WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
Manning (2127 passing yards, 13 TD, 5 INT) is in the midst of the best season of his eight-year career, with the formerly-erratic quarterback having completed a personal-high 64.7 percent of his throws and ranking second only to Rodgers in yards per attempt (8.8), and he’s also drastically cut down his turnovers one year after leading the league with 25 interceptions. The Giants have needed him to step up and shine as well, since a running game that was once an integral part of the team’s offense has been close to non-existent this season. New York has generated the third-fewest rushing yards (85.6 ypg) in the NFL and was held to just 58 yards on the ground by the Dolphins last week, and top back Ahmad Bradshaw (440 rushing yards, 24 receptions, 6 total TD) is dealing with a possible stress fracture in his foot that could sideline him on Sunday. The Giants do have a two-time 1,000-yard rusher in reserve in Brandon Jacobs (126 rushing yards, 3 total TD), but the unhappy veteran is averaging a meager 3.0 yards per carry on the year. Manning’s No. 1 target, wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (38 receptions, 575 yards, 3 TD), has also been bothered by a hamstring injury, though he’s tentatively believed to play this week. If he’s unable to go, New York does have some outside depth in the young combo of Victor Cruz (28 receptions, 497 yards, 4 TD) and Mario Manningham (24 receptions, 1 TD), who combined for 13 catches, 162 yards and two touchdowns against Miami, and oversized tight end Jake Ballard (19 receptions, 2 TD) has also made contributions to the club’s fourth-ranked aerial attack (287.6 ypg).
The Giants figure to take to the air early and often come Sunday, considering the game has the makings of being high-scoring and the Patriots have been dreadful in preventing enemy passers from piling up yards at will. A secondary littered with marginal talents other than cornerback Devin McCourty (49 tackles) and safety Patrick Chung (50 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) has permitted a league-worst 323.1 passing yards per game, and all but one quarterback the team has faced this year has eclipsed the 300-yard mark. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger torched the group for 365 yards and two scores a week ago. New England did register a season-high five sacks in the loss, including two by veteran end Andre Carter (28 tackles, 4.5 sacks), and both he and situational rusher Mark Anderson (10 tackles, 4.5 sacks) will be counted on to bring the heat upon Manning. The Patriots are in the top 10 in run defense (101.0 ypg), though that’s partly because they’ve been thrown on so much, but do possess three proven stoppers up front in three-time Pro Bowl tackle Vince Wilfork (19 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT) and linebackers Brandon Spikes (39 tackles) and Jerod Mayo (27 tackles), who returned last week from a two-game absence caused by a knee sprain.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Despite being held in check by Pittsburgh’s formidable defense last week, the Patriots still boast one of the NFL’s most potent and dangerous offenses that tops the league in first downs (25.7 avg.), stands second in passing yards (324.7 ypg), third in total yards (437.1 ypg) and fourth in third-down conversions (50.6 pct.). The key to it all is obviously Brady (2361 passing yards, 18 TD, 8 INT), who’s enjoying another stellar season even though he’s had twice as many interceptions as he did during his MVP campaign of 2010. The standout quarterback has four quality options to throw to, led by prolific slot receiver Wes Welker (57 receptions, 824 yards, 6 TD), the league’s leader in both catches and receiving yards per game. Former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch (30 receptions, 3 TD) provides a reliable outside presence to the mix, while second-year tight ends Rob Gronkowski (36 receptions, 495 yards, 5 TD) and Aaron Hernandez (29 receptions, 4 TD) are both lethal inside the red zone and often Brady’s preferred choices in that area. New England also has an interesting collection of running backs, with leading rusher BenJarvus Green- Ellis (400 rushing yards, 5 TD) a physical and sure-handed performer between the tackles and 13-year vet Kevin Faulk now back from an ACL tear to reprise his longtime role as the team’s third-down specialist.
Brady and his cast of receivers will be taking on a New York defense that’s played quite well against the pass in recent weeks, albeit the Pats do represent a step up in class. The Giants have yielded just four touchdowns through the air and bagged eight interceptions over their last five games, with cornerbacks Corey Webster (26 tackles, 3 INT, 9 PD) and Aaron Ross (24 tackles, 3 INT, 8 PD) each recording three picks during that stretch, and allowed a scant 101 net passing yards to Miami’s anemic offense last Sunday. The duo is backed by an excellent pass rush that’s amassed a league-best 26 sacks thus far and is now at full strength now that valued end Justin Tuck (7 tackles, 2 sacks) is over neck and groin injuries that have limited him to three games. The 2010 All-Pro honoree teams with two-time Pro Bowler Osi Umenyiora (12 tackles, 6 sacks) and second-year phenom Jason Pierre-Paul (35 tackles, 8.5 sacks) to give New York an outstanding collection of pressure-creators. Umenyiora has racked up six sacks in just four games since returning from early-season knee surgery. The Giants haven’t fared well in containing the run, however, having allowed at least 145 yards on the ground in five straight outings and owning an unwanted 28th overall ranking in rush defense (130.1 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Control the clock. The Steelers may have revealed the blueprint for keeping New England’s high-powered offense at bay last week, as Pittsburgh held the ball for over 39 minutes by mixing Roethlisberger’s efficient passing with an effective running game. Dallas utilized a similar approach two weeks prior in its near-upset of the Patriots, with the Cowboys also owning a sizeable edge in time of possession. New England may actually benefit from employing that philosophy as well when factoring in New York’s struggles in stopping the run and its own deficiencies on the defensive side.
Pressuring the quarterbacks. Brady has been sacked 10 times over New England’s past three games and the offense experienced a noticeable drop-off against both the Cowboys and Steelers because both teams were able to continually harass the reigning league MVP. The Giants certainly have the pass rushers in place to make an impact as well. It’s also important for the Patriots to create pressure on Manning, as New York isn’t much of a threat running the ball and the durable field general is capable of shredding New England’s shaky secondary if he isn’t under duress.
The fourth quarter. This could very well be a game that’s decided by which team has the ball last. Manning has been marvelous in the final period this season, having thrown for six touchdowns and earning an NFL-leading 119.3 passer rating, while Brady has orchestrated 24 fourth-quarter comebacks over his decorated career and is considered one of the all-time greats with the game on the line.
Prediction – Last week in Pittsburgh the Steelers D stood tall with the Pats, and held their own in making it a long day for Tom Brady. Now the Pats play a Giants team that last week was almost stunned by the Dolphins, but did enough late to get out with a win. At home, the Pats will get their offense back on track, and while the Giants will have success on offense as well, New England will have slightly more. New England 27 New York Giants 21