Keeping Score

5 Ways to Seem Smart About the Super Bowl

Don't care much about the Giants-Patriots matchup? You're not alone. But here's how to play expert at your party

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Rob Carr / Getty Images

Tom Brady (No. 12) of the New England Patriots hikes the ball against the Baltimore Ravens during their AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 22, 2012, in Foxborough, Mass.

Football, with good reason, is often described as a chess match. A lot more time is spent thinking and strategizing than actually running plays, and one crafty move can set off a series of countermoves that changes the course of the game. But you don’t have to be some kind of Grand Master to understand — or at least pretend to understand — the sport.

So even if you’re indifferent to the whole NFL spectacle, you don’t have to be a wallflower at your Super Bowl party because everyone else is enraptured by the game between the New England Patriots and New York Giants. Sure, you could make some obvious points — Giants quarterback Eli Manning’s amazing playoff performance so far, for instance, or Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s evil genius — but you won’t be the first to do so at your party.

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No, to look really in the know, just watch out for a few key but subtle developments on the television screen, and pontificate about the football secrets you’re unveiling. You’ll fool your audience into believing you’re some kind of pigskin professional and leave the party with a satisfied smile — no matter how bad the food is.

Here are five ways to seem smart about the Super Bowl:

1. Brady’s Barking
On the television broadcasts of NFL games, the microphones usually pick up the coded commands that quarterbacks bark at the line of scrimmage, before the ball is snapped. You know, stuff like “Blue 52, Red 48, Omaha, Omaha, hut, hut, hike!” Listen closely to Tom Brady, says Ross Tucker, a former NFL offensive lineman, and current analyst for Sirius XM radio. What he’s saying isn’t just gibberish.

Tucker says that when Brady yells “reload,” that’s a cue for the offense to change formations. He’ll follow up that command by calling out the number of a defensive player, and labeling that person the “mike,” a code word typically used for middle linebacker, a player on defense who either rushes the quarterback or drops back into pass coverage. So against the Giants, for example, Brady may scream, “Reload! 59 is the mike,” referring to Michael Boley, a linebacker who lines up on the outside. The mike’s actual spot on the field is irrelevant: Brady is telling his teammates to pay more attention to that player, and adjust the blocking plan accordingly.

Sounds easy, right? Well Belichick isn’t stupid, and he’s not about to let some layman eating Lays crack the Patriots code. But just know that when you hear reload and mike, the Pats are thinking on the fly. And when you share this observation with the fantasy-football snob sitting next to you, he’ll have to give you credit for doing the same.

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2. Double Tight-End Trouble
On offense, teams usually employ a single tight end — the player positioned at the edge of the offensive line. He’s called upon to block on a running or passing play, or run a route downfield to get open for a pass. New England, however, has often employed two tight ends in their formations this year, with great success.

The Patriots drafted Rob Gronkowski — No. 87 on your television screen — and Aaron Hernandez, No. 81, in the second and fourth rounds, respectively, of the 2010 draft. At the time, Belichick just saw them as a couple of solid players who could complement his team, not a double threat who have propelled the Pats to the Super Bowl. “That’s something that developed once we got here,” says Belichick of the tandem. “It’s not something we saw in advance.”

Two tight ends give defenses fits. “The matchups make it difficult,” says New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. “Even though they are called tight ends, they have wide-receiver skill sets, but they can block.” The problem, Fewell says, is that these talented tight ends keep defenses guessing. Is Gronkowski going to block on this possession or try to catch a ball? Is Hernandez going out for a pass, or even going to receive a handoff? Against the Denver Broncos in the divisional playoff round, for example, the Pats put Hernandez in the backfield, and he rushed five times for 61 yards. The guesswork takes its toll. Any athlete will tell you: on the field, you don’t want to think too much.

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Of the two tight ends, Gronkowski is the more physical player. He’s a 6 ft.-6 in., 265-lb. specimen who will barrel right over you. Hernandez, at 6 ft. 1 in., 245 lb., is quicker, more elusive: New England’s tight-end coach, Brian Ferentz, and several teammates referred to Hernandez as “shifty.” Go right ahead, point at Hernandez on the TV and say “that guy is shifty.” When someone asks you what that word means, you’ll have another opportunity to expound.

“Aaron is special with the ball in his hands,” says Patriots special-teams captain Matthew Slater. “He has a great feel for his body in space, the way he makes people miss. It’s unbelievable that we’ve got him and Rob together.”

One of the most pressing questions of Super Bowl week, however, is whether they’ll be able to pair up on Sunday. In the AFC championship game, Gronkowski suffered a high left-ankle sprain, and he arrived in Indianapolis wearing a boot. Belichick labels him “day-to-day.” Translation: We’re going to make the Giants do more work, and prepare for the Pats both with and without Gronkowski.

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On Thursday, Gronkowski practiced, on a limited basis, for the first time all week. “I really do think he’ll play,” says Giants coach Tom Coughlin. If Gronkowski takes the field, Tucker recommends you examine his movements when he cuts to the left and to the right. A player can run full speed downfield and block with a bad ankle. But when you’ve got to change directions, and push off sore bones, you’re more at the mercy of the injury. If you see Gronkowski slowing down, or his rhythm disrupted when he turns, you might spot the effects of the injury before the announcers do. And if he’s zigging and zagging with ease, you can announce to the party crowd: “Gronk is good.”

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