SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 22: (L-R) Mario Manningham #82, Hakeem Nicks #88 and Victor Cruz #80 of the New York Giants walk back ot the sideline in the fourth quarter after Manningham scored a 17-yard touchdown against the af during the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park on January 22, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Forget the New York Giants' pass rush. If the New England Patriots hope to win a Super Bowl rematch, they have to find answers for Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and the Giants' wide receivers.
The New England Patriots and the New York Giants met in Week 9 during the regular season. Billed as a Super Bowl XLII rematch, I'm sure the media world wold have spared a little ink had they been able to foresee the lineup for Super Bowl XLVI. Hype aside, Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz made the week's most prescient comment, one that continues to carry real implications ahead of their rematch in The Big Game.
"We see that there's some things, that they have some weaknesses in their defense, and we can do some positive things and take advantage of that. They've been having some troubles, moving some guys around, and we can use the passing game."
The Patriots, Packers, Saints, Lions ... all of those teams were part of a trend toward the aerial assault this season. Eli Manning and his cohort of sure-handed receivers in New York quietly made the Giants an infrequently acknowledged member of that group. The Giants pass far more effectively than they run the ball. According to the regular season statistics from Football Outsiders, the Giants passing offense was the fourth-best in the league this year with a 36.3 percent defense-adjusted value over average. Only the Packers, Patriots and Saints were more efficient with the ball in the air.
Bill Belichick has a matchup problem, much like he did in Week 9 and throughout the season, with his secondary. For most of the year and throughout the playoffs, the Patriots were able to mask problems in their backfield with solid play from their front seven and Tom Brady's ability to score points at will.
The Patriots defense earned praise for their play in the AFC Championship against the Ravens. Spare part safety Sterling Moore became a sort of unofficial hero for his fourth quarter play to deflect what would have been a touchdown pass to Lee Evans. In reality, Evans, in classic Lee Evans form, made the play for Moore, failing to secure a pass that should have won the game.
The Giants collection of receivers, including Cruz, and Hakeem Nicks, aren't as prone to gaffs as Evans.
Against the Ravens, New England's defense backs allowed Joe Flacco to pass for 306 yards, completing 22-of-36 attempts. That included seven passing plays that went for more than 15 yards and five of those plays gained 20 yards or more. It was a continuation of the Patriots' year-long struggles with the deep ball.
Quarterbacks are completing 69 percent of their passes against Patriots' safeties Patrick Chung and James Ihedigbo, from Week 1 through the AFC Championship. Flacco was 5-for-8 against the two of them last week, according to the charting stats at Pro Football Focus.
New England's cornerbacks haven't done much better. Tim Tebow was seven-for-11 against Kyle Arrington in the divisional round, and Flacco was a perfect 4-for-4. Devin McCourty, the Patriots' top corner, is allowing a 60 percent completion rate through the regular season and the playoffs, where he's been working some at safety. Flacco was 1-for-2 against him last week.
Compare that to the Giants' receivers, and the numbers speak to the mismatch. Cruz has a 67 percent catch rate. He caught 10 of 16 passes thrown his way against the 49ers. He also averages 18 yards per reception.
Hakeem Nicks, who missed the regular season matchup between these two teams, is catching more than 60 percent of the passes thrown his way. He caught seven of eight passes in their win against the Packers, a team whose secondary is comparable to the Patriots' back four. The 49ers limited him to five catches on 10 targets.
When you add in Jake Ballard, who caught more than 66 percent of passes throw to him in the regular season, and Mario Manningham, it looks like the Patriots will have more to think about than stopping the Giants pass rush if they hope to get another Super Bowl win.
Already, people are fixating on the rematch between the Giants defensive line and Tom Brady. New York's matchup nightmares against Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is a popular undercard. However, if the Patriots can't find an answer for Eli Manning and his receivers, "The Catch" might be a pretty regular occurrance in the Super Bowl rematch.