|David Drapkin / Getty Images|
|If Osi Umenyiora (above) and Michael Strahan can pressure Tom Brady, the Giants' chances of winning increase.|
PHOENIX -- The New England Patriots are on the steps of the ultimate accomplishment in a team sport. But no matter what the outcome of Super Bowl XLII, the winner will be NFL fans who love the game and the drama it can present.
Do the Patriots go 19-0 and claim the right to be called the greatest team ever? Or do the Giants end the Patriots' quest for perfection with an upset that would rival the New York Jets' win over Baltimore in 1969?
The best decision Tom Coughlin made this year was to play the Week 17 matchup with the Patriots with his starters in for the entire game. Granted, his team lost 38-35, but it set the stage for this Super Bowl. Not only did the game create momentum for the Giants heading into the playoffs, but it was money in the bank for their Super Bowl preparation.
The Giants believe they can win this game. I have talked with enough players to believe there is a quiet confidence brewing among the New York players, who like their chances. Members of the Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles -- teams that came close to beating New England this season -- like the Giants' chances, too.
On the other hand, the Patriots look impossible to stop. They make most opponents feel like they have to play a perfect game to win. New England has a way of making opponents feel like they've failed if they have a 10-play drive that results in a field goal instead of a touchdown, and it emphasizes how much pressure there is on opposing teams to score on every possession. The three interceptions thrown by Tom Brady in the AFC title game against the Chargers actually made the Patriots look human.
So which team comes into the game with more pressure on their shoulders?
No team that I can recall has handled the mounting pressure of a perfect season better than the Patriots. They act like they're on a business trip and they're ready to close the deal. New England has so many ways to beat a team, and the weather conditions in Phoenix are perfect for a high-powered offense. The Patriots have cooled off a bit in recent weeks, but they sure look ready for the final challenge.
Here's a scouting report on the two teams and their matchup in Super Bowl XLII:
Things to remember from Week 17 matchup
» RG Stephen Neal and RT Nick Kaczur were injured and did not play for the Patriots.
» RB Ahmad Bradshaw and CB Kevin Dockery were injured and did not play for the Giants.
» The Giants scored more points (35) on the Patriots than any other team in 2007.
» The Giants led the Patriots for 42 minutes and 56 seconds, the longest of any team in 2007.
» The Patriots scored 22 consecutive points to go from 12 down to up by 10 in the fourth quarter.
» Eli Manning threw four touchdown passes, the most by any QB opposing the Patriots this season.
» New England averaged just 1.7 yards on 26 rushing attempts.
» The Giants had a 74-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
1. Patriots WR Wes Welker vs. Giants CB Aaron Ross: Ross is a rookie with a shoulder injury, and he's up against a guy with 112 regular-season receptions and 16 more in two post-season games. Welker has option-route principles and will react to the Ross alignment and coverage with a route away from the Giants corner. Ross told me he will play his techniques and not try to make an unsound play. Welker had 11 receptions against the Giants in Week 17 but didn't score a touchdown. The Giants need to help Ross in certain situations. Maybe even one of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's zone dogs -- when end Michael Strahan drops into coverage -- could get Brady to throw a bad pass.
2. Patriots RT Nick Kaczur vs. Giants DE Michael Strahan: Kaczur, who didn't play in the first game between these teams, is up against a future Hall of Famer who might be playing in his final NFL game. The Giants averaged 10 plays a game this season that affected the opposing quarterback (sacks, hits and hurries). Kaczur will have his hands full and might occasionally need some help.
3. Patriots RBs Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk vs. Giants LB Antonio Pierce: Pierce has two different problems based on which running back is on the field. Maroney is going to get 20-25 rushing attempts, and he is very explosive in the open field. Pierce did a fine job against the Patriots in Week 17, and stopping the run is his strength. Faulk is very tough to handle out of the backfield, and the Patriots will try to work Faulk against Pierce. Faulk, who had eight receptions in the first Giants game, is almost impossible to cover on third downs with 4-6 yards to go.
4. Patriots CB Ellis Hobbs vs. Giants WR Plaxico Burress: Hobbs will be the corner the Giants want to go after. Pay close attention when the Giants put rookie TE Kevin Boss on the left side with Burress and two backs in the backfield. Rodney Harrison will line up on that side with Hobbs and drop down in the box to support the run, especially on first downs when the play-action pass leaves Hobbs by himself on Burress. Burress should win the battle, but the Giants have to set it up just right. Colts coach Tony Dungy told me he expects the Patriots to roll coverage to Burress when he lines up opposite Hobbs, allowing Asante Samuel to handle Amani Toomer one-on-one.
5. Patriots SS Rodney Harrison vs. Giants TE Kevin Boss: Harrison can get caught in Cover 2 off at 16 yards and Eli Manning will drop a quick seam to Boss in front of the Patriots safety. Look for Harrison to blow up Boss and try to intimidate the rookie. When Harrison is close to the line of scrimmage, Boss might try to go by him. The tight end has gained a lot of confidence in the past few weeks since replacing the injured Jeremy Shockey, and Manning will not be afraid to work this matchup.
When the Patriots have the ball
What's happened to WR Randy Moss? His last touchdown was the record-breaking score against the Giants in Week 17. In that game, Moss grabbed six passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns. Since then, he has just two receptions for 32 yards and no touchdowns, but his team keeps on winning. Is it possible Moss is as dangerous as a decoy as he is catching the ball? The margin of victory in the first Giants-Patriots game was three points, so Moss' 12 points were a big factor. Spagnuolo will consider what the Chargers and Jaguars did when they doubled Moss and at least reduced the Patriots' scoring.
New England has so many weapons on offense with its receivers and a re-energized running game that it becomes imperative for the Giants to get to Brady. The Giants got eight hits, one sack and about three hurries the last time. Obviously, that wasn't enough as Brady still figured how to put 38 points on the board. Look for New York to attack the launch point right behind the center in an attempt to flush Brady out of the pocket.
When the Patriots have the ball
The Giants are on an offensive roll in their last four games. The close loss to the Patriots in the regular-season finale and the three road playoff wins have galvanized this offense. I spoke with longtime NFL offensive line coach Jim McNally, whose Buffalo Bills played the Patriots defense many times, about a plan for the Giants. He started the discussion by pointing out that the Patriots' outside linebackers, Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas, really want to turn the Giants' running game back inside to NT Vince Wilfork. New York has to find a way to secure the edge when it wants to run Brandon Jacobs and let him bounce outside away from Harrison.
Look for 260-pound fullback Madison Hedgecock to try to secure the edge and let Jacobs run against the cornerbacks. Jacobs, who ran over Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson last week, needs to get a few shots on Samuel and Hobbs.
If New York can work the ball down the field and into the red zone primarily with the running game, then the pass opportunities open up for Manning, who threw four red-zone touchdown passes against the Patriots in Week 17. Burress is a matchup problem for New England down inside the 20-yard line. Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride might also want to throw the ball at times because the Patriots' pressure package hasn't been great in recent weeks.
The 3-4 defense is predicated on the outside linebackers creating lots of pass-rush pressure. Take a look these numbers in recent weeks (see chart) against the Giants, Jaguars and Chargers from Vrabel, Thomas and the rest of the Patriots defense. Keep in mind that Manning, David Garrard and Philip Rivers combined for 102 pass attempts in this breakdown. The Patriots generated three sacks (one every 34 pass attempts) and 14 QB hits (one every seven pass attempts). The sacks need to be better but the QB hits means that Manning will get rushed in his decision-making. Ty Warren doesn't get enough credit for the problems he creates, and he will challenge Kareem McKenzie and Chris Snee depending upon the call.
The bottom line
The more I study the coaches tapes, the more I see ways the Giants could win this game. They can get to Brady enough to keep him out of his comfort zone. The Giants' pass rush will not worry about containing Brady, and it is fast enough to chase him down if he is flushed out of the pocket. The Patriots point totals have dropped off in the two playoff games as teams overplayed Moss. Look for the Giants to use some of the things the Jaguars and Chargers used to get the Patriots' point production closer to 28-30 rather than 36-40.
The Patriots' other weapons will come to life if Moss is overplayed. While Moss only had two receptions for 32 yards in the playoffs, Maroney touched the ball 50 times for 295 yards and two touchdowns. Welker, Watson and Donte Stallworth combined for 24 receptions, 209 yards and four touchdowns.
In their last three games, the Patriots have scored points on 15 of 31 drives, and they have only punted seven times. Brady has thrown four interceptions in the past three games but the opposing teams have only generated six points (two field goals) off those turnovers. The Patriots defense rises up when adversity strikes, and it might have to do it again.
My heart wants to take the underdog in this game, but my football brain says the Patriots will get the job done. It should be a great back-and-forth game with lots of scoring, and it will be well into the second half before the Patriots gain control of the outcome.