New England Patriots (15-0) at New York Giants (10-5), 8:15 p.m. Chs. 4, 5, 7, and NFL Network Line: Patriots by 13
When the Patriots run
New England's resurgent running game has eased the minds of those concerned whether this team could move the ball in winter/playoff weather. Laurence Maroney, who has been used conservatively much of the season, has showed a lot of giddyup over the last two weeks, proving he has plenty left in the tank. Maroney has displayed an explosive first step and powerful strides in breaking the 100-yard mark two games straight. A knock on Maroney is that he runs too upright, leaving him vulnerable to big hits. When he lowers his shoulder pads (a la Corey Dillon) he has the ability to dish out as much punishment as he takes. Kevin Faulk provides invaluable pop when Maroney needs a breather. The seams will be harder to find Saturday night as the Giants feature a powerful, athletic front seven. New England's offensive line has been exceptional and Maroney would do well to run left behind guard Logan Mankins and tackle Matt Light. The Giants have a pair of mammoth tackles in Fred Robbins and Barry Cofield. Robbins has good balance and stamina and takes good angles. He'll get overpowered sometimes because he lacks speed off the snap. Cofield has decent speed and power but will get beat by more athletic linemen. Middle linebacker Antonio Pierce (96 tackles) is a destructive force. Pierce uses his tremendous instincts and range to make plays from sideline to sideline. He has excellent closing speed and makes every hit hurt. Kawika Mitchell also has good range and feeds off Pierce's aggressiveness.
When the Patriots pass
With decent weather forecast, expect New England to come out flying with its unparalleled passing attack. Tom Brady has looked downright average over the last two games and needs to get back on track for the playoffs. Brady is at his best when distributing the ball among his talented corps of receivers. Brady has at times been guilty of trying to force the ball to Randy Moss and this will lead to trouble (i.e. sacks and interceptions). That being said, Moss is special. His speed, acceleration, and wingspan make him nearly impossible to defend one on one. Neither Sam Madison nor Aaron Ross possess the skills to consistently hold Moss in check (they're not alone). The unfortunate corner who draws Moss must assault him at the line and then stick with him until the safeties arrive to help. Wes Welker has been a demon out of the slot and if he's allowed a clean break at the snap he'll expose the Giants linebackers' lack of coverage skills. The swift and strong Donte' Stallworth is often the forgotten man, but any receiver averaging 15.5 yards a catch commands respect. Jabar Gaffney's sure hands make him a constant threat. Brady won't have all night to pick apart this secondary because the Giants can bring the heat. Dangerous defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora blend explosiveness and strength to collapse the pocket quickly. Strahan's speed often leaves tackles flatfooted and quarterbacks just plain flat. Umenyiora uses his upper-body strength to shove opponents aside and maul passers. The underrated Justin Tuck comes in and wreaks havoc on passing downs. Tuck has excellent size and strength and a nonstop motor.
When the Giants run
Despite the retirement of Tiki Barber, New York's rushing attack has hardly missed a beat, and the main reason is the stellar play of the offensive line. Center Shaun O'Hara sets the tone. Much like New England's Dan Koppen, O'Hara won't bowl opponents over with overwhelming size or strength. Instead, O'Hara relies on smarts and angles to shed his initial block before heading to the next level. He'll have his work cut out for him as he battles New England's beastly nose tackle, Vince Wilfork. Guard Chris Snee possesses tremendous quickness and has above-average size and strength. Snee excels at pulling and can often be seen escorting runners down the field. Brandon Jacobs has emerged as New York's lead horse. Jacobs runs with power and vision and rarely gets knocked backward. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's no plodder, either. He almost always makes yards after first contact. Backup Reuben Droughns has decent speed and quickness. His indecisiveness leads to a lot of negative plays, but he has the ability to expose cutback lanes. The Patriots have been susceptible against the run at times, but the front seven still has loads of talent. Aside from the surprisingly agile Wilfork, ends Richard Seymour and Ty Warren are stout run defenders. Seymour excels at slipping between gaps and stopping backs or slowing them until reinforcements arrive. Warren has elite upper-body strength and plays with a relentless mean streak. Inside linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau don't have great speed, but their recognition skills are awesome. They have been rejuvenated by the team's pursuit of perfection.
When the Giants pass
The Giants will struggle to move the ball through the air, but it's not all Eli Manning's fault. Manning's receiving corps is in shambles. Plaxico Burress has a balky ankle; Amani Toomer has lost a step; and Sinorice Moss has a bad back. In addition, Manning's favorite safety valve, Jeremy Shockey, is out with a broken leg. Burress can be a game-changing receiver. He has a lethal combination of speed and size and when properly focused he will give defensive backs fits. However, he is easily knocked off his game. When his number isn't called consistently, Burress loses focus and will disappear for long stretches. In addition, he abhors contact. A few well-timed shots (hello, Rodney Harrison) and Burress will become an uninterested observer. Toomer runs excellent routes and excels at exploiting soft spots. It's imperative he step up and be Manning's go-to guy Saturday night. Like Burress, Toomer can be easily intimidated. The diminutive Moss has blazing speed. He isn't durable and might as well have "fragile" stamped on his back. Tight ends Kevin Boss and Michael Matthews are untested, but have to try and work the middle because Burress and Toomer are sideline huggers. Manning must rally his troops and keep them interested and involved by being decisive and delivering quick, accurate passes. The Patriots will test Manning's mettle by unleashing outside linebackers Mike Vrabel (he's playing like a man possessed) and Adalius Thomas (he may be possessed) to crash the pocket. If Manning takes too much early abuse, look for the Giants to insert jumbo backup Jared Lorenzen to save Manning for the postseason.
Giants' keys to victory:
1. New York jets: Receivers Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer have to man up and make plays to prevent New England from stacking the box.
2. New York rangers: The defense has to be relentless and make plays from sideline to sideline or this will get ugly in a hurry.
3. New York liberty: Don't be predictable. Throw every trick play in the book at 'em to prevent becoming part of history.
Patriots' keys to victory:
1. Early show: Get over the hype and stay focused. Don't lose this one in the locker room.
2. Early defense: Stack the box and plug the holes to prevent the Giants' impressive running game from controlling the clock.
3. Early retirement: Start fast, break the records, and put this game away in the first half. That way, everybody goes home healthy.
Giants' key player: Eli Manning
A very streaky player, Manning can at times carry his team. He's very smart, but has yet to show the consistency needed to be considered an elite NFL quarterback. He's at a disadvantage Saturday night because of a lack of weapons.
How he beats you: With smarts and arm strength. Manning can make all the throws and when he finds his rhythm he will shred certain defenses. He's lethal on fade routes.
How to shut him down: By getting physical. Manning is easily rattled and rarely bounces back from a beating. He too often looks lost and is not a true field general.
Prediction: Patriots 30, Giants 21