When the Giants have the ball
The Giants no longer are a grind-it-out offense. In fact, they ranked last in rushing this season, although that's misleading because the running game has been better in their string of six wins in seven games. Ahmad Bradshaw (44) has battled through back and foot injuries and is more powerful than would be expected for his 5-foot-9, 200-pound build. Brandon Jacobs (27) is the big back and has some burst.
But the ground game has stagnated at times because the line has been inconsistent in its blocking. The Giants will try to spring Bradshaw and Jacobs behind G Chris Snee (76) and T David Diehl (66), but the line's main chore is keeping QB Eli Manning (10) upright long enough for him to do damage.
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And Manning, in his best season of an eight-year career, has been superb. Even in the NFC championship game, when the numbers didn't seem great in the 20-17 overtime win at rainy, slippery Candlestick Park, Manning made enough big plays to get the Giants to their second Super Bowl in four years. He did so against the league's most punishing defense and despite six sacks.
Snee, fellow G Kevin Boothe (77) and C David Baas (64) will see plenty of DT Vince Wilfork (75), by far the best performer on defense for New England. Wilfork even will rush off the edge at times, but has been immovable in the middle of the line during the playoffs.
The Patriots have eight sacks in the postseason and get pressure from a variety of people: LBs Rob Ninkovich (50), Jerod Mayo (51) and Brandon Spikes (55), and linemen Mark Anderson (95), Shaun Ellis (94) and perhaps a blitzing safety.
Where New York matches up best is with WRs Hakeem Nicks (88), Victor Cruz (80) and Mario Manningham (82) against a jumbled secondary that, at times, has included WRs Julian Edelman (11) and Matthew Slater (18). CB Kyle Arrington (24) tied for the league lead with seven interceptions, but also injured his eye in the AFC championship win over Baltimore. He should be fine.
New York's biggest edge is in this area, especially if the Giants can get man coverage on one of those receivers against some relatively untested CBs, or against safeties James Ihedigbo (44) or Patrick Chung (25). Backup CB Sterling Moore (29) was victimized for a 29-yard TD by Torrey Smith, but then stripped Lee Evans of a potential winning TD catch in the final moments.
When the Patriots have the ball
QB Tom Brady (12) was unhappy with his play in the AFC title game, and Brady rarely has two consecutive mediocre outings. He was intercepted twice by Baltimore, but did lead the winning drive, which he capped with a 1-yard dive and an emphatic spike.
It's Brady's arm, of course, that New York must be most concerned with. This matchup is no different from the teams' regular-season meeting, a 24-20 Giants win, nor from the 2008 Super Bowl. If Brady gets time, he will find his two All-Pro receivers, Wes Welker (83) and TE Rob Gronkowski (87), not to mention WR Deion Branch (84) and TE Aaron Hernandez (81).
So the Giants must pressure Brady with a varied pass rush. Up front, All-Pro DE Jason Pierre-Paul (90), Justin Tuck (91) and Osi Umenyiora (72) need to be forces against a line built to protect Brady and anchored by Gs Logan Mankins (70) and Brian Waters (54) and T Matt Light (72). LBs Mathias Kiwanuka (94) and Michael Boley (59) are dangerous on the rush, as well.
If the Giants can force either Gronkowski or Hernandez to block more than the Patriots want, it could be decisive. So could the high left ankle sprain Gronkowski is battling through if it limits him.
If not, the two tight ends are difficult challenges for New York's linebackers -- although backup Jacquian Williams (57) is quick enough to run with Gronkowski and Hernandez. Williams has a sprained right foot, though.
Safeties Antrel Rolle (26) , Kenny Phillips (21) and Deon Grant (34) have stood out in pass coverage and run D recently.
CB Corey Webster (23) figures to cover Welker, even when Welker lines up in the slot. Should the Giants get a decent pass rush on Brady, Welker becomes even more important to New England's offense.
Also a key is if the Patriots can run as well as they did in the previous postseason games. BenJarvus Green-Ellis (42) is vastly underrated, and Danny Woodhead (39) is a versatile, do-everything guy.
Mostly, though, it comes down to how much time Brady gets to throw. The Patriots will operate out of a no-huddle much of the time to minimize how many substitutions New York makes on defense. Because the Giants have so many versatile defenders, that might not work as well as it has against other teams.
New England has plenty of faith in PK Stephen Gostkowski (3), and indoors at Lucas Oil Stadium, he's likely to attempt long field goals if necessary. His kickoffs in the playoffs have been consistently deep into the end zone.
P Zoltan Mesko (14) is a lefty kicker and the ball can act funky off his foot. He doesn't get on the field all that often, which is a good thing for the Patriots; the fewer punts, the better.
Bill Belichick also has a special teams coaching background and his coverage groups are trustworthy. Not that the Giants are particularly dangerous in the return game.
Where New York has been exceptional is in kick coverages, and the two critical turnovers in the NFC championship victory at San Francisco came on punt coverages.
Lawrence Tynes (9) makes the clutch field goals and twice has kicked the Giants into the Super Bowl with overtime winners. His kickoffs have improved recently. Steve Weatherford (5) has been terrific in the second half of the season as the punter and did a masterful job holding for the winning field goal in the slop against San Francisco.
Two of the best in the business matching wits, Tom Coughlin and Belichick.
Both come from the Bill Parcells coaching tree, Coughlin an offensive guru and Belichick a defensive mastermind. Here's the catch: New York has been a stronger defensive team in Coughlin's tenure (2004-12), while the Patriots have morphed into an offensive machine since Belichick took charge in 2000.
Coughlin's players show a genuine fondness for the 65-year-old coach, particularly after he toned down his heavy-handed approach before the 2007 season. That, remember, was New York's championship season.
With fans calling for his job after a disappointing non-playoff performance in 2010, and again when the Giants were 7-7 during this regular season, Coughlin ignored the outside noise. More importantly, he got his players to remain focused on the prize -- which is now one win away.
Unlike Coughlin, who answers to GM Jerry Reese on many personnel issues, Belichick is in total charge in New England. His track record: three Super Bowl titles, five appearances in the big game (including this year) and a 155-58 overall mark as coach.
Belichick is more willing to experiment in game plans and with his players; who else uses receivers as defensive backs, or has come up with a passing attack built on two pass-catching tight ends? If either coach comes up with an unusual wrinkle in the Super Bowl, it almost certainly will be Belichick.