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Friday, November 4, 2011
Matchup could spell trouble for Pats

By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss

Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday's home game against the New York Giants.

Mike: This is the first time the Patriots and Giants will meet in a game that counts since Super Bowl XLII. Naturally, that's been a big storyline over the last few days. You played in that game.

Tedy: I take my hat off to the Giants. It wasn't any type of luck. We got beat on that day. To almost have the world championship that would trump all other championships, it's the most devastating loss of my career. To possibly have a 19-0 Super Bowl ring, it would have been the ultimate. Having been part of three Super Bowl championship teams before that, the idea of the "ultimate" ring was our goal. Once we got to 8-0, 9-0, 10-0, it was, "Let's get the one that trumps them all." It wasn't meant to be. It hurts to re-live it over and over this week, but it's a part of Patriots history. Some championships are won and some are lost.

Mike: We'll keep this short, because we want Patriots followers to hopefully keep reading on and this is a painful memory, but what do you remember most about the game?

Tedy: It was a combination of things. It finished with the David Tyree catch off the helmet, but there was also Pierre Woods not being able to recover the fumble, Asante Samuel dropping the interception, us going for it on fourth-and-13 instead of allowing Stephen Gostkowski to kick a long field goal. There comes a point, and it came for me after the Tyree catch, where you say to yourself, "Maybe this isn't our time, our day." We had been on the other side of so many of those breaks, or calls that go your way, during championship seasons. I know how that feeling is, having won them before. You know when it's magical and you know when it's destiny. And sometimes you know when destiny is on the other side.

Mike: I know you talked about a lot this week on ESPN with former Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce. Not to make you rehash it all, but is it safe to say it's a game you think about from time to time?

Tedy: You have the opportunity to think about it a lot more when football is no longer a part of your life, and that's post-retirement for me. When you're still playing in the NFL it's always about the next practice, the next game, the next season. You rarely take a moment to reflect. When you're done you have more time to think. It's often that you think about your career, and the victories and the losses. It hurts, and you still think about it and have to revisit it in times like this, but fortunately I was part of three other championship teams, and those memories trump everything.

Patriots defense vs. Giants offense

Mike: Enough looking back, and let's get into this year's matchup. We start at quarterback, where Eli Manning has put up the following numbers this year: 156-of-241 for 2,127 yards, with 13 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.

Eli Manning
Eli Manning is third in the NFL with a passer rating of 102.1, just behind Tom Brady (104.4).

Tedy: He's had a great year. He's playing phenomenal football. Those stats speak for themselves, and he's making good decisions with the football. He's not turning it over and that has been a problem for him in the past. He's playing at a high level coming into this game, and that's bad news for the Patriots, who are struggling to find some answers on defense. If I'm Eli Manning, I am licking my chops after seeing the Steelers' film in Sunday's 25-17 win over the Patriots. There are a lot of holes in that defense, and he has a lot of weapons.

Mike: The Giants average 8.8 yards per pass attempt, which is second in the NFL behind the Packers. When I think of the Giants, it's usually that big, physical running game that comes to mind, but really this is an offense that can hurt you in the air. For a Patriots pass defense that didn't inspire much confidence this past Sunday in Pittsburgh, this looks like a tough matchup.

Tedy: Eli has great timing with his receivers, whether it's Hakeem Nicks (38 receptions), Mario Manningham (24) or Victor Cruz (28). You're seeing big plays -- back-shoulder fades, deep hitches, comebacks -- that require incredible timing. Eli has been on the same page with his receivers, and you should see that Sunday. One thing to watch for is the hurry-up offense, which would force the Patriots into making multiple adjustments. That is something that this defense, which has many moving pieces right now, has struggled to execute.

Mike: It also looks like the Giants have done a nice job filling a void at tight end, where they lost Kevin Boss in free agency and have turned to Jake Ballard, who went undrafted in 2010 out of Ohio State. In terms of pass-catching production, Ballard has contributed 19 receptions for 328 yards and two touchdowns.

Tedy: With the success of Heath Miller last week, you figure the Giants will look at that and see what they might exploit in the middle of the field against the Patriots' defense. That's where opponents have done some damage against the Patriots, in between the numbers. One aspect that should help the Patriots is having linebacker Jerod Mayo back in a full-time role, as he is coming back from the MCL injury. A player like Gary Guyton needs to play better in coverage, and then you look at Brandon Spikes, who still needs to improve on the coverage part of his game. But Spikes is a beast against the run. They send him in there on those "Mike-Zeroes," just run him up there in the middle, and he does a lot of damage going forward. But as he drops back versus the pass, maybe man-to-man, that's where he struggles a little bit. That might explain why teams have been attacking that area.

Mike: When it comes to the Giants' rushing attack, the numbers don't look great (3.2 yards per carry), but it's still an area you have to account for as a defense. The offensive line, with former Boston College product Chris Snee at right guard, looks like a tough group.

Tedy: Ahmad Bradshaw is a weapon at running back and they are still committed to the running game. He runs angry, although we'll have to keep an eye on his status with the news coming out that he has a cracked bone in his foot. Then you have Brandon Jacobs, a big back who is struggling a little bit. He dropped a pass last week, fumbled and had four carries for 10 yards. He's had success against the Patriots in the past, so you might look at this as a situation, especially if Bradshaw is banged up, where the coaching staff says, "Let's try to get you back on track."

Mike: One would think the Giants would attempt to be balanced in the game, but based on the struggles of the Patriots' pass defense, they could go the Steelers route in terms of leaning heavily toward the pass and controlling the game in that area until the Patriots prove they can stop it.

Tedy: In the past, we've looked at the Giants and how physical they are with their running backs, and you have to respect those two. But I think this is morphing into an offense where the biggest threat is outside at the receiver position, which ties in to Eli Manning playing great football. He's throwing the ball well, accurately and on time. I've been impressed with the timing routes, because those can be very difficult to execute. In turn, the Patriots' defensive backs will have to be physical at the line of scrimmage to disrupt that timing.

Patriots offense vs. Giants defense

Mike: Let's begin with a general point about the Patriots' offense. After scoring 30 or more points in 13 straight regular-season games, they've been held to 20 and 17 the last two games (vs. the Cowboys and Steelers). One aspect that stood out from the Steelers game was that Pittsburgh defense really getting away from the zone blitz and playing more man coverage.

Tedy: It seems like when you have success against the Patriots, you can do so breaking the norm of your own team philosophy. Last week, the Steelers' defense switched things up with a plan specific to the Patriots, which was different than their regular approach of "We do what we do regardless of opponent." Will the Giants try to do something similar in terms of concepts? It's a question to consider heading into the game.

Mike: The Giants lead the league in sacks (26) and have proved they can get to the quarterback with the standard four rushers. I think that's where the discussion starts when looking at this aspect of the matchup. We could just look back to Super Bowl XLII for a reminder of that.

Tedy: It's similar, but with a handful of different players, like Jason Pierre-Paul and Linval Joseph, to name a few. Pierre-Paul showed up on the injury report Thursday after a collision in practice, so his status will be important to monitor. Overall, this is basically what it comes down to: "Here come the rushers." They're going to come after Tom Brady, and they have the players to do it. Justin Tuck is a beast, an All-Pro type at the defensive end spot. Osi Umenyiora, it looks like all the drama is behind him for now after he voiced his displeasure with the contract. It's New York. You're going to have drama.

Mike: What can we expect to see out of former Boston College standout Mathias Kiwanuka?

Tedy: He does some interesting things in terms of getting after the passer. The Giants have the four-man rush, and bring in Pierre-Paul and let him rush off the edge, but also look for them in odd fronts (lineman on the nose, and two linemen on the tackles) and then having a couple roamers along the front seven. Those roamers make it difficult for the quarterback or center to call out who the fourth down lineman is. The Giants run stunts with that fourth guy, whether it's a pick stunt or what we used to call a "bandit" -- you're on the offensive tackle and that's when the defensive end goes up the field, and here comes the penetrator from off the ball picking the offensive tackle, and then the other rusher can loop around. Those can be done at the end position or over the center, and Pierre-Paul and Kiwanuka can get those things going. They creatively get after the passer, and they're very aggressive rushers.

Mike: I think this is the game within the game. We saw in Super Bowl XLII how a strong pass rush with four can paralyze the Patriots' passing offense. There are few teams in the NFL that can get there with a four-man rush consistently, and the Giants are one of them. That makes their secondary even better.

Tedy: When you have that approach with your defense, you're preaching being aggressive with your rush and being aggressive in coverage. You can do various things in the back end when you get into those coverage schemes, whether it's man or zone. These defensive backs are solid. Safety Kenny Phillips is finally healthy after enduring two years with a serious knee injury. He's playing well. You have Antrel Rolle back there at safety, and he's playing well. Deon Grant is back there at safety, and you have Aaron Ross and Corey Webster at cornerback. One of the things Antonio Pierce talked about this week at ESPN was how good he thinks this secondary is, and how they're really coming together. You couple that with a good rush up front, and it's a tough challenge for the Patriots.

Mike: Add in the fact that Brady has been sacked 10 times over the last three games, while absorbing 17 quarterback hits, and it further highlights that point. The Patriots will need better protection than that, and more discipline and focus when it comes to false-start penalties (4 last week on the road), if they are to win.

Tedy: When other defenses see this, it's like sharks to blood. One thing that can help the Patriots is establishing the run. If the Giants get out to an early lead, it could make it tough for the Patriots to stick with that type of approach, but they've been at their best when getting production out of the running game.

Mike: We should briefly touch on special teams, where the Patriots have to be looking for more. The failed onside kick from Sunday reflects some greater struggles, which include poor production in the kickoff return game. Bill Belichick often talks about complementary football -- offense, defense and special teams mixing together -- and special teams shouldn't be overlooked.

Tedy: The Giants' assistant special-teams coach is Larry Izzo, the former Patriots special-teams ace. He will have those players ready to go. "Izz" is a fiery guy, and he's been doing great work in New York.

Mike: That's a good one with Izzo, who played here from 2001-08 and was your next-door neighbor in the locker room for all that time. Now let's get to our predictions. I see an angry Patriots team after that loss to the Steelers. Usually an angry Patriots team is a winning Patriots team. We touched on the keys for the Patriots -- pass protection, offensive balance and tightening up on defense. I think the offense plays better than it has the last two games and rises up in those two areas, while the defense might give up yardage but continues its strong play in the red zone. Patriots 26, Giants 20.

Tedy: This is a year when streaks have ended. The Patriots had beaten the Bills 15 straight times before losing to them in the third week of the season. Then just this past week we heard about Brady's success against the Steelers and how he "owned" them with a 6-1 record. That "streak" was snapped Sunday. Now I look ahead to this tough matchup and see a Patriots team that has won 18 straight games against NFC teams at Gillette Stadium, and wonder if that is the next streak to be snapped. I think this defense will struggle if Eli Manning plays a solid game, and that's what he's been doing lately. The Patriots' home win streak against the NFC ends. Giants 28, Patriots 24.

Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.