In case you hadn't heard, the New York Giants face the undefeated New England Patriots (8-0) this Sunday. Here are five things to watch during the game.
Are the Giants really New England's Kryptonite?
You know the history. Fans on both sides know it. So do the players, even though most of them had nothing to do with it.
The Giants have won the past three meetings between these teams, including historic victories in Super Bowls XLII (17-14) and XLVI (21-17). The memory of those Super Bowl losses still stings the Patriots.
"I'd much rather have won them than lost them," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said, referring to the lost Super Bowls to New York. "But they won't have any bearing on this week or what the match-ups are. It's a totally different team and game and situation and so forth, but they just have a great organization. They've had a great organization for a long time."
The Giants won the last regular season meeting between the two teams, defeating New England, 24-20, at Gillette Stadium in Week 9 of the 2011 season. And yes, Tom Coughlin is 5-1 coaching against Bill Belichick.
That's all nice to talk about. None of it really matters on Sunday, though.
"It's a new year, new scheme, it's a new team, all of those things. We have some ideas that carry over, but by in large, as you said, that's in the past," said Coughlin. "It's a whole new ball game."
Can the Giants pressure Tom Brady?
Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul promised earlier this week that the Giants would put the heat on the Patriots' star quarterback:
"We're going to get to the quarterback, I know I am, I know others guys as well," Pierre-Paul said on Wednesday.
Can the Giants, the league's worst pass-rushing team, really do that? Yes, JPP is back and that did help the Giants get more pressure last week on Tampa Bay Baccneers quarterback Jameis Winston than they had generated in many games this season. They still did not get a sack, however, and with nine remain the only team in the league not in double digits. Yes, the Patriots are beaten up along the offensive line and may field a makeshift group on Sunday. Still the Giants have to prove they can get to Brady before he does to their defense what Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints did two weeks ago.
"It's difficult. He's the quickest in the league getting rid of the ball, that's a fact," said Coughlin. "But you have to try. Whether you try with four, five, six, whatever ... at certain points of the game you got to try."
Can anybody slow down Rob Gronkowski?
Seriously? How are the Giants going to cover this guy? They haven't found a way to adequately cover a tight end yet this season, and now they face the biggest, baddest, best bully of them all. This does not shape up as a fair fight at all.
Here are some of the numbers tight ends have put up against the Giants this season:
- Week 1 -- Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys (8 catches, 60 yards, 2 TDs)
- Week 2 -- Jacob Tamme, Atlanta Falcons (4 catches, 71 yards, including a 41-yard catch)
- Week 3 -- Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins (6 catches, 96 yards)
- Week 4 -- Charles Clay, Buffalo Biills (9 catches, 111 yards)
- Week 7 -- Witten (6 catches, 73 yards, including a 35-yarder)
- Week 8 -- Ben Watson, New Orleans Saints (9 catches, 147 yards, 1 TD, including a 46-yard reception)
Gronkowski's 44 catches are one behind Martellus Bennett for most among tight ends, and his average of 15.8 yards per catch is tied for ebst yards per catch average among tight ends with Greg Olson of the Carolina Panthers.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin this week called the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowki "a rare athlete" and said the Giants would try to mix their coverages against him. That's a nice idea, but the Giants haven't found a coverage that worked, or at least a player who could successfully get the job done in coverage, against a tight end thru the first nine games. What makes anyone think they will be able to contain GRONK?
If I'm Tom Brady my game play might just be to throw Gronkowski the ball 40 times and see if the Giants have a prayer.
Battle of the special teams
Football Outsiders ranks the Patriots (No.1) and Giants (No. 2) as the top two special teams units in the league. Bet you never saw that coming with the Giants and the much-maligned Tom Quinn as special teams coordinator. Still, both of these groups have been outstanding, so it will be interesting to see if either side can gain an advantage Sunday in the kicking game.
Josh Brown of the Giants is the reigning NFC Special Teams Player of the Week and has a streak of 23 straight made field goals. The only active kicker with a longer streak is Stephen Gostkowski of the Patriots, who has made 28 straight.
Giants' punter Brad Wing is third in the league with 18 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. Wings has punted 40 times, meaning 45 percent of his punts are downed inside the 20. Ryan Allen of the Patriots has been even better, with 14 of 25 punts (56 percent) downed inside the 20. New England is third in the league, surrendering 4.8 yards per punt return. The Giants are ninth, giving up only 6.4 per return.
The Giants are seventh in the league in covering kickoffs, giving up 21.1 yards per return. New England gives up only 21.5 per return.
Each team boasts a special teams star. For the Giants, that is Dwayne Harris, who leads the league with an average 33 yards per kickoff return and averages 7.8 yards per punt return. Harris is also an outstanding coverage man, but has seen his role there limited as he plays more offense. For the Patriots, Matthew Slater has made the Pro Bowl in each of the past four seasons for his work as coverage teams. Slater and Nick Ebner each have seven special teams tackles for New England. Craig Dahl has 10 and Mark Herzlich nine for the Giants.
How will the Giants attack New England's defense?
Coughlin always places an emphasis on the run game and time of possession, but with the Giants bring the league's worst defense into a matchup against what Coughlin calls "a high-flying team" like the Patriots with the league's highest-scoring offense you can bet those two things will be of even more importance to Coughlin this week.
"You have to keep the ball, you've got to take full advantage of your drives, your opportunities and the good mix, and the clock running is all part of that," Coughlin said. "It's all part of the thinking."
The problem is the Patriots are third in the league in rushing yardage allowed, giving up 89.2 yards per game, although they are 15 in yards per carry allowed at 4.1 per rushing attempt.
In our "Five Questions" segment on Thursday, Richard Hill of Pats Pulpit told us that trying to run on the Patriots is a recipe for disaster:
If I'm the Giants offense, I ignore the run game. This isn't crazy and it's what the Patriots did against the Jets, when Tom Brady only handed off on 5 of the team's 67 snaps. Teams have such a desire to establish the run that they forget that throwing the ball in the flat to Shane Vereen for four yards is going to be more successful.
When teams run the ball against the Patriots, they set themselves up for 3rd and long, and if that happens on consecutive drives to open the game, then New England is already up two scores. Don't waste a precious drive with a fruitless play.
The Giants have had their best running games of the season in recent weeks, with Vereen, Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams and Orleans Darkwa taking turns. The Giants gained 132 yards in Week 7 vs. the Dallas Cowboys and 114 yards vs. the Bucs last week, the only two times this season they have crossed the 100-yard threshold.
"We want to play balanced. We want to play balanced football, we want to run a little bit, we want to throw a little bit, and, again, situationally we have to do the smart thing to win the down and move the chains and keep the ball in our hands. When we get into the green zone, we have to execute, we have to try technique and trust our training, not chase anything that isn't there," said offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. "You have to be smart with the ball. We understand that they're good on offense, but we need to play good team football, good smart team football, and we need to do our job on offense.
"We need to come out and play our game, be comfortable in our own skin that way, see how the game unfolds. They have some good players over there, they have a good scheme, and they'll have something new for us, there's no doubt. We'll have to be ready to adjust and improvise as the game goes on."