Patriots to serve as proving ground for Manning, Giants
When the New York Giants and New England Patriots take the grabbing statement and one team to gain retribution for a memorable loss it's waited four years to avenge.
Though this Week 9 showdown certainly carries plenty of significance for the two participants, both of whom currently sit at the top of their respective divisions, the stakes still won't nearly be as high as the last time the Giants and Patriots squared off in a meaningful contest. That took place at Arizona's University of Phoenix Stadium in February of 2008, when New York spoiled New England's attempt at an unprecedented 19-0 season by rallying for a thrilling 17-14 victory in Super Bowl XLII.
The Patriots' chance at revenge still isn't the primary storyline of this key clash, however. Instead, most viewers will be focused on the two quarterbacks that will be leading their offenses on Sunday, thanks to some comments made by Giants signal-caller Eli Manning during the preseason that drew a flurry of attention and debate.
Manning created a small controversy by stating in a radio interview over the summer he considered himself in the same class as New England counterpart Tom Brady, a player who's garnered six Pro Bowl citations, three Super Bowl titles and two NFL Most Valuable Player Awards during his glorious career.
Though New York's triggerman doesn't possess that amount of accolades, he was able to get the better of Brady in their most recent head-to-head encounter. Manning helped the Giants pull off the upset in Super Bowl XLII by engineering a long touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter, highlighted by an unforgettable third-down play in which he eluded a heavy rush and connected with David Tyree for an improbable 32-yard completion, and was named the game's MVP.
Manning has actually compared favorably with Brady through the first eight weeks of this season. The former No. 1 overall draft pick has produced a career-best 102.1 passer rating during New York's 5-2 start, which trails only the Patriots' star and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers for tops in the league in that category.
While that individual battle has brought some additional intrigue to this already compelling tilt, Manning said his goal this week won't be to prove he belongs in the league's upper echelon of quarterbacks.
"I think when you go against New England, that's all I'm thinking about," he stated this week. "They're always a talented team, always a team that finds ways to win games, whether it's through their offense or defense. We understand that we have to play solid football.
"I'm focused on this game, this team and what we have to do this week."
Likewise, the Patriots' goal this week won't be getting payback for that stinging Super Bowl defeat. New England is presently engaged in a three-team fight for AFC East supremacy, with the defending division champions tied with surprising Buffalo for the top spot, and returns home off its worst outing of the season after being stymied by Pittsburgh in a 25-17 loss last Sunday.
"That's a distant memory," said Brady of the Patriots' last skirmish with the Giants. There's not much you can take from that. This is an entirely different team that we have and that they have. There are so many players on our team that were obviously not a part of that game, or any game against the Giants."
New England's powerful offense was held to 213 total yards by the Steelers, less than half of its season average coming into the game.
Coming back to Gillette Stadium could help the Pats get back on track. New England owns a 20-game regular-season winning streak at its home venue, and hasn't lost there in its last 31 non-playoff tests in which Brady has started.
The Giants have opened up a two-game advantage in the NFC East by winning their last two games, including this past week's 20-17 triumph over stumbling Miami in which Manning threw for 349 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The Patriots hold a 5-3 edge in their overall regular-season series with New York and have bested the Giants four straight times in games not involving the postseason. The teams also faced one another in the 2007 regular-season finale, with New England capping a 16-0 campaign with a hard-earned 38-35 victory at Giants Stadium. New York has left with defeats in its last two trips to Foxborough, which occurred in 1999 and 2003, and hasn't topped the Pats in the regular season since a 13-10 road decision on Dec. 30, 1990.
New York's comeback win in Super Bowl XLII stands as the only postseason meeting between the clubs.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who served 12 years as a Giants assistant from 1979-90, is 2-3 against his former employer for his career and 2-1 during his tenure in New England. His first two losses to New York came while the head coach of the Cleveland Browns from 1991-95.
The Giants' Tom Coughlin has a 2-4 record versus New England as a head coach, including a 1-3 mark during his time in charge of Jacksonville from 1995-2002 that contains a win over the Pats in a 1998 AFC First-Round Playoff and a loss in the 1996 AFC Championship. Coughlin is 3-1 lifetime in head-to-head bouts with Belichick, with the first two victories coming for his Jaguars against the Browns in 1995.
Belichick and Coughlin also worked together for three years (1988-90) on Bill Parcells' staff with the Giants, with the former then the defensive coordinator and the latter the team's wide receivers coach.
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.
This Super Bowl rematch may turn out more like the 2007 regular-season meeting between these teams, an all-out shootout in which Brady and Manning combined for over 600 yards and six touchdowns, as opposed to the defensively-oriented nail-biter that took place in Arizona. Both quarterbacks will have their moments, as will a Giants defense that has the potential to disrupt New England's aerial assault with its pressure. The offenses should have their say in the end, however. If that's indeed the case, the Patriots' better balance on that side of the ball and sustained success at home could be the determining factors in a hard-fought contest that won't have a shortage of thrills.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 35, Giants 31