league, and the constant pressure they put on opposing quarterbacks is the engine that drives their defense. It has been suggested that in this modern, pass-happy NFL, quarterback pressure is the single most important aspect of a team's performance — that sacks correlate more meaningfully with success than any other indicator. If that's the case, then the Giants are an elite team, regardless of their other shortcomings.

New England's defense in 2011 was putrid. Dead last in beaucoup statistical categories, and 31st (out of 32 teams) overall. The Albert "Haywire" Haynesworth Experiment turned out to be a disaster, and the Patriots struggled all season long to prevent teams from throwing the ball on them at will, surrendering 294 yards per game in the air. Only the Green Bay Packers had less success defending against the pass. If you're tempted to believe the Pats can turn it up when the stakes are high, consider that they allowed Joe Flacco and the Ravens — not exactly the Greatest Show on Turf — 282 yards passing and another hundred on the ground. Advantage: New York

Special Teams The Giants' return game is better on kickoffs, weaker on punts. The Patriots were better in coverage on both punts and kickoffs. Bottom line, both teams are serviceable here and maybe better than that. There's no true game breaker here, though, no Patrick Peterson to blast out of either team's tunnel on Super Bowl Sunday. Special teams could play a role, of course, and potentially a huge one. But predicting which team is more likely to bust a big play is a fool's errand. Advantage: Push

Coaching Here's where the New England rubber meets the New York road. Sure, Tom Coughlin beat Bill Belichick four years ago, but Belichick isn't voted Most Likely to Add Darth to His Name year in and year out for no reason. Remember Steve Spagnuolo? Remember Josh McDaniel? Hell, maybe that's not a factor. But can it hurt to have a guy on your sideline who just spent a full season standing next to the guy who designed your opponents' defense? Advantage: New England

Putting aside the incalculable probability of glaring errors, Super Bowl XLVI will come down to the Giants' pressure defense versus the Patriots' nimble aerial attack. New England moves the ball at will and makes sure its QB stays on his feet; New York is as good as any team in the league at putting the opposing quarterback on his back.

These are two flawed teams. Each has holes that can be exploited. Each possesses elite talent that can execute at the highest level. Whichever team's strongest suit is the strongest will come out on top. Say hello to Darth Belichick. Prediction: Patriots 24, Giants 21

Aaron Schafer writes about sports for Daily RFT

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