When the New England Patriots and New York Giants last met, little did anyone know that that would serve as a preview for Super Bowl XLII.
Looking back, the Dec. 29 regular-season finale at Giants Stadium -- drawing unprecedented coverage from three television networks -- was the perfect precursor for the "real" big game.
The Giants gave the Patriots all they could handle, nearly denying them the chance to finish the regular season as the NFL's only 16-0 team. But in the end, the Patriots found a way to prevail, 38-35.
Eli Manning, the Giants' much-maligned quarterback, had a breakout performance that provided momentum that carried into the postseason. He was 22-for-32 for 251 yards and four touchdowns while throwing only one interception. Manning has not been intercepted since.
Here's an early look at the Patriots-Giants rematch in Super Bowl XLII:
Five keys for the Patriots
1. Get Tom Brady back to his big-play form: Brady struggled in the AFC Championship Game, hardly resembling the quarterback who threw for an NFL-record 50 touchdown passes during the regular season. He threw three interceptions against San Diego and was unable to make any big throws. He wound up relying heavily on running back Kevin Faulk, who caught a game-high eight passes. He also was able to find his slot receiver, Wes Welker, but only connected once with his game-breaking target, Randy Moss.
2. Run the ball effectively: Laurence Maroney has come on as a major force in the postseason. He must continue to have that sort of impact in the Super Bowl in order to help slow down the Giants' pass rush and give the Patriots' offense some balance. The most under-appreciated aspect of the offense is their rushing attack, which ranked 13th in the NFL. Maroney has a lot of his success running up the middle, behind center Dan Koppen and guards Logan Mankins and Russ Hochstein.
3. Effectively use play-action against the Giants' aggressive defensive front: Most everything that the Patriots do on offense begins with Brady using play-fakes and attacking with short and intermediate passes. The quicker he gets the ball out -- especially on sideline routes -- the better his chances of keeping the chains moving and getting into a rhythm. Brady is one of the very best quarterbacks in the league at reading the blitz, and quickly checking to hot routes. The Patriots will spread the field with four- and five-receiver sets and let Brady locate mismatches.
4. Mix up fronts and coverages: When facing Bill Belichick, the game's foremost defensive mastermind, a quarterback can expect to see a wide variety of fronts and blitzes along with a mixture of coverages. That should be case against young Eli Manning, making his first Super Bowl appearance. Manning should count on some pass-rushing configurations that he has never seen before and coverages that will cause him to hold the ball and/or take a sack, make a poor pass under duress, or bait him into a bad throw.
5. Play stout against the run: The Patriots did an excellent job of shutting down Jacksonville's rushing attack, one of the best in the NFL, in their divisional-round victory over the Jaguars. They will need to perform equally well against the Giants' rushing duo of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. The Pats' run-stopping ability begins with nose tackle Vince Wilfork using his considerable lower-body strength and leverage to clog the middle and runners to bounce outside to Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas. New England's aging inside linebackers, 39-year-old Junior Seau and 34-year-old Tedy Bruschi, count on Wilfork to keep them free of blockers.
Five keys for the Giants
1. Manning must continue to avoid mistakes: He had a solid performance in the overtime win against Green Bay in Sunday's NFC Championship Game. He didn't throw for any scores, but he also didn't have any turnovers. Manning will have to play even better against the Patriots, who are capable of putting plenty of points on the board. With time in the pocket and the room to set his feet, Manning is an extremely accurate passer. Throw in strong running from Jacobs and Bradshaw, and you have a quarterback who can be as dangerous as any in the league ... including his big brother, Peyton. However, when defenses attack him up the middle, Manning can get into trouble and start making the sort of blunders that caused him to draw plenty of criticism during his four NFL seasons.
2. Continue to pound the ball on the ground: At 265 pounds, Jacobs is a big, powerful back -- exactly the type that can present problems to the Pats' defense, which hasn't always been up to the challenge of handling a physical offense. Thanks to the power running of Jacobs, the exceptional speed of Bradshaw, and blocking by an underrated offensive line, the Giants' ground game has become a force through the latter part of the season and playoffs.
3. Get big plays from top receivers Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer: Burress, who caught 11 passes for 154 yards in the NFC Championship Game, has been bothered all season by a sore ankle that has limited or eliminated his practice time. Yet, on game day, Burress is ready to complete and has done a good job providing Manning with a playmaker. When opponents try to force Burress to the middle of the field off his release, he fights his way to the outside and then uses his 6-5 frame to win battles for the ball. Burress is always Manning's first option in the red zone, especially with injured tight end Jeremy Shockey out of the lineup. With his height and leaping ability, Burress creates a big mismatch against most defensive backs and will win most jump balls. Toomer, a 12th-year veteran, has emerged as a game-breaking force in the postseason. He seems to have overcome his case of the drops, although he did have two in Sunday's NFC title game, and has become a good third-down option against man-to-man coverage.
4. Put plenty of heat on Brady: The Giants' defensive specialty is bringing pressure, as evidenced by their league-leading 53 sacks. Besides the pass-rushing prowess of his front four, coordinator Steve Spagnuolo also loves to make use of fire-zone blitzes. Most opponents struggle to keep ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora out of the backfield. That task becomes even more difficult when follow end Justin Tuck lines up inside and a linebacker or safety comes off the edge.
5. Hold up well in the secondary: The Giants need their defensive backs to come up as big as they did in the conference title game, during which they twice intercepted Brett Favre. Despite their outstanding pass rush, the Giants have had problems in their secondary. During the regular season, they allowed 11 pass plays of 40-plus yards (fourth-most in the league) and 47 plays of 20-plus yards (eighth-most).