SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – When the Patriots defeated the Giants 38-35 in the perfect Dec. 29 season finale, Eli Manning threw for 251 yards with four touchdowns for a 118.1 passer rating. Big-play Big Blue receiver Plaxico Burress caught four passes four 84 yards, including a 52-yard first-quarter bomb and a pair of touchdowns.
Needless to say it wasn't a highlight reel game for the New England defense, particularly its secondary. But the Patriots defensive backs will get a chance at redemption matching up with Manning, Burress and the Giants this Sunday evening at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Since the last meeting Manning has been playing mistake-free football with four touchdowns and no interceptions in the three postseason games to go along with a 123.2 playoff passer rating. Burress, New York's No. 1 receiver all season is coming off a huge NFC title game performance in which he consistently beat Packers Pro Bowl cornerback Al Harris for 11 catches and 151 yards to pace the Giants offensive attack.
"He did a good job. He had a hell of a game. Eli was putting them right on the money for him," Patriots All-Pro cornerback Asante Samuel said. "He had a hell of a game, probably the best of his career. It is what it is."
Added safety James Sanders: "He's a big body. He can run well. He runs good routes. He's physical. He can go up and get the ball. He's everything you want in a big, playmaking receiver. We have to go out there and compete with him for 60 minutes. We know what kind of big-play potential he has and we have to try to limit that."
New England will attempt to do that by taking a different approach than Green Bay did. While the Packers mainly used Harris in press coverage in an effort to stop Burress, look for the Patriots to put forth a more diverse defensive scheme.
"In that game, the Packers they didn't have a variation of coverages," Sanders said. "What we're going to do is we're going to keep confusing Manning, move around and try to keep him guessing. In that game against the Packers he made some great throws, a couple back shoulder fades and Plaxico did a good job of fighting to get open. We just have to compete with him every play and keep them guessing."
The Patriots also plan on learning from their own defensive struggles in the season finale. Rodney Harrison has described that effort as "terrible" and "crappy." Samuel agrees.
"I think it was just that we played a terrible game on defense. They were on point and clicking on all cylinders," Samuel recalled. "We are going to change it up. We're going to try to get pressure. We're going to try to confuse them. We are going to try to rattle them a little bit and we're going to be physical like we always are."
The New England secondary -- an aspect of the undefeated team that's been criticized at times throughout the year -- has tried to turn its role as a perceived weakness into a motivational strength heading into the biggest game of the year. Hobbs, who despite tight coverage allowed Burress' 52 yarder in the season finale, is generally the lightning rod of criticism in the group. He and the rest of the defensive backfield have one more chance to prove their mettle on potentially the most historic team in NFL history.
"When people put a target on your chest there are two things you can do. You can either run or you can respond," Sanders said. "We respond to that. We've brought on the challenge. Of course we are going to take the criticism when you have a front like we have and playmaking linebackers. But at the same time you see that we have the ability to make plays. Ellis has gotten a lot of criticism but he's on the other side from Asante Samuel, one of the best cornerbacks in this league. So that's going to happen. I think he's playing good ball right now. He's battling. That's all we can ask for."
Hobbs and Co. have one more battle, one more test this Sunday night. Exactly how Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Dean Pees attack Manning, Burress and the rest of the Giants offense is one of the big questions heading into the big game. But Samuel thinks the answer, the recipe for victory, is simple.
"Go out and play Patriots football," Samuel said with confidence.