Sunday afternoon a pair of first-place, 5-2 football teams will battle it out as the Giants commute north on I-95 to take on a Patriots team looking to rebound from a tough week. The game also includes two of the four quarterbacks with a passer rating over 100 for the season, as Eli Manning continues to try to back up his summer comments that he belongs in the same elite category as Tom Brady. Are Tom Coughlin's Giants, again a heavy underdog, up to the task of the upset the way they were in the Super Bowl back in February 2008? Or is Bill Belichick's squad ready to take out its frustration on their blue-clad visitors? We'll know a lot more about each of these teams and their championship hopes when the final gun sounds on Sunday night. Until then, enjoy this Big Blue Giants Six-Pack to get in the proper mindset for this interconference battle.
1. Under pressure - The Giants bring the best pass rush in the NFL to town, leading the league in sacks (26) and sacks per pass play. Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora are back to full health after missing time earlier in the year. Jason Pierre-Paul is having a breakout second season with 8.5 sacks, displaying more technique and awareness to go along with his impressive raw physical skills. JPP - as everyone seems to call him - moves all around the Giants front and is a developing star on a front that's filled with talent. He missed practice on Friday, but remains questionable to play with a concussion suffered in practice on Thursday. The Patriots pass protection has been under pressure of late. Brady was sacked just four times in the first four games, but has gone down 10 times in the last three. New England still ranks fourth in the New York Life Protection Index, but the line's performance certainly isn't trending in the direction Dante Scarnecchia would like. In order for the Patriots to have success against a Giants undermanned secondary, they'll have to give Brady time to work. That starts up front in a battle that Matt Light and Logan Mankins didn't win way back when in the desert.
2. Spreaded and shredded - New England's pass defense has been harder to find than a gangster in the witness protection program of late. Any good will it built up heading into the bye was blown away in Pittsburgh. Manning is having a very good year completing 65 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions for a 102.1 passer rating. Though Hakeem Nicks (doubtful) is hobbled as his top receiver and playmaker, UMass product Victor Cruz has made plenty of his own plays. The Patriots have made lesser quarterbacks and lesser receivers look very good this season. That can't happen again. They may not turn into a coverage force or pass rush presence overnight, but it can't be as bad as it was at Heinz Field last Sunday evening, especially if New York's missing it's playmaking star. Maybe Josh Barrett will be back to help a little in the back end. More likely the improvement will have to come up front. Andre Carter must build on his consecutive two-sack games. Maybe Mark Anderson will get a little more run in the pass rush. Maybe Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth can cruht the pocket against an average offensive line. Regardless how the pass defense improves, it can't allow itself to be spread out and absolutely shredded as was the case against Ben Roethlisberger.
3. Our Big Ben - Last week Pittsburgh's Big Ben did the Patriots in. This time around New England's own Ben - running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis - may shine. The Giants sport the NFL's 28th ranked run defense. Teams are averaging 4.7 yards a carry on the ground. The New York front seven is much better rushing the passer than playing the run. Any success the Patriots can get moving on the ground will also help out the pass protection. Green-Ellis and rookie Stevan Ridley were a non-factor against the Steelers. Both have shined at times this season. This is another chance to balance out the offense, take the pressure off the passing game and take advantage of an opponent's weakness.
4. KISS in Red! - As I've said in previous weeks, when you walk the fine line between winning and losing that New England has given its ineptitude on defense it's very important to Kill In the Simple Stats. That means winning the battle on third down, in the red zone and on turnovers. The biggest of those may be the red zone. Sure getting off the field is great, but the Patriots haven't done that consistently enough. The only area the defense has truly been competitive is the red area, where New England ranks tied for 16th in the NFL. That's good because the Giants rank fifth in red zone offense. New York also has the edge coming in as far as turnover ratio, at plus-5 compared to plus-2 for the Patriots. New England kept what was otherwise a butt-whooping close in Pittsburgh by forcing field goals in the red zone. That will likely be the key every week moving forward, but winning the battle of the other key stats can't be overlooked either.
6. Passing concerns - There's been some chatter this week that the Patriots No. 3 ranked offense has shown signs of vulnerability in recent matchups against the Jets, Cowboys and Steelers. Questions have arisen about the team's ability to beat man coverage. Is there a missing aspect to the offense? Will Taylor Price finally get his chances? Is Chad Ochocinco playing himself right out of the mix? Are the tight ends capable of carrying a big part of the load all year? After two weeks with less than 50 yards, is Wes Welker fading? There is a still a ton of talent on the Patriots passing attack, and that will be in focus on Sunday. Smart money will bank on a big performance from Brady & Co.
Let's see, the Patriots have won 18 in a row against an NFC foe in Foxborough. They have won 19 regular season games in a row at Gillette Stadium. They haven't lost consecutive games since 2009, and in only three seasons since Brady took over in 2001. That's a lot of random factors falling the Patriots way. Hard to predict any game to not be relatively high scoring if the Patriots are part of it. In the end I think Manning makes a couple mistakes that cost his team, the Patriots offensive line gives Brady the time he needs and New England stays in relative control for most of the evening. Despite the fact that Giants rank No. 7 and the Patriots No. 10 in the Wilson-Hart Power Index, I'm going for the offense to get back into the 30s for the Patriots 35-21 victory. Not all ills will be cured, but at least Patriots Nation will feel a little bit better moving forward.