While both staffs will spend an inordinate amount of time coming up with creative schemes designed to provide big-play opportunities for their best players, the game will come down to which team wins most of the individual battles. After reviewing film of both teams, here are five matchups to watch on Super Bowl Sunday:
1. Giants OG Chris Snee vs. Patriots DT Vince Wilfork
Brooks: Monster in the middle
New England's defense has risen up in the postseason, and Bucky Brooks says much of the credit goes to one mountain of a man: nose tackle Vince Wilfork. **More ...**
The Patriots' defensive resurgence in the postseason has been spurred on by the sensational play of Wilfork in the middle. He has lived up to his reputation as one of the top interior defenders in the league by single-handedly stuffing runs at the line of scrimmage, while also serving as the Patriots' top pass rusher from his defensive tackle spot. His ability to dismantle double teams at the point of attack has forced opponents to readjust their blocking schemes, creating big-play opportunities for his teammates.
To limit Wilfork's effectiveness, Snee and his interior teammates (David Baas and Kevin Boothe) must control the line of scrimmage with strong double teams. They must stay connected at the hip to prevent Wilfork from splitting the gap, creating penetration in the middle of the line and slowing down Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. Additionally, Snee must be able to maintain his ground against Wilfork's bull rushes to provide Eli Manning with a clean pocket to attack downfield.
2. Giants WR Victor Cruz vs. Patriots WR/DB Julian Edelman
Cruz is a skillful route runner, adept at running away from tight coverage with ankle-breaking moves at the top of his routes. He torched Pro Bowl CB Carlos Rogers in the NFC Championship Game on an assortment of option routes during the first half, and the 49ers eventually had to adjust their coverage to contain him. With Edelman lacking the experience and skill of an elite cornerback, the Giants' game plan could feature a host of throws to Cruz at the outset to force double coverage, which will open up the field for Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham. Given the explosiveness of the Giants' offense when their talented receiving trio is able to get loose, the Patriots' best bet for containing New York could hinge on the performance of Edelman as a nickel corner.
3. Giants LB Jacquian Williams and S Deon Grant vs. Patriots TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez
The Patriots have become the league's most explosive offensive juggernaut by utilizing their talented tight end combination as queens on the chessboard. Bill Belichick will create mismatches all over the field by varying the alignments of Gronkowski and Hernandez in tight, spread and empty formations, leaving defensive coordinators in a quandary over how to defend the duo.
The Giants have typically used a "Big Nickel" package against teams with talented tight ends to get their three safeties -- Kenny Phillips, Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant -- on the field, while using Williams as the designated tight end buster. The rookie linebacker possesses the speed to run with swift tight ends in the slot, but also has the size and strength to jam and disrupt their releases at the line. Against the Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers, the tactic helped the G-Men limit Tony Gonzalez (four catches for 44 yards) and Jermichael Finley (four catches to 37 yards) to subpar performances.
The 49ers' Vernon Davis, however, enjoyed a spectacular day (three catches for 112 yard and two touchdowns) against the Giants. The Patriots will certainly test the secondary by taking several deep shots to Gronkowski and Hernandez. How well the G-Men fare against the tight ends will determine whether Tom Brady & Co. enjoy a big day.
4. Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul vs. Patriots OT Matt Light
It's no secret that the Giants will attempt to harass Brady with a four-man rush featuring several athletic defenders with the speed and quickness to collapse the pocket from several points along the line. Pierre-Paul, who led the team with 16.5 sacks, will play an integral role in this strategy. His explosive speed and rare athleticism could pose a problem for the Patriots' offensive tackles.
Light, in particular, has struggled holding up against skillful rushers off the edges. He will need to be at his best to keep JPP from taking over the game as a designated rusher. Against the Ravens' Terrell Suggs, Light was able to win by mixing in some short sets to get into the defender early and disrupt his run to the quarterback. Although JPP's length and agility could make it difficult for Light to get his hands inside the frame, Light's savvy and guile could allow him to win a matchup that looks disadvantageous on paper.
5. Giants CB Aaron Ross vs. Patriots WR Wes Welker
Welker doesn't possess the speed or quickness to create big plays on vertical throws, but you would be hard-pressed to find a better intermediate receiver in the league. His ability to work the middle of the field provides Brady with a viable option in critical situations. Welker can single-handedly take over the game by moving the chains on third downs.
The Giants contained Welker during their first bout back in Week 9 by assigning Ross to shadow his every move. In that meeting, Ross harassed Welker at the line with physical jams and the constant contact prevented him from getting open when Brady was ready to throw. Given another opportunity to face Ross, however, the Patriots will certainly tweak their strategy to feature more stack and bunch formations to give Welker free access to his routes. If Ross is not able to handle Welker without assistance, the Patriots will work the matchup early and often to keep their offense on schedule in critical situations.