Updated Feb. 5, 2012 @ 1:34 a.m. ET
Move over, Red Sox and Yankees. There's a new Boston-New York rivalry brewing.
Ever since David Tyree made a career-defining catch and Plaxico Burress made the game-winning touchdown catch in Super Bowl XLII, the Giants and Patriots have forged a new chapter in these great sports cities' histories.
The Patriots have won three Super Bowls under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady but are in their first title game in four seasons since losing to Tom Coughlin's Giants. Eli Manning and Coughlin, who will be going for their second title, beat the Patriots in Week Nine — a 24-20 victory that came down to a Manning-to-Jake Ballard TD pass with 15 seconds remaining.
These teams are about to write a new chapter — playing Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, home of Peyton Manning, Eli's brother, and the city in which the Patriots and Colts have played some classic games over the past decade.
The game will be painted as a rematch of XLII, but there will be plenty of new faces, and important ones, too. For the Patriots, TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have made New England's offense supersonic. The Giants' top two pass catchers, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, weren't around for the last Super Bowl either, and New York features a fearsome pass rusher in Jason Pierre-Paul, who already is one of the NFL's top defensive players.
If the theme from XLII repeats — Brady was under assault from the Giants' front four much of that game — we could be in for another defensive battle.
And perhaps another classic.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
All season long, Eli Manning has been the Giants' savior. He has mostly avoided the three-interception games that defined his early career, even through much of the title-winning season of 2007. Manning has held up behind a patchwork O-line, thrived despite a spotty run game and made stars out of WRs Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz.
Cruz's development has been stunning. He has overcome drops and inconsistency to become maybe the best slot receiver in the game not named Wes Welker — and Cruz has shown he can play outside and get off press coverage better, too. Nicks has a wide catching radius, is dangerous after the catch and is fearless over the middle. Manning will throw them passes in tight windows and trust them to make the big catch in clutch situations.
The Patriots' bend-but-don't-break defense is playing its best football in the playoffs, especially up front. The Patriots had played mainly a 4-3 this season, but in the playoffs they have been using more of a 3-4, putting three big D-linemen in the middle and linebackers on the edge.
Against the run, the Pats are strong in the middle. DT Vince Wilfork is a force to deal with and had one of the better games of his career in the win over the Ravens. Paired with DT Kyle Love, the Pats get good penetration up the middle to open up lanes for LBs Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo.
The Patriots kept Ray Rice in check, and the Giants might want to try to get RB Ahmad Bradshaw the ball on runs to the outside. Bradshaw runs hard and has good short-area burst. Brandon Jacobs has been ineffective as a power runner, often going down more easily than such a big man should. Bradshaw did not play in Week Nine — neither did Nicks — so the Giants should have some more offensive options to explore in the rematch.
On the edges, DE Brandon Deaderick has been a good run stopper. DE Mark Anderson is the team's top pass rusher, along with OLB Rob Ninkovich, who can set the edge well.
Wilfork will have an edge against C David Baas when they match up inside. The rest of the Giants' line, to a man, is nothing special except for ORG Chris Snee. But the Giants play well collectively up front.
The weaknesses in the Patriots' defense come in the secondary, and they have no player who can man up with Nicks or Cruz. Devin McCourty has moved to safety when the team is in its sub-package, and Sterling Moore plays corner. Moore showed good ball skills in the win over Baltimore but also missed a tackle on a Ravens touchdown.
CB Kyle Arrington is average, and he often loses to more physical receivers such as Nicks. S Patrick Chung is the best playmaker in the back end but is better against the run than the pass. The rest of the group is subpar.
No. 3 WR Mario Manningham and TE Jake Ballard also are factors. Manningham has the speed to run deep, and Ballard has a knack for getting open.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
The Patriots had the best record in the AFC because of their high-powered spread attack led by Tom Brady. He has pinpoint accuracy and a quick release, which decreases the chance of turnovers and gives his receivers the opportunity to make plays in the open field. Brady did seem a little off on his throws vs. the Ravens, with two interceptions. Brady also threw two picks against the Giants in Week Nine.
He has the league's best TE tandem in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski, who injured his ankle in the conference title game but later returned, is big, strong and can run after the catch. He is nearly impossible to cover one-on-one and is a beast in the red zone, catching eight passes for 101 yards and a TD against the Giants. Hernandez is versatile and will line up anywhere from the slot to the backfield. He can make defenders miss. Gronkowski showed up in Indianapolis wearing a boot, and he returned to practice Thursday, but only with limited participation. He is listed as questionable and, if he plays, likely won't be at 100 percent.
The Giants have used Michael Boley, Antrel Rolle and Kenny Phillips on tight ends in recent games, with both Rolle and Phillips struggling to contain the speed of 49ers TE Vernon Davis.
The tight ends have taken attention away from WR Wes Welker. A skilled route runner, Welker has great hands and has been Brady's "Mr. Reliable" for years. He had 9-136-0 receiving against the Giants. Deion Branch is the team's outside threat, and WR Julian Edelman also can line up in the backfield. Chad Ochocinco has been ineffective all season, and he was inactive against the Ravens.
The Giants' secondary played well against the Patriots in the first matchup, and the front four pressured Brady (two sacks, two interceptions) all game. With Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and three solid tackles, the Giants have numerous DL combinations to both send four-man pressures without blitzing and also stop the run.
CB Corey Webster is big and physical, typically covering the opponent's top outside receiver (Branch). Aaron Ross handles quicker receivers and can go into the slot - he'll see plenty of Welker — but so can Rolle, who is a versatile corner-safety hybrid. Phillips and Deon Grant are rangy hitters who often are on the field with Rolle in the Giants' "big nickel" package.
The Pats showed in the win over the Ravens that they still can pound it. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a patient, powerful runner who doesn't fumble. Danny Woodhead has great balance, is elusive and is a solid pass catcher.
Versatile LB Mathias Kiwanuka, midseason add-on Chase Blackburn and Boley have played better down the stretch. Kiwanuka also can put his hand in the dirt and rush.
Pro Bowl OGs Logan Mankins and Brian Waters are very good run blockers. ORT Nate Solder has done well in the run game this season, as well, though he struggled to pass-block vs. Baltimore. However, Sebastian Vollmer (illness, back, foot) could start in Solder's place if he's healthy. OLT Matt Light has been consistent in protecting Brady's blind side.
Both teams boast solid special-teams units — big reasons why they are playing for the Lombardi Trophy.
The Giants advanced to the Super Bowl due to a recovered fumble on a punt that led to Lawrence Tynes' game-winning field goal. The Patriots survived when Ravens PK Billy Cundiff missed his game-tying FG attempt in the final seconds. PK Stephen Gostkowski made his three FG attempts.
The Patriots' special teams, coached by Scott O'Brien, are some of the NFL's best. Gostkowski, who is 4-for-4 in the playoffs, converted 28-of-33 FG attempts in the regular season. His big leg (41 touchbacks in the regular season) boomed five kickoffs into the endzone against the Ravens.
P Zoltan Mesko has been huge for the Patriots in his second season. His regular-season net average was 41.5 yards, and he dropped 24 of his 57 punts inside the 20-yard line. The punt-coverage units are also strong, finishing 13th in yards allowed.
PR Julian Edelman had one return TD during the regular season, but most teams kept him in check. Wes Welker will return punts, too. Kickoff returns were a problem — the Pats were 30th in the league — but Danny Woodhead had a 41-yard return against Baltimore. He also lost a fumble.
Tynes missed only five FG attempts during the regular season but missed one in each of the Giants' first two playoff games. He had 34 touchbacks during the regular season, and the Giants' coverage team held opponents in check, finishing 11th in kickoff-return average allowed.
P Steve Weatherford, who came up big against the 49ers, had a career-high net punting average of 39.2 yards this season. The Giants were 17th in punt-return average allowed. Aaron Ross and Will Blackmon have split the majority of punt returns, and neither has made much of an impact.
Rookie WR Jerrel Jernigan returned kickoffs for the Giants in their NFC title-game win. On the season, the Giants finished 22nd in the league.
FIVE KEYS TO THE GAME
1. Keeping Brady clean
Many of the names have changed, but the story has not. If the Patriots want to win, they must give Tom Brady time to throw — more than they did in Super Bowl XLII in 2008 and more than in the matchup against the Giants in Week Nine this season. Brady threw for 342 yards against the Giants back in November, but he was pressured heavily in the second half, threw 21 incomplete passes in the game and gained only seven yards per throw. The Patriots must handle the edge speed, yes, but also the A-gap pressures that can throw Brady off his game.
2. Wilfork must dominate
In terms of personnel, the Patriots' defense is decidedly average. First-round CB Devin McCourty has struggled, and LB Jerod Mayo is good but not yet great. The key to the Patriots' "D" — obvious to even casual observers against the Ravens — is DL Vince Wilfork. He can slide to almost any technique, from nose tackle to end, but his best matchup might be against Giants C David Baas. The O-line has improved over the course of the season, but Baas can be overwhelmed by power. 49ers DT Ray McDonald (2½ sacks vs. Giants) dominated their matchup.
3. Which QB gets it last?
Tom Brady has made a career of clutch performances. Eli Manning has had his finest season, turning the heat up in the fourth quarter and OT. He stole one against the Patriots by driving down the field and hitting Jake Ballard for the game-winning TD in the final moments in Week Nine at Foxborough. This game could come down to which QB has the ball in his hands last. Brady might not have had a signature game-winning drive in a playoff game in some time, and he panned his own performance against the Ravens, but anyone would be silly to say he's not capable of it.
4. Don't forget the run
Neither team has done its best work on the ground this season, but it would be foolish to overlook this facet of the game in the big picture. The Giants have had some of their better rushing performances down the stretch, and the Patriots proved they, too, can run the ball against the Ravens. Some of it will be to take pressure off Brady and Manning and to slow down the pass rush. And the Patriots use a lot of short passes as a run-game substitute. But Ahmad Bradshaw and BenJarvus Green-Ellis both are capable runners, especially near the goal line.
5. Winning turnover battle
The Patriots and Giants both were smart with the ball. The Patriots were plus-17 in turnovers in the regular season; the Giants were plus-seven. One reason why the Patriots allowed so many yards per game (411.1) but ranked 15th in points allowed had a lot to do with their 34 takeaways. But the numbers have flipped in the postseason. The Patriots are minus-3 in two games, and the Giants are plus-5 — they've forced turnovers in all three games as their defense has heated up. This statistic is always important, but never more so than in the biggest game.