Big Game Breakdown
In just a couple of hours, the world will focus on Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI between the New York Giants and New England Patriots.
For the last two weeks, New Jersey's Giants' fans have waited to see their boys in the big game. Their run over the last month-and-a-half has been magical -- all started by a win over their in-stadium rivals, the Jets.
Since that Christmas Eve triumph, Big Blue disposed of the Dallas Cowboys to win the NFC East, the Atlanta Falcons in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, the 15-1 Green Bay Packers in the divisional round, and the 13-3 San Francisco 49ers in overtime of the NFC Championship to reach this point.
But do the Giants have enough to win it all? We'll examine the matchups between the Giants and Patriots, position-by-position.
Giants -- Eli Manning has had a tremendous season. The 31-year-old completed 61% of his passes, throwing for a career-high 4,933 yards. While Manning only had 29 touchdown passes on the year, he did a better job protecting the football, with only 16 interceptions (he threw 25 INT's last season).
A win today would give Manning his second Super Bowl title as a starting quarterback, joining a group that includes 10 other names. Of those, two are active players, while seven (John Elway, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Bob Griese and Bart Starr) are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This could be a career-defining game for someone once known as "The Other Manning."
Patriots -- Tom Brady had a career-high in passing yards (5,235) this season, finishing second in the NFL to Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints. Age hasn't seemed to slow Brady down, as the 34-year-old tossed 39 TD passes on the season, second-highest in his career. He only had 12 interceptions.
If New England comes out on top, Brady would become only the 3rd starting QB to win four Super Bowls, joining Bradshaw and Montana in this elite class.
Edge: Patriots. But, there is one factor that could make this a much more even matchup. We'll discuss that shortly.
Giants -- Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs have shared backfield duties this season, partly out of necessity. Bradshaw has played with a nagging foot injury over the last several weeks, while Jacobs spent some time on the sidelines earlier in the season with a knee injury.
Combined, the two rushed for 1,230 yards and 16 touchdowns. The Patriots, meanwhile, finished in the middle-of-the-pack in rushing defense, allowing just over 117 yards-per-game.
Patriots -- BenJarvus Green-Ellis had the bulk of the rushing workload this season, carrying the ball 181 times for 667 yards and 11 TD's. In the pass-happy New England offense, however, those opportunities can be few-and-far between. For a change-of-pace, the Patriots utilize Danny Woodhead (351 yards rushing, 157 yards receiving.
Giants -- When the season got under way, no one expected Victor Cruz to leave such an indelible mark. Cruz made the most out of injuries to Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks in the early parts of 2011, quickly becoming one of Manning's favorite targets. The 2nd-year receiver tallied 1,536 yards and 9 TD's.
Meanwhile, Nicks drew his share of attention as well, finishing 2011 with 76 catches, 1,192 yards and 7 TD's, shaking off multiple injuries along the way. Manningham had 523 yards and 4 TD's during the regular season, but he's had a knack for finding the end zone lately -- 3 TD's in New York's three playoff games.
Patriots -- Listed at 5'9" and 190 lbs., Wes Welker is not the most imposing presence on a football field -- but the Giants' secondary must keep close tabs on him. The 30-year-old caught 122 balls in the regular season, racking up 1,569 yards and 9 TD's.
Deion Branch had a quietly productive season, with 51 receptions for 702 yards and 5 TD's. While Chad Ochocinco's time in New England can only be classified as a disappointment (15 catches all year), the former star remains a threat in certain situations.
Giants -- When Kevin Boss headed to the Raiders via free agency this summer, many wondered if the Giants would be able to fill that void. In only his 2nd season in the NFL, Jake Ballard stepped up, catching 38 passes for 604 yards and 4 TD's.
When the Giants use multiple-tight end sets, Travis Beckum and Bear Pascoe provide additional safety net options for Manning.
Patriots -- Rob Gronkowski set single-season NFL records among tight ends, with 1,327 yards and 17 TD's. At 6'6" and 265 lbs., Gronkowski provided a big target for Brady near the end zone.
His current health is a major issue, however. Gronkowski suffered a high-ankle sprain in the AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens, and was limited in practice this week.
If Gronkowski's effectiveness is dulled by his injury, Aaron Hernandez can step right into his role. The 22-year-old had 79 receptions for 910 yards and 7 TD's, providing matchup problems for many defenses.
Edge: Patriots, especially if Gronkowski is healthy.
Giants -- The Giants allowed the 7th-fewest sacks in the NFL this season, giving Manning extra time to make decisions and better protect the football. The Patriots' defense tallied 40 sacks during the regular season, 14th in the NFL.
Patriots -- New England tied for 9th-fewest in sacks allowed, giving up 32 on the year. The Giants, meanwhile, racked up the 3rd-most sacks in the league this year (48). The Patriots showed vulnerability against the Ravens two weeks ago, however, as Brady was sacked 3 times.
Giants -- Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora are charged with providing the bulk of defensive pressure against Brady. The 22-year-old Pierre-Paul emerged as a star this season, running up 16 1/2 sacks. After missing half the season with a knee injury, Umenyiora had 9 sacks in 9 regular season games. In the playoffs, he's become even better -- 3 1/2 sacks in 3 games.
Chris Canty (5 sacks), Dave Tollefson (5 sacks) and Justin Tuck (4 sacks) cannot be overlooked, either.
Patriots -- After a disappointing 2010 season with the Washington Redskins, Andre Carter saw a resurgence in 2011, tallying 10 sacks. At the other defensive end position, Mark Anderson had 10 sacks, as well. It was his highest sack total since 2006.
In the middle of the defensive line, veteran Vince Wilfork had a career-high 3 1/2 sacks and two interceptions during the season.
Giants -- Michael Boley had 74 tackles and 3 fumble recoveries from his weak-side linebacker position this season. On the other side, Mathias Kiwanuka had 3 1/2 sacks and 62 tackles. At middle linebacker, Chase Blackburn and Greg Jones combined for 42 tackles.
Patriots -- The NFL's defensive rookie of the year in 2008, inside linebacker Jerod Mayo continued his solid play in 2011, with 1 sack, 2 interceptions and 59 tackles. Outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich will be one to watch on blitzing situations, as he had 6 1/2 sacks on the season.
Giants -- New York dealt with multiple injuries to its secondary in the early part of the season, causing their overall numbers to suffer. The Giants had the 4th-worst passing defense in the NFL, allowing just over 255 yards-per-game.
Free safety Antrel Rolle led the Giants in tackles this season, with 86. He also had two interceptions. Strong safety Kenny Phillips had 4 INT's and 63 tackles. Along with safety Deon Grant, they will face the responsibility of helping guard New England's tight ends, Gronkowski and Hernandez, in addition to covering any deep passing threats.
At cornerback, Corey Webster led the team with 6 INT's. Aaron Ross had 4 INT's on the season.
Patriots -- New England had the 2nd-worst passing defense in the league this season, allowing nearly 294 yards-per-game through the air. They also had 23 interceptions, however, good for 2nd-best among NFL defenses.
Cornerback Kyle Arrington had 7 interceptions this season, leading the team. Former Rutgers athlete Devin McCourty had 2 INT's and a team-leading 66 tackles.
At free safety, Patrick Chung missed nearly half-the-season with a foot injury. As a result, he only had one sack, one interception and 39 tackles. Former Jet James Ihedigbo starts at strong safety, contributing with 50 tackles.
Edge: Giants, though slight.
Giants -- Kicker Lawrence Tynes went 19-of-24 on field goal attempts this season, but only 4-of-8 on attempts of 40 yards or more.
At punter, Steve Weatherford averaged 45.7 yards in 2011. He also proved to be adept at pinning opposing offenses deep in their own territory, with 25 kicks inside the 20-yard-line while only having 6 touchbacks.
Devin Thomas averaged 24.3 yards per-kick return, while Aaron Ross had 7.1 yards per-punt return. The team had no special teams returns for touchdowns in 2011.
Patriots -- Stephen Gostkowski went 28-of-33 on field goal attempts this season, including 10-of-13 from 40 yards or more.
Punter Zoltan Mesko averaged 46.5 yards-per-kick, including 24 punts inside the 20, with only 3 touchbacks.
Danny Woodhead and Julian Edelman shared the bulk of kick return duties this season. Edelman averaged nearly 24 yards-per-return, while Woodhead gained about 22 yards on his returns.
Edelman had New England's lone punt return touchdown this season, a 72-yard score against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 11.
This game will come down to two major factors -- the Patriots' offensive line vs. the Giants' defensive line, and the ankle injury to Gronkowski.
If the Giants can pressure Brady and disrupt his timing, it evens out the QB matchup -- especially if New York can maintain protection for Manning.
If Gronkowski's ankle injury poses a problem on the FieldTurf at Lucas Oil Stadium, then the Patriots' offense is limited in its options. Deion Branch and/or Chad Ochocinco would have to step up with a big game, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis would have to run the ball more effectively.
Much has been made about this being a rematch of Super Bowl XLII (which the Giants won, 17-14), but there's a more recent game that could lend us some insight.
In Week 9 of the regular season (November 6th), the Giants and Patriots met in Foxboro, with Big Blue emerging victorious, 24-20 in a tight and rather thrilling game. I expect much of the same this time around, with a similar result.
N.Y. Giants 27, New England 20
Hopefully this piece saved you from approximately eight hours of Super Bowl pregame coverage on television. Enjoy the game!