- Ohm Youngmisuk, ESPNNewYork.com
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The New York Giants like to say they are "battle-tested" after going through the gauntlet of facing the three best offenses in the NFL and having to go toe-to-toe with Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady this season.
One area where they have certainly been tested, perhaps like no other team, is at tight end.
And now in the Super Bowl, they'll defend perhaps the best of them all -- Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski set the NFL record for most receiving yards in a season (1,327) and overall touchdowns (18) by a tight end. As if trying to slow down The Gronk wasn't hard enough, they also have to deal with Aaron Hernandez. Brady's favorite targets finished second and fifth in receptions in their position this season.
The Giants have faced all sorts of tight ends from former basketball players like Graham and Gonzalez to athletic specimens like Davis and Finley. So it's only fitting that the Giants finish their season playing against the best tight end duo in the game.
"It's been a nice little stretch," linebacker Michael Boley said with a smile when asked about the tight ends the Giants have played against. "From week to week it has been a similar thing for us as far as our game plan. It has always been about these are the guys that we have to stop going into the game."
"We always have a list of targeted guys that can make or break a game," Boley added. "For us, the tight ends, it has been a long list of them lately and it is kind of one of those things that we embrace. We love the challenge."
When the Giants won in New England 24-20 on Nov. 6, Gronkowski finished with eight receptions for 101 yards and a touchdown. Hernandez had four catches for 35 yards and a touchdown as well.
Like Brady, both tight ends were held relatively in check until the fourth quarter, when Gronkowski had four catches for 66 yards, including his 14-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-9 with 1:36 remaining. Hernandez had two of his catches for 16 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown, in the fourth quarter as well.
The Giants believe they are equipped to handle pass-catching tight ends because they have three safeties with size who can cover in Antrel Rolle, Kenny Phillips and Deon Grant. They also have Boley and speedy rookie Jacquian Williams since Rolle spends more time covering slot receivers and Phillips often is back in coverage.
"[Brady] thrives on mismatches and I think we match up well with them," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "With those tight ends and Wes [Welker] and [Deion] Branch, they can pretty much go with any route that they want to go with creating mismatches. We have safeties that play like corners and we can pretty much match up with those guys."
Since that last meeting against the Patriots, the Giants have been tested by tight ends they have viewed as "core" players to concentrate on. They saw gradual improvement in their coverage as the season went on.
• On Nov. 28, the Giants were routed by the Saints as Graham, who led all tight ends in receiving this season, had five catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns. Boley, the team's most trusted and only every-down linebacker, did not play in that loss due to a hamstring injury.
• On Dec. 4, with a less-than-healthy Boley returning to the lineup, the Giants went up against the Packers and Finley for the first time. Finley had six catches for 87 yards and a touchdown, including a critical 24-yard catch that started the Packers' final drive that finished with the decisive field goal in Green Bay's 38-35 win.
• On Dec. 11, the Giants escaped Dallas with a 37-34 win as Witten was nearly invisible, finishing with three catches for 12 yards as Tony Romo did more damage with his receivers than his favorite tight end.
• On Dec. 18, the Giants were stunned by the Redskins, who did not even have Fred Davis, who was suspended. Davis had five receptions for 105 yards against the Giants in the season opener.
• On Dec. 24, the Giants started their turnaround and current five-game winning streak against the Jets. Dustin Keller had eight catches for 77 yards but he was targeted 18 times as Mark Sanchez was locked in on his tight end in the Giants' 29-14 win.
• On Jan. 1, Witten had a better game with seven catches for 69 yards. But with the NFC East on the line, the Giants kept Romo's favorite target out of the end zone in a playoff-clinching 31-14 win.
• On Jan. 8, the Giants kept Gonzalez, one of Matt Ryan's favorite targets, quiet with just four catches for 44 yards in the 24-2 wild-card rout over the Falcons.
• On Jan. 15, the Giants entered their playoff rematch with the Packers with the full intention of getting physical with Finley. The goal was written on their board in the locker room. The Giants limited the athletic Finley to just 37 yards on four catches as they stunned Rodgers and the Packers 37-20.
"Keep hands on him," Boley said of the plan with Finley. "Whether he is coming from a regular tight end spot, or he was split out, we always had a guy in his face."
• Then on Jan. 22, Fewell's defense faced the fastest tight end in the league in Davis, who burned the Giants twice on touchdowns of 73 and 28 yards. Davis got by Rolle on the first touchdown. On the second, he got by Phillips at the line of scrimmage with nobody over the top. But outside of those two coverage breakdowns in the first and third quarters, Davis had only one other catch for 11 yards and that came in overtime.
"I kind of lost sight of the receiver," Rolle explained of the first touchdown on WFAN. "He kind of got in my blind side and that play happened. Which is something that's very unlikely of myself. I'm a guy that, I hate giving up big plays, I absolutely hate it. It still kind of burns me to this day."
It remains to be seen, but Rolle may see more time on Welker in the slot than on the tight ends. Boley and Grant could see plenty of Gronkowski with a safety or corner, and Williams possibly could see some time on Hernandez.
If the Giants can find a way to slow down Gronkowski and Hernandez, they may be hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy again and parading down Broadway.
"There's many ways that you can try to take away those guys," Rolle said. "Those guys are exceptional tight ends and they've been Brady's go-to guys all year long along with Wes Welker. They present a great challenge no matter how you look at it."
"It's going to be a battle," Rolle added. "I think we match up extremely well. It's all going to boil down to who makes the least amount of mistakes ... and most of all, who has that dog mentality, who wants it the most."
The Giants are confident they can handle the Patriots tight ends.