FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Eli Manning could have a pretty clear view downfield against the hardly super secondary of the New England Patriots.
Get ready, Julian Edelman. Here comes Victor Cruz.
A young group including undrafted free agents, a Pro Bowl player in a sophomore slump and even a wide receiver was good enough to help beat Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens — barely — in the AFC championship game.
The New York Giants and Manning, with his big-game experience and receivers Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, pose a tougher challenge in the Super Bowl on Feb. 5.
“The Giants are playing like they’re the best team in the National Football League at this point,” former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said Wednesday, “and Eli, he’s been fantastic and he will pick this secondary apart.”
James Ihedigbo isn’t listening to the doubters.
After three years as a special teams player for the New York Jets, he’s started the last 14 games at safety for the Patriots — with no interceptions all season. He is, Harrison said, a “serviceable” player but hard-working and team-oriented.
“We have a saying, ‘All we got is us,’ and that’s how we play,” Ihedigbo said. “We play for each other.”
Since the season began, 16 different defensive backs have played. The changes began in training camp when the Patriots released starting safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders.
Cutting Sanders, a smart leader, was “a big mistake” by coach Bill Belichick, Harrison said.
The Patriots allowed 70 completions of 20 yards or more, nearly 4 1-2 a game. But Belichick saw improvement after the midpoint of the season.
“I don’t think that necessarily the work ethic or the desire or the competitiveness to do it has changed a lot, but the results started to improve because of a little more continuity, a little better execution, better technique, more confidence,” he said. “It’s a group of guys and coaches that have worked hard and tried to get better on a daily basis and I think they have over the course of the season, more so in the last five or six weeks. ”
The starters are Ihedigbo and cornerback Kyle Arrington, both undrafted, second-year cornerback Devin McCourty, and safety Patrick Chung, who missed seven games with a foot injury before returning for the next to last game of the regular season.
The backups are Edelman, Sterling Moore, Antwaun Molden, Nate Jones and Malcolm Williams. Edelman is the only one of those five who were with the Patriots last season, and that was as a wide receiver and punt returner.
The last time he played defensive back?
“I think 1998,” he said. “Pop Warner. I was 12.”
Edelman had finished his junior season as a quarterback in 2007 at Kent State when the Patriots and Giants last met in the Super Bowl, where Manning was named MVP. David Tyree’s unforgettable catch, trapping the ball against his helmet while closely guarded by Harrison, set up the winning touchdown in New York’s 17-14 win.
That was the last game for Harrison, now an analyst for NBC who spoke on a conference call.
“One point in time I said that I felt like this was the worst secondary that the Patriots had the last decade and I felt strongly about that,” he said. “I’m not 100 percent sold on any of these guys.’
There were missed tackles, poor communication and lack of physical play, he said. The Patriots allowed 293.9 yards passing, second most during the regular season.
Since their playoffs began with a 45-10 win over Denver, Harrison has seen the defensive backs competing harder and playing better. But their performances declined in the 23-20 victory over the Ravens, he said.
“I was very disappointed because, yes, they made some plays,” Harrison said. “Sterling Moore, obviously, made a couple of key plays, but Patrick Chung and that secondary, you saw some miscommunications and it’s his job to get everyone lined up and the other guys to do their job. And Flacco had a couple of opportunities down the field, which he didn’t convert on that could have been a totally different game.”
Moore, a rookie who had been cut earlier in the season, swiped the ball out of Lee Evans’ hands in the end zone with 22 seconds left.
“That play, that’s our season,” Ihedigbo said. “That’s everything that we worked for right there and he knocks that ball out of the receiver’s hands.”
Moore followed that by breaking up a pass to Dennis Pitta at the 3-yard line with 15 seconds remaining. Then Billy Cundiff hooked a 32-yard field goal attempt.
“I can’t say enough (about Moore),” Ihedigbo said. “He played phenomenal down there at the end.”
But Moore was the culprit on a 29-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith with 3:38 left in the third quarter as the Ravens took a 17-16 lead. Flacco threw to Smith in the right flat and immediately spun past Moore, attempting to make the tackle.
And Edelman, a physical player working hard to learn a new position, did a poor job on slot receiver Anquan Boldin for gains of 29 and 9 yards on Baltimore’s final drive.
“Afterward, you know, you’re like, ‘Wow, you definitely had to guard Boldin,’ ” he said, “but not during the game.”
In the Super Bowl, he may guard Cruz.
Bad idea, Harrison said.
“I just don’t think that’s a smart matchup,” he said. “They tried it with Anquan Boldin and Edelman struggled.”
But the Patriots still won. And despite their shortcomings, they’re taking a 10-game winning streak into the Super Bowl
So much for the critics, who may give the secondary added motivation.
“You’ve got to prove that you’re able to play this game at a high level,” Ihedigbo said. “You play with a chip on your shoulder and guys have been able to do that.”