Brady, Pats must avoid regular-season mistakes vs. Giants

The New England Patriots are no strangers to the Super Bowl. Or are they? Only five starters, a backup running back and a kicker remain from the team that lost Super Bowl XLII to the New York Giants.

Probing further, Vince Wilfork is the only guy on the defense with a Super Bowl ring, a fact Pats linebacker Jerod Mayo pointed out. The New York Giants feature more Super Bowl experience than the perennial powerhouse Patriots, as they return five starters on offense and three more on defense.

"It happens to every team," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said when I talked to him about how much his team has changed in the past four years. "Now we have to get this young team to understand what it takes to get ready to play."

Regardless of how much experience the team has overall, New England goes as Tom Brady goes, and for him to be at his best the Patriots have to keep him off the ground.

Brady will throw the ball as many times as it takes to beat the Giants -- or die trying. That might play right into New York's strength, but Brady is up for the challenge. I sat down with the Pats' signal-caller on Tuesday morning, and we discussed his postgame comments after beating the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game when he proclaimed he didn't play very well. In typical Brady fashion, he said he regrets his comments and didn't want to take away from the great team effort that carried the Patriots to Super Bowl XLVI.

In a game that should feature more than 45 combined points, the slightest mistake in the turnover department could be the difference. Here are the three most important questions for the Patriots in their quest to hoist the Lombardi Trophy for the fourth time since 2001.

Can the Patriots protect Tom Brady?

Brady has only been sacked once in 70 postseason pass plays this year. That's the good news for New England. The problem is the Giants don't have an ordinary pass rush. In the last Super Bowl between these teams it was that rush that made the difference. Brady was sacked five times and hit another nine times. Three of those five sacks came in the second quarter, when the Giants served notice that things were going to be rough in the pocket.

When these teams played back in Week 9, the Giants sacked Brady twice, but one was a strip-sack that led to a Giants touchdown on the very next play. The New York pass rush has been ferocious throughout its playoff run, with nine sacks and 18 hits on the quarterback. The pass rush reduced Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith to a combined four touchdown passes on 113 attempts.

The Giants have had some success recently blitzing linebacker Michael Boley, but in general they just rely on the front four. When Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka and Jason Pierre-Paul are on the field together, there is no chance the Patriots can block them all. Brady, however, is the master of resetting his mental clock and getting the ball out fast when the opposing team has the kind of rush New York possesses.

The Patriots' passing game is a short, between the numbers attack, and that helps mitigate the rush to some degree. One defensive coordinator reviewed tape from five games in preparation for a game against the Pats, and he told me Brady only recorded two completions outside the numbers and one completion over 20 yards.

"We knew where they were throwing the ball," he said. "We just couldn't stop it enough to beat him."

This season Brady had 488 pass attempts under 20 yards to just 45 deep balls. Don't be surprised to see him take a few deep shots early to break this tendency.

Advantage: Even

What will the Patriots' defense do in key situations?

Bill Belichick, Brady and everyone else in the Patriots' organization are aware of just how good the Giants are right now in the red zone, on third down, and of course, in the fourth quarter.

"If we had just won in one of those three areas the last time we played the Giants, the outcome might have been different," Brady said.

Brady is definitely focused on improving the offense in all three areas, but it's the defense that is charged with the task of slowing down Eli Manning on Sunday.

The Giants are 11-for-12 in the red zone with five touchdowns and six field goals in the playoffs, and they scored three touchdowns and one field goal in of four red-zone opportunities during the Week 9 win over the Patriots. The issue New England faces is that the Giants' run game down in that part of the field is equally as dangerous as their pass game. The Patriots have done a good job in the playoffs, keeping Denver and Baltimore out of the red zone and limiting them to a combined two touchdowns in seven trips inside the 20-yard line.

Manning has been just as impressive on third down. He has converted 44 percent of the Giants' 52 third downs, and the Pats have allowed first downs 45.7 percent of the time.

When it comes to the fourth quarter, Manning has been the best in the NFL this year. Remember the two scoring drives he orchestrated in the fourth quarter to beat New England in November? From September to December, Manning was off the charts, completing 120 of 182 passes for 1,715 yards, 15 touchdowns and just six interceptions. In the playoffs he has stayed right on pace: 22-for-31 for 221 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

The Patriots' defense lives by a bend-don't-break principle, and its postseason execution backs that up. Against the Broncos and the Ravens, the Patriots gave up 163 yards passing in the fourth quarters, but gave up no touchdowns and recorded an interception. (Obviously, they had a huge cushion to play with against Denver.) That kind of defensive package could actually help Manning get into the rhythm he needs to finish drives in the end zone.

Advantage: Giants

Can New England survive turnovers?

Turnovers are the biggest killer to any team's Super Bowl dream. The Giants' regular-season win over the Patriots was a classic example of a team losing the game by losing the turnover battle. Brady was quick to mention how New England gave up the ball four times. And as Belichick added, the missed 27-yard field goal was just like a fifth turnover.

New England dodged a bullet when it was minus-two against the Ravens yet still booked a ticket to the Super Bowl. The Pats also lost the turnover battle to the Broncos, but the Giants are a whole different story.

The Giants and the Patriots are very evenly matched, and both coaches have intimated that the turnover battle will be the key to a title. The Giants have turned the ball over once in the playoffs and have surrendered zero points off giveaways. Concurrently, they have scored 20 points off six turnovers.

Advantage: Giants

Despite New York's overall advantage in these three categories, this game is still very difficult to project. After sitting down with Brady, I can assure you those problems from the past will be cleaned up by Sunday. The Giants are going to have to play one heck of a game to beat the Patriots.

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