PATRIOTS INJURIES: PROBABLE: QB Tom Brady (right shoulder).
GIANTS INJURIES: QUESTIONABLE: WR Plaxico Burress (ankle, knee). PROBABLE: CB Kevin Dockery (hip flexor), G Rich Seubert (knee), DE Osi Umenyiora (thigh).
When the Patriots run
The Patriots' high-powered aerial attack did a lot more than strike fear into the hearts of defenses this year. It also prevented Laurence Maroney from absorbing the normal abuse a featured tailback takes over the course of a season. The result has been fresh legs for Maroney, who has shown over the last month that he's more than capable of carrying the load. The 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pound Maroney can play the power game and the finesse game. He's proven to be a very decisive runner. He's effective and productive when he charges toward the first bit of daylight and either slips his way or powers his way through it. He gets knocked for running a bit too upright, but he will use his shoulders to deflect hits and deliver punishment. Maroney has good stamina and does some of his best work late when defenses are gassed from being stretched out by New England's spread formations. Kevin Faulk is as valuable as any member of this offense. The 5-8, 202-pounder provides excellent pop in the running game, is an exceptional receiver, and is among the best blockers in the game. Fullback Heath Evans (6 feet, 250 pounds) is a decent lead blocker and will get the occasional carry in short-yardage situations. Left guard Logan Mankins sets the tone for New England's ground game. The burly, 6-4, 310-pound lumberjack plays with a mean streak and always finishes his block. If defenders let up before the whistle blows, Mankins will remind them (and not so subtly) that it isn't wise to take plays off when he's around. Right guard Stephen Neal (6-4, 305) has a nice blend of size, speed, and athleticism. Mankins, Neal, and ultra-smart center Dan Koppen (6-2, 296) are adept at hitting moving targets - i.e. blitzing linebackers and safeties. The Giants have a pair of run-stuffing, space-eating tackles who are used to winning the battles in the trenches. Fred Robbins (6-4, 317) is fast enough to shoot gaps and quick enough to slide-step his way down the line to cut off running lanes. Barry Cofield (6-4, 306) is athletic and aggressive. Robbins and Cofield will try to occupy bodies and allow linebackers Antonio Pierce (a devastating hitter), Kawika Mitchell (an excellent pursuer), and Reggie Torbor (a wrap-up tackler) room to make plays.
When the Giants run
The Giants have an underrated 1-2 punch in the running game. Brandon Jacobs (6 feet 4 inches, 264 pounds) runs with the kind of bruising enthusiasm you'd expect from someone his size. He has thick, powerful legs that keep churning until the whistle blows. He's not shifty or speedy, and is more successful when he runs over defenders rather than around them (think Corey Dillon, only slower). Ahmad Bradshaw is the anti-Jacobs. The 5-9, 198-pound sparkplug runs with deceptive speed and power. Bradshaw has excellent vision and patience and is adept at finding and exploiting cutback lanes. Bradshaw runs low and breaks a fair amount of tackles (think Corey Dillon, only smaller). The Patriots have had trouble with running backs who possess Bradshaw's skill set. Fullback Madison Hedgecock excels at sprinting outside and cutting down blockers. Jacobs and Bradshaw have the luxury of running behind one the most physical lines in the league. Center Shaun O'Hara (6-3, 303) sets the tone. O'Hara lacks strength but is technically sound and very aggressive. He works hard to shed his initial block and get a helmet on a linebacker. Right guard Chris Snee (6-3, 317) is a real mauler. He has excellent size and quickness and will deliver good open-field blocks on pulls and traps. Left guard Rich Seubert (6-3, 310) is fast and has good balance but lacks ideal strength and can get overpowered at times. The Giants' interior three will be matched up against one of the most physical and versatile front threes in the game. New England's run-stuffing begins with massive nose tackle Vince Wilfork - all 6-2, 325 pounds of him. Wilfork has remarkable quickness for a man his size. He sheds blocks quickly and will make plays in the backfield. Ty Warren (6-5, 300) has developed into an elite run defender. He explodes from his stance and uses impressive strength to fight through crowds and locate the ball. He dishes out helmet-rattling hits. Richard Seymour (6-6, 310) is the gold standard for defensive ends when he's healthy. He combines quickness and strength to shoot through gaps and punish people. Inside linebackers Tedy Bruschi (excellent instincts) and Junior Seau (tremendous recognition skills) are long in the tooth but can still make plays.
EDGE: Giants When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady is the undisputed leader of this attack, but Kevin Faulk will be just as important Sunday. Faulk is an excellent blocker and will be counted on heavily to help keep Brady upright in the pocket. The diminutive back takes on all comers, whether it's a defensive lineman, a linebacker, or a defensive back. On passing downs, Faulk will chip-block a rusher before spinning into the flat to become one of Brady's safety valves. Brady has plenty of other weapons, too. Randy Moss (6 feet 4 inches, 220 pounds) possesses a rare combination of speed, acceleration, and athleticism. Moss has deceiving strength and excellent leaping ability. He will fight for every ball, and contrary to his reputation, he rarely takes plays off and is a willing blocker. Donté Stallworth is another deep threat. Stallworth has tremendous speed and hands and can take a hit. Wes Welker has been an absolute demon in the slot. Welker (5-9, 185) almost always gets a clean break and is almost always open. Welker has exceptionally quick feet and strong hands. He is absolutely fearless going over the middle and always bounces right up after getting drilled. He may catch 10 passes Sunday. Jabar Gaffney has an uncanny knack for getting open and making clutch catches. When fully healthy, tight end Benjamin Watson is a force. He's too quick for most linebackers to cover and just too darn big and strong for defensive backs to handle. Only health and inconsistent hands have prevented him from becoming a Pro Bowl player. The Giants have gotten away with shaky secondary play because they put so much pressure on the quarterback. Corners Sam Madison (he's slow but has excellent instincts), Aaron Ross (he has good speed and size but will miss tackles), and Corey Webster (he plays physical but lacks speed) will have trouble with New England's receiving corps. Safeties Gibril Wilson (big-time hitter, lacks coverage skills) and James Butler (he's big but often looks lost) will be exposed. Brady, who has underrated mobility in the pocket, will be under siege Sunday. Defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora combine explosiveness and awesome strength to collapse pockets and terrorize quarterbacks. Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins will provide pressure up the middle.
When the Giants pass
Eli Manning has morphed from shaky, mistake-prone quarterback to cool customer during a late-season surge than began with a solid performance against the Patriots in Week 17. He's been near-flawless in the playoffs, completing 62.4 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. Manning is a smart player with exceptional size and arm strength. He has a quick release and can be deadly accurate on short and medium routes. He can also be maddeningly inaccurate on short, medium, and long routes. Manning wears his emotions on his sleeve and before his postseason epiphany, when he'd suffer a bout of inconsistency he'd hang his head rather than fight through it. What's really helped Manning's confidence is the improved play of receiver Plaxico Burress. A gifted athlete with a penchant for disappearing for long stretches, the 6-foot-5-inch, 232-pound Burress was locked in for the NFC Championship game, catching 11 passes for 151 yards. A similar performance Sunday would do wonders for Manning's and Burress's confidence. Burress's speed, height, and wingspan will give New England's smallish corners - Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs, and Randall Gay - fits. The corners will reroute Burress to the safeties, where Rodney Harrison and James Sanders will be ready to deliver some well-timed shots to keep the big receiver honest. Amani Toomer has been New York's most consistent receiver. Toomer has average speed, excellent hands, and will find soft spots. He doesn't really like to go over the middle and does his best work near the sideline. Slot receiver Steve Smith has been inconsistent. He has decent speed but drops too many catchable balls and is always looking over his shoulder. Rookie tight end Kevin Boss (6-6, 253) uses his massive frame to keep linebackers at bay and make tough catches. The former college basketball player has excellent hands but he lacks speed and can't stretch defenses. He has the skills to be a tremendous red zone player. Tackles David Diehl and Kareem McKenzie are decent pass protectors but they'll need help keeping outside linebackers Adalius Thomas and Mike Vrabel from crashing the pocket and crushing Manning.
Prediction: Patriots 37, Giants 10