In the past five seasons, New England and the New York Giants have provided two of the more suspenseful matchups in Super Bowl history.
Want to see Round Three next year?
While unappealing to fans of the NFL’s 30 other franchises, the thought isn’t far-fetched. Both teams have elite quarterbacks — Eli Manning (Giants) and Tom Brady (Patriots) — and enough supporting talent to rank among the favorites for a return trip.
But before making early dinner reservations in New Orleans, the Giants and Patriots have plenty of work ahead in laying the foundation for a spot in Super Bowl XLVII. Here are the top five issues New York and New England must address this offseason:
New York Giants
1. How to handle a class of 20 potential unrestricted free agents
Fortunately for the Giants, there is no player who would break the bank to keep. There also are youngsters waiting in the wings to replace such possible departures as right tackle Kareem McKenzie (Will Beatty) and cornerback Aaron Ross (Prince Amukamara).
The Giants, though, face potentially tough decisions on wide receiver Mario Manningham, punter Steve Weatherford and defensive end Dave Tollefson. Manningham’s stock should be on the rise after his Super Bowl XLVI heroics. He also might be enticed by the chance to start elsewhere, with Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz manning the first-string spots for the Giants.
Although he didn’t do anything as spectacular as Manningham’s 38-yard sideline grab, Weatherford played a huge role Sunday. Weatherford became the first punter in Super Bowl history to nail three punts inside an opponent’s 10-yard line. He would have added a fourth were it not for a Giants coverage error.
Tollefson is a high-energy pass rusher whose value to the Giants could rise depending upon what happens with fellow end Osi Umenyiora.
Speaking of which . . .
2. Pay Osi, trade Osi or do neither?
Umenyiora’s contract situation and contentious relationship with general manager Jerry Reese produced many of the dark clouds that hung over Giants training camp. Umenyiora claims that Reese promised him a new deal that hasn’t materialized.
Umenyiora and the Giants ultimately came to a truce, but that peace probably won’t last long in the offseason. If the Giants don’t want to raise the $4 million salary he’s set to earn in 2012, Umenyiora may become an attractive trade option for a team looking to add a player who has averaged nearly 10 sacks over the past seven seasons. The worst-case scenario for the 30-year-old Umenyiora: Having to play out the final year of his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent.
3. Wither Brandon Jacobs?
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Jacobs, whose $4.9 million salary for 2012 is too lofty for a backup platooning with Ahmad Bradshaw. Because of the inherent abuse that comes with being a big-bodied rusher, the 29-year-old Jacobs has suffered plenty of wear and tear during his seven seasons with New York. Jacobs, though, is a colorful part of the team’s fabric and could return if the Giants offer a restructured contract.
4. Re-signing offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride
New York’s hottest free agent isn’t a player but a coach. Gilbride has done a marvelous job in his eight seasons working with Manning. Gilbride’s contract also has expired, allowing him to field offers elsewhere. The Giants probably won’t let Gilbride leave, but they also need to make sure he receives a significant raise after he devised the game plans that have helped New York win two Super Bowls in the past four years.
5. Handling success
The Giants did a good job of this after they won Super Bowl XLII. New York started the 2008 season 11-1 before the Plaxico Burress gun incident took the air out of the team’s sails. The leadership of Manning and head coach Tom Coughlin should ensure nobody’s head gets too big during what will be an entire offseason of back-patting from Giants fans.
New England Patriots
1. Upgrading the defense
Until the Giants scored in the final minute of Super Bowl XLVI, New England head coach Bill Belichick had effectively used smoke, mirrors and two-way players to disguise the deficiencies in his secondary. But the lack of sound man-cover cornerbacks forced Belichick to use soft zones designed to prevent the deep pass. The strategy worked in New England’s 10-game winning streak, but it also limited Belichick’s options when it came to deploying different defensive looks and blitzes. Obtaining at least one quality press-coverage cornerback should be atop Belichick’s to-do list.
The Patriots also have failed to develop a young pass rusher despite having ample draft picks to address the role in recent seasons. Andre Carter, who had 11 sacks before he landed on injured reserve because of a leg injury, will be 33 next season and is a pending unrestricted free agent. So is fellow end Mark Anderson (10 sacks).
2. Making tough choices at wide receiver
Wes Welker and Deion Branch are both set to hit the free-agent market. Branch may be cheaper to keep, but Welker is the main cog in New England’s passing offense with a staggering 554 catches the past five seasons.
Even if they find a way to keep two of Brady’s favorite targets, the Patriots should still strongly considering adding a taller deep threat. The Patriots have never replaced that big-play element of their offense since they traded Randy Moss to Minnesota during the 2010 season. Chad Ochocinco, who couldn’t catch a cold this season in New England, likely will get cut before collecting on his scheduled $3.1 million salary for 2012.
3. Dealing with other UFAs
Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, wide receiver/special-teams ace Matthew Slater, free safety James Ihedigbo, and centers Dan Connolly and Dan Koppen top the remaining list of players who could be headed elsewhere as unrestricted free agents. New England also must decide whether to keep 33-year-old left tackle Matt Light at a salary of $3.5 million or look at replacing him with one of two promising youngsters, Sebastian Vollmer or Nate Solder.
4. The Yoko factor
Brady’s wife, Gisele Bundchen, did her husband no favor when she got caught on camera ripping New England’s wide receivers after several key drops in the Super Bowl loss. Those types of statements can hurt the locker room chemistry that has proven a Patriots’ strength.
Brady also must renew his working relationship with Josh McDaniels, who is back as offensive coordinator after Bill O’Brien left to become Penn State’s head coach. The Patriots should hope McDaniels has some new offensive wrinkles to add after he spent the past three seasons in Denver and St. Louis.
5. Rebounding mentally and emotionally from a Super Bowl defeat
This might be the toughest task ahead. Judging by the beaten expressions on the faces of Belichick and Brady following the game, losing to the Giants on Sunday night hurt no less than when the 2007 Patriots fell just short of a perfect season in Super Bowl XLII.
Welker will carry the baggage of his crucial fourth-quarter drop of a pass that should have been thrown better by Brady. Besides the Bundchen fallout, Brady must cope with having made a horrendous decision on an early fourth-quarter interception and his intentional grounding penalty that gave New York a safety on New England’s first offensive snap.
Strong safety Patrick Chung shouldn’t sleep well, either. By cheating inside rather than following his coverage assignment, Chung opened the door for Manning to complete the Super Bowl’s biggest pass to Manningham on the game-winning drive. Belichick, too, must assess whether there is anything the Patriots should be doing differently after he has failed to get one of the NFL’s most successful teams over the final hump for seven straight seasons.