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'Brady's Bearded Bunch' holds key to Patriots' title hopes

PHOENIX -- Tom Brady broke it all down simply and succinctly.

The No. 1 key to the New England Patriots' ability to beat the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII?

"I've got to keep number seventy-two, Osi Umenyiora, off me and I've got to keep ninety-two (Michael Strahan) off me," the Patriots' quarterback said.

Actually, it will be up to New England's offensive line (a.k.a. Brady's Bearded Bunch) to try to maintain a comfortable distance between Brady and the Giants' star defensive ends.

It won't be easy.

The trademark of the Giants' defense is pressure. And Umenyiora and Strahan are two of the primary factors in the team's league-leading 53 sacks during the regular season.

The Giants' No. 1 key to beating the Patriots?

"Pressure," Umenyiora said. "We have to get an enormous amount of pressure on them if we want to win this game."

Umenyiora, the Giants' greatest force in putting heat on the quarterback, has what every top pass rusher has -- great initial quickness. He has excellent footwork and takes good angles to the passer. He has superb upper-body strength and does a nice job with his hands to gain leverage and keep blockers at bay. One key reason that Umenyiora can be an offensive tackle's worst nightmare is that he never gives up on a play.

Strahan is a 15-year veteran whose body has taken its share of pounding, thus the reason he contemplated retirement before the season. He clearly feeds off the attention Umenyiora draws, yet Strahan remains extremely quick and explosive off the line. He has a great deal of strength and plays with good leverage. He keeps blockers guessing with a wide variety of moves and counter moves. Strahan also still ranks among the league's most complete ends, showing as much effectiveness as ever against the run.

Regardless of their defensive approach, few teams have been able to rattle Brady during the season or postseason. Much of that is due to his excellent protection. A great deal is also due to his ability to avoid pressure and get rid of the ball quickly.

The Giants prefer allowing their defensive line to generate the lion's share of pressure in order to keep the optimum number of defenders involved in coverage. If they feel they've gained any advantage from the potential that Brady might be less mobile because of the ankle injury he suffered in the AFC Championship Game, they aren't indicating as much.

"He has a tremendous knack for feeling (pressure) even though he may not see it," Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. "He has a tremendous feel for how long he can hold onto it and get rid of it at the last moment.

"So you have to pick your spots with him. You certainly can't do one thing all the time. He'll figure that out. So like we've done in all the games with really good quarterbacks, we'll mix it up. He'll wait for that last possible second. He knows what his receivers are going to do. He knows where it's going to open up and he has a tremendous talent for getting the ball there."

The Giants managed only one sack of Brady in their 38-35 loss to the Patriots in the Dec. 29 season finale at Giants Stadium. Neither Umenyiora nor Strahan got Brady to the ground. And that was without starting right tackle Nick Kaczur and starting right guard Stephen Neal, both of whom missed the game with injuries.

"Even if you don't sack (Brady), we can't let (the Patriots) sit back and pick us apart," said Justin Tuck, the Giants' No. 3 end. "We have to get pressure in their face. We have to knock it down, we have to keep him uneasy in the pocket.

"There were times where we hit him in that last game and he was still making great passes. It's going to be very hard to rattle him, but we can't allow him to sit back and look down the field with Randy Moss and Wes Welker and all of his weapons. If we don't get any pressure on him, we stand no chance."

Matt Light, New England's left offensive tackle, did an exceptional job of blocking Umenyiora -- who has had only three sacks in the last eight games, including none in the postseason -- without any help. Given the Pats' frequent use of spread formations to take advantage of the Giants' vulnerable secondary, Light will again be required to handle Umenyiora one-on-one for the entire game. Although Light can't match Umenyiora's athletic ability, he does have quick feet and is capable of forcing Umenyiora to take the widest route possible to the pocket.

How much will Light's previous encounter with Umenyiora help on Sunday?

"I think it gives you more film to watch and you get to see what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong," said Light, who is going to the Pro Bowl along with Pats left guard Logan Mankins. "But this game will be completely different, and it's going to come down to who does everything fundamentally sound, and assignment-wise being as good as you can possibly be."

Spagnuolo might not be big on blitzing, but he does an exceptional job of getting a variety of defenders involved in the pass rush. One example is lining up Tuck inside and having a linebacker or safety come off the edge.

"We have been blessed this year with a lot of talent (in the defensive front)," Tuck said. "Our coaches have definitely given us a lot of leeway with doing things that we want to do. Any time you have Umenyiora and Strahan on the edges, it makes it a whole lot easier for everybody else.

"In certain situations, we put four defensive ends on the field. It's kind of a pick-your-poison type of defense. If you double Osi and me, you have Strahan and... then you bring Fred Robbins in and now you have Jay Alford."

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