Against an average, middle of the road passing attack in the AFC Championship Game, the New England Patriots' defense looked very much like the team ranked 31st in the league in passing yards allowed. While some late big plays and a missed field goal were enough to put the Pats into the Super Bowl, they allowed Joe Flacco to put up numbers in every passing category that were considerably better than his season averages.
The Baltimore Ravens passing attack was ranked 19th in the league for yards per game this season. They didn't have a 1000 yard receiver and their third biggest threat at the wide receiver position in the AFC Championship Game, Lee Evans, had four receptions in the regular season. The New York Giants are a completely different animal.
Eli Manning and the New York Giants were ranked fifth in the league for passing yards per game during the regular season and they've only improved in the playoffs. While Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz have looked every bit like the 1000-plus yard receivers they were in the regular season, Mario Manningham has stepped up and looks like one of the best No. 3 receivers in the league.
"[W]e never categorize him [as being] in the background. We always look at him as being able to make big plays."
Nicks and Cruz grab the headlines, but along with the regularly overlooked Jake Ballard and running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who made 34 receptions in the regular season in just 12 games played, Manningham helps to complete one of the league's most complete and diverse passing attacks.
The Patriots will have a true cornerback on Manningham for most of the game, but situations will arise where he is covered by a safety or Julian Edelman out of necessity. When that happens, it will be a serious matchup problem for the Pats. Bill Belichick will be gameplanning for the Giants' third WR and the matchup problems he presents just as much as any other aspect of their offense.