The New York Giants got to Super Bowl XLVI by getting hot at the right time, winning three of their last four in the regular season and then putting together a playoff streak reminiscent of the 2010 Packers. The New England Patriots, as usual, got here on the arm of Tom Brady. Consequently, we're gearing up for a rematch of Super Bowl XLII when the Giants shocked the NFL world by taking down the undefeated Pats. While that game featured just 31 combined points (17-14, Giants), there should be plenty of scoring this time around, with close to 90 combined pass plays.
In the end, a turnover or two may decide the outcome. After all, turnovers decided the Nov. 6 game between these two, a 24-20 Giants win that ended Brady's 31-game home winning streak. It was Brady's two interceptions and a fumble, as well as a fumble on a punt return by Julian Edelman, that were the Patriots undoing that day. But New York can't count on four turnovers again. There are some major concerns that must be addressed if the Giants want to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Indianapolis this Sunday.
The last time these teams met, the Patriots were healthy and had Pro Bowl defensive end Andre Carter on the field. Carter is now on injured reserve. Meanwhile, the Giants played without the services of RB Ahmad Bradshaw, WR Hakeem Nicks, C David Baas and FB Henry Hynoski. All four are back for this game. In the playoffs alone, Nicks has 18 receptions for 335 yards and four touchdowns. Bradshaw has 60 touches for 295 yards. But even at full strength, the Giants still face three pressing questions ...
How will the Giants defend the Patriots' no-huddle offense?
In the Week 9 bout between these teams, Brady did not go to his no-huddle package until there was 2:38 left in the fourth quarter, with the Pats trailing 17-13. In that instance, the tactic was used strictly as part of the two-minute offense. Since then, no-huddle has become the attack mode of New England's offense, and it can cause big problems right from the opening play of the first quarter.
With the personnel group they put on the field for first down, the Patriots are basically going to make New York play second- and third-down defense. I asked Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett about this issue. His team lost a tight game to the Patriots in Week 14 and defeated the Giants twice during the season. Haslett said New England can force you to limit your substitutions and possibly your defensive calls because of the no-huddle, especially when the Pats are in hurry-up mode.
» 12 personnel: one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers.
» 13 personnel: one running back, three tight ends and one wide receiver.
When the Giants see New England in those groupings, they will want to be in their base defense (four linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs). Typically, the Patriots are balanced on first down, with a percentage split of 46/54 run-to-pass on the season. Because New England has gained 4.3 yards per rushing attempt on first down, the Giants must honor the run. Once he sees that, Brady immediately kicks into the no-huddle on second down by spreading out his tight ends (Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez), and leaving the opponent without a fifth DB. This will create a real matchup issue for the Giants. If New York's base defense does a good job against the first-down run, leaving New England with longer second downs, the Pats will attack with the pass game. During the regular season, when the Patriots faced second-and-six-or-longer, they called 61 runs and 139 passes.
The Patriots regularly employed the 13 personnel against the Giants back in November, with OL Nate Solder reporting as the third tight end. Solder was in for 20 plays in this package -- the Pats ran the ball 12 times for 51 yards (4.2 per run) and completed four of eight passes for 56 yards. Most of the passing in the 13 personnel group came in the second half of that game, including three straight completions for 45 yards. If you see Solder report on first down, expect the no-huddle attack to be in play for the rest of the drive. With the Giant pass rush being so good, and Gronkowski at less than 100 percent, this could be a key package for New England.
The newest no-huddle package Bill Belichick has devised -- and one the Giants did not see the first time around -- is the 03 personnel group, with no running backs, three tight ends (Solder is the third tight end) and two receivers. This can create serious matchup problems. If the Giants attempt to defend this package with a dime defense (six defensive backs), Brady will be quick to move Hernandez into the backfield and run the ball.
Long story short, the Pats' no-huddle packages present many tactical issues for New York. In the end, the Giants may elect to use a "big nickel" package, which includes three safeties and one less linebacker. Look for Antrel Rolle, Kenny Phillips and Deon Grant to be on the field together, with Chase Blackburn on the sideline. As one defensive coordinator said to me this week, "You would love to see Brady handing the ball off rather than throwing it, of course. But you really have to be ready to match up and defend 50 pass plays, with 30 of them coming from the no-huddle."
The Giants' pass rush is the X-factor. The no-huddle makes it tough to roll fresh pass rushers into the game, and the Patriots will try and wear out the Giants' defensive line. New York got to Brady twice in November and one yielded a fumble. In three playoff games, the Giants have nine sacks and 18 hits on the quarterback. New York's formula for success has always included a great pass rush, but I think this will be neutralized by New England's no-huddle offense.
Can the Giants establish a running game?
In the first meeting between these teams, the Giants ran the ball 29 times for 111 yards and a touchdown. They did it without the services of their best back, Ahmad Bradshaw, and their best blocking fullback, Hynoski. Signs point to the Giants being able to run the ball against the Patriots, but New England's run defense is improving quickly. And in the last Super Bowl between these teams, Brandon Jacobs and Bradshaw only managed 87 yards with no touchdowns on 23 carries. Clearly, the Giants need positive production out of the backfield.
Check out the table to the right detailing the Giants' rushing offense in the playoffs. While the total yardage for three games is impressive -- 84 carries for 351 yards at 4.17 per rush -- there's a steady decline every week in attempts, yards, and yards per carry. (Not to mention, only one rushing touchdown over that span.)
Last week, New England's run defense rose to the occasion against Ray Rice and Ricky Williams, holding them to 89 yards and zero touchdowns on 27 carries (3.29 yards per carry). Vince Wilfork led the charge with six tackles, one sack, three tackles for a loss and one hit on Joe Flacco. It was his finest game as a pro, in my opinion. In Week 9 against New York, Wilfork definitely took advantage of Baas' absence, with four tackles, one tackle for a loss and two hits on Eli Manning. Belichick has moved Big Vince to defensive end at times in recent weeks, and he may do more of that on Sunday to get him matched up on Kareem McKenzie or David Diehl.
As one defensive coordinator with personal experience against both teams said, "The Giants need the running game more than the Patriots do if they want to win this game." To me, that means neutralizing Wilfork, who now plays on about 75 percent of the defensive snaps. That's a lot for a guy his size. Maybe the Giants should use counter with some no-huddle of their own early on to wear the big man down.
Will the Giants be able to protect Eli?
The Patriots didn't put Manning on the ground once in 39 pass attempts in Week 9 -- and they lost. In the final two drives of the game Manning went 7-for-12 for 85 yards and two touchdowns. New England just couldn't stop them in crunch time. But the AFC champs have won 10 straight since then, and one big reason why is a much-improved pass rush. The defense has 33 sacks during this winning streak, including eight in the team's two playoff wins.
Instant Debate: Manning or Brady?
Belichick is watching tape of the last three playoff games, in which New York called 147 pass plays (49 per game). He knows that Manning has thrown eight touchdown passes to just one interception this postseason. He also knows Manning has been sacked eight times and taken an additional 24 hits. Most of that pressure came in the 49ers game, when Eli took six sacks and 12 hits. Manning has learned to take a sack instead of throwing an interception, so the Patriots must get to the Giants quarterback.
You can bet Belichick will also study the two losses to the Redskins, when Manning was sacked a combined seven times and threw four interceptions. Washington uses a 3-4 defensive scheme similar to New England's, and so Belichick can find some clues to getting Manning rattled.
This pressing question becomes particularly important in the fourth quarter, which has been Manning's time all season. He has the best fourth-quarter numbers in the NFL this season, going 142-for-213 for 1,936 yards and 18 touchdowns to just six interceptions and 13 sacks over 19 games. The Patriots certainly aren't immunce to this Manning magic. Manning got the best of them in Week 9 of this season, and back in Super Bowl XLII. In those two games combined, Manning went 16-for-26 for 238 yards and three touchdowns (with just one sack) in the final period.