Super Bowl XLII is not an event that brings to mind especially fond memories for New England Patriots fans or players. We all know the story. The team came into the game at 18-0, needing just a win over the New York Giants, a team that they had beaten on the road at the end of the regular season, to complete the greatest season in NFL history. What followed was one of the most baffling performances in franchise history. The Patriots scarcely resembled the team that had so dominated the league that season, dropping a heartbreaking 17-14 decision in the Arizona desert, rendering their perfect regular season almost entirely meaningless.
There was a lot of blame to go around for the loss that night, Tom Brady wasn't the dominant player he'd been all season, Randy Moss was increasingly less effective with each round of the playoffs, and the teams defense, so terrific all year, couldn't come up with the stops necessary to secure the game in the fourth quarter. What stood out the most though, was the lack of production from the offensive line.
Coming into the game, everyone knew that the Giants possessed one of the more fearsome pass rushes in the NFL. Faced with such talented players as Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyora, Justin Tuck, and former Boston College Eagles standout Mathias Kiwanuka, the Patriots offensive line was expected to be on high alert. They had done such a terrific job of protecting Brady and allowing him the time to survey the field and find his stable of talented receivers that helped to re-write the record books that year.
On this day though, the offensive line was a train wreck. Led by Matt Light, the group was completely unable to prevent the fearsome pass rushers of the Giants from harassing Brady and forcing him to throw the ball before he was ready, or forcing him to eat it. Brady was sacked five times in the game, hit a dozen times, and forced into fumbling the football, all single game season highs. Light certainly wasn't alone in his struggles in Glendale, as the entire left side of the offensive line had a poor day including center Dan Koppen and guard Logan Mankins.
As Super Bowl XLVI approaches, a chance for redemption looms for Light and Mankins (Koppen is still with the team but currently on IR after breaking his ankle all the way back in Week 1). When they line up on the field in Indianapolis they'll see several of the same faces that so tormented them on that terrible night back in 2007. Michael Strahan has retired, but Umenyora, Tuck, and Kiwanuka remain on the roster and have continued to terrorize quarterbacks and offensive linemen. In fact, the defensive line and pass rush might actually be better with the addition of players like Jason Pierre-Paul and Chris Canty.
The Giants were tied for third in the NFL in sacks with 48 after leading the league in 2007, and Pierre-Paul was fourth in individual sacks with 16.5 and second in tackles for loss with 25. To put it simply, the Giants defense is just as ferocious as it was the last time these two met in the big game and will cause just as many problems for the offensive line.
For Light in particular, this game means a great deal. He's been the left tackle on this team seemingly forever and is on the downside of his career. The team used its first round pick in the last draft (much to the chagrin of many) to draft his eventual replacement in Nate Solder which means the end may be near for Light (whether he's ready for it or not). At 33, this may be his final opportunity to win a Super Bowl and to erase some of the blame that he received for the teams failure the last time around.
The thing that probably makes people nervous though, is that instead of the consistent steady force that Light was in his 20's, he's much more up and down these days, particularly against elite pass rushers. For example, during the teams meeting with the Dallas Cowboys this season, DeMarcus Ware sacked Brady twice, beating Light both times on his way to the backfield. On the other side of the coin, in the earlier meeting with the Giants this season, Light largely kept Umenyora and Pierre-Paul in check, surrendering no sacks from his position (Pierre-Paul picked up a sack working against Solder) and only being beaten once for a tackle for loss.
If the Matt Light who played so poorly against the Cowboys is the one who shows up on February 5th, Patriots fans could end up having flashbacks, on the other hand, if the Light who performed so adequately against the Giants in the earlier meeting shows up, Brady should be able to get the time he needs to help exploit the average secondary of the Giants.
So much went wrong in the Super Bowl in 2007, but a great deal of those problems can be traced back to the struggles of the offensive line. With the veteran leaders of that offensive line still manning their posts, they'll get an opportunity to get a just a little bit of payback for one of the darkest nights in their collective careers.