There are two words that frustrate football fans most: prevent defence.
Almost as tough to swallow: prevent offence.
Admittedly, seeing your team lay back in the final minutes of a game attempting, seemingly just hoping, to protect a lead is as maddening as it gets. That old cliche about a prevent defence preventing only one thing — winning — remains as true as it is tired.
Thankfully, neither team in the Super Bowl adheres to that approach. They don’t allow the mindset that seems to creep into the headsets of coaches and offensive co-ordinators when they have a small lead in the final five minutes and need to pick up a few first downs to salt away victory. Don’t do anything foolish. Don’t gamble. Stay conservative.
“You have to be aggressive at those times,” Giants offensive co-ordinator Kevin Gilbride says of the four-minute offence. “You need to attack, not step back.
“If you have been running the ball well, that’s an advantage because you want to use up clock. But you play to your strengths.”
And the strengths of the Giants and Patriots include their attacking mindsets on offence.
“We always put ourselves in good positions and stay in rhythm,” Patriots tackle Matt Light said. “Just staying on track. Not trying to reinvent the wheel, not trying to do anything more than we had to. I think we just go out there and play with confidence and do the things that we do.”
No matter what point of the game it happens to be.
Too often, offences turn downright meek while trying to stay in front late in a close game. Keep the clock moving becomes the mantra when keeping the chains moving needs to be the approach.
In their wild-card matchup with Pittsburgh, the Broncos held a 14-point lead in the second half and were up by 10 early in the fourth quarter. They subsequently got downright timid with the ball, the Steelers rallied to tie it, and nearly got in position for a win at the end of regulation.
The game got to overtime, which lasted one play: an 80-yard passing play from Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas that was anything but conservative.
“I’d love to have a crystal ball and know what the defence is going to do every snap, but that’s the game,” Denver offensive co-ordinator Mike McCoy said. “With our style of offence that we’re running right now, we have to make a lot of adjustments, like the touchdown pass to Demaryius. We drew that up at halftime. It was one of those deals where we were waiting for the right opportunity to call it.”
What about avoiding getting into that situation by staying in front of the opponent?
“We’re doing whatever we think gives our team the best opportunity to win,” he said. “We’re going to put a game plan in each week, and my job is to call the plays that I think, or as a staff that we think is the best thing for our football team to win. We might have called a little more aggressively … as we thought the way the game was going. That’s going to change from week to week.
“How are you running the football? What is the defence doing against you? Are they trying to take certain things away?”
Some teams, particularly those with great quarterbacks such as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Eli Manning, stick with what they do best, even in the four-minute offence. And that’s throwing the ball.
Few coaches are as aggressive in such situations as New England’s Bill Belichick, Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy, New Orleans’ Sean Payton and New York’s Tom Coughlin. Their strategy — put the ball in the hands of your best player — usually works.
With the Giants and Patriots, it sometimes is a necessity because they don’t run the ball particularly well; New England ranked 20th in rushing, far better than the Giants, who were 32nd. As in dead last.
So protecting a late lead with the run becomes problematic.
But the Saints ranked sixth on the ground, making them even more unpredictable — and dangerous — in the four-minute offence.
“I think the running game just helps you offensively when you want to have that element that can control a game, that can control that time of possession, and that can control the clock,” Payton said.
Yet he will never hesitate to have Brees put it up to put a clamp on a win.
There’s the rub, though. Too many teams and too many coaches play not to lose.
“That’s not a mentality you can have, especially at the end (of a game),” Gilbride says. “You have players who you have confidence in and who got you into the lead. To not use them, not use your strengths, is foolish.”
Still, teams get foolish every week.
San Francisco went 13-3 during the regular season, including a spiffy 6-2 on the road, because of its ability to come from behind. In several games, especially at Philadelphia and Detroit. Just as key was protecting slim margins, such as in victories against Cincinnati, Washington, the Giants and Seattle.
In their only home loss, in Week 2 against Dallas, the Niners butchered a late lead. They seemed to learn from that debacle.
“It’s just a tribute to our players and their character and their preparation, being on details during the week so that when you’re in those clutch situations, you’re able to execute,” 49ers offensive co-ordinator Greg Roman said. “Really, it’s guys doing their job under pressure. That’s a reflection of being able to focus, knowing what you’re doing, and having the confidence that you’re going to get it done and the guy next to you is going to get it done. That’s something that just grows and grows.”
In the AFC championship game, leading by 23-20 in the late going, what did the Patriots do when they got the ball? They had Brady throw. It didn’t work — they failed to pick up the first down — but it was the correct tactic.
“You just go out there and try to play your game and try to move the ball and try to score,” said Wes Welker, the Patriots’s leading receiver. “You don’t back off.”
AP Sports Writers Janie McCauley in San Francisco and Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this story.