Third in a series
Here's a key matchup to watch in Super Bowl XLVI:
Giants WRs Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham vs. Patriots CBs Kyle Arrington, Sterling Moore, Devin McCourty and Julian Edelman
Wide receivers vs. cornerbacks is a matchup the Giants exploited in Week Nine, as many teams have against the Patriots this season, and where, on paper, it's a mismatch in New York's favor that could help decide the Super Bowl.
Looking back at the Week Nine matchup, though, it's important to note who did not play. Nicks was out, Edelman had not made the move to the secondary yet and Moore was not on the Patriots' active roster.
In that game, Cruz had six catches for 91 yards and Manningham went 3-33-1.
In the playoffs, the Patriots have moved some parts in the secondary. In the nickel, McCourty has dropped back to play safety with Moore playing a boundary corner position opposite Arrington. Moore had two key passes defensed late in the Patriots' AFC championship win. Edelman played the slot against Ravens WR Anquan Boldin in the AFC championship game and struggled.
McCourty has had a sophomore slump all season, but the Patriots recognize his ability to track the ball, something DBs coach Josh Boyer pointed out in January. McCourty is fast, but has been beat too many times on big plays this season. If McCourty is lined up against Nicks, the Giants will try to exploit that matchup. Even if Moore gets his chance at Nicks, that matchup still goes in the Giants' favor. Moore has shown his athleticism and ball skills, but lacks in experience and Nicks has had a sensational postseason.
Arrington is small but has been reliable and a bit of a ballhawk this season with seven interceptions, including a pick of Eli Manning in Week Nine, but Manningham did beat Arrington for a touchdown on a simple corner route. His pick actually came on a throw targeted at Manningham, but Arrington was covering TE Bear Pascoe on the route.
The key question will be this — who covers Cruz? Edelman may be a wrinkle that Bill Belichick has used this season, but Edelman — a receiver and punt returner first, cornerback second — cannot stick with Cruz, who gained the third-most receiving yards in the regular season (1,536). Other options the Patriots have in the slot include Antwaun Molden and Nate Jones. The Patriots could slide either McCourty or Moore in there as well, but their best option might be trying to bracket Cruz with a safety like James Ihedigbo or Patrick Chung.
Belichick, known as a defensive mastermind, hasn't necessarily had the results on the field to back that up this season, and while his unit has stepped up in the playoffs, it has not faced a receiving corps like the Giants'.
In one-on-one battles, the Giants have the personnel at receiver to win every time against the Patriots' corners. But this is a New England team that has been opportunistic, and you never know if McCourty decides to step up and have the type of game we saw last season when he was close to a shut-down corner.
All eyes will be on the field when the Giants get the ball first to see how the Patriots counter the three receivers, especially Cruz. This is a matchup that both teams will have to adapt to throughout the game, based on the Patriots' opening alignment. New England will likely use multiple looks and move DBs around, but someone in the secondary will need to have a big game to help the Patriots' chances on Sunday.