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.”

3. Hold On
When the Giants line up for a field goal or extra point, just know that the guy catching the snap is an oddball who takes the job very, very seriously. Steve Weatherford (No. 5) is primarily the Giants’ punter, but he also holds kicks. And in the NFC championship game against the San Francisco 49ers, Weatherford made a scoop that sent the Giants to the Super Bowl. When Lawrence Tynes set up for the game-winning 31-yard field goal in overtime, Weatherford rescued a low snap into the mud, got the ball down and let Tynes boot it through the goalposts. Weatherford then kind of lost his mind, as he sprinted downfield, tore off his helmet and screamed: “mother—-ing Super Bowl!” Nearly 57 million lip-readers watching the game easily deciphered Weatherford’s words. “I was so jacked up, I don’t even remember the half of it,” says Weatherford.

Weatherford considers himself a true athlete, not just a football specialist who uses his hands and his feet. Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck often spots Weatherford sculpting his upper body in the weight room and wonders why he puts in that work, since bigger pecs won’t put more hang time on his punts. “Do I need to be able to bench press 400 lb.?” Weatherford asks. “Absolutely not. But it’s pretty cool to say that I do, know what I mean? I enjoy lifting weights, I enjoy working out. It’s a hobby for me. Some of these guys like to bowl. I like to get big muscles.”

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When Weatherford and Tynes line up for a routine extra point, you can explain Weatherford’s training technique: in practice, while his teammates pound one another, you can find Weatherford on the sideline, catching footballs with just his left hand. Weatherford is righty, but figures if he can pull off the more challenging task of snaring the ball with just his weak hand, game conditions — where he can use not only his strong hand, but a second hand to catch it and place it on the ground — become much easier. Weatherford sees holding as a craft. After all, Tynes can’t score those three points, and cash his paycheck, if Weatherford doesn’t catch the snap. “It’s something where I control success of another man’s life,” Weatherford says of holding. Don’t you wish your co-workers were so caring?

4. Cruz Control
When it’s third down and the Giants have the ball, key in on New York wide receiver Victor Cruz, No. 80. The second-year player signed with the Giants in 2010 as an undrafted rookie and didn’t catch a single ball last season. But this year, he caught 82 passes, for a team record 1,536 yards. Against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game, Cruz shredded the Niner defense for 10 catches and 142 yards. “We knew he had talent,” says New York Giants wide-receiver coach Sean Ryan. “Did I expect that kind of production to come so early? No.”

The Giants love targeting Cruz on third down, especially when they are losing. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Cruz had 455 receiving yards, tops in the NFL, on third downs in situations where the Giants were trailing in the game. So at the party, ask the question — aloud — that former New England safety and NBC studio analyst Rodney Harrison will be asking: Will the Pats double-team Cruz on third downs? “If I were the defensive coordinator, you look at a third-down situation, who’s the No. 1 guy?” Harrison says. “It’s Victor Cruz. You want to take Victor Cruz away. I would say, stop the run, and force [Giants tight end] Jake Ballard, force [Giants wide receiver Mario] Manningham to make plays. You don’t want to leave [Patriots receiver and defensive back Julian] Edelman or any of those guys in one-on-one situations [against Cruz]. It wouldn’t be fair.”

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Edelman, No. 11, is a throwback who plays on both sides of the ball: he’s a wide receiver, punt returner and because of injuries to New England’s secondary, was forced to assist with pass coverage this season. Edelman often covers the receiver in the slot, the spot on the field between the offensive line and the wide receiver closest to the sideline. And if he’s matched up with Cruz one-on-one, the Giants feel they have a decided advantage over Edelman, who doesn’t have much experience on defense. “I hope he’s out there when we play them,” Manningham told the Boston Herald. When asked if he thought the Pats would double-team him, Cruz replied: “I hope not. But it would be natural, coming off the game where you did the positive things I did. You almost have to kind of expect it.”

5. The Big Man
It’s hard to miss big Vince Wilfork, the 6 ft.-2 in., 325-lb. defensive lineman for the Patriots (No. 75). Wilfork is the most dangerous defensive player on the Pats, whose defense has struggled this season: New England finished last in the NFL in pass defense and total yards allowed. Despite his size — Wilfork’s neck is wider than those of most nuclear families combined — he’s not just an immovable mass. “Vince is a very good athlete,” says Belichick. “He takes a lot of pride about not coming off the field, which I love in a defensive lineman.”

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Wilfork even has two interceptions this year; picks are rare for beefy lineman. Pats love sharing tales about Wilfork’s versatility. At Monday’s practice, Belichick said, Wilfork was running sprints up and down the field while the offense was working out. “There is a week to go in the season,” Belichick says, “and I think that’s indicative of his competitiveness.” Belichick recalled that during training camp in 2004, Wilfork’s rookie year, he made a bet with the team: if big Vince could catch a punt, Belichick would call off a night practice. The rook gave his teammates some rest. “I made a big mistake,” Belichick says. “He has soft hands, and you can’t hear the ball hit his hands.”

Harrison swears Wilfork throws a tighter spiral than Tom Brady does. “Vince is one of those guys that the good Lord put on this earth to play football,” says Pepper Johnson, New England’s defensive line coach and a two–Super Bowl winner as a player with the Giants. “It’s his being, mentally and physically.” Three years ago, Wilfork’s teammates and coaches ribbed him for skipping some upper-body exercises. Wilfork responded. “He pretty much threw up the whole weight room,” says Johnson. “We got the dumbbells out, and he kept going down the rack and they didn’t have any more weights for him.”

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Stopping Wilfork presents a serious challenge for the Giants offense. So how do you do it? “Besides eat food this week and get as heavy as you can?” asks Giants offensive lineman David Diehl. “You’re talking about a guy who can do everything.” You can call on two offensive lineman to block Wilfork, but Giants line coach Pat Flaherty anticipates that the Patriots will play “five down lineman” — meaning, the team will line up five defensive lineman, instead of the usual three or four, against the Giants five offensive lineman, in order to create one-on-one matchups. And expect Wilfork, who the Patriots often shift to different spots on the defensive line, to spend most of his time matched up against the man snapping the ball for the Giants, center David Baas (No. 64). Baas struggled in the championship game against the 49ers. So if you spot five Pats lined up at the line of scrimmage on defense, and see big No. 75 facing the center, explain this strategy, and ask whether Baas is up for the challenge.

Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Keeping Score, his sports column for TIME.com, usually appears on Friday. Follow him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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